Michael KreponASAT Test Bans

The last serious debate over ASAT testing occurred in the 1980s. In addition to advocating the Strategic Defense Initiative, Reagan administration officials pushed for the testing of a kinetic energy ASAT system employing the Air Force’s F-15 as a launch vehicle (above). The Soviet Union had previously tested, with decidedly mixed results, a co-orbital interceptor designed to kill satellites in low earth orbit with buckshot-like effects.

The Pentagon carried out a KE-ASAT test against an aging U.S. meteorological satellite on October 13, 1985. Members of Congress disinclined to fund further ASAT tests employed a variety of blocking methods, including legislative provisions calling for the consideration of diplomatic initiatives, which the Reagan administration parried in the following way:

In general terms, the United States remains willing to consider limitations on specific weapon systems, including ASATs, which meet the requirements accepted by the Congress in 1984: that they be equitable, verifiable, and compatible with US national security. In the case of ASATs, however, we have yet to identify a specific proposal which would meet these criteria.

Alternative views on the value of ASAT testing constraints filled one of my shoe boxes in the 1980s. Paul Stares, then at Brookings, wrote a fine book, Space and National Security (1987) in which he argued that,

The principal benefit of an arms control agreement would be to prevent transforming what is still a relatively immature threat to one that is altogether more formidable and more difficult to counter unilaterally. Given the problem of monitoring the dismantlement of existing systems, test restrictions provide the most useful approach to constraining the evolution of more sophisticated ASAT weapons.

Daedalus published two volumes on space weapons in 1985, including an essay by Kurt Gottfried and Richard Ned Lebow, warning that, “ASATs could both increase the likelihood of war and complicate its termination.” Their prescription, like that of Stares, was the prevention of the development of new, highly capable ASAT systems through a test ban. Former Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, writing in Arms Control Today, also supported a ban on further ASAT testing “so far as verification can support such a ban.”

More creative thinking came from a high-powered commission co-chaired by Fred Ikle and Albert Wohlstetter. Their 1988 report, Discriminate Deterrence, included the following recommendation:

Exploration of a possible tacit understanding or even explicit agreement with the Soviets on self-defense zones around many of the satellites… Such an arrangement might permit some entries into the self-defense zones and would not affect normal, non-threatening satellite operations, including perhaps some inspections.

A verifiable KE-ASAT test ban in the 1980s would have met US national security requirements, but few could foresee back then how much of a threat debris would pose to satellites essential for personal, national, economic, and international security. A clear glimpse of this unwelcome future was provided fourteen years after the Reagan administration’s F-15 ASAT test, when one piece of debris from the shattered target satellite came within one mile of crashing into the newly launched international space station.

If there were any lingering doubts about the sheer irresponsibility of causing massive debris fields by means of KE-ASAT tests, the PLA dispelled them in January 2007.


  1. Jochen Schischka (History)

    Well, it would have been nice if the Chinese would have learned from soviet/russian and/or american mistakes without brainlessly repeating those same mistakes…

  2. Mark Gubrud

    Testing KE ASATs against orbital targets does indeed produce enormous amounts of dangerous, persistent debris. A ban on such tests would thus be an important measure to protect the space environment and preserve its usability for the future. It is almost irrelevant to arms control, however.

    Neither China, nor Russia, nor the United States is likely to conduct another such test, and given the example set by the Chinese, and world reaction to it, I doubt that any other major spacefaring power would do it, either. The North Koreans probably can’t, but if they could and were inclined to, a treaty probably would not restrain them. So, such a treaty would not be arms control; in fact, it wouldn’t even be controlling anything that is at all likely to happen.

    KE ASATs can of course be tested against suborbital targets, perhaps in the guise of missile defense, perfectly well without producing persistent debris. So the KE ASAT test ban wouldn’t even be a meaningful restraint on KE ASAT development.

    More to the point, the space arms race has moved on; KE ASATs are no longer the weapons wanted by the potential space warring powers.

    Maneuvering microsatellites are a far more flexible, usable, and potentially stealthy means of physically disabling targeted satellites, without creating large amounts of debris. They can be used in a “temporary and reversible” manner, or they can be used to permanently disable their targets. Some uninformed writers have suggested that such weapons have not yet been developed or are not the most imminent threat. In fact, the United States has led the way in developing miniature vehicles with powerful engines for orbital maneuvers, capable of conducting close proximity operations autonomously under their own internal computer control. China recently tested a microsat with similar proximity operation capabilities, and Russia has long possessed similar technology. The effector mechanisms that would be used to interfere with or disable targeted satellites are not known to have been tested, but the mechanisms are not exotic and in some cases could be used without any need for prior on-orbit testing (such as ramming the target, getting in the way of its FOV, spraying some kind of paint on its lenses, etc.).

    Such vehicles can examine, photograph, and probe their targets, watch them for signs of activity, and attack on command or warning. This makes them a far more flexible type of weapon than a KE ASAT which must be committed to attack at launch and gets only one chance to hit its target. One can imagine microsatellites being crisis-deployed or permanently stationed, creating a kind of high-noon standoff in orbit.

