Weaponisation of Space

Issue: 08-2013By Air Marshal (Retd) Anil Chopra

The next aspect of militarisation of space is the network-centric warfare capability. Coupled with stand-alone military Internet, it ensures greater situational awareness, and better connectivity to the ‘fifth-generation’ soldier.

Despite the maturing of ballistic missile technologies by the middle of the last century, the world voluntarily chose to use ‘Outer Space’ for peaceful purposes only. However, spy satellites, global positioning system (GPS), military communication satellites, all operating in outer space, have military application. By 1936, German rockets had achieved altitudes of 80 km with one tonne payload. Finally, in 1943, the V-2 ‘wonder weapon’ was inducted and used in the later stages of World War II. The Cold War saw the two superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States, spend large sums on military technologies and entered into a space race. In 1957, the USSR beat the United States by putting its first artificial satellite ‘Sputnik 1’ into space. By mid-1960, both sides had deployed reconnaissance satellites and were secretly developing anti-satellite weapons. Laser or optical blinding and kamikaze satellite attacks were under consideration. Thousands of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), which transit through space at altitudes of around 1,200 km, and have the range to strike any point on the globe, were deployed. The number of warheads carried on the missile increased as time went by.

Beginning of the Space Race

In parallel, the military planners developed strategies and technologies to counter ICBMs. Initially, the United States strategists conceived ideas like exploding a nuclear device near an incoming ICBM (Project Nike-Zeus); destroying the ICBM at launch with a satellite weapon (Project Defender); shoot down an ICBM with an anti-ballistic missile (ABM) (Sentinel programme). Meanwhile, the US also toyed with other ideas to militarise space such as setting up an underground base on the moon with 21 Air Force airmen (Project Horizon).

Under the ABM Treaty of 1972, the US ‘safeguard’ programme was restricted to having a single ABM launch site normally to protect the capital city. On account of lower accuracy, initial ABMs had to have nuclear warheads to destroy an incoming ICBM. Later, ABMs with greater accuracy, were armed with conventional warheads. In 1983, American President Ronald Reagan authorised the development of space-based Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) to protect the US from nuclear attack. This was also referred to as the ‘Star Wars’. The strategy was also to force the Soviet Union into a space race which would trigger collapse of the already doddering economy. The United States Space Command (USSPACECOM), a unified military structure, headquartered at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, was created in 1985. The head of the US Air Force Space Command was also the Commanderin-Chief of this unified command. Space-based assets were used extensively for communications, intelligence, navigation, missile warning and weather monitoring during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As part of the reorganisation, in 2002, the USSPACECOM was merged with the US Strategic Command.

The Soviet Union was also looking at space as a part of the Cold War strategy. Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS) was a low earth orbiting flying bomb which could be de-orbited for final attack. FOBS was phased out in 1983, consequent to SALT II treaty. ‘Polyus’, a Soviet space weapons platform launched in 1987 was designed for defence against antisatellite weapons using recoil-less canon. It was also to have nuclear space mines and laser blinders. The project never succeeded and had to be aborted. With the end of cold war in late 1980s, Russia was out of the space race till 2001 when Russian space forces were resurrected.

New Players

The European Union, China, Japan and India, emerged with their own successful space programmes and global aspirations. Over the years, there have been major advancements in spy satellite technology. High resolution image intelligence (IMINT) and communication eavesdropping called signal intelligence (SIGINT) are now used by most countries. Missile launch as well as preparation for and conduct of nuclear tests, are monitored using satellites. In operation Desert Storm, satellites were used to provide SCUD launch warnings to the coalition forces. The space-based GPS that provides exact location with time base was a US Department of Defense (DoD) project which is universally used today. This 24-satellite constellation in orbit since 1989 costs $400 million (`2,400 crore) to sustain every year. These satellites also carry nuclear detonation detection devices. The US forces and some trusted allies also have access to higher accuracy GPS data that can be used for directing precision bombs and cruise missiles. Total US control over this very important system has been of concern to others. Europe, China, Russia and India are therefore developing their own similar systems. The next aspect of militarisation of space is the network-centric warfare capability. High speed flow of large volume of data in real-time to the battlefield operational units and decision-making echelons, is made possible through communication satellites. Coupled with stand-alone military Internet, it ensures greater situational awareness, better connectivity to the ‘fifth-generation’ soldier and data flow directly to the computers of all weapon systems from submarines to airborne platforms. The US space shuttle and Soviet Buran programme both had military applications envisaging re-entry and nuclear bombing missions. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) developed X-37 unmanned spacecraft with military mission capability has now been transferred to DoD.

Efforts at Regulation and Control

The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and the agreement of 1979 on the activities of states on the moon and other celestial bodies, had stood the test of time in regulating activities and prohibiting the deployment of weapons of mass destruction in outer space. However, the documents are overdue for revision. The UN General Assembly has been repeatedly moving fresh resolutions to prevent an arms race in outer space. The US National Space policy released in June 2010 allows nations to explore and use space for peaceful purposes. However, the US definition of ‘peaceful purpose’ includes national and homeland security. The UN Assembly has been debating the Sino-Russia backed draft disarmament document which has general international consensus. With such heavy dependence on satellites, most nations are concerned that any attack on the 3,000-odd operational satellites could have serious consequences. Nations are worried that the US, after withdrawing from ABM Treaty about a decade ago, has been working to establish a missile defence system with elements in outer space. As the world evolves a legally binding document, weaponisation of space continues unabated. The recent Chinese forays into space and her ambitious ABM programme and North Korea’s nuclear weapons plan and overt threats, have forced the US to look to outer space for dominance.

Key elements of the draft Outer Space Treaty are that space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation. No one can place nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies or station them in outer space. The moon and other celestial bodies shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and nations shall be liable for damage caused by their space objects and shall avoid harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies. End 2000, a ‘Prevention of Outer Space Arms Race’ UN resolution had 163 countries in favour. However, the US and Israel were two of the three abstentions. Since the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, the US has enhanced defence spending and preparation against rogue elements and states. The Bush administration’s views expressed in the Quadrennial Defense Review released in October 2001 stated: “A key objective was not only to ensure the US ability to exploit space for military purposes, but also to deny an adversary the ability to do so.” The United States Air Force (USAF) doctrine defines space superiority as “freedom to attack as well as freedom from attack” in space. “Space superiority is not our birthright, but it is our destiny, it is our day-to-day mission. Space supremacy is our vision for the future,” said General Lance Lord, Commander USAF Space Command, in 2005. It clearly points to the US desire to deploy weapons in space.

China as a Space Power

China is emerging as the main competitor. In 2007, when it destroyed one of its ageing satellites with a ballistic missile, it announced its arrival on the serious military space capability scene which the world would have to closely watch. It also put into question China’s backing of the ‘Weapons-Free Space’ treaty that it is otherwise driving. Some analysts feel that by demonstrating its ability, it was putting pressure on the US to fall in line with the proposed UN treaty. USA clearly plans to use space dominance as a political and in turn, an economic weapon to achieve its national interests. The US ‘Space Vision 2020’ document has a cover depicting a laser weapon shooting at a space based target. Like one dominated high seas in the past, the desire now is to dominate space and beyond. War in space is no more a science fiction. The reality is that the real space race has actually begun.