Humans always had deep-seated desire to explore, investigate and unravel mysteries of universe Space science aptly satiated this inherent inquisitiveness. Ever since the first rocket tests by Germans in 1942, nations realized the strategic significance of Space. Honing scientific skills and employing advanced technologies nations rallied to investigate unexplored vistas of space. Soon, cold war frenzied erstwhile super powers vied with each other sparking a new Space race to assert “Space superiority”. By sending first ever satellite Sputnik I into space in 1957, Soviet Union formally breached the elusive frontiers of the Space.
For long space operations were dominated by two or three major players. Soon nations were drawn into the phenomenon of space exploration. Recent reports indicate currently there are 1738 operational satellites in the orbit owned by private companies and governments of 93 countries. The operational satellites are basically of three kinds-low earth orbit, medium earth orbit and geostationary orbits. These artificial satellites are sent to space for various purposes like weather monitoring, navigation, communication etc. Satellites include space telescopes, space probes, space stations and space craft. Nowadays we rely on satellites for daily day to day activities like bank transactions, long distance calling or GPS applications. Military operations also depend on satellites for communication and monitoring the borders. Satellites have become integral to modern living. As a result, the space environment is now more congested, contested, and competitive.
Though nations majorly launched satellites for peaceful purposes they harbored a wild ambition to equip themselves with technologies to destroy satellites. These dubious intentions eventually prompted nations to develop Anti-Satellite Weapons (A-SAT). Indeed, the desire to destroy satellite has been at the root of development of ballistic missile technology. In early 1960s Russia first tested “Hunter Kill” missile system to low orbits. At the height of the Cold war era both US and Russia began developing destructive weapons to dominate the space. Increased competition is space is reviving fears of war. This destructive technology has become point of intense interest among certain nations in the past decade bolstering fears of turning space into the fourth military arena.
A war in space can critically disable other satellites and can spell disaster for the humanity. Besides, hampering the crucial functions like navigation and communication, the debris generated in the aftermath will have collateral damage. Space debris of late has increased due to congestion also. In 2013, Russian BLITS Satellite was stuck in debris. Collision with debris changed satellite’s orbit, spin rate and eventually it stopped functioning.
Even potentially less chaotic attacks on satellites like simply nudging the orbit in space or jamming signals, hacking operational software, temporarily or permanently disabling sensors can render satellites unproductive and useless. Fiddling around any nation’s satellite system can bring it to heels. Realizing the need for curtailing the nefarious activities, countries back in 1967 ratified non-binding, Outer Space Treaty, under the aegis of the United Nations that prohibited placement of weapons of mass destruction in space. But this hasn’t deterred nations from using space for military activities and they continued to launch spy satellites (reconnaissance satellite deployed to monitor selected areas on earth- to determine enemy’s war-making capabilities).
In 1985, US F-15 launched a specially-designed space missile to bring down an aged satellite. Even Soviet Union followed America’s suit during Cold war era. More recently China used similar technology to destroy its own satellite in 2007 signaling its entry into space wars. As of now, four treaties were formulated- 1968 Rescue Agreement, 1972 Liability Convention, 1976 registration convention and 1984 Moon Agreement to regulate space activities. But none of these international treaties are in pace with latest space advancements and critically fall short in imposing curbs on the ambitious aspirations of the nations.
In mid-1970s, international community recognized the potential dangers of ASAT technology and its testing and promoted the superpowers US and Russia to negotiate a ban on ASAT. But the negotiations between the nations collapsed as bilateral ties deteriorated. Ever since, despite several multilateral efforts, countries continued to develop ASATs. In 2008 and 2014, China and Russia introduced two drafts-Treaty on the Prevention of the Placements of Weapons in Outer Space and the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects. US opposed both proposals as they lacked verification mechanism to prevent development of ground-based ASAT weapons. In 2015 EU introduced a code of conduct setting norms to shape behavior in outer space. Though nations pledged commitment, code of conduct remains unclear and there are growing reports of testing of ASATs.
Till now countries have tested ASATs capable of reaching targets in Low Earth Orbits 160 to 2000km from the surface of earth. America having mastered these technologies is wary of its adversaries-Russia and China. While America has precise idea of Russian capabilities, lack of openness and secrecy makes China an unpredictable rival. In 2013, China launched new ASAT Dong Neng-2 against high earth orbit targets. Though the results of the test are not conclusive, recent reports indicate that both Russia and China have fast-tracked ASAT testing.
Like the cyberattacks which can bring economic activity to a grinding halt destruction of country’s satellite system is a threat to its security. For long, the US being leader in military weaponization dominated the space technologies and its extensive space infrastructure enhanced force projection. Its strategic space assets bolstered navigation abilities, intelligence collection, guided precision targeting, communication and issued early warning of several crucial activities. Satellite systems augmented America’s military capabilities during Operation Desert Storm and Desert Shield. Naturally, an attack on these orbital assets would critically impair America’s dominance. In a bid to preserve its supremacy, US is now investing heavily in a surveillance system for its space assets- Space Fence, which uses ground-based radar systems to detect any attacks. It is also developing Self-Awareness Space Situational Awareness System to pinpoint the source of the laser fired at the satellite. Alternatively, to reduce damage to its extensive network of huge satellite systems, US is now planning to replace the traditional, heavy, complex satellites with swarms of low-earth and sun-synchronous miniaturized satellites. Fortunately, as of now the final frontier is the battle field. Going by present trends space wars may not be a distant possibility.