The sensation of space warfare arisen with the takeoff of Sputnik-I, first earth satellite of Soviets launched during the escalation period of the cold war, underlying the strategic use of outer space for the defence and security. The idea of securing a high ground in the battlefield for strategic advantage is antediluvian but to acquire preemptive edge of outer space was realized after 1960’s, when both USA and USSR were contending to make Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) and both had successfully launched their artificial satellites in the outer space. Although, Germany was the first nation to use the ballistic missile in the end of World War-II, but it led to the advancement of launch vehicles and space race in the world, especially between USA and USSR. In spite of the abysmal duel, the world entered into an era of cooperation in the outer space, followed by the establishment of International Space Station.
Space warfare denotes the combat in the outer space, above the Kármán Line in the mesosphere and exosphere layers of the atmosphere. Although there has not been any incident of an armed conflict in the outer space but the scope includes the space-to-space warfare, space-to-ground warfare and ground-to-space warfare, where satellites can target other satellites or earth-based targets and vice versa. Ever since the beginning of the space race, the technologically advanced nations are exploring the opportunities in this nascent domain to amplify their security. Similar to the use of terrains like ocean beds and airspace for the supplementation of offence and defence, the incorporation of outer space as the territory of national security gained traction in the latter half of the 20th century, when soviets launched the first artificial satellite “Sputnik-I” into space. The USA and other powers followed the suite, resulting in the technological advancement and leap frogging in the prevailing globalization process. The prospects of space-mediated conflict increased after the development of ICBMs, advancement in the space sciences and its practical manifestations. Presence in the outer space provided a competitive edge and a military superiority to nation-states in all spheres, especially in the battlefields, military communications and surveillance, informational supremacy and lifting the fog of war.
Currently, the presence in the outer space has become an essential element for the national development and security, which is why the developed countries like China, Russia and the USA have secured their positions in the realm, and now; economically struggling nations like Iran and Korea are making strides in the domain of outer space. Owing to the promising landscape of outer space, the dominant powers have either established a separate force for the space or revamped their strategic command to an additional authority or autonomous entity for securing their national interests in the outer space. For example, the USA has recently upgraded their Space Command by overhauling the organizational structure into a full-unified combatant command and allocating additional funds along with renaming it as US Space Force in December 2019. Similarly, the Russian Aerospace Defence Force replaced the Russian Space Force, which later on became the Russian Aerospace Force, on August 2015. China also followed the military reformation of the globally dominant military powers and erected the People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force (PLASSF), which is responsible for space, cyber, and electronic warfare, and is the consolidation of all PLA’s space-based C4ISR systems. India, a developing country of South Asia, also established the Defence Space Agency (DSA) as the tri-service agency of the Indian Armed Forces, undertaking the space-warfare and satellite intelligence.
Although, the mass-awareness and understanding of the idea of space warfare matured with the motion pictures like “Star Wars” and “Space Odyssey” but the nation-states were already aware of the developments and utility of domain for their progress soon after the first launch of an earth satellite in space, especially in the realm of national development and security.
Fast-paced telecommunication played a vital role in the globalization process and it has become possible through the satellite technologies. A century ago, it took years for a news or information to reach the other half of the world but with the advent of satellite networks, the process of information sharing, either through telecommunication or through broadcast, has accelerated. In the same way, these satellites helped us in predicting the weather and natural disasters, remote sensing for mapping and developmental planning, and regulating the air-traffic etc. The steadfast global banking system and the FinTech we use today is the byproduct of this tech advancement we call Global Positioning System (GPS). So the satellites, and space technology at large, is part of the national and global critical infrastructure and an attack on these systems can jeopardize the international financial and political order.
We know that the security and military derives the technological advancements, and modernization in space sciences is exemplar in this regard. Through presence in the space, a state’s military can conduct surveillance, reconnaissance, keep track of the troop mobilization, facilitate overt and covert operations, lift the fog of war and impede its adversary from gaining the strategic advantage from the space technologies. In terms of national defense, satellites have provided us with an ability to forecast threats to the food, water, energy, and environmental security. Similarly, one can identify the war crimes, human rights violations, genocides, and other existential threats to the human security through satellites imagery and keep a check on the national boundaries for the refugees and illegal migrants.
New forms of warfare resulted with the evolution of sciences, especially space sciences, having sprouting effects on the nature of conflict. Such as the cyberwar and space warfare itself. Nayef Al-Rodhan mentioned in Space Review “new dynamics in outer space have increased the level of vulnerability of cyberspace and space-based infrastructures.” While explaining the intersection of both technologies in terms of security he mentioned that feeding false information or illegal monitoring and surveillance of data traffic relayed from the satellites in the outer space is the most common type of threat.
