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New frontier of war: Space the new battleground?

<< Is weaponisation of space the final frontier of battlefield or is it going to be the beginning of the end of mankind as we know it? Even though R&D is being carried out to develop technology to place weapons in space, more and more voices are openly against any such move. The future will only decide who wins? >>

Technology has driven strategy and tactics over the centuries, providing strategists and military thinkers’ methods and means to wage war and surprise and overwhelm the opponent. In the 20th century, nuclear weapons and rocket technology added a new dimension to war waging capabilities of nations, opening another dimension and radically changing the method of conducting war. However, this was limited to a select few. Now, as more nations achieve technological prowess, the scene is changing with challenges being posed to current world powers. Space has been militarised since the cold war when communication satellites were launched; and even though space is heavily militarised, so far it has not been weaponised.

Militarisation of outer space:
Militaries all over the world rely on satellites for command and control, communication, monitoring, early warning and navigation. Peaceful uses of outer space include military uses such as using satellites to identify targets, direct bombing raids, control and direct drone strikes or to orchestrate a prompt global strike capability, anti-access strategy or ballistic missile defence.

Weaponisation of outer space:
Space weaponisation refers to the placement of space-based devices in orbit that have a destructive capacity. Ground-based systems designed or used to attack space-based assets also constitute space weapons, though they are not technically part of the weaponisation of outer space since they are not placed in orbit. Weapons that travel through space in order to reach their targets, such as hypersonic technology vehicles, also contribute to the weaponisation of space. Many elements of the missile defence system currently being developed or planned could constitute space weapons as well, as many possess ‘dual-use’ characteristics, allowing them to destroy space assets as well as ballistic missiles.

Existing legal instruments
Existing treaties and conventions on space or related aspects chronologically are :-

1963 Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the atmosphere, in outer space and under water

1967 Outer Space Treaty (formally titled Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies) The Treaty was largely based on the Declaration of Legal Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, which had been adopted by the UN General Assembly in its resolution 1962 (XVIII) in 1963, but added a few new provisions. The Treaty was opened for signature by the three depository governments (USSR, the United Kingdom and the United States of America) in January 1967, and it entered into force in October 1967. The Outer Space Treaty provides the basic framework on international space law, including the following principles:

  • the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for Israel and Russia the benefit and in the interest of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind;
  • outer space shall be free for exploration and use by all states;
  • outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means;
  • States shall not place nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies or station them in outer space in any other manner;
  • the Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes;
  • astronauts shall be regarded as the envoys of mankind;
  • States shall be responsible for national space activities whether carried out by governmental or non-governmental entities;
  • States shall be liable for damage caused by their space objects; and
  • States shall avoid harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies.

1968 Rescue Agreement (formally titled as the Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects launched into Outer Space)

1971 Agreement relating to the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization ‘Intelsat’ (with annexes and operating agreement)

1972 Liability Convention (formally titled as the Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects)

1975 Registration Convention (formally titled the Convention on the Registration of Objects launched into Outer Space)

1979 Moon Agreement (formally the Agreement governing the activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies)

1985 Convention on the International Maritime Satellite Organization (INMARSAT) with annex and operating agreement (1976); as amended in 1985; with Protocol (1981)

Since the beginning of the ‘space age,’ roughly 5,400 man-made objects have been placed in orbit around the earth. Some 580 of these satellites are believed to be still functioning as they were intended. About 270 of these functioning satellites are in Low Earth Orbits (LEO). This region extends from about 100 kilometers altitude to about 1,000 km. At present, this region contains at least 24 US military reconnaissance, electronic intelligence and meteorological satellites. France, Israel and Russia have similar military satellites in this region, which the Russians also use for tactical military communication and navigation. In future, the US plans to place the Space Based Infrared System Low (SBIRS Low) network of two dozen infrared missile-tracking satellites for Theater Missile Defense (TMD) and National Missile Defense (NMD) in this region. It is this LEO region, closest to earth, which will be most vulnerable in the near future to earth-based Anti-Satellite (ASATs) weapons (missiles, lasers,particle beams, etc.), currently under development by several states. The technical prowess required for great accuracy would not be necessary to harm the targeted satellite: a simple nuclear explosion, or the dispersal of a cloud of pebbles, is sufficient to damage all satellites in a large region of LEO for an extended period of time.

