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Space Militarization And Its Global Impact

Author : Mehjabeen Kaur Ahmed

Since time immemorial, outer space has continued to be a dominion involving intrigue and fascination. With the advent of technology, man has not only been able to explore but also, exploit it in order to fulfill his ambitions. Today, nearly 2000 active satellites encircle the Earth to facilitate varied purposes ranging from commercial to military. With growing advancements and inclination towards world domination, the idea of space militarization (placement and development of weaponry and military technology in outer space) is a concern that cannot remain unrecognized.

Historical Background : The Cold War And Post Cold War Era

During the Cold war (c. 1947-91), actions of the two superpowers, USA and USSR, were driven by a ‘space race’ where both parties were ostensibly preoccupied in defeating the rival. In 1957, where the Soviet Union launched its first artificial satellite Sputnik 1, the USA considered a plan for an underground Air Force base on the moon in 1958. Moreover, it seemed to be an aspiration for supremacy, that US President Kennedy in 1961 began a dramatic expansion of the US Space Program and committed to the ambitious goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

With the end of Cold War and the world becoming a unipolar system, the US continued to work upon global dominance by incorporating space-based systems into its national security infrastructure. The advantages of the same were highlighted in the Gulf War, the Balkan conflict and the invasion of Iraq. Although with the fall of USSR, its Strategic Defense Initiative of the 1980s (also called ‘Star Wars’) to provide protection against intercontinental ballistic missiles faded, the US has carried on to maintain an offensive position in space.

Space Law : Treaties And Forums

The Outer Space Treaty:

The Outer Space Treaty was contemplated upon by the Legal Subcommittee in 1966 and an agreement was reached in the General Assembly. It was largely based on the Declaration of Legal Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space. The Treaty was opened for signature by the three Depository Governments (the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States of America) in January 1967, and then entered into force in October 1967. The Outer Space Treaty provides the basic framework on international space law, enlisting the following principles:

  • the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests 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.

United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA):

The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) works to promote international cooperation in the peaceful use and exploration of space, and in the utilization of space science and technology for sustainable economic and social development. The Office assists any United Nations Member States to establish legal and regulatory frameworks to govern space activities and strengthens the capacity of developing countries to use space science technology and applications. It was created in 1958 and is now positioned in its headquarters located in Vienna, Austria. UNOOSA came into being to assist and advice the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.

Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS):

The UN General Assembly established the CUPUOS in 1959 to identify areas for international cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space. It also devises programs to be undertaken by the UN, encourages research and studies legal problems arising from space exploration. COPUOS also keeps track of international agreements relating to activities in outer space.

Threatening Militarisation And Newly Emerging Space-Powers

Although a broad consensus is shared by the world on these treaties, frameworks and resolutions, most matters seem to remain on paper. In the diplomatic arena, space giants like the USA, Russia and China hardly differ on the peaceful utilization of space. However, to put into perspective, there is no denying the fact that the treaties, from time to time, have been used by each of them for merely seeking to restrict the other’s space activities without adversely affecting their own development programs.

Despite international agreements on not transforming space into a weaponized base, the US has constantly expanded its military capabilities. In fact, the establishment of the US Space Force (USSF) by President Donald Trump in December 2019 marked one of the most distinguished concerns on the global stage. To elucidate, the USSF is a military service that organizes, trains and equips space forces in order to protect US and allied interests in space. The very formation of such an entity poses greater questions to global security. Furthermore, the recent Chinese spacecraft missions have, to a large extent, maintained secrecy and not disclosed their purposes in the most transparent manner. It can be said that Russia too has followed in the same footsteps, as like the other two, it has successfully tested its anti-satellite missile systems. So, one may assert that while some differences exist between them—the United States seeks space hegemony, China aims to achieve equality, and Russia wants to reduce its relative weakness—the common underlying gist is that they all support the weaponization and militarization of space.

Players like Germany, the UK, France and Italy are also in possession of extensive military space infrastructure including observation satellites and other systems. Though their projects seemingly consist of civilian goals, they may have technical potential to cause destruction to space assets.

Countries like India, Japan, Brazil, Pakistan and Australia are more or less the newly emerging contenders in this field. On the one hand where India has become one with US, China and Russia to successfully conduct an anti-satellite (ASAT) experiment by destroying one of its own satellites (2019), the others have operated more strongly in the diplomatic arena by participating in international initiatives due to the lack of more advanced military capabilities.

Global Security Issues And Other Consequences

Space militarization raises many viable threats and concerns. The sheer gravity of these problems is highlighted in a comment made by the highest ranking military officer in the US Armed Forces, General Mark A. Milley, where he warned that the “next Pearl Harbour” could potentially be in space (December 2020).

