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VP Harris announces US ban on anti-satellite missile tests

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks at Vandenberg Air Force Base, April 18, 2022. (Screenshot)
April 19, 2022

Vice President Kamala Harris announced on Monday that the U.S. will no longer conduct tests of direct-ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) missiles, making it the first nation to express such a commitment.

“We have consistently condemned these tests and called them reckless, but that is not enough,” Harris said during a speech at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. “Today we are going further. I am pleased to announce that as of today, the United States commits not to conduct destructive direct-ascent anti-satellite missile testing.”

“Simply put: These tests are dangerous, and we will not conduct them,” she added. “We are the first nation to make such a commitment and today, on behalf of the United States of America, I call on all nations to join us.”

Harris pointed to Russia’s November test of an ASAT missile, which they used to blow up one of their defunct space satellites, generating a field of dangerous debris and prompting U.S. astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) to shelter in an escape capsule. Harris also noted a previous 2007 Chinese ASAT missile test that generated a similar field of dangerous space debris.

“These tests are part of their efforts to develop anti-satellite weapons systems,” Harris said. “These weapons are intended to deny the United States our ability to use our space capabilities by disrupting, 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 said she’d been briefed on the prior Russian and Chinese ASAT tests by the Space Force’s 18th Space Defense Squadron who informed her that they had identified “more than 1,600 pieces of debris from the Russian test” and “over 2,800 pieces of debris still in space from China’s test 15 years ago.” Even small pieces of debris could destroy satellites and potentially kill astronauts.

Harris’ announcement comes a week after the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) published a report detailing how Russia and China are continuing to rapidly expand their space capabilities and develop new space weapons, including direct-ascent ASAT missiles, ASAT weapons that can be deployed from space, laser dazzlers and satellite hacking tools.

Russia is developing multiple ASAT missile systems for its military including a ground-based mobile missile system called Nudol and an air-launched missile system called Burevestnik, which could be carried by a Russian military aircraft, such as a MiG-31 fighter jet.

The DIA report also noted a Chinese satellite currently in operation with a robotic arm that “could be used in a future system for grappling other satellites.”

In addition to their various space weapons systems, the DIA report assessed that Russia and China had together grown their fleets of in-orbit space satellites by about 70 percent over a two-year time period between 2019 and 2021.

Harris said the U.S. will, by contrast, work to establish international norms for space activity.

“As we move forward, we will remain focused on writing new rules of the road to ensure all space activities are conducted in a responsible, peaceful, and sustainable manner,” Harris said on Monday. “The United States is committed to lead the way and to lead by example. The leadership of the United States in space will continue to be a source of strength for us, both at home and abroad.”