Conquering the Emptiness: A New Stage in the Militarization of Outer Space
In recent years, we have seen a spike in interest in space exploration: revolutionary developments in the space launch services market; new satellite services for various purposes; the introduction the first new manned spacecraft in some time; and the ambitious U.S. crewed moon programme. However, militaries all over the world are also suddenly becoming very interested in outer space.
Regardless of what we think about Donald Trump’s eccentric personality, he has left quite the legacy. One of the decisions pushed through due to his unwavering (although not always constructive) energy was establishing the United States Space Force as a separate branch of the military , which was officially announced on December 20, 2019, following a few of years of discussion. Protecting “U.S. and allied interests in space” was proclaimed to be the principal mission of the Space Force, while preparations for orbital warfare were openly declared to be its principal task. Orbital warfare is also one of the subjects to be taught to officers at the new training centre.
The U.S. initiative caused a domino effect among its allies. In September 2019, France established, as part of its air force, a Space Command with a higher status than before, and in October 2020, NATO announced the creation of a space centre at Allied Air Command in the Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom is planning to establish its own Space Command in 2022, and even the “pacifist” Japan announced the launch of a new “Space Operations Squadron” to “protect Japanese satellites.”
Undoubtedly, this process is only gaining momentum, and in the near future, all the large military powers will grant their military space agencies a higher and more autonomous status.
Significantly, this is where Russia has been well ahead of the curve, as the country’s space forces have always enjoyed a relatively high degree of autonomy. It has reported directly to the General Staff of the Armed Forces since the 1980s, and in the 1990s and in the 2000s, it existed as a separate branch of the military. Currently, however, Russia is in the process of partly rolling back this process, with the space forces, the anti-aircraft defence force and even the military aviation being absorbed by the Air Force to form the Russian Aerospace Forces.
The new military branches will command unprecedented satellite constellations: as the satellite systems will not have any radically different tasks, they will keep in line with the general trend of establishing super-large constellations of small satellites instead of a few large ones. SpaceX’s massively advertised Starlink system immediately comes to mind, the first service to offer low-latency, high-speed broadband  internet access anywhere in the world via the satellites (initially, it will be available at limited latitudes). Deploying this system and transitioning fully to operational mode will certainly be one of the biggest events of the next few years, in many ways due to the brilliant advertising campaign.
In the meantime, it is not only sailors and farmers in the sticks who might find a use for the Starlink system, as the United States military has also expressed an interest: back in October 2019, the U.S. Air Force hastily organized its first military exercise using the rudiments of the constellation, with its aircraft being “hooked” up to the system. Later, the military, figuratively speaking, paid for a three-year “subscription” to the service in order to carry out assessments and exercises.
Starlink is only the tip of the iceberg. Excluding other commercial constellations that could be used for dual purposes (and already are: commercial Earth remote sensing services are still inferior to the military ERS services, but their large scale potentially makes for faster information delivery due to higher numbers of flyovers over the targets), the U.S. Space Force plans to build a multi-layered “national” constellation of more than one thousand satellites that will handle the tasks of communication, missile defence, missile attack warning , intelligence (with top speed information transfer directly on the battlefield) and navigation at a drastically new level. To give the reader an idea of the scale: there are currently fewer than 3000 “live” satellites in orbit in all countries and serving all purposes, and the U.S. Military and government agencies own less than 400 of them.
Russia calls the Sfera constellation of about 600 satellites its “main project in applied cosmonautics” for the next decade.
Despite the announced benign purposes such as, for instance, “monitoring the movements of animal groups,” similar environmental supervision, and internet access for passengers on vessels travelling the Northern Sea Route, the task of ensuring national security is obviously the crucial and only task that could prompt the government to finance this programme. Clearly, China will not remain on the side-lines, as it has been the leader in carrier rocket launches in recent years. It is also inevitable that we will see rapid development of military anti-satellite systems, as the huge interest that many states have “suddenly” developed in combating the “space debris” problem demonstrates.
The coming decade will see exponential growth of “live” orbital craft, and their services are likely to create a consumer services revolution comparable to first seeing your house on Google Maps or your phone offering a travel guide around a new city in a new country. Certainly, not all users of those services will use them solely for peaceful purposes.
