Geopolitical assertions have led to unrest across the globe. This has worsened since Russia’s aggression in Ukraine began in February 2022. While witnessing the never-ending war and the potential spread of conflict in more countries, the question is whether desperation or aggression will reach outer space, where weapons and military systems are being amassed.
Until May 2022, no warfare has hit space. At the same time, there is no guarantee that there will be no disruptive activities in the future. Because the biggest players like the US, China, and Russia, among others, have made space for their military capabilities in space. They have parked weapons that can destroy satellites. They have technologies that can disrupt the functions of spacecraft. Blocking of data and transmission, if done, can put communication into a tizzy or destroy it completely.
Earth observation, weather monitoring, telecommunication, television transmission, data transfer, Internet connectivity, bank transactions, socio-economic development, scientific development, the medical field, and more are essential for every country. And these are possible because of spaceflight in Earth’s orbit. Human greed and vengeance on Earth, if they reach space, could endanger humanity and the environment. What about shooting down a satellite? The scattered debris may fall anywhere and also disrupt the functioning of other spacecraft. There is every chance of settling scores with enemy countries by disrupting the paths or destroying the satellite itself.
The US-based Secure World Foundation, which is into promoting cooperative solutions for space sustainability, says in its latest report that space security has become an increasingly salient policy issue. Many countries are concerned about national security. The foundation says they feel strongly that a more open and public debate on these issues is urgently needed. Space is not the sole domain of the military and intelligence services. The global society and economy are more and more dependent on space capabilities. A future conflict in space may have massive, long-term negative consequences that are felt here on Earth. Even testing of these capabilities may have long-lasting negative consequences for the space environment and the entities which operate there. The common public should be as aware of the evolving threats as possible, the foundation has said.
Dr. Brian Weeden, Director, Program Planning for Secure World Foundation, expressed concern over the establishment of the United State Space Force, one of the eight US uniformed services. This is the only independent space force in the world. He has expressed apprehensions that the new force is threatening to lift earthly conflicts to new heights and put all space activities, peaceful and military alike, at risk.
While many advanced countries are expressing concern over the possibility of armed conflict in outer space, no country is saying it would not assert its survival or dominance in the space age. Even India has not lagged in making the assertion. It successfully tested an anti-satellite missile test (ASAT) on March 27, 2019. ASAT successfully targeted and neutralized its satellite in low earth orbit. The technology was known as “kinetic kill” and was not equipped with an explosive warhead.
India not lagging
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that India had become the fourth country to conduct such a test (Mission Shakti), the world was surprised. America, Russia, and China are ahead of India in testing such a capability. While defending its test missile, India insisted that space is peace. But like the other three countries, it remained mute on the space debris generated by the destruction of the satellite. Even debris being created in space can disrupt the path of satellites.
In 2007, China conducted an anti-satellite missile test. In 2002, it decommissioned Fengyun-1C, a weather satellite that was launched in 1999. It had remained in orbit. In 2007, China, using a ballistic missile, blew up a defunct satellite. It was said to have led to no less than 3,000 pieces of debris. There was worldwide condemnation because of the massive amount of junk created in space.
Forget the three giants – the United States, Russia, and China – even smaller countries are investing significant time, energy, and money in developing space technologies. Militaries use space technology to carry out their operations on Earth. It is an irony that countries have equipped themselves to do a reversal process—not for security purposes but for destruction.
Russia claimed that laser weapons – Zadira – are being used to shoot down drones in the ongoing Ukraine war. Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister had said the Zadira was part of an intercontinental ballistic missile system, which includes a laser component called Peresvet. He has said the laser component could blind satellites up to 1,500 km above the Earth. But there has not been an independent study to endorse the claims that Russia is using laser weapons in Ukraine.
The US and Israel have already announced that they have successfully tested advanced laser weapons. It has been reported that France is working on laser beams that could dazzle another country’s satellite, preventing it from taking pictures of classified targets.
According to Statista, the United States has 2,044 active artificial satellites orbiting the Earth as of January 2022, followed by China (499) and Russia (169). Minister of State for Science and Technology told Rajya Sabha in February 2022 that India has 53 operational satellites in space that provide several services to the country. These statistics clearly show that the world’s most powerful armies are also powerful in space.
If countries, through their space programmes and defence forces, are working against the welfare of mankind, then what should be done? Aren’t there international laws binding all countries not to get into space conflicts or space wars? This question becomes pertinent because many technologies which we are witnessing can easily lead to an arms race and war in space. NATO has claimed that it has no intention of putting weapons in space. But the US has enriched NATO with weapons. What can prevent NATO members from parking their weapons in space? Why does NATO have nothing to comment on the spy satellite deployment by the US? What stringent norms govern private satellite stations?
The 1967 Outer Space Treaty bans the basing of weapons of mass destruction in outer space and prohibits military activities on celestial bodies. However, there is no prohibition on militarising space. The excuse for militarizing space is’ threat by enemy countries’ or for’ peaceful purposes. The UN General Assembly Resolution 69/32 has also failed to guarantee the prevention of space war. No doubt, it is time to define space laws and policies to prevent possible disasters in space. There should be no ambiguity in policies and regulations. International peace organizations and bodies such as NATO should be taking the initiative to bring countries together to talk and implement laws governing space.
Another question often heard is: is space-based electronic warfare going to be a reality or just a threat to subject experts and superpowers like the US and China? Brian Weeden, in 2018, said it is difficult to get down to details to find whether the public statements from military leadership or politicians on the militarization of space are true or otherwise.
There is no transparency in military power on Earth or in space. So, how does one say there is no room for a space war? Mistrust, guesswork and the quest for one-upmanship keep driving weapon accumulation.