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Space: The Final Frontier

Etfa Khurshid Mirza

Space-based technologies that have civil and military uses are drawing greater interest with more countries entering into this field. Development beyond peaceful uses i.e. weaponization of outer space is a growing concern for the modern world. Around forty countries are using space to provide information support to their communication systems, for scientific and industrial purposes or to develop weapons systems like anti-satellite weapons.
Countries like the US, Russia, China, France, Iran, North Korea, and Japan are engaged in space development programs. Currently, there are around 1,957 active spacecraft, 830 of which belong to the US. Around 280 belong to China and Russia has 147. Around 302 are used for military purposes, whereas 991 are in civil and commercial use.
The scope of war has diversified from land to sea and then air, eventually moving to space. The growing arms race lead to the militarization of outer space. These developments pose serious threats to international security and the prohibition of arms race movements. It has potential long-term political, economic, and military consequences. Countries like the US and Russia are in pursuit of the weaponization of space which will be carried out in numerous phases. There are two main types of weapons in space: directed energy weapons, that can temporarily or permanently destroy space-based weapons, and weapons that deliver significant mass to their targets and can be delivered to or from space. These weapons can be launched against satellites, aircraft, missiles, and land and sea-based platforms.
The use of outer space began in the 1950s when efforts were underway to declare space as a site for peaceful and scientific purposes only. These efforts were run-down by the former Soviet Union, which was planning to launch its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). In the 1960s, the outer space treaty came into being as a result of the UN Resolution 1884, which calls upon the ban on weapons of mass destruction in orbit around the earth or deploying such weapons on celestial bodies. To promote the sustainable use of outer space, the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space was formed. Some of the permissible long-term sustainable activities in outer space include; monitoring on climate change, exploration of natural resources, weather forecasting, navigation, communication, and early warning systems to prevent potential natural disasters. Space-based technologies can play a vital role in mitigating climate change issues through timely information which can contribute to the effectiveness of strategies being implemented. Arms race leading to proliferation in outer space is not only a threat for climate, but also for human life. The Conference on Disarmament calls for the prevention of arms race in outer space. It also directs state parties to refrain from placing any weapons in space, installing weapons on celestial bodies or threaten to use assets in space.
The US, Russia, and China have major stakes in the development of space-based technologies. The US re-established its space command and its vision for 2020 elucidates full-spectrum dominance – the dominance of its military over land, air, sea, and space. Likewise, China is expanding its satellite communications and testing its capabilities in the next generation and developing the world’s first quantum satellite. Russia is also modernizing its capabilities to rely on space-based technology for military command and control, particularly where terrestrial communication is not possible.
The US is ahead in the race if we talk explicitly about the weaponization of outer space, which will pressurize Russia and China to take countermeasures and develop their space-based weapons, even though both the countries have proposed the treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of the Weapons in outer space (PPWT), meaning thereby they will not be the first to place weapons in outer space. If the US does so, they will no longer be bound to follow their treaty.
The Chinese and Russian doctrines highlight space as an important modern warfare component and the development of counter-space capabilities to reduce the effectiveness of the US space hegemony. The development of anti-satellite missiles, which can destroy targeted satellites and make communication, and Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance (ISR) satellites vulnerable, is another major threat.
The weaponization of outer space has not yet formally begun, as no country has deployed its weapons to be used from, or in space. Militarization of outer space, its associated problems and prospects and the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in outer space are more relevant today than ever. Increasing dependence on the outer space requires major and responsible states to step-in for safe, secure and sustainable measures for space-faring states. Both bilateral and multilateral efforts are required to make space a free zone for all states to explore for scientific and peaceful purposes and not for military usage and WMD.

Etfa Khurshid Mirza is a researcher at Centre for Aerospace and Security Studies (CASS), her area of specialisation is nuclear and strategic affairs.

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