Victoria Samson speaks to the UN on earth-to-space threats by States to space systems

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Open-Ended Working Group on reducing space threats through norms, rules, and principles of
responsible behaviours
Geneva, Switzerland
Panelist: Ms. Victoria Samson, Washington Office Director, Secure World Foundation


Thank you, Mr. Chair. My name is Victoria Samson and I’m the Washington Office Director for the
Secure World Foundation. Secure World Foundation is a private operating foundation dedicated to the
secure and sustainable use of outer space for the benefit of all peoples of the Earth. We work with
governments, intergovernmental organizations, industry, academia, and civil society to develop and
promote international cooperation to achieve the secure, sustainable, and peaceful uses of outer space.
As such, we are delighted to participate in the second session of this Open-Ended Working Group and its
mandate “to make recommendations on possible norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviours
relating to threats by States to space systems.”

I am honored to be here on the panel to discuss “Topic 2: Current and future earth-to-space threats by
States to space systems.” Today, I have been asked to address the following questions: What are the
overall trends in the development, testing and deployment of direct-ascent antisatellite weapons? What
types of platforms have been used? And what has been the impact of past tests on the space
environment and on the space-based activities of third parties?

I have been given a time constraint for my remarks, which is probably for the best as I can talk a very
long time on this issue if allowed. For longer analysis of earth-to-space threats (and other types of
counterspace capabilities), please visit Secure World Foundation’s website for our document which is
freely available to all titled, Global Counterspace Capabilities: An Open Source Assessment. I am very
happy to report that we have the executive summary translated into all the official UN languages:
English, French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, and – as of last week – Arabic.

The security and stability of space has been a concern since the beginning of the Space Age. It is more
acute now, however, because more than 80 countries have satellites in orbit and there is a rising
dependence on space capabilities for such critical needs as economic development, environmental
monitoring, and disaster management. Although space security had historically been perceived as
relevant only to the geopolitical superpowers, nearly every person on this planet now uses space data in some way and thus benefits from a predictable space environment with reliable access to that

Today, a number of countries are developing counterspace and anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons which are
capable of deceiving, disrupting, denying, degrading, or even destroying objects in space. The incentive
to develop, and potentially use, these weapons stems from the growing role that space capabilities play
today in every modern military force, particularly those of the major nuclear powers. Disrupting an
opponent’s space capabilities might be considered in a military setting, but it could also lead to nuclear
escalation and create long-term risks even after the war ends.

I will point out that although while many countries are pursuing significant research and development
programs involving a broad range of destructive and nondestructive counterspace capabilities, only
nondestructive capabilities are actively being used in current military operations.

Some ASAT capabilities are destructive in nature, physically striking an object in space and causing it to
break up. While no country has ever attacked another country’s space object in this way, the mere
testing of destructive ASAT weapons represents some of the most significant debris-generating events in
history that are creating problems for operational satellites today.

There has been a recent uptick in destructive anti-satellite weapons testing, which is concerning because
such tests can result in long-lived debris that can harm other satellites in orbit. They also can establish
the precedent that ASAT weapon tests are acceptable and thus encourage more countries to conduct
them. That in turn runs the risk of inadvertent escalation or even possible deliberate use of ASAT
weapons during a conflict if this proliferation becomes more prevalent.

During the early years of the space age, the only two countries to test ASAT weapons systems were,
chronologically, the United States and the then-Soviet Union. There was a decade-long pause in these
tests at the end of the Cold War, but they eventually resumed with the involvement of two more
countries: China and India.

The destructive ASAT weapons tests that have been held since the 1960s have created over 6300
trackable pieces of orbital debris, more than 4,300 of which are still around and pose hazards to
satellites. And given the altitudes of some of the debris created by these tests, they may continue to be
around for years, if not decades more.

Secure World Foundation has put together an infographic on the debris created by destructive ASAT
tests. It is available on our website, plus there are hard copies in the back. It illustrates that the sheer
force of impact can spread debris out from these tests well beyond that altitude at which point the
impact was made, at times hundreds or even 1000-plus kilometers farther out. This is significant
because the higher up the debris is, the longer it will take to deorbit and thus the longer it can threaten
other space objects, satellites, or space stations.

In discussing direct-ascent (DA)-ASAT programs, I am referring to those systems where there is an
interceptor launched from a terrestrial platform (which can be ground-, sea-, or air-based) and which
destroys its target by directly impacting it. The ground-based platforms can be fixed silos or mobile

The targets for DA-ASAT tests historically have usually been in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), and below 880 km.
Although there has been one notable exception where an interceptor was launched to what has been
reported to be 30,000 km, which is nearly GEO; it should be noted that it is not clear that it was
attempting to actually intercept a target and in any case, did not impact any target.
Some sort of tracking capability is also needed for a DA-ASAT capability; we often see this tracking
capability emerging from indigenously-produced space situational awareness (SSA) systems.
During the early stages of DA-ASAT development in the 1960s, research and development programs
considered using nuclear warheads on the interceptors with the idea that they would destroy their
target either via a fireball or an electromagnetic pulse; thankfully, that approach was re-considered and
thus programs shifted toward interceptors that strive to kinetically impact their targets. DA-ASAT
interceptors have historically evolved from national ballistic missile capabilities and often have been
interwoven with ballistic missile defense programs.