Although race to reach outer space and land on moon is a half century old saga but it has a whole different side which explicates the ambit of these outer-space missions as “future military operations.” Outer space was an addition to conventional battlefields, such as land, airspace, water and cyber space, therefore it is deemed as critical component of modern joint warfare. Outer space presence and its technological implications on the military led to the symbiosis and interdependence in all types of armed forces, resulting in notions of joint military operations or “jointness” as Americans called it. Space technology has risen as a force multiplier and decisive factor in military operations and it is evident from the application of the technology in military affairs today. Correspondingly, coalescing the satellites with the high-resolution lenses, militaries and intelligence agencies can now capture and keep track of the activities occurring on the ground in real-time with vivid images. This development, combined with the modern 5G telecommunication technology has turned the battlefield into a video game and providing exceptional assistance to the land, sea or air forces.
With the advancement in the space technologies as platforms of warfare, the military use of these nascent technologies could vary from the simple information hacks to jamming signals and knocking out rival satellites. There are speculations that with the advancement in the space militarization, such threats will intensify in near future and satellites will become laser equipped enabling them to destroy other satellites and targeting the ground forces as well.
The satellites, apart from being an instrument facilitating the militaries, has become the weapons themselves. The debate of space militarization is gaining traction ever since the inception of space technology but now, in 21st century, we have witnessed numerous nations exploiting the satellites as weapons of offence. Although there are international treaties ratified by the UN member states to avoid the conflicts in the outer space and put a bar on the deployment of weapon systems in the outer space (weaponization of space). However, the spacefaring nations have installed killer satellites and spying satellites and anti-satellites to destruct or jam the adversary’s satellites present in the space. On January 11, 2007, the Chinese government conducted a ballistic missile-launched anti-satellite weapon successfully which led to a strong condemnation from many foreign powers like the US, UK, and Japan. Similarly, in 2008, the US developed and tested an air to space interceptor missile (SM-3) for hitting ballistic targets when they are in orbit, which resulted in successfully destroying its own surveillance satellite. Japan, a US ally, is planning to deploy these satellite destroyers in European region. India, although a developing country but continuously advancing spacefaring nation, also gunned down a satellite in the lower orbit using anti-satellite rocket calling it Mission Shakti.
Human activities in the outer space such as satellites destruction and accidental collisions are disturbing the fragile ecosystem of the space. In this milieu, the anti-satellites and ballistic missiles targeting the satellites results in Kessler syndrome and increasing the debris in outer space. With the increasing activities in the outer space, especially the commercial flights, the space visitors are at risk. In order to ensure the safety of satellites, human space surfers and environment of space, all spacefaring nations have to take measures to put a halt on this increasing debris. Outer space activities are expected to increase with the proliferation of space-based communication channels like 5G connectivity. For the sustainability of space exploration and space-based services there is a need to ensure the unpolluted environment in the sphere, which is possible through space governance and employing the space policies. In addition to the rules and regulations, the capacity building and technological transfers also act as prerequisites for safeguarding the whimsical and fragile atmosphere of space.
The competition in space is increasing gradually due to the reliance and dependence on space technologies in our daily affairs at earth, especially the military and intelligence affairs. This competition and overreliance also paves path of hostilities and increases the prospects of conflicts between nation-states in the outer space, which is why nations are considering the outer space as the new territory of national security. Until now, there has not been a single incident of an actor attacking the opponent’s assets in the space but with the increasing competition and enhancement in the capability to do so, the odds of an interstellar conflict are intensifying.
Moreover, the prospects of spilling the inter-nation’s conflict in space is growing with the increase of space based military systems and nebulous use of satellites for the military and intelligence purposes by nation states like India. Until now, there had been a tacit consent by nations on the passive use of space assets for the military purposes but with the enhancement in the space technologies, especially concerning the offensive capabilities of satellites, and dual use of these assets, the animosity will increase and spiral into a security dilemma in the space as well.
Similarly, another challenge in realization of harmony in the space among nation-states is the absence of space governance. The Space Security Index Report 2019 addressed the problem by highlighting three indicators; first is the absence of national space policies, strategies and laws, second is the lack of an international regime like UN space governing body to regulate the space affairs, and third is the deficiency of clear guidelines, mechanisms and treaties for the utilization of space-resources by multilateral forums. The report also highlighted the developments of 2018, directly influencing the space development and increasing national and international engagements in the outer space. It lays the ground research for the policymakers, scholars, civil society and industry leaders to take preventive actions for the security, sustainability and regulation of outer space activities.
