Time to ban debris-generating weapons tests in space

Analysis and Commentary, Featured, Ploughshares Monitor, Space Security

By Jessica West

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 42 Issue 2 Summer 2021

Imagine a crowded urban setting. Suddenly, there’s an explosion. Through the burning soot, you see flying shrapnel, dead and dying civilians, and burning buildings. This is one face of contemporary warfare and it is widely condemned.

Now imagine an explosion in space miles above Earth, where there are almost no humans or structures. Such an event won’t cause any real damage, right?

Wrong.

Orbiting our planet are thousands of satellites that support military operations as well as critical civilian and commercial infrastructures that provide essential services for humans all over the world. Like the civilians in the opening scenario, these satellites are unprotected and can be seriously damaged by even the smallest piece of orbital shrapnel or debris. And in space, the danger is ongoing, because the debris stays in orbit.

Unchecked, the effect of military and security-related activities could be devastating.

So far, no wars have been fought in space. But weapons tests have been conducted, with serious consequences. They must be banned.

Building on norms

For the past year, colleague Gilles Doucet and I have been working on a project to lay out the norms (reflected in laws, regulations, policies, best practices) that govern human activity in space. We are often asked about which new measures are most feasible to enhance international security in outer space and we always answer: a formal restriction on the deliberate creation of space debris.

There is evidence that a norm to prevent the deliberate creation of space debris already exists, rooted in key values and principles of space governance: environmental protection, due regard for safety, and responsibility. Voluntary commitments have been made. The Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee guidelines include a stipulation against the intentional destruction of objects on orbit likely to create long-lived debris. Such a commitment is also in the Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, and the Committee’s recently adopted Guidelines for the Long-Term Sustainability of Space Activities, which are compatible with states’ defence and national security interests.

So why call for a formal restriction? Because the practice of debris mitigation still falls far short. Unchecked, the effect of military and security-related activities could be devastating.

Historical precedents for a ban

Weapons that explode in orbit or that destroy or physically damage satellites (anti-satellite or ASAT) have been tested in space and many have produced debris. In 2020, Secure World Foundation released a spreadsheet documenting all known ASAT tests in space, 15 of which are known to have produced 959 pieces of trackable debris (10 centimetres in diameter or larger). Thousands more pieces too small to track were also created and still pose significant risks to space objects.

States that conduct weapons tests sometimes try to minimize the impact. India characterized its 2019 ASAT test as “responsible”; indeed, India’s Defence Research & Development Organisation claimed that the test produced “no debris.” In reality, at least 40 large pieces of debris were produced, some of which threatened the International Space Station.

But only a few states issued formal complaints. Is it possible that the social prohibition against such activity is waning? More reason to institute a test ban.

There is precedent for such an action. The 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty included a ban against nuclear explosions in outer space, which had been shown to cause indiscriminate harm while having limited military utility.

The same logic applies to the testing of kinetic or other destructive capabilities in space. All such events produce debris and space junk, which can collide with other objects in space, creating a cascade of damage that not only harms other satellites—including those of the testing actor—but can, over time, make orbits unusable for anyone. And while the crisis may take time to develop, a few on-orbit collisions or explosions could trigger a swift catastrophe.

Another useful precedent is the 1977 Environmental Modification Convention, which bans military or other hostile use of environmental modification techniques that have widespread, long-lasting, or severe effects. And we can look as well to the current diplomatic effort to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure by banning the use of explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA). Importantly, all of these precedents involve a ban on specific behaviours or actions, not hardware or capabilities.

Banning the intentional destruction of objects in orbit is not a new idea. China’s ASAT test in 2008 spurred a call for a ban on debris-producing ASAT tests from the Union of Concerned Scientists. Such a ban is also implied in the model Code of Conduct published by the Stimson Center in 2010. A ban is explicitly included in the draft Code of Conduct proposed (but since abandoned) by the European Union.

Restricting debris is also included in the guidelines for testing ASAT weapons proposed by the UN Institute for Disarmament Research. Banning debris-causing ASAT tests has been a significant focus of debate at the UN First Committee on Disarmament and International Security in recent years. Canada has proposed it as a possible focus at the Conference on Disarmament. And, it has gained renewed support by other leading civil society space experts.

Linking norms and arms control

Banning the testing of kinetic weapons systems in space is a key way to link behaviour-based governance with arms control. Developing such linkages could help to end the decade-long stalemate between those who want to prevent war in outer space by banning certain hardware in space and those who believe that the best way to achieve this goal is by pursuing transparency, confidence, and other behavioural measures such as norms.

There is evidently support for this linked approach. There has been wide support for a United Kingdom initiative, embodied in United Nations General Assembly Resolution 75/36, which aims to enhance security in space through norms of behaviour.

The goal of this initiative is to identify and pursue activities in space that avoid unintentionally making others feel threatened or that are subject to misinterpretation and encourage unnecessary escalation toward conflict. States and civil society organizations responded to this initiative with a trove of relevant and practical suggestions (the Ploughshares submission can be found on our website at www.ploughshares.ca). And the most consistent theme? The need to prevent the creation of space debris.

Banning intentional activities that create debris, such as weapons testing, rather than specific weapons themselves is a feasible first step for conventional arms control in space. Many pieces of such a ban—including a norm against debris creation—are already in place. Such a ban does not close off all methods of weapons testing, just those that cause debris.

Space debris is a pressing environmental and humanitarian threat in space. One step to easing this threat lies in recognizing the impact of weapons testing and ending such tests. The mess from weapons testing cannot be swept up nor the harm to satellites easily remedied. How much better to act now, before a catastrophe in outer space destroys so much of what we enjoy today.

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