War in space rather than on the Earth is not entirely undesirable because it would be fought entirely by machines with no direct risk to human life. However, a major shootout could make Kessler’s dire predictions come true and have severe consequences on most facets of modern life, including transportation, communications, navigation, power grids, entertainment, banking and finance. That is why it is necessary to ensure that the legitimate military exploitation of space does not wander into weaponisation. Although no nation admits having deployed weapons in space, it is by no means certain that this is true because it is difficult if not impossible, to distinguish a peaceful satellite from a military one. There could well be “sleeper weapons” already in orbit, with their military purpose yet to be revealed. Much like suicide bombers in a crowd of peaceful pilgrims, they could be quickly activated to achieve their nefarious designs at a suitable time. This is a trend that can only intensify given the prevailing distrust between the big powers. What is urgently needed in the effort to keep militarisation of space from turning into rampant weaponisation, is transparency and confidence between the major space-faring nations.
Outer space is almost uniformly a placid and peaceful domain. None of the viciousness and violence that afflicts humankind extends beyond the atmosphere. On the contrary, despite the fierce rivalry that marked the Space Race between the United States (US) and the Soviet Union in the 20th century, there have been remarkable instances of mutual cooperation. These include perhaps the most ambitious international technological collaboration ever – the International Space Station (ISS). Launched in 1998, it involves the US, Russia, Canada, Japan and the European Space Agency (ESA) and has been visited by astronauts from 18 countries. There is also the widely accepted Outer Space Treaty of 1967, the basic legal framework of international space law. The only material destruction in space is usually attributable to natural causes or accidental collisions between satellites and rarely due to testing of anti-satellite weapons. Space has never seen a shot fired in anger.
However, practically every major nation with space credentials is now gearing up for action because it is quite likely that the next round of human conflict will intrude into space. And the reason, apart from fractious human nature, is the growing dependence and hence vulnerability of modern life on satellites. Space has become crucial for much of human communication, navigation, economic activity, entertainment and ultimately, welfare.
According to the Satellite Database of the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), as of August 31, 2017, there were a total of 1,738 satellites operating in orbit and they are owned by over 60 nations. Of these, 803 belonged to the US, 142 to Russia, 204 to China and 589 to other countries. While 1,071 satellites were in the most popular Low Earth Orbit (LEO), 97 were in Medium Earth Orbit (MEO), 39 in Elliptical Orbit (EO) and 531 in Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO).
The first few decades of the Space Age were monopolised by state-owned agencies. However, more recently, dynamic private-sector entrepreneurs have entered the arena with new satellite launch technologies. Consequently, over the past five years, the number of satellites in orbit has surged by about 50 per cent. Growth is expected to accelerate further due to decreasing costs, shrinking satellite size and multiple launch capability. There could thus be tens of thousands of satellites in orbit within a decade or so.
A Gathering Storm
The militarisation of space began soon after the launch of Sputnik 1 on October 04, 1957. Today, space is integral to military operations and the more advanced a country and its military, the more dependent it is on satellites. For instance, if a US Air Force (USAF) combat jet carries out a strike against a target in Syria, it is controlled by satellite-based long range communication. It navigates with the help of the satellite-based Global Positioning System (GPS), and controls its weapons using satellite-based terminal guidance systems.
While only a couple of hundred satellites are acknowledged as military platforms, many hundreds more have military uses, including communications, navigation, early-warning systems and signal intelligence. So called civilian satellites can also be used for military Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), battlefield communications and even for coordinating live strikes on the Earth. The US military uses civilian satellites for about 80 per cent of its communications. A satellite equipped to see through clouds for remote sensing of minerals, can also be used to assess armour deployment under camouflage. On a more sinister note, a seemingly peaceful spacecraft, that can autonomously dock with another satellite for refuelling or repair services, can also be configured to incapacitate or destroy a hostile satellite.
