Weaponisation of Outer Space


Looking up into the limitless sky, are you not baffled by the wonders of the cosmos? The twinkling stars, the moon and its magnificence and the beauty of it all. Outer Space has always captured the minds of us humans ; from the wise philosophers of the ancient times to brilliant scientists of ours.  Space has aptly been described as the final frontier, the ultimate high ground. The strategic significance of outer space was once again brought into limelight with NATO’s recognition of outer space as its fifth operational domain. Many who mocked former US president Donald Trump’s declaration of a new “Spaceforce ”, now realise its importance. Today we stand at a crucial moment in the history of humankind and the future of outer space. The question is simple ; Will outer space be a sea of peace and possibilities or will it become the latest theatre for war? This article seeks to investigate the current status of outer space with regards to weaponsiation, further looking into challenges and possible solutions.

Why is space important?

Before we begin we have to consider one simple question – Why is there a need to weaponize space at all? The answer is simple: Look at everything around you. Your mobile phone, GPS, the internet. all of them rely on satellites to function. Satellites are crucial for the functioning of day to day life as well as the global economy.In Fact, the world would simply cease to function without satellites . They are also indispensable for military uses, serving as the eyes and ears of the nation. However, even though satellites have opened up doors to new technologies, convenience and possibilities, they have also opened up nations to new vulnerabilities in outer space. If Sun Tzu were to write his ‘Art of War’ today, he would probably urge the leaders to destroy the satellites of the enemy states first so as to completely blind and deafen them.


Weaponisation v/s Militarisation


As if there were not enough weapons on the earth itself, nations are now scrambling to put weapons in outer space. To begin, there needs to be a distinction made between the terms “weaponization” and “militarisation”. A narrow perspective on weaponisation can limit it to physical placement in orbit of space-based machinery that has destructive capacity. However, other experts opine that a broader and more fitting definition would also include ground-based systems designed or used for destroying assets based in space , such as satellites though they are  not placed in orbit. Weapons that briefly enter and orbit in space before reaching their targets, such as hypersonic technology vehicles, can also be considered as space weaponization. Many elements of the missile defence system could constitute space weapons as well, as plenty of them have “dual use” characteristics, which allows them to eliminate  ballistic missiles, which is their intended purpose but also space assets. Militarisation on the other hand includes using space-based assets for C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance). The militarization of space assists armies on the conventional battlefield ie. use of space in support of ground, sea and air-based military operations. It also includes the development of military technologies that will be based in outer space with supporting infrastructure on ground for military utilisation such as early warning, communications, command and control, Position Navigation and Timing (PNT), monitoring (remote sensing), and National Technical Means (NTM) that can be utilised for verification, surveillance and intelligence purposes. Therefore, Weaponization is an evolution or an aspect of Militarisation. Though the terms may overlap and are often used interchangeably. It is very important to be aware of this distinction while tackling this topic.


It must be noted that space has long been militarised.It can be argued that the exploration of space and launching of the first satellites were themselves motivated by militaristic ambitions in the backdrop of the cold war. However, as far as we know space has not yet been weaponized.


Past Actions and Existing International Legislation

There have been plenty of attempts to regulate and legislate outer space. As of now, space is governed by a myriad of treaties and conventions yet there are five that stand out the most. These ‘Big Five’ include ; Outer Space Treaty of 1967 , Rescue Agreement of 1968 , Space Liability Convention of 1972 , Registration Convention of 1975 , Moon Treaty of 1979.


Of all the existing international legislations , the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 is generally venerated as the ‘Magna Carta’ of Space Law. Developed in the backdrop of cold war rivalries, the treaty was far more visionary and idealistic[1]. Born during the heights of the cold war, this treaty was actually far more idealistic and visionary given the context of its inception. All the other treaties in some form or the other, flesh out the principles mentioned in the OST. The Liability Convention and the Registration Convention are based off of Article 7 and 8 respectively[2].

The treaty lays down several basic doctrines relating to the behaviour of states (and even private entities in space). The most important ones are:

      “Province of all mankind”(Article 1) – declares that space is open to all for exploration, without any discrimination.

      Sovereignty”(Article 2) – outer space and celestial bodies are exempt from any claims of sovereignty

      No Nuclear weapons or  WMDs in outer space”(Article 3) – prohibits any nation from placing nuclear weapons or any other WMDs in outer space. It also prohibits establishment of any military base in outer space.

      “Peaceful Purposes” (Article 3 and 4) – of the OST establish that all celestial bodies and outer space should be used for “Peaceful Purposes” only and that states must make sure that all activities carried out by them are “in the interest of maintaining international peace and security and promoting international cooperation and understanding.”.


Problem Identification ; Challenges and Threats

Inadequacies and Loopholes  

The existing legal corpus is simply not enough. There are too many ambiguities and a lot more is needed to be done. The most pertinent question is whether weapons are legal in outer space?. The answer is : (technically) Yes! Though the Outer Space treaty explicitly prohibits placement of nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction in outer space,(though the term “Weapon of Mass Destruction” itself is not explained , and is generally understood in terms of chemical,biological and radioactive weapons.) kinetic weapons, conventional weapons, laser weapons, are still allowed. The international community needs to fill this apparent loophole and prevent such weapons from being developed or deployed in outer space.

