Why we must ban kinetic anti-satellite weapons

Author: Cosmo Jones, ANU

During escalating geopolitical tensions over ownership of an island in the South China Sea, a number of missiles are launched from a submarine lurking deep below the surface. Never to return to earth, their target is a satellite orbiting thousands of kilometres above. Moments later, another barrage is fired from a nearby island. They too hurtle towards an orbiting satellite. They all hit their targets. These are the firsts shots fired in anger in a conflict between major powers.

The satellites are destroyed. They break up into thousands of pieces which then begin their own uncontrollable orbit of the earth. Thousands of wrecking balls travelling at roughly 25,000 km/h. They hit and destroy another satellite. Then another. More unstoppable debris is created. Within several weeks, collisional cascading of debris has begun – the ‘Kessler Syndrome’. There is now so much space debris in orbit that transit to and from earth is virtually impossible. Within months, all existing satellites will be threatened.

Without satellites, global telecommunications, transport, power and computer systems are severely disrupted. Civil aviation grinds to a halt. We can no longer forecast the weather effectively. Financial institutions struggle to stay online. Intelligence gathering is interrupted. High-end ‘smart’ weapons systems from missile defence to drones lose their ‘smart.’ Future manned space missions are now suicidally dangerous and unmanned missions become prohibitively risky (and therefore expensive). We are stranded on Earth. Worst of all, we lose Global Positioning Systems, so anyone born after the advent of smart phones is lost because they can’t read a map.

This apocalyptic scenario is worryingly conceivable. Modern militaries are heavily reliant on satellites for a whole range of tasks. From simple communication between units to complex targeting systems and everything in between. Satellites are the ‘modern’ in modern militaries.

Those missiles fired in the beginning are called ‘kinetic anti-satellite weapons’, kinetic ASAT for short. They are purpose-built to collide with — and destroy — satellites. These weapons have the potential to cripple an adversary’s battlefield operations. They very well might be the first shots fired in a potential conflict between major powers.

The United States (US), Russia, China and India have all successfully tested kinetic ASAT weapons. These tests have already produced a dangerous amount of deadly space debris. In 2007, China tested an ASAT missile on one of its old weather satellites. The test produced over 3300 pieces of trackable debris, a single piece the size of a speck of paint can destroy a satellite. Most of the debris created by this test will stay in orbit for centuries to come. This is not science-fiction.

It is important to note here that we don’t have tested methods of removing space debris. In 2025, ClearSpace-1 will launch. This will be the first attempt to remove a piece of debris from orbit. With luck this will be successful and could help to promote a market for de-cluttering Earth’s orbit. But we are not there yet.

The Atlantic Council recently published a report which included recent data on the issue of space debris. It suggests we are already dangerously close to the tipping point in which Earth’s orbit becomes unusable due to cascading collisions of space debris. The tipping point is known as the ‘Kessler Syndrome’ appropriately named after its theoriser, NASA scientist Donald J. Kessler.

We are a few bad decisions away from putting his theory to the test. It is a moral imperative that the global community cooperate to ban any future use or testing of kinetic ASAT weapons.

Australia should work to encourage the Biden administration to lead the charge on pursuing a multilateral agreement with countries like China, Russia and India that have demonstrated kinetic ASAT capabilities.

China and Russia have already demonstrated a willingness to engage in diplomatic talks on this issue with their proposed treaty to ban the use of force in outer space. But their proposal doesn’t have a mechanism for verifying or enforcing compliance.

The agreement should be limited in scope to encourage cooperation. The historical precedent of Cold War era arms treaties between the US and the Soviet Union suggest that a more limited agreement is more likely to succeed. It should specifically target kinetic ASAT weapons which have the potential to cause uncontrollable space debris.  Countries party to the agreement could retain the option of developing non-kinetic ASAT weapons that don’t produce space debris — as they already are.

In case the benefit of eliminating a weapon system that may cause irreparable damage to earth’s orbit and untold disruption to human society wasn’t enough, pursuing a Kinetic ASAT Weapons Ban Agreement would have additional benefits. It could encourage sustained diplomatic dialogue between the US, India, China, Russia and other powers, in an era of intense competition. Importantly, it could help to promote the peaceful use of space as opposed to the intense weaponisation of the fourth and final domain (after land, sea and air).

It is not only in Australia’s national interest for such an agreement to succeed. It is in humanity’s interest.

Cosmo Jones is a Master of National Security Policy at the Australian National University National Security College.