Deployment of huge space constellations (the English term is particularly apt here) is ensured primarily by miniaturizing equipment and transitioning to the distributed work of complex systems. However, the revolution on the launch services market cannot be disregarded either. Economically, the changes that are currently taking place are the largest since Russia moved into the open market, while technologically, they are the largest since the Shuttle and Buran.
I have already talked about the revolution in the launch services market in an article published on the RIAC website, and I would not like to repeat myself here. In short, the essence of the revolution is that many new players entered the market with the support of their governments (and military agencies in particular), which thus increased competition due to new economic models and dumping policies, as well as to the development of new carrier rockets that provide a competitive edge thanks to the relatively low costs of manufacturing and operating them, and the trend towards lightweight satellites and partial reusability. The old leading players were, in turn, spurred on to step up the development of a new generation of carrier rockets. We can say with some certainty that we are witnessing a boom in launch vehicles, especially if we keep in mind the quantitative growth of China’s capabilities, where quantity is well on the way to transforming into quality, and the spread of lightweight launch vehicles throughout the world (even individual European states such as the United Kingdom and Germany have started their own programmes).
All this could paint a grim picture of the sky being transformed into a battlefield. However, a new worthy goal of manned space flights is shining brighter and brighter against the generally dark background: after half a century of sitting in low orbit, humanity is finally ready to go back to the Moon.
And humanity is now gearing up to go beyond “flag-sticking” mode. It wants to go there to stay, to make Tsiolkovsky’s, Korolyov’s and von Braun’s dreams of humanity expanding into the solar system a reality. At the very least, Donald Trump called for efforts to be stepped up in this area, as he restructured the space programme of the previous administration and suggested that the first moon landing of the 21st century to be pushed forward to 2024 (apparently, he was planning to go out with a bang at the end of his second term as president).
The new programme was named Artemis in honour of Apollo’s sister. Curiously, despite the misogyny label attached to the Trump administration, Trump’s slogan for Artemis was landing “the first woman and the next man” on the surface of the Moon. Although the President’s “roadmap” was more coherent than the Obama administration’s extremely vague “Flexible Path” , its ambitious timeframe immediately raised questions concerning its feasibility. Certainly, the Trump administration is not entirely to blame for this. The situation with the super heavy-lift expendable launch vehicle (SLS) in particular is absolutely horrendous in terms of delays and overspending – had there been no other issues, this problem alone would have likely buried any hopes for a 2024 landing, if only for the simple reason that its first trial launch was moved to late 2021 . No one can be certain that there will be no more pushbacks and that the launch will go entirely smoothly.
There is, however, a host of other problems, too: in particular, as of late 2020, the lunar lander had not even been selected yet, and none of the options had been manufactured, never mind tested, although NASA had not officially abandoned the programme and its timeframe. Realizing the infeasibility of the timeframe and clearly not planning to finance rush and risks, the Senate had essentially buried the 2024 landing plans even before the presidential elections, earmarking only a fraction of the funding NASA had requested for developing the lunar lander.
Artemis would thus have been reformatted in any case, and it is likely to improve the “rationality” of the “roadmap,” since the politically conditioned landing date had progressively subsumed everything else, forcing the agency to work on both full-fledged and provisional solutions simultaneously. Most likely, any administration coming to power in 2021 would have allowed NASA to push the landing date back to the late 2020s, and the Democrats were not opposed to that programme as a matter of principle (even though their ideological paradigms will most likely prompt them to partially redistribute funding to finance the study of climate change).
However, the new timeframe will not alter the programme’s political role. It primarily symbolizes the upcoming shift of the efforts (mostly financial) of the United States, as the country will refocus its manned space flights on the Moon instead of low orbit. This inevitably means the end of the ISS either in 2024 or 2028. The station will not be able to exist, at least in its current form, without the United States, which contributes several times more than anyone else (its partners will clearly switch their spending to participate in the Artemis programme). It is doubtful that Russia will take part in the American lunar programme, which threatens the future of Russia’s manned space flights in general.
