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U.S. Statement to the Open-Ended Working Group on Reducing Space Threats
September 13, 2022

U.S. Statement to the Open-Ended Working Group on Reducing Space Threats through Norms, Rules, and Principles of Responsible Behavior

As Delivered by 

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance Mallory Stewart

Mr. Chairman, thank you for your leadership.  I offer our delegation’s deep appreciation and support for your work guiding this important working group.  And I thank you for the opportunity to provide remarks on today’s topic of Earth-to-space threats.  The United States believes that the destructive testing of Earth-to-space anti-satellite missiles is one of the most pressing threats facing satellites, and, perhaps more urgently, one of the more pressing threats to humans in spacecraft in orbit, so we welcome the discussion today.

Continued destructive, direct-ascent anti-satellite missile tests will have a direct impact on all space activities that are essential for the advancement of humanity and to the prosperity of all States.  The use of outer space advances our understanding of the Earth, the universe, and humankind; creates jobs and economic opportunity; inspires us; and drives innovation around the world.  Information collected from space capabilities also contributes to international peace and security, including by providing data critical to verifying compliance with arms control treaties and by alerting national leaders about evolving threats, such as the buildup of military forces on a country’s border.  Because of this, access to and use of space is a vital interest of all States.

However, the irrefutable fact is that over the last two decades, we have seen a number of ground-based anti-satellite missile tests destroying satellites on orbit.  One recent destructive, direct-ascent anti-satellite missile test created 1,785 pieces of debris that were trackable.  It is likely that there were many more pieces created in this test that are too small to be tracked, but still dangerous to satellites.

And, although the risk to satellites is important, it pales in comparison to the ramifications that debris collisions have for human spaceflight.  The “envoys of mankind” residing in low-Earth orbit are extremely vulnerable to space debris and must take major precautions to avoid collisions that likely would prove to be fatal.  For example, on June 16, 2022, the International Space Station was forced to conduct an unscheduled maneuver to avoid a fragment from a satellite that was destroyed by a direct-ascent anti-satellite missile.  The head of the Russian Space Agency (ROSCOSMOS) called the debris from this anti-satellite missile test “dangerous” when he announced that the maneuver had to be conducted.

In response to the testing of these anti-satellite missiles, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris in April of this year announced that the United States commits not to conduct destructive anti-satellite missile tests.  And now, just last week on September 9th, she further announced that the United States intends to submit a resolution to the UN First Committee at the 77th session of the UN General Assembly calling upon all countries to commit not to conduct destructive direct-ascent anti-satellite missile tests.  Such tests, one, increase the risk of miscommunication, misperception, and miscalculation that could potentially lead to conflict; two, are a threat to the long-term sustainability of the outer space environment; and, three, hinder all countries’ ability to operate in, and benefit from, outer space. This resolution is our effort to multilateralize this U.S. commitment and contribute to the work we are doing here in this important group.

Paragraph 80 of the Resolutions and Decisions adopted by the General Assembly during its Tenth Special Session devoted to Disarmament (SSOD-1) (1978) states that, “In order to prevent an arms race in outer space, further measures should be taken and appropriate negotiations held in accordance with the spirit of the Outer Space treaty.

In furtherance of that objective, the United States seeks UNGA adoption of a resolution calling upon States to commit not to conduct destructive, direct-ascent anti-satellite missile testing.  Destructive testing of these systems is reckless and irresponsible, jeopardizes the long-term sustainability of outer space, and imperils the exploration and use of space by all States.

The draft resolution calls for States to make voluntary commitments to refrain from conducting destructive, direct-ascent anti-satellite missile tests.

The precise language of the voluntary commitment that Operative Paragraph 1 of the draft resolution calls for is intended to meet the following objectives:

  • Meaningfully limit the deliberate creation of new orbital debris beyond what is generated through normal operations;
  • Be easily understandable without extensive new definitions; and
  • Address the greatest near-term threat to space security.

Importantly, the United States believes that the language in the voluntary commitment that this draft resolution calls for meets the criteria for a transparency and confidence-building measure (TCBM) as contained in the report of the 2013 Group of Governmental Experts on TCBMs in Outer Space Activities (A/68/189).  Those criteria are that a TCBM must:

  1. Be clear, practical and proven:
  2. Be able to be effectively confirmed:
  3. Reduce or even eliminate the causes of mistrust, misunderstanding and miscalculation:

The language used in this commitment and its goals are clear and proven – limited to destructive tests of direct-ascent anti-satellite missiles, which are the most pressing threat to space security.  The text is easily understood and does not require the development of new definitions that have challenged efforts in the past to develop approaches to responding to the development of anti-satellite weapons.

Destructive testing of direct-ascent anti-satellite missiles is likely verifiable by many countries and commercial services, not just by the United States, and without the need for intrusive inspections.  Such destructive testing would also likely be attributable.

Ceasing the destructive testing of direct-ascent anti-satellite missiles would reduce tension among countries given the threat these ASAT systems pose, while at the same time reducing the risk to all countries from debris generated by these deliberate tests.

We understand that for some countries this resolution may seem too limited – such countries may worry that the commitment is not contained in a proposed legally binding treaty text.  However, we believe this is an important first step we can take right now to rein in the destructive testing of direct-ascent anti-satellite missiles, which have contributed to instability in outer space activities and raised the potential for conflict.   We believe that ongoing work collectively in bodies like this one will make progress on developing further solutions to address other challenges resulting from State behavior that threaten the security of space systems.

Moreover, history has shown that first establishing a principle as a norm through a non-binding commitment can eventually lead to its inclusion in future legally binding agreements.  In 1963, the UN General Assembly approved without a vote a resolution – A/RES 1884 (XVIII) – which “Solemnly calls upon all States: (a) to refrain from placing in orbit around the earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons…”  Only four years later, in 1967, similar language was enshrined in the legally binding Outer Space Treaty.

The United States has long advocated for a comprehensive approach to address issues that could lead to conflict in outer space, including all issues related to the prevention of an arms race in outer space.  Often times, we hear a challenging argument that if we are working on norms, then we are not working on arms control.  That is incorrect.  Norms are elements of risk reduction and risk reduction is an element of arms control.

The United States also recognizes that many countries do not intend to develop direct-ascent anti-satellite missile capabilities.  However, the declaratory value of such a resolution is not dependent upon whether a country is developing or has developed such a capability.  By making such a commitment and by backing this resolution, supporters contribute their voices to identifying this in the international community as an emerging norm of responsible behavior.

Therefore, the United States believes that this draft resolution on destructive direct-ascent anti-satellite missile tests would enhance international peace and security and is a first step towards preventing conflict from occurring in outer space.  We have already heard from a number of countries that wish to join us in making this commitment, and we hope that others will as well.

We will hold consultations on this resolution on September 21 here in Geneva and again in New York during First Committee.  We look forward to hearing feedback from all of you. As we move forward, the United States encourages all nations to recognize that it is in no-one’s interest to continue further destructive direct-ascent anti-satellite missile tests.  We invite all UN Member States to support this United Nations General Assembly resolution and make this commitment.