Current Affairs

War in space

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    8th Jan, 2021


  • In the late 1970s and through the 1980s the Soviet Union and the United States theorized, designed and in some cases tested a variety of weaponry designed for warfare in outer space.
  • Space warfare was seen primarily as an extension of nuclear warfare, and so many theoretical systems were based around the destruction or defense of ground and sea-based missiles.
  • In 2019, US President Donald Trump declared “space is the new war-fighting domain”. This followed the creation of the US Space Force and a commitment to “American dominance” in outer space.Other space-faring nations, and those who fear the acceleration of an arms race in space, were greatly concerned.
  • At the latest meeting of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, states noted with alarmthat “preventing conflicts in outer space and preserving outer space for peaceful purposes” is more necessary than ever.
  • Since 1967, human activity in space has been guided by the universally accepted principles embedded in the Outer Space Treaty. This has ensured we have had no military conflict in space, and required the exploration and use of space “for the benefit and in the interests of all countries”.
  • To understand the space warfare, we need to go into the various details of it; for this we can study the space warfare under the following sections.

What is space warfare?

Space warfare is combat that takes place in outer space. The scope of space warfare includes 

  • ground-to-space warfare, such as attacking satellites from the Earth
  • space-to-space warfare, such as satellites attacking satellites
  • space-to-ground warfare, such as satellites attacking Earth-based targets

Background of space warfare

  • The activities of space warfare development goes back to the 1960s when the Soviet Union began the Almaz project, a project designed to give them the ability to do on-orbit inspections of satellites and destroy them if needed.
  • Similar planning in the United States took the form of the Blue Gemini project, which consisted of modified Gemini capsules that would be able to deploy weapons and perform surveillance.
  • Similarly, Starfish Prime test, took place in 1962, when the United States exploded a ground-launched nuclear weapon in space to test the effects of an electromagnetic pulse. The result was a deactivation of many then-orbiting satellites, both American and Soviet.
  • The deleterious and unfocused effects of the EMP test led to the banning of nuclear weapons in space in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967.

What is the status of Space forces in various countries?

  • A space forceis a military branch that conducts space warfare and space operations.
  • In 1985, a United States Space Command was formed which is currently known as United States Space Force as the primary American military space force.
  • The Russian Space Force was established in 1992 and was replaced by the Russian Aerospace Defence Forces starting December 1, 2011. It was reestablished as a component of the Russian Aerospace Forces in 2015.
  • In 2019 India conducted a test of the ASAT missile making it the fourth country with that capability. In April 2019, the Indian government established the Defence Space Agency, or DSA.

Different Space Warfare efforts of countries

  • Both the Soviets and the United States developed anti-satellite weaponry designed to shoot down satellites.
  • The People's Republic of China successfully tested a ballistic missile-launched anti-satellite weapon on January 11, 2007. This resulted in harsh criticism from the United States of America, Britain, and Japan.
  • Japan fields the U.S.-made SM-3 missile, and there have been plans to base the land-based version in Romania and Vietnam.
  • In March 2019, India shot down a satellite orbiting in a low Earth orbit using an ASAT missile during an operation code named Mission Shakti.
  • In 2019, France also announced a space weapons program that would move the country's space surveillance strategy towards active protection of its assets in space, e.g. satellites.

What are the various space weaponries?

Some of the space warfare tools and techniques have been discussed in this section below;

  • Ballistic warfare

Space-based missiles were not attempted due to the Outer Space Treaty, which banned the use, testing or storage of nuclear weapons outside the Earth's atmosphere. This warfare includes that lasers could be put into space to intercept a ballistic missile.Systems proposed ranged from measures as simple as ground and space-based anti-missiles to railguns, space based lasers, orbital mines and similar weaponry.

  • Electronic warfare

With the continued development of satellite and electronics technology, attention was focused on space as a supporting theatre for conventional warfare. Accordingly, most space-borne proposals which would traditionally be considered "weapons" are designed to jam, sabotage, and outright destroy enemy satellites, and conversely to protect friendly satellites against such attacks.

  • Kinetic bombardment

Another theorized use involves the extension of conventional weaponry into orbit for deployment against ground targets. Though international treaties ban the deployment of nuclear missiles outside the atmosphere, other categories of weapons are largely unregulated. Kinetic weapons have always been widespread in conventional warfare—bullets, arrows, swords, clubs, etc.—but the energy a projectile would gain while falling from orbit would make such a weapon rival all but the most powerful explosives.

