SPACE

New des­ti­na­tion for weapon­i­sa­tion

Down to Earth - - FRONT PAGE - SHREESHAN VENKATESH

THIS JUNE 18, US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump an­nounced the cre­ation of a new arm of the US Mil­i­tary—the Space Force. Trump en­tan­gled the me­dia in the ab­sur­dity of the name, while di­vulging lit­tle on what the set­ting up this sep­a­rate en­tity would en­tail.

Omi­nously enough, Trump’s an­nounce­ment came dur­ing a meet­ing on space traf­fic man­age­ment pol­icy. The in­ten­tion was first broached in March dur­ing a pres­i­den­tial ad­dress to the US Marines at a Cal­i­for­nia base. “Space is a war-fight­ing do­main, just like the land, air and sea… We may even have a Space Force… We have the Air Force, we’ll have the Space Force,” he re­marked dur­ing the speech. “Our destiny beyond the Earth is not only a mat­ter of na­tional iden­tity, but a mat­ter of na­tional se­cu­rity. When it comes to de­fend­ing Amer­ica, it is not enough to merely have an Amer­i­can pres­ence in space. We must have Amer­i­can dom­i­nance in space,” ex­claimed Trump in June. This is a dan­ger­ous di­ver­gence from his­tor­i­cal and le­gal con­ven­tions that con­sider space as a global com­mon for peace­ful pur­poses.

Cold War legacy

Weapon­i­sa­tion of space has long seemed in­evitable. The pos­si­bil­ity has ex­isted ever since satel­lite tech­nol­ogy was first de­vel­oped, over 60 years ago. Dur­ing the Cold War, in the 1950s, both the US and the erst­while Union of Soviet So­cial­ist Re­publics (ussr) worked fran­ti­cally to out-weapon each other in space. Anx­ious of at­tacks by the Sovi­ets rain­ing down from the or­bits, the US be­gan test­ing anti-satel­lite tech­nolo­gies, even test­ing the ef­fec­tive­ness of nu­clear bombs in space be­fore com­ing to an agree­ment with the ussr to limit the mil­i­tary use of space. As fears mounted, a UN bro­kered Outer Space Treaty (ost) was signed be­tween the UK, US and ussr in 1967. Since then, mem­ber­ship has swollen to 106 na­tions and the treaty has served as the bedrock for all at­tempts to reg­u­late the use of outer space, gen­er­ally con­sid­ered to be ev­ery­thing over 100 km above the Earth’s sur­face.

The main­stay against the use of space for war­fare in the broadly de­lin­eated agree­ment was that, “States shall not place nu­clear weapons or other weapons of mass de­struc­tion in or­bits or on ce­les­tial bod­ies (in­clud­ing the moon and as­ter­oids) or sta­tion them in outer space in any other man­ner.” How­ever, the text was crafted in a way that it did not cast out the pos­si­bil­ity of mil­i­tari­sa­tion. This has long been recog­nised but rather than plug­ging them, the loop­holes have been tac­itly ac­cepted by the world and ex­ploited over the years.

The cen­tral­ity of space in mil­i­tary strat­egy was ce­mented in the 1980s through the Strate­gic De­fence Ini­tia­tive her­alded by the then US Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Regan. Although

ost and the slew of other UN-backed agree­ments and res­o­lu­tions—and there are six such agree­ments and over 30 res­o­lu­tions—pro­hibit the place­ment of weapons of mass de­struc­tion in space, there is no such re­stric­tion on its us­age as a medium to carry mis­siles with ex­plo­sive and nu­clear pay­loads. The de­vel­op­ment of In­ter-Con­ti­nen­tal Bal­lis­tic Mis­sile (icbm) tech­nol­ogy, which can reach beyond an al­ti­tude of 2,000 km, in the sec­ond half of the 20th cen­tury fur­ther weak­ened the re­solve to ex­clu­sively use space for peace­ful pur­poses. In­ter­est­ingly, in 2001 the US with­drew from a 1972 agree­ment with the then ussr (now Rus­sia) to limit anti-bal­lis­tic mis­sile tech­nol­ogy which could in­clude high-al­ti­tude in­ter­cep­tions. “With anti-bal­lis­tic mis­siles (abms), weapon­i­sa­tion of space has al­ready be­gun. Beyond this, it is un­likely that there will be any agree­ment to de-weaponise space. It can only ex­pand,” says Ajay Lele, a se­nior fel­low at the In­sti­tute for De­fence Stud­ies and Anal­y­sis, New Delhi. Over the past decades, abms have be­come in­dis­pens­able to US mil­i­tary strat­egy.

Crowded outer space

The world has dras­ti­cally changed since ost was first signed. No longer is space the ex­clu­sive do­main with a hand­ful of in­ter­na­tional play­ers. Rather it has emerged as a crowded arena sup­port­ing a plethora of in­ter­ests. Ac­cord­ing to the UN, there are over 60 coun­tries that have de­ployed 4,635 satel­lites (in­clud­ing nearly 3,000 that are not func­tional) in Earth’s or­bit, for a va­ri­ety of com­mer­cial, re­search and mil­i­tary pur­poses.

