January 11th marks the ninth anniversary of China’s infamous test of a direct-ascent ASAT on its weather satellite FY-1C in polar orbit. It goes without saying the test was an alarming event, the effects of which are still being felt today both in terms of the orbital debris environment the test created, and the wake-up call to the United States in terms of the vulnerability for U.S. space assets.
However, over the past nine years, little if anything has been done from a policy perspective to address the threat of ASATs. In fact, both China and Russia have co-opted the discussion in the international arena and subverted the discussion to the dubious issue of space weapons with the PPWT and the recent UN resolution about “initial placement” of space weapons in December 2015. It is the latter where Russia pulled off a soft-power coup by encouraging 129 countries to vote for the measure, which left the United States, Ukraine and Georgia to vote against it. The European Union apparently found itself between a rock and a hard place considering its less than stellar attempts to successfully promote the International Code of Conduct and abstained from the vote.
For all this diplomatic fanfare in the United Nations; however, both China and Russia continue to demonstrate a capability for and development of direct-ascent ASATs and the potential development for co-orbital capabilities. For instance, China has performed numerous tests of direct-ascent ASATs, which reached MEO and near GEO altitudes, purported to be missile-defense tests and scientific research.
Moreover, since 2014 Russia has operated two spacecraft in LEO and GEO that have performed curious maneuvers. Particularly, the Luch spacecraft has been roaming GEO and parked itself in close proximity to several communications satellites belonging to INTELSAT. This has caused great concern both by INTELSAT and military officials, but concern has not translated into affirmative action. Considering the deployment of a co-orbital “killer satellite” system by the Soviet Union during Cold War, it stands to reason that even if Luch isn’t an ASAT, it may very well be testing the technology and techniques for a new generation of co-orbital ASATs as well as testing the resolve of the United States to respond to a threat to a space asset.
Yet, despite the growing threat, there appears to be little on the policy front to address it. Diplomatic efforts at the United Nations have been neutered by both China and Russia’s soft-power maneuvering. Both countries have promoted themselves as proactive actors by diverting attention from ASATs via the space weapon debate and by extension placing the United States in the position of the uncooperative space-faring nation, which gives both Russia and China propaganda cover for their ASAT development efforts.
This leaves the United States in a bind. On the one hand, the United States has much to lose in terms of its reliance on space-based assets. On the other hand, the United States does not appear to have the political will to take a hard stance with both Russia and China over their activities, and instead chooses to hit the snooze button on the ASAT alarm. That being said, at some point the issue has to be addressed head on, and while the policy options may be unpalatable, when it comes to ASATs the United States may have to choose between taking a policy bite despite the bad taste or losing valuable space assets because it chooses to hit the snooze button one too many times.