Space is the ultimate high ground and from the very beginning exploration in the realm was pursued to extract strategic and military advantages by the two superpowers of the time, the US and USSR. Unsurprisingly, both of them also worked on several programmes that developed and tested anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities, aimed at destroying or damaging satellites or to disrupt their operations. These included direct ascent projectiles, co-orbital ASATs and more agile and responsive air-launched ASATs. By mid 1980s, owing to various reasons, both had given up ASAT tests. There had also been programmes that envisaged placement of weapons in the domain to target satellites, ballistic missiles and terrestrial targets, but none of these offensive use programmes reached fruition.
Simultaneously, they had also pushed for regulatory mechanisms to contain the other’s use of the domain for offensive purposes, while being careful not to restrict their freedom to pursue diverse programmes. A US nuclear test in space in 1962 had brought on the realisation that nuclear explosions in space are indiscriminate and would destroy all nearby satellites in their line of sight and damage many more in the ensuing weeks by the increased radiation in low earth orbits. The Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963 thus prohibited nuclear explosion in space. It also laid the foundation for the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which further banned Transiting weapons were not covered to enable ballistic missiles carrying nuclear warheads transiting through space. The OST also did not forbid developing and deploying conventional weapons in space. This was mainly to enable deploying of missile interception and destruction capabilities. The treaty also did not explicitly prohibit deliberate attacks on satellites or conduct of ASAT weapons tests. Meanwhile, the distant, technologically intensive domain was out of reach of most nations and its impact on the everyday lives of most of humanity and on the battlefield was also not very visible. This has resulted in a supposedly weak OST, lacking in definitions and enforcement and overlooking many of the potential ways for weaponisation, being largely successful in maintaining peace in the realm, dissuading nations from placing weapons therein and with few instances of intentional interference with operations and none of intentional targeting of these assets.
The relative insignificance of Outer Space has ensured that the consequences of hostile action within or emanating from this distant domain have always remained in the shadow of the more visible and impactful nuclear have yet been placed in space and it has not been used for offensive purposes till now, recent developments have rekindled the debate on weaponisation of space with some analysts predicting its inevitability, even as others warn that any escalatory measures could have catalytic consequences. The article seeks to analyse the developments that could encourage or lead to the weaponisation of the domain in the future unless adequate steps are taken to control it.
Space based assets are becoming ever more critical to modern military operations and security functions. They are used for strategic and theatre level warning, ISR, command and control, communications, weapon guidance and targeting, to enhance coordinated manoeuvres and for some nations to support their expeditionary military operations. This makes them legitimate targets, rather Centres of Gravity that could be gainfully targeted in case of hostilities – disrupting operations or destroying them to deny information and gain an operational advantage as well as inhibit the attacked nation’s ability to respond. Space enabled capabilities have also become crucial for providing a host of political, economic, social and security related services. This dependence is not uniform, being much more for advanced space faring nations like the US as compared to the less developed ones. Even a rudiment technology in the hands of technologically inferior malevolent states and non state actors could provide them an asymmetric low cost option to launch attacks against the systems of the more advanced nations. Destruction or damage to satellites would cause increased debris in orbit, indiscriminately threatening other satellites, further impacting operations of nations with higher space dependence. In addition, disruption could also be affected through cyber attacks, satellite jammers, and directed energy weapons (lasers, radio frequency, microwave, and particle-beam weapons), temporarily disabling a target satellite.
Technological advancement and proliferation has put the ability to deploy and operate satellites into the hands of a larger number of players and the numbers continue to increase steadily. Developing ASAT capabilities no longer require dedicated efforts as most technologies used for peaceful applications in Outer Space have the potential to be used for ASAT purposes. For example, the progressively more popular micro-satellites and Rendezvous and Proximity manoeuvring capability both have latent space negation potential. This has broadened the threat environment for satellites, both in terms of technology and its proliferation even as the extant regulatory framework is found to be inadequate to deal with these changes in the environment. This dual use potential further makes it difficult to enact adequate provisions and mechanisms towards verification and enforcement.
As the commercial prospects of Space continue to grow, the domain is becoming more competitive. To add to this many of the satellites being launched by private entities are also heavily dependent on military orders to sustain themselves commercially. Advanced space faring nations are also investing in initiatives that seek to mine heavenly bodies to support future space exploration as also to address resource scarcity on Earth.
Experts have tried to compare these developments to those in the primary domains of land, sea and air where commercial competition and resource protection led to building of forces and capabilities for protection and to secure interests and which further evolved into efforts at domain dominance and control, like Sea Control, to protect the commercial interests.
