Whenever someone talks about a war in space, our minds immediately trace that to the intergalactic warfare in movies like Star Wars and Guardians of the Galaxy, the fancy weapons and battleships spewing colourful ammunition are a sight to behold.
But just how likely is space warfare in the future?
With the former president of the United States Donald Trump establishing a “Space Force” it seems that space warfare might just be inevitable considering the global space industry is estimated to be worth around $400 billion.
Michael Schmitt, professor of public international law and a space war expert at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, concurred similarly when he said “It is absolutely inevitable that we will see conflict move into space.”
Since the first human spaceflight in 1961 by the Soviet Union, space exploration has ramped up significantly with the sole aim of establishing authority over space and utilising it primarily as a military asset. During the cold war, the Russians and the Americans had contemplated unleashing space weapons on each other to cause cataclysmic nuclear destruction.
Modern Space warfare, however, is predominantly focused on hacking satellites and stealing classified data from them or sending rouge signals rather than firing missiles and rockets.
The inevitability stems from the fact that militaries in the modern era utilise space for virtually everything, right from spying on enemy territory to determining the location of a soldier, in case a war ensues both parties would look to deprive each other of these by hacking into their satellites.
Several countries have been infamous for launching “mysterious” satellites on unusual orbits. Experts speculate that these could be used in the future to approach other satellites and destroy them. The Chinese have even destroyed one of their satellites using a missile that they launched from earth.
What does the law say?
The International Law about potential space warfare is somewhat convoluted and murky. Whilst experts believe space warfare is more or less inevitable, they feel that it is pivotal to raise awareness about the potential adverse impacts of space conflict.
One way to do so can be by publicly highlighting the ramifications of space warfare and the simple fact that the nations most dependent on space would be the ones to suffer the most lest such a conflict ensued.
The outer space treaty lays down the rules for space exploration and specifies the broad framework for international space law. Some of its key points are:
1. Weapons of mass destruction cannot be placed in the earth's orbit, the moon or any other celestial body.
2. Prohibits the use of the moon and other celestial bodies for destructive purposes and expressly prohibits their use for testing weapons of any kind, conducting military manoeuvres, or establishing military bases, installations, and fortifications
3. Exploration of outer space shall be for the benefit of all parties and be free for exploration by all the parties to the treaty.
Experts believe that this treaty is outdated and needs updating as it doesn't go into specifics. It also does not prohibit the placement of conventional weapons in the earth's orbit, this has the potential for highly destructive attacks in the future.
Experts suggest that international law treaties that complement existing principles need to be introduced.
Houston, we have a debris problem
The ever so iconic words of John Swigert, “Houston, we have a problem” to the NASA Houston centre when an explosion crippled their Apollo 13 spacecraft in 1970 come to mind. This is perhaps because an increasing concern that comes with space warfare is the problem of space debris.
Currently, the space weapons that have been demonstrated are either kinetic or nuclear, both of these scatter debris upon impact. Nuclear weapons not only leave behind space debris but also leave behind an electromagnetic pulse that can linger for several weeks.
This pulse is strong enough to disrupt satellites and even destroy them in some cases.
Kinetic energy-based weapons are more targeted, however, they leave behind several million fragments of the space entity that can float in the atmosphere perennially, ultimately colliding with other objects in its path.
Whitman Cobb, author of "Privatizing Peace: How Commerce Can Reduce Conflict in Space" points out in her book that The flourishing commercialization of space and the global economy's reliance on space-based systems makes the open conflict in space very costly.
The modern-day economy is heavily dependent on satellites that contain sensitive financial information, one piece of space debris on the wrong trajectory could easily destroy such a satellite leading to colossal losses and significant economic repercussions for several countries.
Thus, according to Whitman Cobb, “There should be both strategic and economic considerations that restrain countries in their use of weapons in space."
Because of the dual nature of space technology and the inherent secrecy involved, there's a significant chance of misperception, Whitman Cobb said, stressing that misunderstandings of not just technology but also intent could easily lead to conflict. Besides the widespread economic impact that a future space war would inevitably cause. There is also the inherent risk of sparking a third world war because the devastation would be so immense that a large scale war might erupt between multiple sides, this war that originates in space could eventually have heinous consequences on earth too. Countries at war in space might declare full-fledged aerial, land and marine wars on each other. The threat of a Hiroshima & Nagasaki-Esque Nuclear Bombing also looms large.
Where does India stand?
India’s premier defence research organisation, The DRDO(Defense Research and Development Organisation) said in early September 2020 that it was developing Directed Energy Weapons(DEW’s). This was unsurprising given that the DRDO was working on such DEW’s from at least 2017. However, it is still unclear as to whether the current programme can cater to India’s needs for space warfare.
Over the years, there have been several clandestine projects that have only come into the public domain once the technology matured. So it might be fairly reasonable to assume that the DRDO might be working on such projects.
However, the current National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval stated that it was imperative for the country to pursue need-based defence technologies. There are several monetary considerations that need to be taken into account, as the current DRDO allocations might not be sufficient to develop and test large scale DEW’s.
The defence minister Rajnath Singh also stressed the importance of developing cost-effective and time-efficient defence technologies and weapons.
Going forward, India must start developing DEW’s not only for their defensive capabilities, but also for offence given the rapid speed at which other countries are developing DEW’s for space and counter space missions.
Submitted by Devansh Joshi