Military & Aerospace

Militarization of Space
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Issue Vol 23.2 Apr-Jul 2008 | Date : 02 Jun , 2011

During the 1991 Gulf War, the US had demonstrated, among other things, what can happen when a nation that does not enjoy the benefits of space exploitation wages a war against one that has it. In that conflict, the US enjoyed a virtual monopoly on space-based surveillance, communications, and navigation support. The US with its network of highly capable electro-optical and radar imaging satellites were able to determine exactly where to attack with which munitions, while avoiding enemy troop concentrations, thereby reducing casualties. Similarly, during the Kosovo conflict, Afghanistan campaign and the 2003 invasion of Iraq the overall concept of the US operations was dependent on the information received from space-based systems.

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Particularly, since the 1991 Gulf War, the world has seen the usage of space technologies, mainly by the US and allied forces, for various military purposes. In all these conflicts the US had an asymmetric advantage over their enemy in the area of space technologies. In recent conflicts the US forces have used GPS guided weapons like JDAMS (Joint Direct Attack Munitions). So they used their space assets for providing navigational support to their weapon delivery platforms but also to the weapons themselves. All these uses of space technologies for war waging fall into the category of the militarization of space.

Militarisation of space essentially occurs by using various space assets for purposes of information gathering or helping the military to undertake land, air and sea battles. But, the weaponisation of space signifies getting into the act of destroying of space assets of other states.

In peacetime, nation-states use their space assets for intelligence gathering and communication purposes. Therefore the use of space assets for military purposes is not a new notion; what is new is that the capability to jam or destroy other state’s operational space assets. There is a subtle difference between ‘militarisation of space’ and ‘weaponisation of space’. Militarisation of space essentially occurs by using various space assets for purposes of information gathering or helping the military to undertake land, air and sea battles. But, the weaponisation of space signifies getting into the act of destroying of space assets of other states, either by using ground based or space based weapons. Also, the arming of satellites with weapons that would be used against ground targets could get included. Besides, the weapons used to attack missiles traveling through space could also be termed space weapons.

Now, it seems that a new era of fighting wars in space is likely to commence. On 11 January 2007, China successfully carried out an anti-satellite (ASAT) test. For this purpose they had targeted their own aging weather satellite FY-1C. The type of weapon used for this kill was KKV or kinetic kill vehicle. This is a non-explosive weapon, which was fired with the help of a ballistic missile in  space. This weapon hit the satellite and it was fragmented due to impact. The Chinese ASAT test has added more debris to space which could put other satellites out of action in any collision with them. This test has questioned the world’s earlier belief that space would never become a battleground in future.

Actually, this is not the first time that such an act was undertaken. In 1959 and 1968 the US and the erstwhile USSR had tested anti-satellite systems. The late sixties was a period when ‘weaponisation of space’ was a much debated isue. The last ASAT test before this recent Chinese adventurism was carried out during the mid-eighties by the US. However, subsequently, the consequences of weaponising space were understood, and the superpowers realised that such tests would cause huge amounts of space debris which could harm their own satellites. So, an unwritten understanding was reached that states would not attempt to “conquer” this last bastion. But, the latest Chinese ASAT test indicates that this ‘space reality’ may change. Such tests would boost the desire of space powers to engage in one-upmanship.

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However, the Chinese test cannot alone cannot be held responsible for creating ripples in the global space architecture. Over the years, the US has always taken an entirely divergent stand on matters relating to space security. Now it seems the Bush administration wants to enhance this asymmetry by placing offensive and defensive weapons into outer space. The January 2001, Donald Rumsfeld led Space Commission, had recommended that the military should “ensure that the President will have the option to deploy weapons in space”.

It was reported by the media that in September 2006 Beijing had secretly used lasers to “paint” US spy satellites with the aim of “blinding” their sensitive surveillance devices to prevent spy photography as they pass over China.

In fact, Rumsfeld expressed the opinion that “space could be the next Pearl Harbour for the US”. In 2002, after examining this report, President Bush withdrew from the 30-year-old Antiballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) with Russia, which had banned the placement of space-based weapons.

According to the May 2007 report of the International Security Advisory Board (ISAB) on US Space Policy:

“The United States considers its space capabilities vital to its national interest, and, accordingly, will take the actions necessary to protect and preserve its rights, capabilities, and freedom of action in space. This requires effective deterrence, defense, and, if necessary, denial of adversarial uses of space capabilities hostile to U.S. national interests. The Secretary of Defense is specifically directed to develop capabilities, plans and options to ensure U.S. freedom of action in space and to deny such freedom of action to adversaries when necessary. This requires robust capabilities for sustainable U.S. space control.”

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Gp Capt Ajey Lele (Retd.)

is Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.

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