  • Directed-energy weapons

A space-based high-energy laser destroys a terrestrial target. Weapon systems that fall under this category include lasers, linear particle accelerators or particle-beam base weaponry, microwaves and plasma-based weaponry.

  • Space-based lasers

Light Amplification by the Stimulated Emission of Radiation (acronym LASER) excites molecules within a chamber, creating an electronic state that releases energy in the form of photons. The photons pass by other molecules, spreading energy, making more photons. The laser would essentially blow holes into missiles they are aimed at.

  • Space debris

Anti-satellite attacks, especially ones involving kinetic kill vehicles, can contribute to the formation of space debriswhich can remain in orbit for many years and could interfere with future space activity or in a worst case trigger a Kessler Syndrome.

  • Hacking satellites

This is probably where the first strike in a space war will take place. There have been a number of satellite hacks reported over the years, including to Nasa climate satellites in 2007 and 2008 but no permanent damage was reported.

Why the debate over the space warfare has become so much significant?

The entire world has so much dependent and benefitted from the space that it has become so crucial to protect the space and the deployments in space. Here are some of the important aspects which make it significant:

  • Space satellites provides worldwide communications
  • GPS navigation
  • Weather forecasting and planetary surveillance
  • For militaries purpose
  • Climate change analysis
  • Production forecasts
  • Geo-Tagging
  • For Intelligence purpose
  • Space Explorations
  • Outer Space studies such as Moon missions and Mars missions.
  • Devastation, disruption and impact on civilian lives.

What are the potential threats associated with Space?

The consequences of weapons testing and aggression in space could span generations, and current technological advances only increase the urgency for policymakers to pursue a limitations treaty. As it stands, there are three major ramifications of a potential arms race in space:

  • The destruction of satellites: There is now an abundance of satellites in space owned by multiple states and corporations. These satellites are used to not only coordinate military actions, but to perform more mundane tasks, like obtaining weather reports, or managing on-ground communications, and navigation.More pressing, however, is that if a country’s satellites are successfully destroyed by an enemy state, military capabilities can be severely hindered or destroyed, leaving the country vulnerable to attack and unable to coordinate its military forces on the ground.
  • Power imbalances and proliferation on the ground: Only so many states currently have access to space—which means any militarization be by the few, while other states would be left to fend for themselves. This would establish a clear power imbalance that could breed distrust among nations, resulting in a more insecure world and a veritable power keg primed for war.
  • More militarization of space: It would inevitably increase the chances of war, and also threaten the industries that rely on space to carry out their daily operations.

Ultimately, the international community will need to regulate actions, militarization, and the possibility of eventual armament in space sooner rather than later in order to reduce the threat of major war, economic destruction, and global insecurity.

What are the different accords to regulate space warfare?

International treaties are in place that attempt to regulate conflicts in space and limit the installation of space weapon systems, especially nuclear weapons.

  • Efforts have been made to create a modern-day space rulebook, but so far none have gained traction.
  • In 2008, when Russia and China both proposed norms of behavior, the United States refused to sign on. Similarly, when the United States supported a 2014 European Union proposal to govern the use of conventional weapons in orbit, Russia and China didn’t agree with the terms.
  • One major issue associated with the emergence of space weapons is that the international system has not set up an adequate legal regime to address the problem.
  • The U.N. has tried to construct such a legal regime such as the U.N. General Assembly's Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space. However, the United States has not signed any such agreement, making the proposed measures ineffective.

The Outer Space Treaty, 1967 (OST)

  • The Treaty was largely based on the Declaration of Legal Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, which had been adopted by the General Assembly in its resolution 1962  in 1963, but added a few new provisions.
  • The Treaty was opened for signature by the three depository Governments (the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States of America) in January 1967, and it entered into force in October 1967.

Principles of the Treaty

  • The Outer Space Treaty provides the basic framework on international space law, including the following principles:
    • the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind;
    • outer space shall be free for exploration and use by all States;
    • outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means;
    • States shall not place nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies or station them in outer space in any other manner;
    • the Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes;
    • astronauts shall be regarded as the envoys of mankind;
    • States shall be responsible for national space activities whether carried out by governmental or non-governmental entities;
    • States shall be liable for damage caused by their space objects; and
    • States shall avoid harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies.