Second, in some manner or other, this development looks, at least for now, like the beginning of human expansion, however slow and cautious it may be. This is not simply a “flag-sticking mission,” which is clearly proved by the fact that the U.S. military has started real work on the CHPS (Cislunar Highway Patrol Satellite) programme – effectively the first military spacecraft intended for use beyond the Earth’s orbit, in this case, for monitoring the lunar space and non-U.S. space vehicles around the Moon. This work aims to discover whether these vehicles are engaged in activities that threaten U.S. national interests (American interests now extend at least to the lunar orbit, with the menacing addition “and beyond”), whether such activities may pose a threat for the space vehicles and astronauts of the United States and its allies, and how these activities generally align with the Artemis Accords. The Artemis Accords are a code of conduct for outer space that the United States demands its partners sign. They are of interest in and of themselves and will probably play a historic role in the future. Critics, including those in Russia, fell just short of declaring them an attempt on the part of the United States to annex the Moon. What concerns them are provisions in the Accords that both allow and encourage the use of celestial bodies for the needs of bases, colonies, or commercial use and establishing security zones around the facilities similar to zones around oil rigs in the open sea.
There are regular claims that the Artemis Accords go against the so-called Moon Agreement of 1979 that proclaims the right of humankind to “promote on the basis of equality the further development of co-operation among States in the exploration and use of the moon and other celestial bodies.” There is usually deliberate or accidental confusion with the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. Unlike the latter, the Moon Agreement was signed and ratified by a handful of such “great outer space powers” as Uruguay and the Philippines. This Treaty can only be seriously mentioned together with such “promising” initiatives as the attempts undertaken by some equatorial states at roughly the same time to extend their sovereignty to the geostationary orbit portions , which were not met with understanding by the space powers.
Clearly, any space exploration will only be possible with the use of local resources, and large-scale exploration will only begin if it is economically viable to do so (which is hard to imagine in the foreseeable future).
Any prohibitions in this area are simply criminal, and those who insist on equal rights could start by trying to get a share of the oil basin of the Persian Gulf, which is as much the heritage of humankind as any nameless asteroid. On the other hand, the problems with the Artemis Accords lie in the fact that the United States is promoting them single-handedly, as a condition for partnership, which, taken together with the political confrontation with China and Russia, prevents space powers from working out common rules of the game. It would be highly desirable to make some progress in developing a common charter in the upcoming decade, but, sadly, as is usually the case, this is extremely unlikely to happen before acute conflict situations emerge.
The pandemic and the impending austerity period will certainly force many space programmes to be delayed or even abolished. However, I would still like to believe that we are at the beginning of a new stage in space exploration. And we will have to embark upon this stage with space militarization and competition between great powers as our inevitable companions. If humanity succeeds at containing these developments within reasonable rules, then it will not be all that bad. In the long run, Gagarin’s rocket, cell phones, GPS and GLONASS also have military origins.
1. The military structure of the United States is very different from that of Russia. Any comparisons of their respective status are thus provisional. I believe that positioning the Space Force and the Marine Corps as individual services, on the one hand, which do not have departments of their own within the Department of Defense, on the other, is closer to that of a military branch than an army specialization.
2. Strictly speaking, orbital internet has been in existence for a while already. The services provided, for instance, by Iridium can be qualified as such, but the speed and signal lag leave much to be desired, to put it mildly, and so does the cost for the end consumer.
3. Modern MAW satellites lock on missile launches and monitor them at the active stage, while future MAWs will trace warheads and hypersonic gliders in flight and provide target pointing.
4. Robert Zubrin, an advocate of space exploration and President of the Mars Society, described it as a plan that “proposes to spend USD 100 billion on human spaceflight over the next ten years in order to accomplish nothing.”
5. In 2010, it was slated for 2016.
6. The 1976 Declaration of the First Meeting of Equatorial Countries on claiming sovereignty over the portions of geostationary orbit portions over their territory.
From our partner RIAC
Indian Conventional and Strategic Arms Buildup: Implications for Pakistan
South Asia’s regional dynamic is both flamboyant and intricate. Various empires have formed, prospered, and perished over the millennia, as innumerable conflicts and struggles for control of resources spread over the globe. However, 2021 was a year of fierce weapons competition between South Asia’s nuclear neighbors, India and Pakistan, who carried out 26 missile tests. India launched 16 ballistic and cruise missiles while Pakistan tested 10 missiles with nearly identical capabilities.
As a response to the perceived inability of the Indian Armed Forces (IAF) to adequately respond to the Pakistani insurgencies, and after the failure of the Indian forces to quickly react and mobilize their forces in 2001, the Indian Army and the defense policymakers realized the lack of modernized and consistent army doctrine. This resulted in the announcement by the Indian Army in 2004 of a new limited war doctrine known as the Cold Start Doctrine (CSD).
