[ANALYSIS] Trouble in the Stars: Future of Outer Space Security

[ANALYSIS] Trouble in the Stars: Future of Outer Space Security

Riya Shah
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Since ancient times, mankind has been fascinated with what is beyond Earth. Humans have an innate curiosity to explore the unknown, chart the uncharted and push beyond spatial limits. From stargazing to building the first telescope to launching Sputnik I, our tryst with space has evolved through the centuries. Since the beginning of the modern space age in the early 20th century, missile science and space technology have undergone massive changes. In a rapidly digitizing and globalizing world, humankind relies on outer space for various services, ranging from communication and navigation to disaster mitigation, weather forecasting, remote sensing and monitoring climate change.

As space-based assets and data continue to play a crucial role in civilian life and military activity, outer space is becoming an increasingly critical domain for peace and security. Various states are developing advanced counter-space technologies like anti-satellite weapon tests (ASAT) which threaten to destabilize strategic stability in outer space and trigger the weaponization of space. Although many efforts have been made by the UN to maintain outer space for peaceful purposes, there remains a gap in political willingness and effective implementation.

Outer Space: A ‘Star Wars’ sequel?

Swashbuckling military action, cybernetics, carbonite freezing, and alluring tractor beams take us to the mystical world of Star Wars. Even though such imageries are limited to popular culture references, sometimes fiction and reality merge in an ill-fated way. The launch of Sputnik I by the erstwhile Soviet Union in 1957 and the existing Cold War competition triggered a space race between the US and USSR and, throughout the 1970s and 80s, the two major space powers were involved in testing nuclear weapons in space and building offensive capabilities. This remark by the then US Secretary of State Dean Rusk aptly illustrates the insecurity regarding space weaponization, “There is an increasing danger that space may become man’s newest battlefield.”

In the 1980s, US President Ronald Reagan proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) which was dubbed “Star Wars.” The actor-turned-President envisioned a kind of military warfare wherein space-based lasers could shoot down missiles. Though no country is nowhere near such technological advancement, the idea that outer space can be used as a war-fighting domain was well planted in the minds of all nations.

The launch of the first ASAT weapon by the Soviet Union in 1968 was another turning point in the history of space weaponization. Large scale ASAT tests were conducted by the USA and USSR in the 1960s. The United States conducted its first ASAT weapon test in 1985 and other emerging space powers, like China and India, followed suit. In January 2007, China successfully conducted an ASAT missile test and destroyed its ageing weather satellite. In 2019, India also successfully tested an ASAT under Mission Shakti.

Joseph W. Ashy, former U.S. commander-in-chief of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, famously said, “We’re going to fight in space. We’re going to fight from space and we’re going to fight into space.” It has been more than seven decades since space has been used for military activities. From trials of ballistic missiles to nuclear explosive tests to the development of anti-satellite systems (ASAT), the domain of space has undergone massive militarization. But the colossal change in the scale of development of offensive counterspace capabilities is perturbing.

Counterspace capabilities refer to techniques used to gain space superiority, these capabilities include direct ascent, co-orbital, directed energy, electronic warfare and cyber weapons. Countries such as the USA, Russia and China have conducted tests of technologies for rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO) in both low earth orbit and geosynchronous orbit – thereby possessing co-orbital ASAT capabilities. Jamming of global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) signals and satellite communications is another area in which countries like Iran and North Korea are developing disruptive technologies.

In November 2021, the Russian Aerospace Defence Forces conducted an ASAT test as part of its Federal Space Programme which sparked concerns as it created more than 1500 pieces of space debris, according to the US Space Command. Though the USA conducted its last ASAT test in 2008, it continues to develop advanced counterspace technologies. As outer space continues to become an increasingly congested and contested domain, there is an urgent need to ramp up space security dialogues and establish frameworks for peaceful use of space, a global common for all of humanity.

