Weaponisation of Space Should India Join the Race

The militarisation of outer space – the so-called ‘last frontier’ and ‘ultimate high ground’ – happened many decades ago when military satellites began to be deployed for surveillance, communications and navigation. Will the weaponisation of space be an inevitable consequence? In January 2008, China demonstrated its ability to physically destroy a satellite in space by firing a missile at it. Even though the satellite that had been shot down was an ageing satellite, the act sent a chilling message to the world. India is now a major space power with substantial civilian and military stakes in space and must decide whether it wishes to support and join the current race to weaponise space or oppose it.

A headline in the Jane’s Defence Weekly a few years ago had stated: “USAF Eyes Relay Mirrors to Extend Range of Lasers”. In bold type-face the first paragraph of the news item datelined Washington D.C. had proclaimed ominously: “High-powered laser weapons are expected to make their operational debut later this decade, according to military planners who say these weapons will revolutionise future battles by giving US forces the ability to hit targets with lethal beams of energy delivered at extreme speed and over great distances.” The deployment of weapons systems will turn outer space into a potential battlefield – a platform from which to seek strategic superiority on the ground. Space is fast acquiring the status of the ultimate high ground, a term much revered by military planners and leaders.

Which way is the West led by United States (US) headed? Is it Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars programme all over again? Or, is it, as some analysts have dubbed it, the “son of Star Wars”? The plans now underway to utilise high-flying airborne lasers on board modified Boeing 747 aircraft to generate multi-megawatt laser beams that are then reflected by a relay of 5-metre diameter mirrors arrayed in outer space to shoot down nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles during their boost phase, will lead inexorably to the weaponisation of space. 

US Race for Space

According to the Washington Post, in January 2001 the US Air Force Space Command completed a major war-game set in space where “attack satellites and lasers fought computer hackers and space planes in a simulated struggle reflecting the Pentagon’s growing belief that the key battles of the 21st century may be fought in space.” The exercise called “Schriever 2001” showed that the “ability to project force to and from space can be a powerful deterrent to conflict.” The US Army is not far behind and is looking to exploit emerging space technology to deliver “effects-based fires” for manoeuvre on the future battlefield. How exactly they intend to achieve such effects is hazy at present. 

The next logical step would inevitably be to develop capabilities to destroy similar systems of the adversary in space including military satellites. US Senator Tom Harkin had said after a 1997 laser test to help the US military understand the vulnerabilities of military satellites that the test was “both unnecessary and provocative.” Quite obviously since then, the US military has gradually come to accept space as a future battlefield and a new theatre of operations. The world will soon hear about killer satellites armed with lasers, space mines, electronic jamming systems and logic bombs and viruses that can cripple computer-based command, control, communications and intelligence systems. 

The aim will be to destroy satellites or neutralise them temporarily through non-lethal means. These could include lasers to blind imaging satellites and radio-signal jammers, and even chemical means to disable a spacecraft in flight. The fight will undoubtedly also extend to the destruction of enemy ground control facilities, both from the air and from space. Also on the drawing boards is a strategic space bomber that will blast off like a ballistic missile and drop precision-guided munitions from the stratospheric height of up to 100 km on targets deep inside enemy territory. It will be capable of reaching any target anywhere in the world within 30 minutes of takeoff from the continental United States.

The US Department of Defence issued a Directive on Space Policy (July 9, 1999), which declared space as “a medium like the land, sea and air within which military activities shall be conducted.” The Year 2000 Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organisation, chaired by Defence Secretary Rumsfeld before he was nominated to head the Pentagon, had warned of a Pearl Harbour in space. In its report, the Committee had said it would be in the national interest to “develop and deploy the means to deter and defend against hostile acts directed at US space assets and against the use of space hostile to US interests.” The US Air Force, eager to re-name itself an “aerospace force”, launched a new study in 2001 to identify research areas to focus on space control and space access with a view to conducting effective aerospace operations.