US aerospace experts concede that a surprise coordinated attack on its satellites could render the nation’s military blind, deaf and practically powerless to retaliate. They are worried about Russia’s and China’s demonstrated and suspected offensive capability against orbital satellites. It would be tempting for either country to take out critical American satellites and thereby reduce the huge lead the US has over them in conventional weaponry and war fighting capability.
At first, satellites were thought to be practically invulnerable to military action. It was not until 1985 that the US successfully launched an Anti-Satellite (ASAT) missile from a fighter jet against one of its own decommissioned satellites and for many years, it remained the only nation with the proven ability to destroy an orbital satellite. China demonstrated similar capability against one of its defunct weather satellites in 2007, fifty years into the Space Age. This time, the resultant explosion created a huge debris field of almost 3,500 pieces that still pollutes some of the most used Low Earth Orbits. It was consequently criticised around the world. The US shot down another of its own satellites in 2008, Russia did the same in 2015 and China too has reportedly carried out several more tests. Thankfully, all these tests were controlled to prevent the disastrous debris generation as in 2007.
There are multiple ways to get rid of an inconvenient enemy satellite. It can be destroyed by an ASAT missile launched from the ground, from a combat jet or from another satellite. A satellite can be struck, grabbed or ‘captured’ by the mechanical arm of another satellite. It can be disabled by lasers, jammed by electronic transmissions or electronically hijacked by an adversary. Many of these methods are difficult if not impossible to detect and conclusively prove and hence may be attributed to mechanical failure by the satellite operator.
Outer space is now a rather dangerous place for delicate satellites due to unbridled debris generation. According to the ESA, there are an estimated 150 million objects in orbit around the Earth larger than one millimetre in size and about 750,000 of these are one centimetre or more. As these fragments speed through space, they can collide with each other or with other satellites. They may seem too small to worry about, but their hypervelocity of 28,000 kmph invests them with enough energy to inflict damage on a satellite, as surely as if a bullet had been fired at it. The Kessler syndrome proposed by NASA scientist Donald J Kessler in 1978, is a scenario in which the density of objects in LEO is high enough that collisions between objects could cause a cascade where each collision generates space debris that increases the likelihood of further collisions. At present, this is a hypothetical possibility, but with the number of satellites in LEO expected to rise exponentially, the chances of it happening are rising. Apart from damage, these small objects can adversely affect the planning and operation of space activities. In fact, any widespread distribution of debris in LEO could render the use of satellites in this orbit infeasible for many generations.
The problem of space debris was not considered alarming in the first few decades of the space age. But the situation turned worrisome within a short span of two years. The Chinese ASAT test in January 2007 was the first debris generating occurrence. Just two years later, in February 2009, the first accidental hypervelocity collision between two intact artificial satellites in LEO took place, when an American telecom satellite Iridium 33 and a Russian military satellite Cosmos-2251 collided at an altitude of 789 km. This mishap generated over 1,650 pieces of debris.
Militarisation and Weaponisation
A distinction between militarisation and weaponisation of space is sometimes made, but this distinction is becoming increasingly blurred. Militarisation is generally taken to mean the build-up to a state of war, including any activity in pursuit of this. Space weaponisation goes further and involves the placement in orbit of devices with destructive capability, obviously for their potential employment. All three major powers have invested in developing space weapon technologies and the capability to use them, while other countries are getting there.
Indeed, with several mutually unfriendly nations active in outer space, the potential for conflict has always existed. There have even been several nuclear explosions in space – when the US and the Soviet Union performed atomic tests above the Earth’s atmosphere between 1958 and 1962. However, the deleterious effects of radioactivity on humanity are well known and better sense prevailed, resulting in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. The Treaty bars states party to it from placing Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) in orbit of the Earth, on the Moon or any other celestial body, or otherwise stationing them in outer space.