Importance of Air Base
The importance of air superiority can be witnessed by looking at the six days of the Arab-Israeli War, in which the Israeli forces pre-empted an attack from the bases of Jordan, Syria, Egypt, and Iraq, and struck the air force before the fight even began. The outcome of the war was determined during its first hours. By destroying the opposing air fleet, Israeli forces gained air superiority, and thus the Arab forces were helpless in their efforts, which eventually resulted in a humiliating defeat for the Arabs.
Indian Air-Bases: A Strategic Threat
In the contemporary era, military forces are going for weapon systems that require absolutely no time at all when it comes to striking a target. In that regard, the air force comes first for the obvious reason that its threshold is low as compared to a ballistic missile strike. Indian force deployment and employment are very close to Pakistan’s borders, from Siachen to the Rann of Kutch. In India’s most recent attack on Balakot, which took place in 2019, the air force was utilized. This clearly shows the Indian resolve to use the air force in any future blatant aggression like the one in February 2019.
The Indian air force deployment is tailor-made for Pakistan. If one analyzes the airbases/airstrips positioning and range from the Pakistani-Indo international border, the Line of Control (LOC), and the working boundary, it is quite obvious that the positioning shows the aggressive posture of the Indian Air Force. When deployed at those bases, the aircraft are the finest in the Indian military, both in terms of their quality and serviceability. When it comes to the up-gradation of the base’s facilities, this is the top priority list that is visible to everyone. In May 2021, the bases in Pakistan got priority.
The bases are positioned in such a strategy to cover every city in Pakistan, as it has no strategic depth. Pakistan’s major cities, like Karachi, Lahore, Multan, Faisalabad, Hyderabad, Bahawalpur, Rahim Yar Khan, Sialkot, and even the capital, Islamabad, are within the Indian Air Force’s reach. The same goes for the areas in Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan.
Future Threat Scenario
Now the question arises what will happen in the future in light of past historical data? The answer to this is both simple and complex. It is simple in the context that the IAF will target Pakistan with its pre-defined strategy of naked aggression against peaceful neighbors, while the Indian Army is following a pro-active offense posture; the complex part is where, when, and how.
The IAF will utilize the war scenario created by the Indian government and Indian media after a staged terrorist attack on a civilian or military target, for which they will put full blame on the Pakistani state and security apparatus. They will try to raise the temperature to the point where the Indian civil establishment shows the world community that now enough is enough and our people are demanding a counter-strike. At that time, the Indian establishment will use its media to put blame on Pakistan and create a war-like scenario while raising tensions.
In light of that, the IAF, under the orders of the Indian government, along with the Indian army, will start attacking the Pakistani bases in the early moments of the war because if the IAF does not target PAF bases, then there will be grave consequences for the Indian army, and the Pakistani army also has additional fire support bases. The above-mentioned rationale will be the main cause of the IAF attacking the PAF infrastructure, thus undermining the national security of Pakistan. The Indian army, with the IAF, will aspire to rapid, shallow penetration of Pakistani territory, without crossing the nuclear threshold of Pakistan. The Indian military will go for a quick and short battle that will surprise Pakistan because that is the only possible strategy in their minds when talking about limited war scenarios or showing off war.
The IAF is a major threat to the national security of Pakistan in the wake of its alignment with the Indian military’s CSD. The operational exercises conducted in the past and the recent strikes at Balakot exhibit the growing role of the IAF in the Indian military offensive strategy against Pakistan. Vast parts of Pakistan are within the combat radius of the IAF’s operational fighters because of Pakistan’s lack of strategic depth.
The IAF will try to use this as an advantage to support the pro-active and offensive strategy of the Indian Armed Forces to harm Pakistan, as that would be their prime objective because of their hegemonic designs. In order to protect itself from India’s flagrant military aggression, Pakistan should take some protective measures.
In the wake of the growing IAF threat, the PAF and Pakistani government should take the following measures on an urgent basis:
- Build some new airstrips along the border with India, to balance the threat by not allowing an IAF advantage in any sector. Moreover, the building of airstrips requires less money; thus this step will not put a strain on Pakistan’s economy;
- Buy more advanced surveillance radars to detect early IAF movement.
- Purchase advanced surface-to-air missiles to create a defensive barrier;
- Go for indigenizing the modern, state-of-the-art 5th generation fighter aircraft, as buying from foreign suppliers is very expensive.
