As if the Earth was not enough, today, an intriguing future battlefield is being gradually developed with different armoury, rules, and strategies. All developments and reports indicate that nations are weaponizing space and are vying to conquer this high ground to tilt the strategic balance of power in their favour. Space has been officially accepted as a domain of war by the US space doctrine, which will utterly change the future course and concept of wars. Soon, it would be the central coercive tool to subdue nations.
The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 is the only worthwhile international agreement prohibiting objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other weapon of mass destruction into outer space, but it does not prohibit military activities altogether.
The Conference on Disarmament (CD), the world’s sole multilateral disarmament negotiating body, has failed to ink any other worthwhile agreement preventing nations from weaponizing space in other categories
There are many bilateral and multilateral proposals, all falling short of binding agreements, such as Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) and Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space (PPWT). Space had already been militarized with the use of V-2 ballistic missiles by Germany against England during the dying period of WW II. Since then, space has provided an asymmetric military advantage to all military Services through its global visibility, reach, and communication.
The United States today remains technologically the leading force in space, and as of May 2022, it has 3,415 satellites in space, followed by 535 of China, according to a report by Senior Data Journalist Katharina Buchholz. The US, China, Russia and India have conducted Anti-Satellite tests and baring India; others are fairly capable of destroying or disrupting each other’s space operations by using cyber warfare, electronic warfare, lasers, electromagnetic pulse (EMP), High Power Microwaves (HPM), or other kinetic and directed energy weapons.
Reportedly, Chinese space capabilities will match, if not surpass, the US capabilities by 2045. In 2022, China placed 45 military payloads in space compared to 32 of the US. According to Forecast International, in the next ten years, from 2023 to 2032, 850 military satellites are expected to be produced at a cost of USD 53.95 billion.
According to an article by retired US Space Force Colonel Charles S. Galbreath, China has demonstrated satellites that can “rendezvous with orbiting U.S. satellites and attack them using robotic arms or electronic warfare”. France, in its goal to become the third largest space power, annually conducts an outer space military exercise codenamed “Aster-X” with the objective to “train the units of French Space Command (CDE) in space surveillance and the protection of national space assets”. Many countries have established dedicated space forces and commands. The US introduced the space force as the sixth branch of the military in 2019. Similarly, the Russian Space Force, Russian Air Force, and Missile Defense Forces were merged in 2015 into a single branch called Aerospace Forces. The People’s Liberation Army established the Strategic Support Force in 2015, a new branch of the military that oversees space capabilities, cyberspace, and electronic warfare operations.
As space offers strategic military dividends, there may be a growing rivalry to establish dominance in space. This could translate into the desire to limit or delay adversary gains by destroying or degrading rival space capabilities. The placement of anti-satellite weapons and missile defence systems in space could be escalatory, explosive, and any knee-jerk military response to a misconstrued situation could prove catastrophic.
An accidental or intentional shooting down of an enemy satellite could put nations on the brink of war. So far, there has been no known adversarial use of weapons in space, although as per an article of 2021 by Joseph Trevithick, Vice Chief of U.S. Space Operations Gen Thompson, said something implausible that Russia and China are launching “reversible attacks,” such as electronic warfare jamming, temporarily blinding optics with lasers, and cyber-attacks, on US satellites “every single day.”
In the absence of any war experience in space, there could be many intriguing questions in mind, giving birth to multiple speculative theories. As per a few such theories and assessments, the standard principles of war seem plausible for space as well, though with a slight change in the texture. Also, war on Earth between spacefaring nations will likely transition from space to deny crucial space support to the adversary right at the onset. Another interesting theory states that in the absence of visibility on space operations from the Earth, the escalation ladder in space could be lengthier with few additional rungs. The largest concern of nations would be the creation of space debris due to military actions that could cause increased collision risks for launched vehicles and satellites in orbit.
Space is increasingly becoming a theatre of strategic importance, and war in space is a matter of time. Unless prudence, flexibility, and maturity are shown, the new generation of space weapons can challenge human existence. While several diplomatic initiatives are ongoing to prevent space weaponization and prevent space conflicts, it may already be an exercise in vain.