Significance of Space as the Final Frontier
Outer space is considered as ‘terrae nullius’ and shared ‘heritage’ of mankind but the reality is opposite to these semantics. In the Cold War era United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) used space as a military instrument to knock out each other’s military capabilities in the times of any eventuality and enhance the survivability of their strategic assets and civilization. With the passage of time and combined with the technological revolution in and across the spectrum, the civilian element took the precedence from military. Currently, it involves: states, non-state actors, commercial entities and international governmental organizations. Unlike cold war bipolarity, presently more than 70 countries have staked their claims or are operating space satellites and systems; this does not include non-state actors.
Source: Union of Concerned Scientist Satellite Database
Nearly 2000 active satellites are currently orbiting the Earth and U.S., China, Russia and multinational companies are respectively leading the race in space. According to different estimates, the projected economic value of outer space is increasing exponentially and in the coming decades, it would be around $2.7 trillion. As a recent Goldman Sachs report noted, “a single football-field-sized asteroid could contain $25 to $50 billion worth of platinum – enough to upend the terrestrial market.”
Owing to its geo-economics and geostrategic significance, outer space is facing a new intense power competition. The relative stability in space is increasingly under stress due to lack of legal global structure in outer space. Mostly treaties and documents were produced in the Cold War era when there were two larger spacefaring nations i.e., the U.S. and USSR.
There are five “space” treaties, the core one being the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST) which determines that space cannot be appropriated as the sovereign territory of any state; that space must be used for peaceful purposes; and that “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” (Article I). The OST also determines that states are responsible for the space activities of state and non-state entities. The other four treaties are: 1968 Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts; 1972 Liability Convention which holds the launching state liable for the damage caused by space objects; the 1974 Registration Convention which holds that every space object that is launched must be registered; and, 1979 Moon Treaty, which aims to protect the environment of the moon and prohibit the placement of weapons on the moon or in its orbit.
Though these treaties prevent countries placing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in space but they do not restrict them from using the outer space for military and strategic purposes.
To sum it up, all these frameworks do provide some basis but they are not compatible with the 21st century technological transformations and needs. Gaps in legal and scientific domain provide easy way to spacefaring nations and new aspirants to exploit it for their geopolitical and strategic objectives.
India’s ‘Mission Shakti’
India’s latest anti-satellite weapon test on March 27, 2019 directly points toward this very fact that lack of global space governance would continue to offer incentive to ambitious states to challenge the global accepted norms, practices and legal mechanisms bluntly and without punishment.
According to India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), India conducted anti-satellite weapons test with a “Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) Interceptor Missile” which “successfully engaged an Indian orbiting target satellite in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) in a ‘Hit to Kill’ mode.” The interception targeted the satellite at an altitude of 300 kilometres and created 400 pieces of debris which could be dangerous for the satellites orbiting in LEO and International Space Station (ISS).
An illustration of a field of orbital debris circling Earth. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/JSC
Outer space is being challenged by a number of old and emergent threats including space debris, militarization and weaponization of space, radio frequency interference, and potential arms race in space. The U.S. government logged 308,984 close calls with space junk and issued 655 "emergency-reportable" alerts to satellite operators. Scientists estimated the total number of space debris objects in orbit to be around 29,000 for sizes larger than 10 cm, 670,000 larger than 1 cm, and more than 170 million larger than 1 mm in 2017. The outer space is getting crowded, congested and increasingly colonized by state and non-state actors, increasing the probability of a mishap having catastrophic universal consequences.
U.S.’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) condemned India’s ASAT test. Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s top administrator, termed it as a “terrible thing”, “unacceptable” and potentially dangerous for astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS).
Another global body, Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) also condemned the Indian anti-satellite weapons test. Laura Grego, a senior scientist at the UCS’ Global Security Program, stated that “India’s test comes against a backdrop of a languishing international effort to ensure space remains a peaceful and secure environment.” She added, “Military space activities can unpredictably escalate crises on the ground or be the spark that starts one.” Without a doubt, India’s recent test once again highlighted the ineffectiveness of global space regime on the one hand and efficacy of having a legal regime to bind countries for choking instability in the outer space on the other.
Motive Behind the Test
The timing of India’s ASAT capability test was intriguing, though according to reports PM Narendra Modi gave a go ahead two years ago but still, in politics timing is everything. There could be six potential reasons of India’s ASAT test. First, PM Modi wanted to use this test as a ‘political weapon’ to woo voters and win the May 2019 general elections. Second, to dilute media and public attention from the negative fallouts of ‘Balakot misadventure’. This is because independent domestic and international media unearthed the true facts of February 26 episode and rejected the fabricated lies of India’s Minister of External Affairs and Indian Air Force. Third, to further pressurize Pakistan by showing the capability to neutralize its strategic arsenals. Fourth, to send a message to China that India can secure its space assets and has acquired the capability to counter ASAT threats emerging from Beijing. Fifth, to secure their position and seats in any future negotiation process with regards to outer space treaty. It seems that the Indian leadership does not want to lose the opportunity as they lost during the formulation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or ‘pre-empting the new NPT thing’. This essentially means that they want to be ‘rule followers’ rather than ‘rule takers’. Six, to attract new investment from new aspirant countries and multinational organizations by offering manufacturing, launching and other scientific facilities at cheap rates.
