Indian Defence

Militarization and Weaponization of Space

Introduction

Since ancient times, outer space has enthused mankind. Earlier it was used for navigation by sailors; astronomy and found mention in numerous ballads and folk tales. With the advancement in technology, we were able to reach the moon and install artificial satellites in Earth’s orbit.

For many years, space has been considered a global common, where its use has been limited to peaceful, scientific, and commercial purposes. The combination of evolving military doctrines and increasing reliance on space for communication, intelligence collection, etc. Space has the potential of becoming the new arena of futuristic warfare.

But before moving forth, it is important to understand the subtle difference between the terms “Militarization” and “Weaponization” of space. Militarization refers to using space for supporting the conduct of terrestrial, aerial, and marine operations by providing intelligence, secured communication, etc.  On the other hand, Weaponization refers to installing weapons in outer space to establish space superiority and gaining the ability to damage the adversary’s space assets and protection of own assets. In a nutshell, weaponization is a subset of the militarization of space. Therefore, we can say that space had been militarized long ago as the U.S. used its satellites to support its operations during the gulf wars and also used them for keeping a watch on the Indian nuclear program before the Pokhran tests. The footsteps have been followed by other countries including China, India, and Russia.

Present status of militarization and weaponization of space.
credits: Indiatimes.com

Present Status of Space Weaponization

In March 2019 India tested its first Anti Satellite weapon (ASAT) making it the fourth country to possess space warfare capabilities after U.S., Russia, and China. All three countries have a designated department for looking after their interests in outer space, similarly, India has also established Defence Space Agency (DSA) to secure India’s interests as well. Presently developed space-related weapons can be classified into Earth to Space weapons [including Kinetic Energy Weapons (KEW) like missiles], Space to Space weapons also known as co-orbital weapons, and Space to Earth Weapons (STEW). Presently, no country has STEW weapons but Russia had earlier tested a co-orbital weapon on its own satellite.

From India’s perspective, China’s capability in space warfare is a major challenge. China has achieved major advancements in cyber-warfare and space-related weapons and is working continuously on its ambitious space program with a hefty budget of $8 Bn. The threat to India’s space assets is not only from missiles directed from the earth but also from soft kill weapons like an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) and directed energy weapons (DEW) like lasers.

Weaponization of Space, an evident phenomenon.
Credits: YouTube

A Necessary Evil

The paradox of today’s world is that peace comes from deterrence and weaponization, and with advancements in technology, powerful countries want to establish their dominance over new realms of warfare. Outer space is essential for ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) operations and for providing accurate input on enemy activities. In addition to this having an edge in space-related weapons will also provide the following advantages:

  1. Interception and neutralization of ballistic missiles: Due to limitations of ground-based radar systems, interception of ballistic missiles at the launch phase becomes next to impossible, so taking assistance of satellite-based images is pertinent. Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites can detect the movement of these missiles and can launch counter-offensive weapons like the one tested by Russia. America’s Star Wars program aimed at the development of such a capability to provide multi-layered defence against Soviet ICBMs.
  2. Cutting off the enemy’s critical communication lines: Modern communication both civil and military rely heavily on satellite-based equipment. The adversary’s offensive on our satellite can critically hamper the communication and navigation facilities and give a winning advantage to him. The attacks not only include controlled collision with enemy satellites but also include ASAT weapon attacks.
  3. Launching cyber-attacks: China is investing heavily in developing its cyber attack capabilities and is also accused of using the same on India e.g. recent attack on the AIIMS server which compromised the health data of patients and the cyber attack on India’s power grid. These attacks also rely on satellite equipment to penetrate secure systems.

The above offensive and defensive uses of space-based weapons highlight the need to develop space warfare capabilities.

Threats from Earth to Space weapons.
Credits: The conversation

Threats From The Weaponization Of Space

The following are the threats that arise from the development and use of space-based weapons:

  1. Huge amount of space debris: As of January 2022, a total of 8261 satellites were orbiting the earth out of which just 4852 were operationally depicting a huge volume of space debris already present. The LEO satellites orbit the earth at the speed of 10km/s which is quite high. At such high speeds, a particle as small as one-tenth of a millimeter can cause serious damage to the satellite. Using space for weaponization by testing ASAT and other space weapons can add extra debris in space. This can be harmful to satellites working for scientific and peaceful purposes. The debris can also fall on earth and can be harmful to humans and property.
  2. Rise to an unending arms race: The military expenditure worldwide is growing year by year (by 0.7% in 2021 reaching over 2 trillion dollars) depicting that the world is in an arms race. An increase in the number of conflicts can further bolster the defence budget of many countries. This will force them to spend more on weapons than on the welfare of their citizens. The addition of a new dimension of space in warfare can further trigger this arms race.
  3. Violation of international conventions: The Outer Space Treaty that came into force in 1967 provides the framework for international space law. It outlines principles such as the freedom of countries in space exploration, and that no country can claim sovereignty over space. It also prohibits countries from placing nuclear and other dangerous weapons in space. The development of these weapons will also lead to the violation of such treaties.
  4. Space domination by a handful of powerful countries: Another negative effect of the weaponization of space is that advanced countries can control outer space. These may include reserving particular orbit slots for themselves which they may not even use and therefore depriving others of the same (The U.S. has been doing it for years). They may even coerce other countries to change their orbital slots. Such things act against the democratization of space.
Credits: DNA India

Challenges In The Indian Context

India has established a network of 7 satellites to form the Indian Regional Navigation Spacecraft System (IRNSS) in geosynchronous orbit. It helps in navigation in and around the country. The main threat to this system is that destroying 4 out of 7 satellites renders the whole system useless. The threat of destruction arises mainly because of China as it had been conducting ASAT tests extensively since 2007. Along with the ASAT, China’s electronic warfare technologies like jammers are also superior to India’s. In the face of such a challenging environment, India cannot afford to use passive techniques of defending its satellites against enemy attacks.

To manage the threats posed by China, India tested ASAT in March 2019 under the name Mission Shakti. It also established a dedicated space agency named Defence Space Agency. Experts believe that India requires an ASAT triad meaning hitting capacity from all three modes (land, sea, and air). In addition to this India needs to acquire co-orbital hitting capacity which China is close to achieving. For achieving all this, ISRO’s budget needs to expand to sustain in this space race.

Conclusion

In conclusion, we can say that space holds a lot of potential for the benefit of mankind but it is equally important from a security point of view. Though a majority of data today travels through underwater cables and satellites are not that efficient for using the internet but we cannot imagine communication and navigation without satellite support. The development of space-based weapons is still in its early phase but we cannot neglect its associated possibilities and challenges.

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Akshit Sharma

A defence aspirant who likes analyzing trends and developments in the arena of defence and geopolitics. Open to constructive criticism and valuable suggestions.

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