There are some 40 to 50 satellites in Middle Earth Orbits (MEO) orbiting at altitudes between 1,000 and 35,786 kilometers above the surface of the earth. Most of these MEO satellites are in highly elliptical orbits, dipping into the LEO region during part of their travels. During these close approaches to earth, they would have the same vulnerability as do the LEO satellites.

Finally, there are about 300 satellites in Geostationary Earth Orbits (GEO). These circulate easterly, precisely 35,786 kilometers above the Equator with a period of 24 hours; hence they remain stationary with respect to any given position on the surface of the earth. At least 29 of these belong to the US military. Other militaries owning satellites in this region are Australia, Russia and the UK. These stationary satellites serve for communications, relay, earth observation, search and rescue, weather and research. There are also constantly staring early-warning-satellites designed to detect (and initially track) ballistic missile launchings via the intense infrared emitted by their rocket engines. For the foreseeable future, the only threats to such far-out satellites would come either from other such satellites or from the rockets capable of launching such satellites from ground to GEO (releasing conventional or nuclear space mines or gravel clouds). At present only China, France, India, Japan, Russia, Ukraine and the US possess such rocketry.

Positions adopted by nations

United states of America
In July 2010, the Obama administration released the new US National Space Policy. It states that the US shall pursue bilateral and multilateral transparency and confidence-building measures to encourage responsible action in, and the peaceful uses of space. The new policy also notes that the US will consider proposals and concepts for arms control measures if they are “equitable, effectively verifiable and enhance the national security of the US and its allies.” However, the actual implications of this change are still unknown.

The Russian-Chinese joint draft treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space (PPWT) would not meet these criteria according to the US, as it is ‘fundamentally flawed’ and would not provide any grounds for commencing negotiations. The United States Department of Defense continues to invest in programmes that could provide anti-satellite and space-based weapons capabilities. While the technology itself is highly controversial, it presents major business opportunities to companies that know how to overcome moral, logistical and financial roadblocks. War has always been highly profitable, and dominance of outer space leads to further profits in conventional warfare. As the Air Force Space Command stated in its 2003 Strategic Master Plan, “the ability to gain space superiority (the ability to exploit space while selectively disallowing it to adversaries) is critically important and maintaining space superiority is an essential prerequisite in modern warfare.” Superiority in conventional warfare relies on military assets in space, especially satellites, which are used for intelligence, remote sensing, navigation and monitoring, among other things. Since the US currently asserts its political will through force, protection of its own space assets and disturbance of others’ is key to guaranteeing the US dominance.

On June 17, 2009 immediately after the ninth heads of state summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Yekaterinburg, Russia, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Chinese President Hu Jintao announced that they would draft a joint treaty to ban the deployment of weapons in outer space and this treaty would be presented to the United Nations General Assembly. A statement by the presidents reflected a common purpose to avoid the weaponisation of space: “Russia and China advocate peaceful uses of outer space and oppose the prospect of it being turned into a new area for deploying weapons.”

Near simultaneously, Russian Deputy Defence Minister was quoted saying, “Russia warns that technology failure with weapons in space may accidentally invite a massive response amounting to nuclear war and that our nation’s response to American weapons in orbit would be asymmetric but adequate.” At the same time, Commander of Russia’s Strategic Missile Forces, said, “A new strategic arms reduction pact with the United States must prohibit any kind of offensive weapons in space,” and expounded on his nation’s concerns by adding: “Our country is interested in including limitations not only on the number of nuclear warheads, but also on the number of their delivery vehicles in the new arms reduction treaty. We also stand for maintaining the ban on the deployment of strategic weapons, offensive and defensive, outside national borders, the prohibition of any kind of offensive weapons in space, and a more efficient use of inspection and data exchange mechanisms established in line with the START 1 treaty.”

The Russian view point was also articulated in 2007 at the plenary meeting of the Conference on Disarmament (CD) at Geneva as “In Russia’s opinion, the militarisation of outer space could have unpredictable consequences for the international community, and will provoke nothing less than the beginning of a nuclear era. And more than once we have come forward with initiatives designed to prevent the placement of weapons in outer space… The issue of Preventing an Arms Race in Outer Space, PAROS, has many facets and dimensions. We have been constantly discussing them at the CD. We all become increasingly dependent on outer space technologies and more and more use of these technologies in the key areas of activities of humankind.