The UN Response

In 1958, the Ad Hoc Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space was established by the UNGA in its resolution 1348 (XIII) of 13 December 1958. Later in its resolution 1472 A (XIV) of 1959 this expert unit became a fully functioning, permanently established Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPOUS) under the Office for Outer Space Affairs within the Department for Political Affairs in the UN. Regarded as the topmost forum for the development of international space law, COPOUS has concluded five international treaties on space-related activities.

The Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, commonly known as the Outer Space Treaty, came into force in 1967. Providing a basic framework for international space law, Article 4 of the Outer Space Treaty prohibits placement “in orbit around the Earth [of] any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction, install[ation of] such weapons on celestial bodies, or station[ing of] such weapons in outer space in any other manner.” It also states that “outer space shall be free for exploration and use by all States” for ‘peaceful purposes.’ Though this treaty provides a substantive framework for space law, it still remains quite vague.

Other treaties include the Rescue Agreement (1968), Liability Convention (1972), Registration Convention (1976) and the Moon Agreement (1984). These treaties deal with issues such as access to space for all nations, freedom of exploration, rescue and return of astronauts and registration of objects launched into outer space.

Various other disarmament measures have been underway, including the proposed Prevention of An Arms Race in Space Treaty (PAROS), which is currently being discussed in the Conference on Disarmament (CD); the Treaty on Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and of the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects (PPWT), jointly proposed by Russia and China in 2008; Resolution  A/RES/75/36 on reducing space threats through norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviors; the proposed “Draft International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities” (ICoC) by the European Union (EU); the Guidelines for the Sustainability of Outer Space Activities; the Further Practical Measures for the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space; and the Establishment of Group of Governmental Experts on Transparency and Confidence-building Measures in Outer Space Activities (A/68/189) are some of the few endeavors.

The UN has worked extensively to synergize international co-operation in space related activities through various mechanisms including international and regional treaties, agreements, regulations and establishing guidelines for co-operative mechanisms. However, these initiatives are still non-binding and a lot of loopholes exist in the legal fine print.

Shoot for the Stars?

Even after the decade-long existence of international law governing the use of outer space, we see an increasing trend towards outer space weaponization. Owing to an ambiguous space law, states have had considerable freedom in deploying weapons in outer space.

Though the OST clearly mentions that outer space shall be used for ‘peaceful purposes,’ states have differing interpretations for the same.  According to the ‘non-military’ theory, which is followed by Russia, ‘peaceful’ equates to non-military use. This interpretation has also been used in the 1959 Antarctic Treaty. However, the US adheres to the ‘non-aggressive’ approach, as per the UN Charter. Under this approach, all military activities are lawful as long as they are non-aggressive.

Another area of contention is which kind of weapons can be placed in space. The OST only mentions the prohibition of placement of nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction. So, does this mean that all other kinds of weapons can be placed in space? As most of the space assets have a dual nature, that is, they can be used for both civilian and military use, it becomes difficult to ascertain the intention for use.  Also, the OST does not clearly define how international law will be applied to outer space. Definitions of terms such as ‘use of force,’ ‘threat of use of force,’ ‘weapon’ and even the boundaries of outer space remain undefined.

A Rocket Launches. Source: Deccan Herald

The Way Forward

The disarmament measures undertaken under the aegis of the UN demonstrate that states recognize the need for outer space security and are willing to create co-operative security arrangements. The Manual on International Law Applicable to Military Uses of Outer Space (MILAMOS) is one such project which aims to clarify existing international law applicable to military uses of outer space peacetime. Moreover, in response to the November 2021 ASAT tests by Russia, the United States declared on April 18, 2022 that it is committed to end ASAT testing and called for global support.

As the realm of activity in outer space expands, it is imperative that an agreement on a framework for governing outer space is reached. The legal and semantic shortcomings of the existing treaties must be resolved. Additionally, the entry of commercial actors into outer space calls for reassessing, reframing and restructuring engagement and enforcement mechanisms. Countries must follow the norms of responsible behavior and be transparent about their goals. This will increase predictability and transparency in negotiations and eliminate mutual trust deficit.

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[ANALYSIS] Trouble in the…

by Riya Shah time to read: 6 min