To put in terms of clear logic, the placement of arms in space even by one state will channel and encourage others to follow suit, thereby disrupting the global balance of power. This in turn will lead to a race for strategic dominance where many countries would want to carry out weapon testing experiments. Hence, when one state assumes an offensive character, it incentivizes the other key players towards protecting their own national interests. This has already, to a considerable degree, proved true in the current scenario. Besides, parallels can also be drawn with the law of deterrence in relation to nuclear weapons during the time of Cold War, as both situations render serious repercussions for the global community as a whole.

With breakthroughs in innovation and technology, as well as the rise of globalization, we find ourselves in the midst of an interconnected world where our dependence on satellites has increased tremendously. Today, everything from simple navigation and communication to military operations is carried out by the Global Positioning System (GPS). This heavy dependence makes it easier for a single entity to control the entire system and manipulate its usage. Therefore, such a reliance makes the destruction of satellites a priority for military planners in the event of a conflict.

Also, there has been a substantial increase in the number of satellites in space, owned by multiple states and corporations. This has created a huge pile of space debris which could cloud the orbit and make positioning new satellites impossible. The ASAT experiments too, proved to be one of the greatest contributors to accumulation of space debris. Moreover, if a country’s satellites are successfully destroyed by an enemy state, it would again only add to the debris. Also, the country would be left vulnerable to attack on ground with its military forces becoming uncoordinated.

Whatever the cause may be, the proliferation of debris around the planet would surely damage our future space access. Launching rockets and other spacecrafts would be hindered, eventually closing opportunities for further scientific research, commercial operations and space exploration. If greater pollution were to occur, space might become unusable, resulting in the collapse of most, if not all, of what there is.

All these implications create an atmosphere of suspicion in the global realm. Questions are often raised as to what follows in the subsequent years, whilst the damage is not realized and curbed in time.

What Does The Future Hold

In recent times, governments and state space agencies experience a crowded market where dozens of companies are developing launch vehicles and other space assets and need to secure government contracts to stay competitive. This is clearly visible in the purchase of as many as 28 satellites for Pentagon’s space agency from SpaceX as announced by the Defense Department (December 31, 2020). These purchases also include 8 missile-warning satellites, again pointing to one of the aspects of space militarization. So, not only for powers like the US, space militarization would increase expenses of many other states based on mere threat perception rather than concrete intimidation.

With a history of US disinterest in the efforts of the United Nations to regulate outer space, the implementation of a worthwhile international agreement for arms and military control in space seems implausible in the near future. At this juncture, we may be faced with questions such as ‘Will deterrence be the only check against space militarization?’, ‘Will the fear of global destruction be forever hanging on the heads of policy makers?’, ‘Will the international community ever accept a governing body regarding space activity?’ or ‘Will space hegemony be inevitable under any circumstances, putting other states at the mercy of the hegemon?’

After analysing such conditions, it can be concluded that there is a distressing need of a common consensus over international treaties and resolutions to regulate and limit the activities of space militarization and weaponization, failing which chances of a full-blown space war would become unavoidable.

References :

  1. Unoosa.org. 2021. COPUOS. [online] Available at: <https://www.unoosa.org/oosa/en/ourwork/copuos/index.html> [Accessed 4 January 2021].

  2. Us, A. and Force, A., 2021. Mission. [online] Spaceforce.mil. Available at: <https://www.spaceforce.mil/About-Us/About-Space-Force/Mission/> [Accessed 6 January 2021].

  3. 2021. [online] Available at: <https://www.researchgate.net/publication/338165794_The_Space_Arms_Race_Global_Trends_and_State_Interests> [Accessed 4 January 2021].

  4. Shipman, A., 2021. Space War: US Army Chief Warns 'Next Pearl Harbour’ Could Be In Space. [online] Express.co.uk. Available at: <https://www.express.co.uk/news/world/1368194/space-news-world-war-3-US-china-pearl-harbour-russia-army-military-latest-ont> [Accessed 6 January 2021].

  5. Erwin, S., 2021. Spacex Wins $150 Million Contract To Launch Space Development Agency Satellites - Spacenews. [online] SpaceNews. Available at: <https://spacenews.com/spacex-wins-150-million-contract-to-launch-space-development-agency-satellites/> [Accessed 6 January 2021].

  6. Gilliard, A., 2021. What Are The Consequences Of Militarizing Outer Space? | Global Security Review. [online] Global Security Review. Available at: <https://globalsecurityreview.com/consequences-militarization-space/#:~:text=The%20militarization%20of%20space%20would,community%20risks%20facing%20extreme%20consequences.> [Accessed 4 January 2021].

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