- Ask the international community to put pressure on both sides to sign confidence-building measures that will lead to peace and stability.
The audacious AUKUS submarine deal and Asia’s changing security landscape
In this exhaustive analysis, I try to spell out the impact and potential consequences of the recently-brokered submarine deal between the U.S., the U.K., and Australia on Asia’s changing security landscape.
All advanced navies of the world possess lethal submarines, powered by either diesel-electric or nuclear propulsion. These underwater warships are the most potent asset at the disposal of a naval force for maritime power projection, sea denial and sea control. Lying silently under water, they are capable of sinking surface ships, including large aircraft carriers, with torpedoes or ballistic missiles. Ever since WW-II, submarines have made its name as one of the most crucial components of maritime strategy and naval warfare. Australia and the U.K. are two key maritime nations of the world, which happen to be security allies of the United States, a country that owns and operates the largest fleet of nuclear-powered submarines in the world. Being nuclear-powered not necessarily mean being armed with nuclear warheads.
The 2021-formed AUKUS (Australia, U.S., U.K.) “enhanced trilateral security partnership” has taken cooperation between the three Anglophone countries to the next level. U.S. President Joe Biden hosted the prime ministers of the United Kingdom and Australia – PM Rishi Sunak and PM Anthony Albanese – in the Californian port city of San Diego on 13 March 2023, where they jointly announced a detailed four-phased plan to equip Australia (a non-nuclear-weapon state) with “conventionally armed, nuclear-powered” submarines (codenamed SSN) at least by the next decade along with strengthening cooperation in other areas such as critical and emerging technologies.
The plan would cost Canberra’s exchequer up to a whopping A$ 368 bn. (US$ 245 bn.) in total by 2055, according to reports. The detailed plan, spanning a time frame of three decades, was announced after an eighteen-month-long consultation period following the creation of AUKUS in mid-September 2021. Australian PM Anthony Albanese called the deal “the single biggest leap” in Australia’s defence capabilities in the nation’s history. If the plan goes ahead smoothly as planned, Australia will become the seventh country in the world to add nuclear-powered submarines to its navy. As the deal turns out to be a race against time, the biggest challenge is to ensure deterrence capabilities for Australia at the present, as the full benefits of the deal would take years to materialise.
AUKUS leaders believe that the deal would “strengthen deterrence and bolster stability in the Indo-Pacific and beyond for decades to come”, apparently keeping in mind the exponential growth of China’s naval power in the recent past. China has built 12 nuclear-powered submarines in the last two decades, including ballistic missile submarines (codenamed SSBNs) and is continuing its ambitious ship-building spree in all fronts. As per the AUKUS plan, the first phase of the deal is set to begin as early as this year, with U.S. and British SSNs increasing their port visits in Australia along with joint embedded training of naval personnel, which will be followed by a rotational deployment of U.S. and British SSNs in the island continent.
In the remaining two phases of the deal, Washington will deliver a flotilla of three to five advanced Virginia-class nuclear-powered submarines to Australia by the early 2030s, upon Congressional approval, and eventually a new “SSN-AUKUS class” of nuclear-powered submarines (SSN) will be developed in the decade that follows, for future commissioning in both British and Australian navies. With the use of nuclear energy involved, the Indo-Pacific region is abuzz with fears and concerns of an escalating arms race, even though AUKUS promises “the highest nuclear non-proliferation standard”.
Current owners of nuclear-powered submarines
As of now, only the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (U.S., Russia, China, U.K., France) and India have active nuclear-powered attack-capable submarines in their naval fleet (see the image below). More than half of the 130 active nuclear-powered submarines in the world are operated by the U.S. Navy (67), followed by Russia (31), China (12), U.K. (10), France (9) and India (1). The rise of China’s offensive military capabilities and its naval power in particular, since the 1990s, is the single largest factor that has convinced Canberra to join hands with Washington and London to bolster its own capabilities, through AUKUS, by making use of “next-generation” British hull design and “cutting-edge” American technology.
Countries with active nuclear powered submarines (via Statista)
The AUKUS deal smartly gets away with a loophole in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1968, which allows for the transfer of fissionable material and nuclear technology from a nuclear-weapon state (NWS) to a non-NWS if it is used for non-explosive military use like naval propulsion. Such a transfer is also exempted from inspections and monitoring by the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), an organisation that stands for the peaceful use of nuclear energy and the promotion of nuclear safety. The IAEA Director General said that he had received “separate communications” on the matter from the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Australia, as well as from the U.K. and the U.S.