It is not clear how we can best balance today’s competing civil, commercial, and military interests against the need for sustainable uses of space that will ensure its utility for future generations – Space Security Factsheet
UN has been making efforts to maintain the peace in the outer space since the launch of first satellite in 1957 and then onwards, the regime has been actively advocating the treaties and confidence building measures to prohibit the militarization and installation of weapons of mass destruction in outer space. Even the regime enforced a legal framework by ratifying a treaty in 1967, namely The Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, also known as the “Outer Space Treaty”. Since 1980, the proposals to put a halt on the prevention of an arms race in outer space and prohibiting the use of anti-satellite weapons were put down in the agenda of UN and afterwards Russia and China presented the drafts of such treaties in the Conferences of Disarmament. However, due to vagueness of the concepts like “space weapons”, “peaceful use of space”, and approval on passive use space assets for the military purposes, challenges of the space war and electronic warfare in space have surmounted. Even the formation of Group of Governmental Experts by UN General Assembly in 2017 was unable to gather consensus of the spacefaring nations for the purpose but they put forward the transparency and confidence building measures (TCBMs) for the peaceful use of outer space on voluntary basis by the nation-states and international actors in the domain. Then again, the linkage of the space assets with the national interests weaken the initiative as states defy their voluntary information sharing from the national actors. In order to overcome this challenge, there is a need to take all actors on board, such as their inclusion and listening to their concerns on the forums like Conference on Disarmament and find a common ground.
Outer Space is a unique domain and for the security, sustainability and governance of this nascent sphere, we need a unique and holistic policy. To date, there has not been a single human causality in the outer space but the proliferation of space weapons and offensive capabilities of nations in the outer space, shadows of the space warfare are palpable, and it can only be prevented by erecting an order in the outer space as well.
Pakistan was among one of the few countries to start its research and development program on space sciences. Under the leadership of General Ayyub Khan, Pakistan started its national space agency on the advice of Nobel laureate Dr Abdus Salam as a Space Sciences Research Wing of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC). The journey of Pakistan’s space research and exploration program can be divided into three phases; first is the establishment of a research wing and initiation of the rocketry programs, second is the institutional and constitutional development and third is the outer space exploration program. Currently, Pakistan have four remote sensing and communications satellites, including two ground stations. Launch of two satellites in 2018 were intended to serve the purpose of agricultural mapping, prediction of precipitation and water run-offs. Dr. Qamar ul Islam, head of Institute of Space Technology, said that Pakistan is in dire need of assistance from its friendly countries to enhance satellite launch facilities and capabilities. In terms of budget allocation and policy formulation, Pakistan’s government always remained a staunch advocate of development in space technology. Lately, civilian leadership of Pakistan had allocated added finances for development of Pakistan’s Multi-Mission (PAKSAT-MM1) satellite and establishment of ground space centers in its major cities namely Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad. In order to respond to India’s space research and development pace, which was deemed as top country in year 2017 for launching satellites, Pakistan have to expedite its pace of developments. Cooperation of Pakistan and China are expected to bolster the space assets capability of Pakistani Space and Upper Atmosphere research Commission (SUPARCO). In year 2018, with assistance of China in launch pads, Pakistan sent launched two were indigenously manufactured satellites from China Gobi desert. In 2019, Pakistan and UAE government signaled a collaborative effort for sending missions to space and manufacturing space technology. Pakistani official stated that they want to get benefits from strengthened space technologies of UAE. In the same year, Pakistan’s Space Agency SUPARCO attended the global Space Congress and presented Pakistan’s past efforts and future intentions of modernizing its space technology. Presently, the agency is aiming to develop a remote sensing satellite as part of its vision 2040, and preparing to send a manned space mission with assistance of Chinese space agency in 2022, Minister of Information, Science and Technology, Fawad Chaudhry.
Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), Indian space agency, founded in 1969 to develop an independent Indian space program. ISRO’s first satellite, Aryabhata, was launched by the Soviet Union on April 19, 1975. Rohini, the first satellite to be placed in orbit by an Indian-made launch was launched on July 18, 1980. ISRO has launched several space systems, including the Indian National Satellite (INSAT) system for telecommunication, television broadcasting, meteorology, and disaster warning and the Indian Remote Sensing (IRS) satellites for resource monitoring and management. The first INSAT was launched in 1988, and the program expanded to include geosynchronous satellites called GSAT. The first IRS satellite was also launched in 1988, and the program developed more-specialized satellites, including the Radar Imaging Satellite-1 (RISAT-1, launched in 2012) and the Satellite with Argos and Altika (SARAL, launched in 2013), a joint Indian-French mission that measures ocean wave heights. India is utilizing its satellite assets for ‘IRS’ and communication purposes which could enhance the speed, knowledge and precision in warfare. With an ability to monitor the force mobilization through an eye in the space, Indian military planners can take well-informed decisions based on mobilization of forces and strategies of Chinese and Pakistani armed forces. ISRO subsequently developed three other rockets: the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), the Geostationary Space Launch Vehicle (GSLV), and the GSLV Mark III or LVM. Those rockets launched communications satellites and Earth-observation satellites as well as missions to the Moon (Chandrayaan-1, 2008; Chandrayaan-2, 2019) and Mars (Mars Orbiter Mission, 2013). Moreover, India is now entering Space 2.0, which is the upsurge in space commercial activity, and India is using this or its own advantage as country is listed in top ranks for launching foreign satellites. This adoption of Space 2.0 will diminish the economic constraints on the Indian Space program and will result in added experience and economic development, which can further strengthen the space posture of Indian military. ISRO plans to put astronauts into orbit in 2021.