The Artemis Accords

  • The purpose of these Accords is to establish a common vision via a practical set of principles, guidelines, and best practices to enhance the governance of the civil exploration and use of outer space with the intention of advancing the Artemis Program.
  • Adherence to a practical set of principles, guidelines, and best practices in carrying out activities in outer space is intended to increase the safety of operations, reduce uncertainty, and promote the sustainable and beneficial use of space for all humankind.
  • The Artemis Accords will describe a shared vision for principles, grounded in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, to create a safe and transparent environment which facilitates exploration, science, and commercial activities for all of humanity to enjoy.
  • The Accords represent a political commitment to the principles described herein, many of which provide for operational implementation of important obligations contained in the Outer Space Treaty and other instruments.
  • The principles set out in these Accords are intended to apply to civil space activities conducted by the civil space agencies of each Signatory.
  • These activities may take place on the Moon, Mars, comets, and asteroids, including their surfaces and subsurfaces, as well as in orbit of the Moon or Mars, in the Lagrangian points for the Earth-Moon system, and in transit between these celestial bodies and locations.

What are the shortcomings of present regulatory system?

  • The only international legal framework that specifically addresses the problem of space weaponization is the Open Space Treaty (OST).
  • However, this treaty was signed in 1967 and contains many ambiguous provisions that prevent it from effectively dealing with the proliferation of space weapons in the 21st century.
  • This creates the troubling possibility that a country cannot shoot down a satellite from the ground but is permitted to use space weapons to attack ground-based targets.
  • The OST also mentions nothing about dual-use space weapons.
  • The OST also does not specifically define several key terms such as weapons of mass destruction in space.
  • The OST also does not define where space begins, which leads to questions of whether some low-orbit or high-atmosphere weapons can be governed by the OST.
  • Nothing in the treaty is widely accepted that what is referred to space debris.

As a result, it is vital that the international community amend the treaty or create an entirely new one that is properly constructed to handle the emergence of space weapons in a realistic and efficient manner.

What are the current challenges regarding space warfare?

A huge number of challenges lie ahead due to space warfare. Some of them could be said as

  • Transparency and Confidence Building Measures
  • Space Debris
  • Cyber Activity and Exploitation Claims
  • Lack of global consensus over the regulation of space warfare
  • Militarization of outer space
  • Cyber interference with outer space activities such as cyber attack.

What are the potential solutions to control the space warfare?

There is need to expand the efforts towards the solutions to control the space warfare. Some f the measures could be such as:

  • The weaponization of space debate should be enhanced.
  • Defining the issues related to space warfare is must.
  • Regulating outer space through the United Nations.
  • Multilateral negotiations can help to reduce the possible threats.
  • An incremental approach to a comprehensive ban should be taken.
  • A space debris management regime, confidence-building measures, and a space traffic control initiative can be adopted.
  • limited missile defence, granting permission to attack missiles traveling through space, including deployment of boost-phase missile defence can be seen as a solution.
  • The body of international law referring to space security and governing activity in outer space should be established.
  • The Space Preservation laws should be formed and adopted.

India and space

  • On March 27, 2019, India had become the fourth country to conduct an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile test (after the United States, Russia, and China).
  • Under the “Mission Shakti”, the test entailed launching a ballistic missile into outer space to destroy an Indian satellite located about 300 kilometers above the earth’s surface, in low earth orbit (LEO).
  • India reportedly adapted its missile defense interceptor, the Prithvi Defense Vehicle Mark-II into an ASAT In 2019 India conducted a test of the ASAT missile making it the fourth country with that capability. In April 2019, the Indian government established the Defence Space Agency, or DSA.

What are the threats for India?

Some of the threats can be discussed as follows

  • The Chinese ASAT test in 2007,raised India’s security concernsand catalyzed the establishment of an Integrated Space Cell for space security in India. China and India have been perennial adversaries since the Sino-Indian border conflict of 1962, political, territorial, and strategic animosities continue to endure.
  • Another factor driving India’s ASAT testing could be the recent efforts, under the aegis of the United Nations, to establish an “international legally binding instrument on the prevention of an arms race in outer space.”
  • Cyber Space attacks by the enemy countries could pose a greater challenge.
  • The increasing closer ties of China and Pakistan can also be a cause of threat.
  • A steadily expanding fleet of satellites for both civilian and military purposes.


Since it is almost inevitable that countries will begin to develop space weapons, the international system needs to find a way to ensure that the proliferation of these new weapons does not destabilize the system of international cooperation. The new legal regime must both modernize and clarify the ambiguities that make the OST futile. It is imparative to ensure that the new legal system is effective at limiting the use of space weapons. In a complex, globally shared arena such as space, it is important that states abide by accepted rules and established practices.

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