Mil­i­tary ap­pli­ca­tions of satel­lites have been ex­pand­ing. Ac­cord­ing to a data­base of satel­lites pre­pared by the Union of Con­cerned Sci­en­tists (ucs), a US-based non-gov­ern­men­tal body, 227 of the 360-odd mil­i­tary satel­lites cur­rently in or­bit have been de­ployed af­ter 2005 and are owned by 22 dif­fer­ent na­tions. Strik­ingly, China has 58 mil­i­tary satel­lites in or­bit, all of which have been placed af­ter 2004. The US in 2015, un­der Barack Obama, even made it le­gal for pri­vate com­pa­nies to mine as­ter­oids. In the last decade, sev­eral coun­tries have come out with leg­is­la­tion re­gard­ing ex­plo­ration and ex­ploita­tion of space. The In­dian Space Re­search Or­gan­i­sa­tion (isro) has also put out a draft Space Ac­tiv­i­ties Bill 2017 for pub­lic com­ments.

With mil­i­tary satel­lites crowd­ing space, there is fast emer­gence of an­ti­satel­lite war­fare. These tools and skills had been solely in pos­ses­sion of the for­mer Cold War op­po­nents. But in re­cent years other na­tions, par­tic­u­larly

China, have started find­ing suc­cess. In­dia too has re­port­edly been de­vel­op­ing anti-satel­lite tech­nolo­gies as a wartime con­tin­gency. In­dia has had all the ba­sic blocks to build such a sys­tem since 2010. Last year, it tested in­dige­nously made abm which could be used for anti-satel­lite op­er­a­tions.

The US has also rapidly en­hanced its mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­i­ties in space. In 1996, then Com­man­der-in-Chief of the US Space Com­mand, Joseph W Ashy said in an in­ter­view, “It’s po­lit­i­cally sen­si­tive, but it’s go­ing to hap­pen... We’re go­ing to fight from space and we’re go­ing to fight into space. We will en­gage ter­res­trial tar­gets some­day—ships, air­planes, land tar­gets—from space.” The last two decades have been an as­ser­tion of this vi­sion. Suc­ces­sive US pres­i­dents, from Regan to Obama, funded space-based mil­i­tary ap­pli­ca­tions to the tune of bil­lions of dollars, with lit­tle pub­lic de­bate. In its lat­est bud­get, US Air Force has boosted space spend­ing by $7 bil­lion over the next five years, tak­ing the to­tal close to $50 bil­lion an­nu­ally.

By early 2000s, the US had be­gun ex­press­ing dis­con­tent with in­ter­na­tional ne­go­ti­a­tions. In a UN Gen­eral Assem­bly vote on pre­vent­ing an arms race in space in Novem­ber 2000, the US was one of just three ab­sten­tions against 163 na­tions that voted in favour. Since then US, along with Is­rael, has de­ployed an in­creas­ingly con­trar­ian stance in talks. In 2014, the US and Is­rael were among the four coun­tries that voted against the adop­tion of a Rus­sian draft res­o­lu­tion on ban­ning an arms race in outer space in the UN Gen­eral Assem­bly. A non-bind­ing treaty for the pre­ven­tion of an arms race in outer space is be­ing dis­cussed.

A 2006 draft of the US Na­tional Space Pol­icy clearly for­mu­lated the op­po­si­tion to arms con­trol and as­pi­ra­tion to dom­i­nate in space. “Space su­pe­ri­or­ity is not our birthright, but it is our destiny. Space supremacy is our vi­sion for the fu­ture,” Gen­eral Lance Lord, then head of US Air Force Space Com­mand said in 2005. Notwith­stand­ing the eerie sim­i­lar­ity in Trump’s lat­est an­nounce­ments, the cre­ation of a Space Force is just the lat­est step to­wards Amer­ica’s long-term vi­sion to fully weaponise space. This does not au­to­mat­i­cally mean space wars or coloni­sa­tion, says Lele. “The talk of space wars and coloni­sa­tion is still in the realm of fic­tion. There are many shared in­ter­ests for things to be­come ad­ver­sar­ial. Also there is still a tech­no­log­i­cal deficit for this to hap­pen.”

Nev­er­the­less, the an­nounce­ment has alarmed other na­tions push­ing for pre­ven­tion of an arms race in space. The suc­cess of in­ter­na­tional pres­sure re­mains to be seen. Rus­sia has sub­mit­ted a work­ing pa­per to re­solve the am­bi­gu­i­ties in in­ter­pre­ta­tion and reaf­firm the ba­sic le­gal prin­ci­ples re­lated to safety and se­cu­rity in outer space. The ques­tion now is how big is the leap from weapon­i­sa­tion to coloni­sa­tion?

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