By Captain Cort S. Thompson

On March 27, 2019, India launched a direct ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon, aimed at the Indian Ministry of Defense satellite Microsat-R. The kinetic-energy ASAT weapon collided with Microsat-R at an altitude of nearly 300 kilometers, creating an estimated 250 pieces of trackable debris from the 740-kilogram satellite. With this effective demonstration of ASAT capability, India became only the fourth nation to successfully intercept an orbiting satellite in the sixty-one years since the U.S.S.R. placed into orbit the first artificial satellite, Sputnik. While India’s demonstration purported to take deliberate steps to mitigate some of the risk associated with a kinetic-energy ASAT attack, it nonetheless carries significant implications for the international community. Aside from balance of power and regional stability questions, the demonstration is another reminder that space itself is a global commons, and the activities of one state affect the use by every other participant. States must reengage discussions of constraining kinetic-energy ASAT weapons to ensure that unfettered pollution of debris does not prevent future space exploration and commerce.

This Article argues that the suggested international regimes that might regulate the testing and use of kinetic-energy ASAT weapons are both fragmented and ineffective. It begins with a brief examination of outer space as a global commons, the different types of orbits employed by artificial satellites, and a history of the weapons used to intercept or counter them. This Article then discusses applicable treaties and state practices relevant to activities in outer space that form the foundation of the relevant legal regimes. It analyzes the application and effectiveness of proposed legal regimes for constraining ASAT weapon usage including state liability for space debris, the acceptable means and methods of warfare, and environmental modification regimes. Finding that those regimes have not adequately constrained state use of kinetic-energy ASAT weapons, this Article proposes that states should reengage in reciprocal arms control regimes that would prohibit the testing and use of kinetic energy ASAT weapons while preserving cyber, directed-energy, and electromagnetic spectrum attacks against space-based assets.

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Recommended Citation
Captain Cort S. Thompson, Avoiding Pyrrhic Victories in Orbit: A Need for Kinetic Anti-Satellite Arms Control in the Twenty-First Century, 85 J. Air L. & Com. 105 (2020).