Military & Aerospace

Militarization of Space
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
Issue Vol 23.2 Apr-Jul 2008 | Date : 02 Jun , 2011

All recent US policies relating to space issues indicates that the US believes that freedom of action in space is important and reject proposals to ban space weapons. Under the United Nations banner they would support discussions on space and disarmament issues, but they will not enter into any negotiations on space weaponry.

On the other hand, this Chinese act of destroying a satellite should not be considered as an one-off event. On 11 January 2007, they successfully carried out an anti-satellite (ASAT) test, but this was preceded by three earlier unsuccessful attempts. Their interests in the weaponisation of space has been known for some time. However, China had continuously talked about establishing an international structure for stopping the weaponisation of space over the last few years while assiduously working towards developing space weapons.

Also read: Pakistan: The anti-India identity

According to a 2001 report, China had also ground tested an advanced anti-satellite weapon called ‘Parasitic Satellite’. It could be deployed on an experimental basis and enter the phase of space tests in the near future. This ASAT system can be used against many types of satellites in different orbits like communication satellites, navigational satellites, reconnaissance satellites and early warning satellites. According to a ‘Space Daily’ report this nanometer-sized “parasitic satellite” is designed to be deployed and attached to the enemy’s satellite. There are three components to the ASAT “parasitic” satellites system: a carrier (“mother”) satellite and launcher, and a ground control system. During conflict, commands are sent to this satellite to interfere or destroy the host satellite. The cost of building these satellites is 0.1 percent to 1 percent of any typical satellite.

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. The Chinese aim was not to destroy the US satellites but to make them useless over Chinese territory. It has also been reported that the US military was so alarmed by this Chinese activity that it has begun to carry out test attacks against its own satellites to determine the dimensions of this threat.

The global powers cannot do much about the Chinese ASAT test, apart from condemning it. This is mainly due to the absence of a space treaty regime. For the last few years many players in the global space arena are trying to work out an international regime under the aegis of the United Nations. Although an informal international understanding obtains to desist from sending weapons into space, no mechanism is available to punish infractions.

The United Nations in 1958, shortly after launching its first artificial satellite, started to crystallise its policies on space. The Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space was set up by the General Assembly in 1959. The mandate for the committee was to review the scope of international cooperation in peaceful uses of outer space. The committee is also expected to study the legal problems arising from the exploration of outer space. This Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) has 67 member states and makes recommendations to the General Assembly from time to time.

Also read: ‘India First’ policy mandatory

The important disarmament agreement to provide the basic framework on international space law is the Outer Space Treaty, which entered into force in October 1967. This is the second of the so-called “non-armament” treaties (first being the Antarctic Treaty). It guarantees cooperation between states in all peaceful uses of outer space. Unfortunately the treaty only prohibits the presence of nuclear weapons in space and it cannot therefore address the issue of weaponisation of space. Another important space treaty called the Moon Treaty came into being in the year 1979. This treaty declares that the moon (including all celestial bodies) should be used for the benefit of all states and the international community. It also expresses the desire to prevent the moon from becoming a source of international conflict. Unfortunately, the treaty has not been ratified by any nations engaged in manned space missions, so it is a non-starter.

There now is a need to convert Chinas ASAT test into an opportunity to evolve long-term and short-term space policies. There is a need to establish a strategic balance among the larger nations, and break the monopoly on the utilisation of space by a few.

The negotiations on space arena in various international forums have remained un-productive over the last few years. The Conference on Disarmament (CD) has not been able to agree on the formation of an Ad Hoc Committee since 1994 to negotiate a convention for the non-weaponisation of outer space. The prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) initiative is also on the UN agenda since 1982. However, the US and Israel are unwilling to cooperate with the international community on the issue of PAROS. The US has even argued that the existing multilateral arms control regime is sufficient, and that there is no need to address a non-existent threat.

Apart from the hostile attitude adopted by countries like the US towards the establishment of any space treaty, the proposed regime also suffers from the problem of defining weapons in outer space. This is mainly because almost anything can be used as a weapon in space to obstruct satellites. There would also be technical and financial constraints for verifying any irregularities, because of the complex problems involved in the verification of outer space activities.

As a fresh approach to the disarmament discourse on weaponisation of space, analysts like Michael Krepon and Michael Heller have suggested the negotiation of a code of conduct between space-faring nations to prevent incidents and dangerous military activities in space. Also, global cooperation is possible in various other areas of space activities. The international space station (ISS) is one of the finest examples of such collaboration where 16 countries have come together to undertake scientific experiments in outer space on a made-to-order platform. Similar collaborations are possible (in few cases they already exist) in areas like Navigation, Reusable Launch Vehicles (RLV), Space Commerce (Launch Business), exploring outer space to study the cosmos and use space assets over problematic border areas (like Kashmir) for strengthening confidence building measures (CBMs).

There now is a need to convert China’s ASAT test into an opportunity to evolve long-term and short-term space policies. There is a need to establish a strategic balance among the larger nations, and break the monopoly on the utilisation of space by a few. In general, it needs to be understood that while the peaceful uses of space and satellites are developing at a dizzying pace, facilitating global information and communication, the most advanced military powers are calculating how they can pursue war in this environment. The challenge for sensible space powers is to continue doing ‘defence’ from space without weaponising it.


  1. “Space as a military base”, Indian Express, June 06, 2005.
  2. Hans Blix et al, Weapons of Terror, report of 2006 Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission.
  3. “Space Weapons”, South Asia Defence & Strategic Review, New Delhi, Vol 1, Issue 1, Mar-Apr 2007.
  6. Felicity Hill, “Militarising Space: Quantum Leaping Backwards”, United Nations Ishikawa-Kanazawa Conference, available at
  8. Various websites on the subject.
1 2 3
Rate this Article
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
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.

More by the same author

Post your Comment

2000characters left