Strangely enough, conventional weapons were left out of its ambit. There is therefore, currently no embargo on releasing laser or electro-magnetic energy or using kinetic force in space against another satellite. There is nothing to prevent the deployment of conventional weapons in space or the use of orbital weapons against targets on the Earth or vice versa. One reason is that the major space-faring nations are unable to agree on what, exactly, a space weapon is.
Go Grab the High Ground
It is becoming clear that any nation that dominates space is likely to dictate the outcome of terrestrial war itself. Therefore, each nation wants to retain its own military capability in space while restricting the adversary’s potential to seize the advantage.
The US is not used to playing second fiddle to anyone and there are signs that it now considers space as a war fighting domain. According to General David Goldfein, US Air Force Chief of Staff, the US “expects its Air Force to own the high ground, the ultimate high ground and achieve space superiority which is like air superiority – freedom to attack and freedom to manoeuvre.” There are proposals to add a sixth branch to the US armed forces, the US Space Corps (USSC), to protect the nation’s interests in space. If the go-ahead is given it could be operational within three years.
Russia, the original rival of the US in space technology, has fallen back in recent times due to its economic and political woes. However, Russia’s entry into the Syrian conflict in 2015 spurred its space endeavours and it launched no less than ten military satellites within two months in support of its armed forces. Russia is no longer dependent on America’s GPS, since it has deployed its own Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS) for the purpose. It probably has ASAT missiles up its sleeve for possible use in conflict.
But all eyes are now on China and its rapid progress in space. In 2016, 21 successful launches put China just behind the 22 of the US. China’s BeiDou Navigation Satellite System (BDS) is a full-scale global navigation system currently under construction. By 2020, more than 30 BeiDou satellites will provide GPS-like services for countries involved in China’s overarching Belt and Road Initiative. Claimed to be more accurate than the US GPS and Russian GLONASS, BeiDou will greatly enhance the operational capability of the Chinese military. Wu Yanhua, the Deputy Chief of China’s National Space Administration somewhat modestly says, “Our overall goal is that, by around 2030, China will be among the major space powers of the world.”
China’s space programme is unique in that it is run almost entirely by the military. Analysts believe it has conducted eight or more anti-satellite tests which it usually blandly reports as “land-based missile interception tests.” However, China has limited satellite tracking capability, mostly on its own territory, so a coordinated Chinese attack on several US satellites in a wide band is currently not feasible. Pakistan will probably get access to much of Chinese military space technology, especially the BDS positioning system. Where does that leave India?
Currently, India is riding high in space technology. Among other things, India has achieved the outstanding feat of a successful unmanned mission to Mars and is getting ready for a second unmanned lunar mission, Chandrayaan-2 which is planned to be launched aboard a Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mark 2 (GSLV Mk 2) in March 2018. It will include an orbiter, a lander and a small rover. If the fully autonomous landing on the Moon succeeds, it will be an enormous demonstration of India’s space prowess.
The 11-satellite Indian Remote Sensing (IRS) System is the largest constellation of remote sensing satellites for civilian use in the world. Some of these satellites with a spatial resolution of one metre or less can prove useful for military assessments too. RISAT-2’s synthetic aperture radar gives it day-night, all-weather tracking capability against hostile ships and similar targets. And CARTOSAT-2A carries a steerable panchromatic camera to facilitate imaging of a specific area of military interest more frequently. It has sub-metre spatial resolution for sharper images.
Another crucial constellation is the seven-satellite Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS), rechristened NAVigation with Indian Constellation (NavIC). This is designed to provide accurate real-time positioning and timing services to users in India and up to 1,500 km from the nation’s borders and further afield as more satellites are launched. The system was expected to be operational in early 2018. However, the August 31, 2017, failure of the PSLV C39 mission with IRNSS 1H aboard, may delay this schedule. Claimed to be more accurate than GPS, NavIC will provide an absolute position accuracy of better than ten metres throughout the Indian landmass.