Of all the countries that have reacted to the highly ambitious AUKUS project, the responses of China and Russia stands out, as they are in direct strategic competition with the de facto leader of AUKUS – the United States. While the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson remarked that the U.S. and its AUKUS allies are “walking further and further down the path of error and danger for their own geopolitical self-interest”, Russian foreign minister commented, “the Anglo-Saxon world, with the creation of structures like AUKUS and with the advancement of NATO military infrastructures into Asia, is making a serious bet on many years of confrontation in Asia”.
While Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong cities Canberra’s bid for “strategic equilibrium” in the region as the underlying factor that led to the AUKUS pact, opinions on the submarine deal, which comes at a humongous cost, are not uniform across Australia’s political spectrum. Former Prime Minister Paul Keating thinks Canberra is compromising on a proper national defence strategy to help maintain U.S. “strategic hegemony” in Asia and has also stated that the submarine deal would be ineffective in the event of a war. Indonesia, Malaysia and New Zealand have also shared their concerns about the risk of nuclear proliferation in the region.
As per the Bangkok Treaty of 1995, Southeast Asia is a nuclear-weapon-free zone (NWFZ). Moreover, almost all of the ASEAN member-states have deep economic linkages with China, even though they rely on the U.S. for “security and stability” in Asia. Even though some of them have disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea, like the Philippines and Vietnam, they prefer to avoid unnecessary “provocations” and try to balance their ties with the U.S. and China, amid intensifying regional rivalry between the two big powers. Australian defence and foreign ministries are expected to embark on a diplomatic charm offensive to assuage all concerns of Southeast Asian countries lying in China’s periphery.
Eyeing for balance of power
AUKUS was announced just one year after a Pentagon report claimed that China has built the world’s largest naval fleet in sheer numerical terms, even though the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) relies mostly on smaller classes of ships, while the U.S. naval strength is further multiplied by its allied navies. One of the most-overlooked events of March 2023 was the annual session of China’s ceremonial national legislature, the National People’s Congress (NPC), which handed over China’s Presidency to the hyper-nationalistic and revanchist leader Xi Jinping for an unprecedented third time in a row.
The newly-appointed Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang, formerly China’s Ambassador to the United States, held a press conference on the sidelines of the NPC, during which he made a significant remark that throws light on the deteriorating state of U.S.-China relations. He accused the U.S. of harbouring a “Cold War mentality” and said, “… the United States claims that it seeks to out-compete China but does not seek conflict. Yet in reality, it’s so-called competition means to contain and suppress China in all respects and get the two countries locked in a zero-sum game … If the United States does not hit the brake but continues to speed down the wrong path, no amount of guardrails can prevent derailing, and there will surely be conflict and confrontation … Containment and suppression will not make America great, and it will not stop the rejuvenation of China …”
Washington’s shooting of a suspected Chinese “spy balloon” that flew over American airspace earlier this year is the latest example of this downward spiral in U.S.-China ties. The Indo-Pacific, as a geostrategic concept and a broader maritime region, came into being as China began to flex its military muscles throughout its immediate and extended neighbourhood, where U.S. and its allies have a robust military presence.
Being part of the U.S.-led alliance system, including the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing network and the recent AUKUS pact, Canberra has become a lynchpin of Washington’s evolving Indo-Pacific strategy to counter growing Chinese assertiveness and stated offensive intentions vis-à-vis Taiwan, the South and East China Seas, and also the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with India. Australia is also due to the host the third in-person Quad leaders’ summit later this year.
As the “threat perception” of China in the West continues to rise day by day, the extent to which an AUKUS-centered deterrence is possible in Asia remains to be seen in the years to come.
Anti-Satellite Weapons: Risks and Regulations
Today, outer space is characterised as an increasingly congested, contested, and competitive domain. This is because of an unprecedented increase in satellites and actors operating them. 13 countries now possess the capability to launch satellites compared to only two in the late 50s. In 1959, there were only two man-made objects in outer space but as of 30th April, 2022, Union of Concerned Scientists’ database included 5,465 active satellites. The number stood at 3,372 on 31 December 2020 – indicating an increase of 62%.