Present US efforts focus primarily on enabling the armed forces to control space to leverage the military potential of this vital medium to protect troops and territories and project power abroad. However, it must be noted that US policy planners and space industry officials are now calling for an “overarching strategic plan that would coordinate civil, military and commercial space efforts.” The practical realisation of these diabolical capabilities will be extremely destabilising for world peace. Their possession by the US will naturally compel Russia and China and maybe half a dozen other countries to follow suit – leading to a second race for space, after the first one was sparked by the launch of the USSR’s Sputnik in the 1950s. 

Treaty Violations

After several decades of successful space exploration the commercial exploitation of space has now become a big-ticket business. Many nations and multinational corporations now have sensory and communications satellites in space. Space is also being used for navigational and positional applications and remote sensing. Over the last thirty years the commercial space market has spun off many military uses and, hence, most militaries the world over have become heavily dependent on the use of space for telecommunications, satellite-based imagery and reconnaissance and navigation. Military leaders and national security analysts in the West are now of the view that space-based weapons are now inescapable. 

Plans that are now underway for the military use of space will negate the Outer Space Treaty and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 bans the deployment of weapons of mass destruction in space. The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, all but unilaterally abrogated now because of the ongoing US programme to develop missile interceptors, enjoins the signatories not to deploy anti-ballistic missile interceptors in space. The abrogation of these treaties does not augur well for future arms control and disarmament negotiations.

Related Developments

Former Russian President Vladimir Putin had expressed serious concern over the increasing militarisation of space and called upon the world community to “redouble its efforts to preserve a peaceful outer space for the sake of future generations.” China had called for a ban on the testing, deployment and use of all weapons, weapons systems and their components in outer space before its anti-satellite test. It had suggested the establishment of a UN committee to draw up a binding international instrument to prevent an arms race in outer space. While China consistently downplays any military application of its space programme, recent developments including renewed emphasis on manned flights (Project 921) nevertheless indicate the increasing important of space in China’s national security planning. Project 921 quite obviously has military connotations. In Israel, the Air Force has been designated as the lead service for the operational planning and eventual deployment of space assets and related systems and for the expanded military use of space.

India has consistently opposed the military use of space. Addressing an ESCAP-sponsored Space Applications conference in November 1999 at New Delhi, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had said: “I cannot overemphasise the need for developing space applications for global peace and security. Space must become the newest frontier not for an arms race but for humankind’s collaborative and common race for development.” At the Space Summit of the Indian Science Congress at Bangalore in early January 2003, then President, Mr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam had called for the establishment of an “International Space Force” to ensure that conflict on earth does not spill over into space or harms the space assets of mankind. Today it sounds like Utopian thinking.

It is difficult to accept the argument of space as an inevitable battlefield. There is no tangible evidence of the development of space-based weapons and strategies by the so-called “rogue states”. There is no immediate threat on the horizon and it may be several decades before such a threat actually materialises. The only saving grace is that the practical weaponisation of space is unlikely till about 2020 at least. At present, planned space-based weapons capabilities can be more cheaply and almost equally effectively delivered by land-based weapons platforms. The international community must utilise that time interlude to lead a fight to honour the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 – if at all such a course of action is still practicable. A major step forward would be to seek a general and wide-ranging ban on weapons in space. As a leading player on the international stage and as a major space power itself, India must play a substantive role in this noble venture. 

Famous Cold War analyst Raymond Aron had observed with quiet resignation: “Short of a revolution in the heart of man and the nature of states, by what miracle could inter-planetary space be preserved from military use?” When Robert Browning wrote, “Man’s reach should exceed his grasp/ otherwise what is heaven for?” he could not have imagined that man will one day attempt to dominate the heavens. Mankind’s last frontier must never be allowed to become the last battlefield between nation-states. There is hope yet if the international community makes concerted efforts and public opinion – the second superpower – can be aroused to oppose the militarisation of space. 

However, the Indian government must make its own calculations about whether or not the weaponisation of space is inevitable. If it concludes that the West and China are going down that route, it must lose no further time in sanctioning a tri-Service aerospace command and giving it a wide-ranging charter to develop and field Indian weapons in space. This is one field in which no friendly nation or strategic partner will transfer technology to another.