Various key weapon systems including the Agni family of medium to intercontinental range ballistic missiles, the BrahMos medium range supersonic cruise missile and the Nirbhay subsonic cruise missile, all require satellite-based navigation and tracking to enhance their accuracy. Indeed, military aircraft, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), ships and land vehicles are growing ever more dependent on foreign controlled GPS-like systems. NavIC provides the assurance that positioning services will not be turned off or degraded in times of conflict.
However, apart from IRS and IRNSS, India is still far behind when it comes to the military exploitation of space. In fact, it usually avoids linking space technology with national security. The military is not high on the satellite launch priority list and there is still only one military satellite in orbit. The GSAT-7, launched in 2013, is a geosynchronous multi-band communications and surveillance satellite. The satellite also known as Rukmini, has a 2,000-nautical mile footprint over the Indian Ocean Region and provides the Indian Navy with coverage from the Strait of Hormuz to the Strait of Malacca.
The Indian Air Force (IAF) and the Indian Army are not so fortunate. The IAF has waited years for GSAT-7A, an advanced military communications satellite promised for its exclusive use. From its geosynchronous orbit, the GSAT-7A will enable the IAF to interlink ground radar stations, airbases and Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft such as the A-50 Phalcon and others and so enhance the IAF’s Network-Centric Warfare (NCW) capability.
It should not be difficult for India to develop and test a surface-launched ASAT missile if required. A 2,000-km range ballistic missile such as the Agni-II can be modified to serve as an ASAT weapon against a hostile spacecraft at an altitude of up to 1,000 km. A prerequisite would be to develop or refine various critical technologies including infrared, magnetic and electronic-optical sensors, synthetic aperture radar, guidance and control systems and global positioning systems. For a reliable ASAT system, both the missile and the target satellite need to be tracked with extreme accuracy. A small error in calculation could result in a miss by a large distance.
However, India does not officially have an ASAT programme since the Indian space programme is rooted in the use of space technology for peaceful purposes. While this is a laudable sentiment, it could prove expensive for the nation’s security. At some point it is likely that a treaty limiting the spread of ASAT weapons would be negotiated among the major powers. And just as India found itself on the wrong side of restrictive regimes like the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), it could face the ignominy of having to plead to be admitted to a space weapons treaty as a late entrant.
The military exploitation of space that began soon after the dawn of the Space Age, has gradually expanded in scope and intensity and is possibly veering towards weaponisation. And just as the internet is evolving so rapidly that regulation is proving problematic, so also the expanding possibilities of militarised space will be difficult to control or regulate. A violent engagement may happen either deliberately or by accident and the situation could quickly turn nasty. However, the benefits of ASAT attacks are limited. The attacker may gain in the short term, but would not necessarily gain a decisive military advantage. Every major nation has back-up satellites in orbit or ready to be launched. This is especially true of the GPS constellation that consists of 30 satellites in MEO at an altitude of approximately 20,200 km. The system has inbuilt redundancy and any attacker would need to knock out at least six satellites to make a significant dent in GPS services. And the attacker’s own satellites would then become vulnerable targets for retaliation.
War in space rather than on the Earth is not entirely undesirable because it would be fought entirely by machines with no direct risk to human life. However, a major shoot-out could make Kessler’s dire predictions come true and have severe consequences on most facets of modern life, including transportation, communications, navigation, power grids, entertainment, banking and finance. That is why it is necessary to ensure that the legitimate military exploitation of space does not wander into weaponisation. Although no nation admits to having deployed weapons in space, it is by no means certain that this is true because it is difficult if not impossible, to distinguish a peaceful satellite from a military one. There could well be “sleeper weapons” already in orbit, with their military purpose yet to be revealed. Much like suicide bombers in a crowd of peaceful pilgrims, they could be quickly activated to achieve their nefarious designs at a suitable time. This is a trend that can only intensify given the prevailing distrust between the big powers. What is urgently needed in the effort to keep militarisation of space from turning into rampant weaponisation, is transparency and confidence between the major space-faring nations.