WASHINGTON — Ahead of a final meeting of a United Nations working group on reducing space threats, members states of the European Union, but not the E.U. itself, have pledged not to conduct destructive direct-ascent anti-satellite tests.
In a document recently published by the U.N. Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) on Reducing Space Threats, a “joint contribution” by the E.U. included a commitment by its 27 member states not to perform such ASAT tests, which can generate significant amounts of debris. Breaking Defense first reported on the document.
“The Member States of the European Union commit not to conduct destructive direct-ascent anti-satellite missile tests,” states the E.U. in a passage bolded and underlined.
The United States first announced in April 2022 its intent not to conduct such tests, five months after a Russian direct-ascent ASAT hit a defunct satellite and created nearly 1,800 pieces of tracked debris. Twelve countries followed the U.S., including five E.U. members: Austria, France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. A U.N. General Assembly resolution encouraging countries to adopt similar bans won backing from 155 nations last December.
“Concerned that the use of destructive ASAT systems might have widespread and irreversible impacts on the outer space environment, the Member States of the EU consider such commitment as an urgent and initial measure aimed at preventing damage to the outer space environment, while also contributing to the development of further measures for the prevention of an arms race in outer space,” the E.U. document stated.
The European Union made no other formal announcement of that commitment, but an E.U. official confirmed that it applied to all 27 countries.
“All EU Member States have taken the commitment not to conduct destructive direct-ascent anti-satellite missile tests,” E.U. spokesman Peter Stano said in an Aug. 24 statement to SpaceNews. “They agreed to express this collectively in the joint EU contribution to the works of the Open-Ended Working Group on reducing space threats through norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviors.”
“The EU welcomes this joint commitment,” he added, noting that it did not apply to the European Union itself. “However, this not a commitment by the EU as this potential behavior would fall outside of the competences of the EU.”
Despite the overwhelming support for a destructive ASAT testing ban in last December’s U.N. vote, advocates have continued to press individual countries to make formal commitments to refrain from such tests. In a talk at the Summit for Space Sustainability June 13 in New York, Audrey Schaffer, at the time director of space policy at the National Security Council, said that the U.N. resolution only encouraged countries to adopt a ban, and was not itself a commitment not to perform such tests.
“To truly establish an internationally recognized norm banning destructive DA-ASAT missile testing, we need a critical mass of nations to actually make the commitment,” she said. “We have to continue the drumbeat of nations making commitments to this emerging international norm.”
The OEWG is set to hold its fourth and final working session the week of Aug. 28 in Geneva. The intent of that session is to finalize recommended measures, like ASAT testing bans, to offer to the United Nations. In its document, the E.U. endorsed several norms of behavior that address topics from intentional activities that create space debris to those that impair space-based services. It also backed transparency in space activities, such as sharing information about space policies and providing prelaunch notifications.
Many observers, though, are skeptical that working group members will be able to reach consensus on a final report with any substantial recommendations. A separate document submitted by Russia said that the OWEG report should endorse a legally binding treaty on preventing placement of weapons in space, an issue long advocated by Russia and China but opposed by the U.S. and many other Western nations.