April 24, 2022 6:30 AMListen to article
Banning American anti-satellite missile testing won’t decrease space debris, but it will let our enemies do more of what they want in space.
The Biden administration is unilaterally banning American anti-satellite missile testing without any sort of agreement that Russia and China will do the same, all to prevent a problem created exclusively by those authoritarian countries.
“Simply put, these tests are dangerous, and we will not conduct them,” Vice President Kamala Harris said at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. “These weapons are intended to deny the United States our ability to use our space capabilities by destructing, destroying our satellites, satellites which are critical to our national security. These tests, to be sure, are reckless, and they are irresponsible. These tests also put in danger so much of what we do in space.”
Harris’s only justification for this radical policy change was that she hoped other nations would follow America’s lead, calling the pledge “a first step in getting the international community on the same page regarding what is considered responsible behavior in space and, perhaps even more importantly, irresponsible behavior.”
This is utterly absurd. By unilaterally banning anti-satellite missile tests in the mere hope that other countries will follow suit, Harris is putting America at a competitive disadvantage and effectively handicapping the country’s defenses.
Weapons that generate space debris do create real issues, but the Biden administration is flat-out wrong to assert that American weapons demonstrations have added to this problem.
In February 2008, the U.S. Navy demonstrated America’s capabilities by shooting down a malfunctioning spy satellite in a decaying orbit with a toxic fuel load. Said test created only 174 pieces of space debris, the last of which burned up in Earth’s atmosphere in October 2009. Such U.S. tests are simply not dangerous, despite what the vice president asserts.
Only America’s enemies still criticize this demonstration, as at the time Russia had drafted a new treaty with Chinese support to ban space weapons.
Before supporting the proposed treaty, China had already demonstrated its capability to shoot down satellites in January 2007 in a weapons test that remains among the greatest sources of man-made space debris in history. The test created approximately 2,000 trackable pieces of debris larger than a golf ball that were officially catalogued, out of an estimated 150,000 debris particles in total. An estimated 3,000 of the 10,000 most dangerous pieces of space debris tracked by the U.S. military are from this Chinese weapons test, even over a decade later.
In November, a Russian anti-satellite weapon forced American astronauts on the International Space Station into the space equivalent of hiding in a bunker after it created a massive debris field of more than 1,500 pieces, any of which could do devastating damage to the orbital infrastructure upon which the American military depends. This showed just how disturbingly vulnerable the U.S. is in space. Russia had attempted such a demonstration before, but always missed its target. Debris from both Russia and China pose a serious risk to astronauts from many countries on the International Space Station as well as the world’s satellite system.
Harris’s pledge both blames America for a problem it clearly did not create and diminishes the country’s defenses in this area without any sort of deal binding China or Russia to do the same, even though both of those authoritarian countries have contributed exponentially more to the space-debris problem.
Space debris generated by American weapons tests have not ever presented a comparably serious issue, and any minor debris issues effectively ended over a decade ago. In contrast, space debris from Russian and Chinese weapons tests remains a huge problem today and is even getting worse. Naturally, Harris lays blame only on America.
Russia’s 2021 and China’s 2007 weapons tests can be analogized to firing a shotgun in a crowded room where anyone hit by the shot would also be forced to fire a shotgun blast of their own in an escalating feedback loop, which scientists estimate could generate so much debris in orbit that mankind’s ability to safely access space would be jeopardized for multiple generations.
In contrast, America’s 2008 demonstration was a well-targeted sniper round planned for months to impact only its target. Harris’s conflation of these incidents is as pathetic as it is ridiculous.
What’s worse is the fact that America is far more reliant on space both for military advantages and civilian critical services like broadband, cellphones, weather forecasting, and GPS than either Russia or China.
This increases the likelihood that either of those countries would be willing to deny space access to both themselves and America in a conflict, as the U.S. military is far more reliant on space superiority to achieve its objectives than they are. Although both sides would lose in such an event, America’s relative advantage would decline more. Without our communications satellites, we would be effectively deaf. Without our navigational satellites, our ability to aim accurately would be compromised.
Instead of addressing this critical issue, the Biden-Harris administration is engaging in pointless diplomatic virtue-signaling which greatly undermines America’s ability to test future means of defending itself in orbit.