    If microsatellite vehicles are the new heavy weapons for force application in space, other means of satellite negation are also possible and preferable to KE ASATs. Ground-based lasers and high-power microwave beams are potentially lethal against LEO satellites and disabling to optical and rf systems at GEO. Uplink jammers can also be effective. Vulnerabilities to hacking or “cyberwarfare” (also called “electronic warfare”) may also exist and in many cases could be exploited covertly. All these methods could be used to produce “temporary and reversible” effects, which the US regards as preferable and less escalatory than a KE kill or physical interference by microsatellites.

    The United States decided some time ago that it wasn’t interested in KE ASATs and would conduct space warfare using these other methods. China is now following suit, and Russia will too if recent threats to match American space war preparations are fulfilled. Thus, a KE ASAT test ban would fail to impede the emerging space arms race today. A stronger and more comprehensive type of space security regime is needed.

  3. Distiller (History)

    The real ASAT weapon is already flying: YAL-1

  4. Lee Dunbar (History)

    Photo of ASM-135 ASAT missile used in 1985


  5. Jan

    Distiller: I agree, the Airborne Laser would be the perfect tool to BBQ something in low earth orbit.

    During my dissertation I did a case study for an ABL engagement against the Hubble Space Telescope. Even if you include the effects of turbulence on laser beam propagation, you can easily melt the outer hull of the satellite.

    For details have a look at the thesis: link It is in German, but I think the graphs are pretty obvious. Page 154 shows the setup of the case study, page 158 the results.

    By the way, the ABL is actually better suited for ASAT applications than for missile defense. As the ABL has to attack the booster during the boost phase (the warhead is built for high heat fluxes), the target is still pretty low. The means the beam has to go to more dense and turbulent air than for an ASAT mission. Hence, a lot more beam energy is lost due to atmospheric effects.

  6. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    Given the very limited ASAT development and deployment I would not say we need a treaty now. However I understand the temptation to preempt history. Perhaps we should identify key events which when pass give cause for action. Such as the reported Chinese South China Sea anti shipping system. Which if taken to a global basis with satellites providing live feedback for global ballistic anti-shipping feedback might be cause for the rise of ASAT. It seems to me the point is only the US uses space as a global means of encoding and observing the battle space. While the Russians and Chinese are the only nations capable of attacking American systems, the likelyhood of war with those states is slim as there are few international issues driving those states to war. So the international footprint we might want to look for is some conflict of interests that causes conventional forces to be arrayed against each other. Perhaps these times might begin along the lines of the “Incidents at Sea” ala the 1970s. Naval standoffs in the South China Sea, more stringent rules on airline crossings over airspace, closings of airspace etc. As hostilities ramp up the need to ASAT, and the need to defend against ASAT grow. I don’t think we’re quite there yet. Closer than 10 years ago? Yes, but if we attempt a treaty too soon, might it prove irrelevant to any future crisies? I think so. But definitely worth looking at. As I’ve thought before, perhaps Arms Control Wonks might want to start thinking about conventional arms controls. Anything that threatens America’s use of space will drive the US to ASAT, at which point there’s probably no going back. The current economic crisis might open the world to verifiable conventional arms controls. If you can keep the lid on conventional forces in the future you can keep the lid on nuclear and space systems as well.

  7. Azr@el (History)

    An ASAT treaty would be functionally irrelevant without a corresponding ABM treaty since the latter can demonstratively pinch hit for the former. It would be like attempting to outlaw battlefield laser blinders but make it perfectly legal to have overpowered target laser designators.

  8. Mark Gubrud

    Andrew Tubbiolo- I really don’t think we can afford to wait until China has deployed dozens of ASAT missiles and developed sophisticated microsatellite weapons like those the US has developed over the past decade, the US has deployed space-based ASAT capable “missile defense” interceptors and “guardian” microsatellites, Russia has tested new ASATs, etc., and then try to turn back the tide. There might seem to be more urgency in that day – which, from the point of view of technology development, is much closer than your comments would suggest – but it would also be much harder to accomplish. The moment for effective space arms control to be negotiated is now.

    Azr@el- There are meaningful distinctions to be made between missile defense and ASATs. For example, the current version of the Aegis SM-3 interceptor has been demonstrated to have ASAT capability at very low altitude, but the missile does not have the burnout velocity needed to make it an operationally useful ASAT. However, the planned upgrade likely will be capable of reaching through the most militarily relevant LEO altitudes. Likewise, the GMD system is clearly a potent ASAT, but if deployed at only a few sites its operational usefulness as an ASAT will remain limited.

    Ideally, we would get rid of all ASAT-capable weapons, but if that is politically impractical at the moment, it would still be useful to have a declared ASAT ban, plus a declared ban on space-based weapons, while requiring that any system which looks to have inherent ASAT capability be justified in terms of non-ASAT uses, and any space-based system that looks like it has a weapon capability be justified in terms of non-weapon uses. This would avoid the most dangerous situation of unrestrained space weapons development and deployment, and give us time to work on the other fronts of creating a robust space security regime.

  9. Azr@el (History)

    Again, if a mobile, naval or land based, ABM system has an inherent ASAT potential it’s primary intent is irrelevant. If we have an ASAT race but call it ABM buildup we reduce ourselves to semantic Doublespeak and that can only be Double-Plus-Ungood.

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