Fluid Regional and Global Order
Amid regional and global geopolitical realignment, testing such consequential technology raised alarm bells not just for regional neighbours but also sent a loud message to the international community by endangering global social, political and economic stability. It depends how the regional and global state and non-state actors interpret this perilous move. The status of strategic stability is determined by the balance of deterrence on both sides of the equation. The future of strategic stability in South Asia is framed on the principle of great political powers’ interactions, strategic relationships between the nuclear powers i.e., China, Pakistan, India and the U.S. who are vying either for power or balance of power against their competitors and enemies. The concept of strategic stability is getting complicated with the passage of time as states resolve to power projection in space by building their techno-strategic capacities.
India’s projection of power through ASAT can increase the chances of miscalculated escalation. Other than this, it would further lead to strengthening of strategic dilemma by pushing states into competition for military, economic and commercial purposes. Three challenges are common to space technologies associated with counter-space capabilities: they can be dual use/multi-use; they can be destructive beyond intended targets; and, the intentions behind use are often unclear, especially when used by the military. The threat of destructive counter-space capabilities thus goes beyond a single object, extending to all objects operating in nearby orbits. The remarks made by India’s Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, “Just like our nuclear capability, this too is a deterrent capability.” Such irrational behaviour undermines the scope of strategic stability, pushing other regional members to pursue for alternatives of deterrence.
Rising Unpredictability and Instability
The ambiguous nature and multiple features with the often-opaque nature of military space activities has led to several recent instances of high-level accusations that such technology is compromising the national security of states. ASAT enables the withholder to pervade all warfare as it enables intelligence and surveillance, information warfare and cyber domains. This makes space more dangerous because old notions of deterrence and controlling escalation in space may no longer be valid.
In conflict prone South Asian region, it added another layer of ‘unpredictability’ and strengthened the ‘two-front war’ thesis under nuclear overhang – nuclear threshold is getting blurred, and in this politically nervous and fluid security environment the likelihood of deterrence breakdown is high. Moreover, confusing political and military statements are coming from across the border that has lent credibility to this notion that India’s nuclear doctrine will undergo a potential shift from ‘no first use’ to ‘first use’.
The Role of Extra-Regional Powers
The role of extra-regional powers is adding fuel to fire in South Asia and making the security situation more complex. U.S.’ transfer of high-tech defence, missile, and space technology to India is adding fuel to fire. U.S. is providing this technology and equipment to India under the auspices of Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP 2004), Indo-U.S. nuclear deal (2005), Defense Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI 2012). And, India is receiving all this without any international legal commitment to adhere to nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regimes (NPT, CTBT).
DTTI is believed to be a centrepiece in defence collaboration between the U.S. and India. It was signed in 2012 with a mission to forge closer ties between the two countries and both countries identified 20 projects for joint development and production, that include the UAVs, aircraft landing system and anti-tank missiles. Furthermore, U.S. and India also renewed their 10 years defence pact which had expired in 2014.
Since 2001, both countries made significant progress on a number of issues, for instance: U.S.-India defense pact in 2005, U.S.-India nuclear deal 2005, NSG in 2008 and most importantly, last year U.S. became the largest defence exporter to India by surpassing Russia. Currently, India-U.S. defence trade is worth $18 billion. According to U.S.’ broader Indo-Pacific strategy, India has emerged as a key player and potentially a dominant player in Indian Ocean Region.
Additionally, India now conducts more exercises and personnel exchanges with U.S. than with any other country; more than 50 formal events are being held annually, predominately between the U.S. Navy and Indian Navy. Additionally, the signing of different strategic agreements should be seen in the broader multilateral regional security architecture (Indo-Pacific) context rather than reading it as a bilateral agreement between U.S. and India. Similarly, India’s ‘Look East’ and ‘Act East’ policy aims to improve economic and political ties with the region and attempts to carve out a place for India in the larger Asia-Pacific dynamic.
Consequently, this unprecedented conventional and non-conventional modernization in Indian military force structures and its growing presence in the region and beyond would force Pakistan to take the counter-measures without indulging in conventional and nuclear arms race in the region. Pakistan’s rapprochement with Russia and enhancement of its strategic relationship with China through CPEC clearly indicate that the regional and global politics are in flux. Moreover, Pakistan has taken counter-measures to redress the challenges at tactical, operational and strategic level, modernizing its military and diversifying its nuclear forces to meet the complex regional and global challenges confidently.
Keeping in view the old and recent historical events in South Asia, importantly ‘February 26 Balakot misadventure’ and the so-called ‘2016 surgical strikes,’ there is a certain plausibility that Indian establishment can test the limits of Pakistan’s ‘strategic patience’ in the coming months under ‘false imperatives’. Indian political and military leadership must understand the fact that they can neither gain significant strategic advantage from war, nor do they currently possess the capability to neutralize Pakistan’s strategic platforms – assured second strike capability and survivability – and that it is still a distant dream.
The writer is President of Centre for Pakistan and Gulf Studies (CPGS) and member of the Senate Forum for Policy Research (SFPR) in the Senate of Pakistan. She has also served as a member Senate of Pakistan for the term 2012-2018.
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