I will now briefly go over the DA-ASAT capabilities of the four countries that have held destructive DA-
ASAT tests, going in chronological order.

US: During the Cold War, the U.S. military had multiple efforts to develop DA-ASAT capabilities. Some of
those efforts remained on the drawing board and several were tested in space, but none reached

operational status. While the United States does not currently have an operational, acknowledged DA-
ASAT capability, it does have operational midcourse sea-based missile defense interceptors that have

been demonstrated in an ASAT role against a low LEO satellite; furthermore, it could potentially use its
ground-based missile defense interceptors to target satellites in LEO and possibly some satellites in
highly elliptical orbits with perigees that dip down to these altitudes.
Russia: Russia has long had the potential for a DA-ASAT capability through its historical ballistic missile
defense capabilities and had DA-ASAT development programs in the past that never fully became
operational. The Russian DA-ASAT capabilities currently consist of three primary programs which have
direct or indirect counterspace capabilities that are launched off of ground- and air-based platforms. All
three have their roots in Soviet-era programs that have been revived or reconstituted in recent years.
Russian DA-ASAT systems do not appear to have the capability to reach targets beyond LEO.
China: China has at least one, and possibly as many as three, programs underway to develop DA-ASAT
capabilities, either as dedicated counterspace systems or as midcourse missile defense systems that
could provide counterspace capabilities. China has engaged in multiple, progressive tests of these
capabilities since 2005, indicating a serious and sustained organizational effort. Chinese DA-ASAT
capability against LEO targets is likely mature and may be operationally fielded on mobile launchers.
Chinese DA-ASAT capability against deep space targets (MEO and GEO) is likely still in the experimental
or development phase, and there is not sufficient evidence to conclude whether it will become an
operational capability in the near future.

India: For many years, Indian officials said that they had an inherent but untested ASAT capability via its
long-range ballistic missile program. It was in 2019 where India demonstrated (via its ballistic missile
defense system) a DA-ASAT capability where it destroyed one of its satellites with a missile defense
interceptor; this target was in low LEO.

So, given this overview of the current state of DA-ASAT programs, what can be done to mitigate this
threat to the space environment? Given the growing global reliance on satellites and space applications,
many in the international community have begun calling for a ban or prohibition on the testing of
destructive ASAT weapons. In April of this year, the United States became the first country to declare a
commitment to no longer conduct destructive ASAT missile tests; this declaration was soon followed by
similar ones by Canada, New Zealand, and – as of yesterday – Japan.

SWF applauds this commitment and urges other countries, even those not interested in destructive
ASAT weapons, to do the same. Doing so would send a strong signal to the international community that
they are committed to the long-term sustainability of space and for delegitimizing the testing of these
weapons against satellites.

DA-ASAT tests have made operating in low Earth orbit more dangerous for years to come. All satellite
operators and crewed vehicles will need to spend time, effort, and fuel on avoiding collisions as the
debris from these tests deorbits and gradually reenters the Earth’s atmosphere.

The international community must also lay the foundations to be able to verify future agreements.
Space situational awareness has been a top priority for many countries for more than a decade now and
includes monitoring and characterizing activities in space. These SSA capabilities could form the
foundation of a verification regime for an ASAT test ban or other agreements on irresponsible behaviors
in space.

I would like to end my remarks with my warm support of this OEWG process. Simply holding these
discussions is broadening awareness globally about the complicated structure of space security and the
ways in which the multilateral process can shore it up.

The content of the discussions is illuminating too, reflecting a spectrum of responses in terms of what
activities countries perceive to be destabilizing in space, what they deem responsible behavior to be,
and how those involved in space should be held accountable for their actions. Whether the international
community comes to a total agreement on any of this, it is helpful from a transparency perspective to
have these beliefs spelled out and made public.

It is likely that after these sessions are over, there will be broad concurrence on at least some norms of
responsible space behavior. There is nothing preventing countries from taking what they have found
useful in these group discussions and incorporating them unilaterally in their space activities. In
addition, these norms could become the foundation of future UN resolutions and, if widely
disseminated, could even lead to legally binding agreements.

This group will not be able to resolve all security concerns about space, because no single solution or
approach can do that, but it could make progress on some of the most pressing challenges, helping
make space safer, more stable, and more predictable for all.

Thank you to the chair and distinguished delegates for your attention. I look forward to my fellow
panelists’ remarks and to questions from the audience to delve deeper into the topic of earth-to-space

Last updated on September 19, 2022