Space has always been a great ‘asset’ for the military. The ability to conduct reconnaissance without dangerous clandestine forays in foreign airspace is a big attraction. While optical sensors on satellites were a big step forward from ultra-high altitude spy planes like the U2, radar satellites provide information of a class beyond the capabilities of optical and IR sensors.
Yet another class of satellites are the ELINT satellites which can pick up radio chatter. Then there are the GNSS for location, navigation and timing used for guiding offensive forces in the air, sea and on the ground. Conventional communications satellites are also used for strategic communications in C4ISR.
In a classic spear and shield paradigm, powerful lasers have been used to blind optical spy satellites and jammers have been used to temporarily incapacitate radar, ELINT, GNSS and Comsats. ASATs are another approach for a more permanent solution by eliminating such satellites. But ASATs create a mess of debris which threaten other Space assets. Nearly 250 trackable debris resulted from the Indian ASAT test on March 27, 2019.
In 1967, anticipating such a scenario, the United Nations, in its Outer Space Treaty, specifically stated that “States shall not place nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies or station them in outer Space in any other manner”. Note the use of the words ‘place’ and ‘station’.
An interesting point much argued in the UN was the definition of where outer Space begins. After much wrangling, it was decided that it begins at 100 Km, also called the Kárman Line, where the speed of an aircraft has to be higher than the orbital speed in order to generate sufficient lift. In effect, everything below 100 Km is aeronautics, while everything above is astronautics. Many countries strenuously objected to this as it would restrict ICBMs, which spend a considerable time of their flight above 100 Km in a sub-orbital trajectory, and thus would violate the Outer Space Treaty. The treaty mentions ‘place’ and ‘stationing’ but is silent about ‘passage’. Thus, ICBMs and ASATs merely passing through outer Space on their mission do not violate the Treaty.
On December 4, 2014, the General Assembly of the UN passed two more resolutions on preventing an arms race in outer Space. The first one calls on all States, in particular those with major Space capabilities, to contribute actively to the peaceful use of outer Space and prevent an arms race in Space. The second one talks about no first positioning of weapons in outer Space.
However, this has not prevented countries from looking at Space militarization and setting up Space Commands — China and Russia in 2015, France in 2019 and the US in 2020. While such commands cover defense rather than offence, the dividing line is thin. In a war situation, C4ISR uses all these technologies for both offence and defense. Denial of GPS service, for example, in the Gulf War and allegedly during the Kargil conflict are examples of such offensive use. It is also alleged that a Russian satellite shadowed a US spy satellite and fired a projectile at it.
Clearly, disarmament is not only needed on Earth, but as the UN anticipates, in Space as well.