Security in outer space must be guaranteed. This is a call of our time. The CD must prove that this can be achieved through multilateral agreement, taking into account legitimate interests of all states and through covering the well known lacunae in the international outer space law.”

China successfully launched a land-based missile interceptor on January 28, 2013, China claimed that it had accomplished the pre-set goal, and that the test was defensive in nature and targeted no country. China’s only previous missile interceptor test, on January 11, 2010, did involve a target. In 2007, China conducted an ASAT test, destroying one of its own satellites instead of a test warhead. The country has a robust civil space programme and is likely to come on par with the other two space leaders. This demonstration of technical prowess by it has cemented its place in space militarisation and if required, in weaponisation as well.

France has developed technical capabilities which can be used for placing weapons in space.

India, another country which has nuclear weapons and a growing space programme, recently intensified its own missile defence testing. It also closely watches China’s ASAT and missile defence tests.

A number of countries including Russia, China and the US, are reported to be already developing anti-satellite weapons.

Is weaponisation actually required?
An overwhelming majority of UN member states is concerned that the weaponisation of outer space will lead to an arms race and insist that a multilateral treaty is the only way to prevent such a race. In 2006, Russia argued that if all states observe a prohibition on space weaponisation, there will be no arms race. Russia and China also support establishing an obligation of no use or threat of use of force against space objects and have submitted a draft treaty to the UN on preventing the placement of weapons in outer space.

However, those in favour of weaponisation of space argue:-

  • Weapons and warfare are likely to spread wherever humans go. And states will ultimately do whatever they believe to be in their self-interest
  • Examples of the evolution of sea and air power reveal a striking pattern leading towards the weaponisation of space and eventually in its exploitation. History teaches us that the new strategically important weapons quickly become embedded into national security strategies. In general, such weapons become so deeply embedded in the dominant political paradigm that they are largely impossible to remove from the strategic arena
  • Maintain technological edge over adversaries or future threats. Current research should continue on emerging cutting edge technologies
  • The rapidly growing commercial investment in and economic dependence on space technology will make attacking satellites very attractive to enemy states. Thus, states need to build space weapons in order to defend them.

    Arguments against space weaponisation are:-

  • Destroy strategic balance and stability, and will inevitably lead to a new arms race
  • Undermine international and national security
  • Disrupt existing arms control instruments in particular those related to nuclear weapons and missiles
  • Polluting and hazardous due to their potential creation of space debris in Earth’s orbital sphere
  • Counter-productive, due to their capacity to inadvertently destroy other satellites including, in particular, satellites required for monitoring military activities
  • Inadequate due to the enormous technical challenges to their effective use and the availability of better Earthbound alternative measures
  • Illegal in their potential conflict with existing treaties currently in force establishing space as a peaceful zone
  • Immoral for they bring the possibility of war into the boundless future of space

The world has only two options, either to:

  • Plan, research, develop and deploy weapons systems to protect interests and infrastructure in space. The effect of this approach will be an arms race in outer space as countries move to protect their interests against possible attack.
  • To develop multi-laterally negotiated controls on weapons in space through a new space treaty. Such a treaty would ban the testing, production, deployment or use of weapons in space or use of earth-based weapons which operate into space; require the notification of all planned space activities; establish monitoring and verification procedures; include procedures for resolving conflicts regarding military use of space and enforcement mechanisms for violations of the treaty.

Although the current international legal instruments concerning outer space do, to some extent, prohibit and restrict the deployment of weapons, use of force as well as military activities in certain parts of space, the related provisions contained in them are seen by some states to be limited in scope and therefore inadequate for preventing weaponisation of outer space. The progress of science and technology could make it necessary to strengthen the existing international legal system.

At present, states do profess a choice to prevent weaponisation of space. However, their research and development of cutting edge technology indicates otherwise – their intention to possess a capability to place weapons in space.

The final frontier ‘space’ became militarised during the Cold War. It is now open to weaponisation as technology provides the wherewithal to place a range of weapons or counter systems in space and, political and national security compulsions force nations to take recourse in use of space for national defence.