Former Deputy Secretary of Defense of the United States (US) David Norquist stated that “Future wars will be waged not just in the air, on the land or at sea but also in space and cyberspace, dramatically increasing the complexity of warfare.” In line with the US stated space policy, the “space war games” with its allies are collectively advancing the space-based strategies, regardless of its implications against non-space faring nations across the globe. Earlier, such space war games were held in 2001, 2017, and 2019 and recently, in Nov 2020. This article aims at discussing the space-based threats and their implications for space security. It also mentions subsequent options for promoting peace and security in outer space.
The subject of space security has alternatively used multiple expressions for debating these issues, including space power, space dominance, “Space Pearl Harbor”, space entanglement and space superiority. All these terminologies are directed towards an arms race and military superiority in the space domain. The advancements in space-based technologies, including Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) systems, Anti-Satellite Weapons (ASATs), kinetic energy weapons, laser advancements, Hypersonic Glide Vehicles (HGV) and small satellites etc. are heading towards space war-fighting strategies. This may also imply the potential doctrinal shift from No First Use (NFU) to First Use (FU) policy while disarming missile targets and incapacitating nuclear command and control systems for gaining a competitive advantage against their enemies. Insofar, all such military advancements have under stressed deterrence stability and increased nuclear escalation vulnerabilities in a crisis.
Similarly, the existing grey areas in dual-use space technologies are also causing security challenges in the space domain. The US is currently operating more than 150 military satellites. Other states like Russia and China are operating over 70 and 60 military satellites, respectively. India is also estimated to have 16 – 20 military satellites. The common use of these satellites is to seek intelligence gathering, navigation, reconnaissance, and military communications. In a crisis situation, the monitoring of deployment of forces and their movement provides a strategic advantage against an adversary.
The international community principally agreed that space is a “common heritage of all mankind” but simultaneously remained handicapped in protecting outer space from military threats.
The international community principally agreed that space is a “common heritage of all mankind” but simultaneously remained handicapped in protecting outer space from military threats. The lack of an international normative approach is providing a technological edge to militarily advanced states. In this context, the Conference on Disarmament (CD), a multilateral consensus-based forum, promotes the universal, non-discriminatory negotiations on a legally binding treaty on Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS). Moreover, the Chinese and Russian led initiative of the 2014 draft Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space (PPWT) suggests its CD member states legally denounce an arms race and space weaponisation in outer space. However, the US and other member states have been pessimistic about this initiative and raised concerns regarding it. Nonetheless, deadlock or continuous criticism is not a productive approach and will lead to nowhere adding more complexity to the issue.
Also, multilateral efforts towards risk reduction measures in the space domain should remain a priority. States are ill-prepared against accidental or unauthorised use of space-based military technology that can potentially lead to a full-blown war among adversaries.
On the regional front, on 27 March 2019, India demonstrated its ASAT capabilities and destroyed its own satellite in low earth orbit under Operation Mission Shakti. It has reportedly used missile interceptor Prithvi Defence Vehicle Mark-II for conducting this test. Another significant test of Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle (HSTDV) in September 2020 also undermines the deterrence stability in the region.
Along with offensive developments in space by India, Indian missile systems are increasingly destabilising regional security. The aggressive mindset of the political and military leadership of India is more prone to nuclear escalation scenarios. In this context, Pakistan has always been vocal about non-militarisation and against the weaponisation of outer space. Pakistan has endorsed the immediate commencement of negotiations under the CD on a legally binding treaty for the PAROS. It also supports the talks on the draft treaty PPWT. On 22 May 2019, Pakistan signed a joint statement with Russia on the No First Placement of Weapons in Outer Space. In order to ease regional tensions, Pakistan, at the High-Level Segment of the CD on 24 February 2021, has reiterated reciprocal measures towards nuclear and missile restraint and risk reduction measures for warranting peace and stability in the region.
The space-based wars will cause an interminable arms race and interlock states into compulsive offensive-defensive strategies. It will open a Pandora Box for mastering the tit-for-tat response in this manner. Hence, the CD is an appropriate global multilateral forum for prioritising negotiations on space security aspects for ensuring peace and security in the world. The deadlock on PAROS in the CD is worrisome as it is challenging international peace and stability. It is providing an opportunity for aggressive states to master the technology and gain an edge over adversaries. CD member states should consider appropriate measures to deal with this imminent threat before it gets too late. Political and economic gains should not be given importance over global security.