The growing dependence over space-based assets for day-to-day activities, like communication, navigation, and weather forecasts etc. indicates that the numbers are likely to grow exponentially. The environment that these satellites face is not benign by any standard. The biggest threat emerges in the form of space debris which are any human-made objects in orbit around the Earth that no longer serve any useful purpose. 60 years of human activities in outer space have generated over 29,000 human-made objects of larger than 10cm, while even a 1cm object can collide with a satellite to cause damage comparable to a hand grenade. While some of the debris generation is inevitable, Destructive Anti Satellite Weapons (DA-ASATs) testing has been a leading source of debris creation – something that can be prevented.
DA-ASATs, part of the counterspace capabilities which help a state in establishing space superiority while denying the same to its adversary, are essentially missiles which either directly hit a satellite in outer space or destroy it through proximity detonations. Use of this capability generates debris in outer space and threatens sustainable utilisation of outer space for peaceful endeavours. Other non-kinetic counterspace capabilities include physical non-kinetic capabilities like lasers and High Power Microwaves (HPMs) that damage on board circuitry of satellites, electronic counterspace capabilities which affect the satellites’ communications channels and cyber capabilities which target the data.
In November 2022, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) passed a non-binding resolution banning testing of DA-ASATs. The resolution was supported by an overwhelming majority of 154 states. The resolution was tabled by the United States (US) that had already announced a unilateral moratorium on such testing in April of that year. While the earliest demonstrations of such a capability date back to early Cold War, only four states have demonstrated this capability so far – the US, Russia, China, and India. While Russia and China voted against the resolution, India abstained from voting but expressed its preference for a legally binding treaty over self-declared moratoriums. Russia and China, on the other hand, objected to the resolution’s shortcomings over development of such a capability and lack of disarmament when it comes to states that already possess this capability. The two have also pointed out how the issue of non-kinetic ASATs was left out.
While the effort to mitigate debris-generation through banning the testing of DA-ASATs is praiseworthy, leaving out the continued possession, production, and development of DA-ASATs and more advanced non-kinetic capabilities is worrisome. In a way, the emerging trend of unilateral moratoriums and UNGA resolution is akin to establishing DA-ASAT ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ as was the case of nuclear non-proliferation regime. A taboo on testing of these technologies is likely to emerge, making it difficult for other states to enter this club. Such an outcome would be desirable if the intent was to avoid an arms race in outer space and move towards disarmament of existing capabilities. However, that does not seem to be the case.
France, for instance, joined the US in announcing a moratorium on testing of DA-ASATs – in a way surrendering its option to demonstrate this capability. However, in 2019, French Defence Minister had publicised a French plan to develop anti-satellite laser weapons stating that, ‘If our [French] satellites are threatened, we intend to blind those of our adversaries.’ Lasers and other non-kinetic means present a different set of challenges for space security. Possession of such capabilities is difficult to verify, it is difficult to establish attribution once such weapons have been employed, and their non-destructive nature lowers the threshold of use. In case of electronic and counterspace capabilities, the barriers to entry are lower and the risks of proliferation are higher. If other states with significant stakes in outer space emulate the French approach, it is only going to increase the likelihood of warfighting in outer space.
The emerging taboo on non-testing of DA-ASATs is not shared by three of the four states which have demonstrated this capability so far. Notwithstanding the American divergences with Russia and China, there is merit in the position that the latter have taken. The next step, therefore, needs to be disarmament of existing DA-ASAT capabilities and a ban on their development. Alongside, the issue of non-kinetic counterspace capabilities also needs to be addressed. Without a comprehensive approach towards space security and addressing the concerns of all stakeholders, there is no way to ensure that contestation in outer space will not escalate to undesirable levels.
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Since the full-scale Russo-Ukrainian war unfolding after 24 February 2022, China has maintained so-called neutral stance on the conflict, passively...
China Gains Political Clout in the Middle East at the expense of the US’s Indispensability
There is yet another détente in the Middle East, but it is neither between Israel and Arabs nor has the...
Breaking Diplomatic Norms: Indian Response to OIC & Turkish Support for Kashmir Issue
Recently, the Indian government has been facing backlash for its highly undemocratic and derogatory remarks on Turkey’s support to the...
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In these contemporary times, state actions are now rendered by the emergence of ‘Geo Economics’. Implying the term coined by...
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