The distant domain has relatively low situational awareness. Hence detection and attribution of an attack is difficult. The situation would worsen as thousands of small size micro-satellites populate the orbits. Currently, the US is the only country with an extensive space situational programme and it is making great efforts to make improvements to its space surveillance hardware and software to improve its awareness and cater to the evolving threat environment. Other nations have now started making dedicated efforts at enhancing their space situational awareness but it would take years for them to have a credible network of sensors and data handling infrastructure in place.
These uncertainties in the environment could encourage individual nations to develop capabilities to alleviate the current and future vulnerabilities of their assets. As it is technologically and economically unviable to provide adequate protection and resilience to all satellite systems, advanced nations could resort to developing offensive or dual use counter-space and response capabilities to deter and dissuade potential adversaries from any unwelcome or hostile activities in space. These would include non kinetic and soft kill options.
The US is well aware of the pivotal role that space based capabilities play in maintaining its leadership role in the world as well as of their being its critical vulnerability. It has continued to pursue offensive capabilities and even carried out a controlled destruction of one out a controlled and even carried its kinetic-kill prowess. Its Joint Space Doctrine explicitly brings out space control functions, similar to sea and air control, including space denail. Whileits programs that could support space weaponisation efforts were put on a back-burner during President Obama’s presidency, a more aggressive Trump administration is expected to reverse those decisions. These efforts at space dominance have and will continue to raise concerns among other nations, especially China and Russia, who have not hesitated in following a similar path, although not so openly, towards their own interests.
A ‘resurgent’ China is looking at enhancing its regional influence and secure its trade and energy interests across the globe. It is preparing for short duration, high-intensity, “informationised” regional wars with an emphasis on net centricity and joint operations conducted at greater distances from the mainland. Its antiaccess anti-denial (A2/AD) strategy envisages forcing the adversary to operate and engage from a further than optimum distance – aimed primarily at restricting the US fleet operations in an eventuality of a war over Taiwan and over contested areas of South and East China Seas. Space enabled capabilities such as C4I2SR and Global Navigation would play a decisive role in all these and it has thus made its space program one of the key priorities.
China has also been developing ASAT technologies to counter US dominance and to act as a deterrent. Its 2007 ASAT test has been followed by other “missile defence tests”with inherent ASAT capabilities. One such test in May 2013, described as a high-altitude scientific research mission, was interpreted by the US as a high-altitude ASAT verification that could threaten navigation satellites in MEO and critical communication and early warning satellites in GEO. Technologies being developed for its peaceful space missions also enhance its ASAT prowess. This includes its often cited offensive cyber capability that it could also use against space systems.
Having recovered from the economic turmoil following its balkanisation, Russia has increased its investments in space. It already possesses ASAT capabilities and it is improbable that it would desist from pursuing these capabilities in the future. In addition to the ASAT potential, placing of weapons in space also provide other strategic advantages. An important one is towards Ballistic Missile Defence, a critical facet of national security efforts of modern nations, which continues to grow in significance as more players acquire the ability to launch these missiles with ever increasing reach and lethality. Nations would seek to develop competence to identify the threat and intercept and neutralise it at the earliest – mid-course or even in the boost phase – even as the response times available for such counter measures continue to shrink. The US already has space based detection capabilities that provide it advanced or early warning of missile and rocket launches. Space based weapons would provide a more responsive, agile and adaptive global capability to effectively target missiles not only in midcourse but also in the boost phase, when they are the most vulnerable, also ensuring that any debris caused by the engagement falls onto the launching state itself.
Weapons placed in orbit could equally be used against other space based weapons or satellites for a more responsive defence for critical satellites against attacks. Similarly, these could provide offensive capability against terrestrial targets providing reach and responsiveness and restricting the response options for the adversary. Major space faring nations are unenthusiastic about retaliating to an attack within space as the increased debris would be detrimental to their operations. Space based weapons would provide more credence to their response capability and help deter the adversary.
It is evident that if the moratorium on placement of weapons in space is broken, it would lead to an unbridled space weapons race to gain disproportionate military and strategic dominance. Space is a global common and peaceful development in the domain has provided multiple benefits to mankind and all efforts should be made to keep it free of weapons. While more stringent regulations would seem an obvious choice, it would be difficult to reach a consensus on these as nations would seek differing interests based on their technological prowess and interest in the domain. It would be more prudent to have collaborative efforts and dialogue towards an accepted set of Transparency and Confidence Building Measures (TCBMs) that persuade nations towards responsible behaviour in space and dissuade weaponisation. An international agency, similar to those existing for global arms control, could be established and made responsible for verification and enforcement. India has been a peace loving nation, espousing the use of technology for development rather than warfare. Being one of the nations with large interest in the domain, it should actively work towards non discriminatory mechanisms that help prevent weaponisation of space.
Group Captain Puneet Bhalla is Senior Fellow, Centre For Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS).