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Weaponization & Militarization of Space

With the launch of military communication satellites, Space began to be used for military purposes, therein it was militarized without overt announcements.

The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 bans the placing of nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in outer Space. It also prohibits military activities on celestial bodies, but allows legally binding rules governing the peaceful exploration and use of Space. The treaty does not define “weapons of mass destruction”, and does not prohibit the launching of ballistic missiles, which could be armed with any type of warheads. This lacunae or omission allows the use of Space by transitory vehicles armed with nuclear weapons, WMD, electronic systems, energy platforms or kinetic systems. These transitory vehicles can turn into weapon platforms during the flight period. It is paradoxical that the term weapon remains elusive to definition in the context of Space, because any object traversing through Space can become a weapon subject to the intention of the user.

Increasing range of tasks, missions

With the launch of military communication satellites, Space began to be used for military purposes, therein it was militarized without overt announcements. Since then, militaries around the world have been using satellites for a host of requirements. Early warning helps ensure force protection, determine intentions of the adversary, movement of enemy forces, and provides vital information on missile launches. One of the most crucial tasks satellites perform is to detect and notify of missile attacks, so that defensive or offensive operations can be planned in response. Space-based sensors usually provide the first indication of a launch, and ground-based radars provide follow-on information and confirm the attack. Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) are crucial for situational awareness, which includes the current knowledge of the location of adversary forces on land, air, sea or Space, and the ability to track and predict its future location. It also includes understanding of the intent. Planning and decision-making are the vital functions to be supported by Space-based assets.

Environmental monitoring enables meteorological forecasting and mission planning. Navigation and positioning enable weapon guidance, precision strikes, tracking of forces or search and rescue missions. Communication is the core element of consultation, command and control. Space has thus become an all-pervading domain capable of shaping, changing, synchronizing, coordinating, controlling, and monitoring communication and surveillance during peace and war. Certain actions by satellites and unmanned vehicles in Space have created uncertainty about the motives of nations in deploying these systems in an opaque manner, under the cover of experimental work or repair tasks, indicating at weaponization. The range of tasks and missions will increase as technology provides greater capabilities in the future.

Space has become an all-pervading domain capable of shaping, changing, synchronizing, coordinating, controlling, and monitoring communication and surveillance during peace and war

Evolving threat

Simply put, weaponization means placing of weapons or devices with destructive capability into the orbit. However, this may not be the case in the future, because the anti-satellite missiles (ASAT) capabilities demonstrated by four nations recently did not need any system in orbit; these were ground-based missiles launched to destroy satellites in orbit. Hence, ground-based systems that can attack, disable, divert or blind Space-based assets also constitute weaponization of Space. Another grey area is the dual-use systems which can be used for offensive and defensive purposes.

Currently, the threat to Space-based systems arises from development in various fields. Further, nations can use offensive cyberspace capabilities to enable a range of reversible to non-reversible effects against Space systems, associated ground infrastructure, users, and the links connecting them. Directed energy weapons (DEW) can use directed energy to disrupt, damage, or destroy enemy equipment and facilities, these effects can range from temporary to permanent, and may include lasers, high-power microwaves, and other types of radio-frequency weapons.

Electronic warfare includes using jamming and spoofing techniques to control the electromagnetic spectrum. Uplink jamming is directed toward the satellite and impairs services for all users in the satellite reception area. Downlink jamming has a localized effect because it is directed at ground users, such as a ground forces unit using satellite navigation to determine their location. Spoofing deceives the receiver by introducing a fake signal with erroneous information. Kinetic energy threats, or ASAT, are designed to destroy satellites without placing the weapon system or any of its components into orbit. These systems typically consist of a fixed or mobile launch system, a missile, and a kinetic kill vehicle. These weapons could also be launched from aircraft. Orbital or Space-based systems are satellites that can deliver temporary or permanent effects against other spacecraft. These systems could include payloads, such as kinetic kill vehicles, radio-frequency jammers, lasers, chemical sprayers, high-power microwaves, and robotic mechanisms. Some of these systems, such as robotic technology for satellite servicing and repair and debris removal, have peaceful uses, but can also be used for military purposes.

The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 banned the placing of nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in outer Space

Future security concern

In the past decades, proposals on Space security have been put forward by many countries and organizations, including the European Union, the UN Group of Governments, Russia, China and the UK, though progress has eluded the subject at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva and other forums. There has been an increase in the number of nations with interest in Space, leading to power rivalries, and the consequent failure to make common ground on Space security to prevent its militarization and weaponization. We are now in a Space weaponization capability- building race, with little or no hope of an agreement to ensure Space security.

Author Bio

Lt Gen Balraj Singh Nagal PVSM, AVSM, SM (Retd) was Commander-In-Chief of Strategic Forces Command; Chief, Strategic Programme Staff; Director General, Operational Logistics; and Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies.

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