The Emerging Threat Landscape of Space Terrorism

The Cold War pivoted a new domain of 'space race' between the USA and the USSR, to prove superior spaceflight capabilities and leave their marks on the moon and other celestial bodies.

Authors: Rosemary Kurian and Dr. Karamala Areesh Kumar

The Cold War pivoted a new domain of ‘space race’ between the USA and the USSR, to prove superior spaceflight capabilities and leave their marks on the moon and other celestial bodies. An attempt at military superiority, the space race later translated to the militarization of space with tests of anti-satellite weapons, ballistic missiles and increasing space debris that could prove detrimental to orbiting satellites. With the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, states agreed to the prevention of nuclear weapons and military stations in outer space, albeit the treaty is marred with loopholes. The twenty-first-century world order has no potential for a conventional war in outer space. With increased access to space through the dramatically falling cost of launch, outer space is bound to get busier. Recent launch costs have waned from USD 20,000 per kilogram to below USD 2,000 per kilogram, which increased the threat of access to space.

Several multinational corporations (MNCs) like Virgin Galactic and Rocket Lab have accessed Outer Space without any state assistance. Elon Musk’s SpaceX offers services to the state in terms of taking key satellites to space, which was, at one point, a key foreign policy manoeuvre during Israel’s war in Gaza. These instances are proof of the increasing role of non-state actors in a space that was earlier limited to state actors. While the relationship between the two actors in space has so far been one of cooperation, cheaper access could likely render violent non-state actors that refuse to fear deterrence to leverage security, through satellites, weapon systems as well as antagonistic states that have nuclear power and can soon master space access.

Dr Gregory Miller, an Associate Professor with the Air Command and Staff College, pointed out the potential of malicious actors in outer space to replicate their strategies used on land and the sea, as terrorists or pirates, in his paper titled “Space Pirates, Geosynchronous Guerrillas, and Nonterrestrial Terrorists”. Space holds great significance in the economic domain of international relations, meaning the dependence on the state is on an upward scale. The paper suggests that much like the relationship between pirates and seas, outer space will provide an outlet for terrorists, extremists or the larger category of malicious non-state actors. A conventional war in outer space has been prevented due to the principle of deterrence, but malicious non-state actors would be difficult to deter due to their lack of fear of the adversary, indifference to the escalation of war and non-apprehension towards loss of space infrastructure due to lack of any. In fact, with space becoming a key element of the global economic system, it would entice terrorists or extremists to target key services provided in this sphere, either through cheaper technology in the future, or with the aid of certain states that have similar agendas against another state and would emerge as a space power in the future, which would translate, to some extent, to state-sponsored terrorism.

Space can also be threatened by ground assets and Earth-based infrastructure, which can be within the reach of non-state actors most commonly through cyber-attacks. The most commonly used facilities from space are the Global Positioning System (GPS) for navigation, satellite television and imagery. With technological advances in outer space through a combined contribution by both state and non-state (corporate) actors, satellite services will be better positioned in the future. Terrorist organisations have had a history of successful operations due to aid from space-based services. During the Second Lebanese War (2006), in the asymmetric show of force between the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) and Hezbollah, the latter used the Iran-manufactured Ababil unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for both drone attacks and reconnaissance. Simultaneously, their al-Manar television station broadcasted anti-Israel content to garner the support of sympathisers. Similarly, during the Lashkar-e-Taiba-led Mumbai Terrorist Attack (2008), the series of blasts were orchestrated using the most basic weapons, albeit aided through GPS navigation, satellite communication and satellite imagery to scope the targets and carry out maximum damage. Enhanced provision of such facilities could worsen the intensity of such attacks carried on Earth using equipment in Outer Space that aid their cause.

While the Outer Space Treaty prohibits the transport of nuclear weapons into outer space and the creation of military bases there, it fails to foresee the potential creation of weapons of mass destruction in outer space, especially through dual-use systems that have both civilian and military capabilities. These could be used in the form of kinetic weapon systems (traditional weapons of destruction) or non-kinetic systems (through cyber attacks and electronic space). States can already send anti-missile and anti-satellite equipment into space, unaddressed in the Outer Space Treaty. The easiest and the most widely affecting target in space would be non-kinetic systems, especially navigation and SATCOM equipment, which are used by both state actors, non-state actors and individuals. Therefore, attempts by malicious non-state actors towards the jamming of GPS services or preparation of anti-satellite equipment would be considered an act of terror, which could have widespread implications in the form of both direct and indirect consequences. Further, as concepts like ‘space tourism’ develop through private entities involved in the commercialisation of outer space, the potential for hijacking a space-bound shuttle for illegitimate goals is not a distant reality as a refurbished act of terrorism.

Currently, any threat posed by malicious non-state actors involving outer space would be directed from Earth targeting the space capabilities of states that have established their superior technology, instead of attacks that emanate from space. Access to space is still limited and an expensive feat which only a handful of states (and some corporations) have managed to achieve. It therefore, is safe to assume that it would take several years for non-state actors posing a threat to international peace and security to even attempt to access space and weaponize it for their benefit. Targeting launch facilities and personnel at the control centre could affect the connection with space-bound equipment, attempts which have already been made in the past and could continue shortly. However, the potential for enhanced access to space with rapid technological advancements is not impossible, especially with the limitations of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967.

Rosemary Kurian
Rosemary Kurian
Rosemary Kurian, Research Scholar, Dept. of International Relations, Peace and Public Policy, St Joseph's University, Bengaluru-560027, India, Email: kurianrosemary[at]