TWQ: A Verifiable Limited Test Ban for Anti-satellite Weapons - Summer 2010
July 1, 2010
The growing number of actors pursuing sophisticated outer space programs gives rise to one of the more novel challenges of the global commons. Once the privileged domain of the United States and the Soviet Union, space now accommodates a larger set of countries seeking to enhance their defense capabilities. In January 2007, perhaps most notably, China tested an antisatellite (ASAT) missile, destroying Fengyun-1C, an old Chinese weather satellite. The weapon was a kinetic-energy ASAT, which homed in on its target and shattered it through high-velocity collision at an altitude of 864 km. The impact created thousands of debris fragments concentrated in orbits between 800 and 1,000 km, approximately doubling the risk of potentially catastrophic collision for satellites in the crowded 800—900 km range. Satellites at these altitudes include commercial communications satellites, a U.S. photoreconnaissance satellite, a Chinese earth science satellite, and a Russian electronic intelligence satellite.4 Most of the Fengyun-1C debris will stay in orbit for several decades; some is expected to remain in space for centuries.
In addition to China, Russia, and the United States, more countries are poised to assert military prowess in space. In January 2010, the director-general of India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation reportedly said that India plans to develop the capacity to destroy satellites in low-earth and polar orbits, as part of a broader ballistic missile defense program that will reach maturity in 2014.13 Japan passed legislation in 2008 that permits it to use outer space for military purposes of a defensive nature.
In light of these recent developments, can any verifiable space arms control measures be taken to enhance national and international security? We argue that the answer is yes, and recommend that the chief goal of these new measures should be to protect the space assets of the United States and other countries against the future generation of long-lived orbital debris.