Moreover, the term “Peaceful Purposes” as used in the OST has conveniently been interpreted as non-aggressive and not non-military. Lastly, The Article III of the OST stipulates that :


“States Parties to the Treaty shall carry on activities in the exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, in accordance with international law, including the Charter of the United Nations, in the interest of maintaining international peace and security and promoting international cooperation and understanding.”


Hence,The author finds much merit to the argument that the right to self defence as envisioned in the Article 51 of the UN Charter also extends to Outer Space. Such an interpretation acts as a serious barrier to any hopes of de-weaponising outer space. It allows for various technologies that are explicitly used for “defensive purposes” such as the missile defence systems,that also have the capability to shoot down a satellite (belonging to the same state or another)[3]. Hence, this supposedly “defensive” structure also has offensive capabilities. Another curse any effort towards disarmament suffers from is the miserable rates of ratification, especially in the case of the Moon Treaty and Registration Convention.


Dual use technology

What is Dual use technology? Dual use refers to any technology or device that can satisfy more than one goal at once, Hence, suppose a device is made for civilian use, however can also be used for any military purposes. The best example of the same is the Global Positioning System or the GPS. Outer space is no stranger to “dual use technologies” . The rocket technology that propelled mankind into the age of space and satellites was also used to create Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM’s) that threaten to level entire cities on the other side of the globe. This “dual-use dilemma” is especially a huge obstacle in countering the  weaponization of outer space. Experts have noted with concern the growing numbers of satellites with these “dual-use” capabilities, owing to the entry of a considerable number of commercial entities.

The most important tool for combatting this dual use dilemma is to focus on identification, marking and communicating the intent and nature of a space asset. Scholars have also stressed on the need for states to understand the importance of separating their military and civilian assets and functions.Lastly, there is also a need to strengthen and improve the ratification of the Registration Convention.


Anti- Satellite Technology and the Kessler Syndrome

Anti – Satellite Technology can be envisioned as technology that allows for the targeting of a satellite (belonging to oneself or another state), so as to destroy or to render it useless, temporarily or permanently. The same may be achieved through kinetic or non-kinetic means, such as jamming or dazzling[4].Anti-Satellite capabilities have been demonstrated by Russia, China and India, attracting much condemnation from the west. Even small scale use of ASAT technology can be potentially dooming for humankind. To grasp this potential, let us understand two terms; ‘Space Debris’ and ‘Kessler Syndrome’.


Space debris (also known as space junk, space pollution, space waste, space trash, or space garbage) is defunct artificial objects in space—principally in Earth orbit—which no longer serve a useful function. Though a small nail or bolt might not do much damage to a satellite owing to its small size. When it is accelerated to up to about 18,000 mph in low earth orbit – it is more than capable of wreaking havoc on and significantly damaging a satellite or a spacecraft in case of a collision. Imagine thousands of tiny bullets zipping through the orbit at astronomical speeds. Use of ASAT technology could trigger a massive chain reaction where space debris from one destroyed satellite could destroy more satellites , which would in turn create more space debris and the cycle will continue. This would create a situation which has been best described by an interesting theory by the name of “Kessler Syndrome”. Kessler Syndrome is a phenomenon in which the amount of junk in orbit around Earth reaches a point where it just creates more and more space debris. This threatens to destroy our satellites and space assets and also the lives of astronauts. Such a belt of junk in outer space orbit can essentially trap humanity on earth. It should be noted that the situation mentioned in the Kessler Syndrome can occur due to accidents or natural causes, however a war in outer space or deliberate destruction of satellites  will inevitably trigger this chain reaction.

Space debris and the looming possibility of the Kessler syndrome is perhaps one of the biggest reasons why a war in space might prove to be catastrophic and end humanity’s ambition in outer space. It will also destroy much of our modern world with its dependencies on satellites. This should be reason enough to motivate states to strike a compromise and negotiate an instrument for dealing with ASAT technology.


What’s next ?

The core dilemma facing the International community is how to tackle these issues? Historically ,two opposing schools of thought can be observed based on the existing soft/hard law distinction that exists in international law. One urged for hard laws and binding to prevent weaponisation of space while the other sought a softer approach based on non-binding rules and guidelines, relying on the good faith of nation states. The former argued that soft laws are not strong enough to achieve anything that can provide greater assurance to mankind. The latter urged for the importance of sovereignty and national security.They propounded a theory in line with a more realistic view on disarmament,  as any attempt to achieve the same through hard laws would simply be rejected by nations. This view ultimately proved to be true , especially since the space laws and OST were framed in the backdrop of the cold war. In fact scholars have pointed out two important trends at play with reference to space laws. First is a move from binding to non-binding space ‘rules of the road’. Second is the move from fundamental  general principles to provisions dealing with specific aspects of space-related activities. This is the expansion of the OST through subsequent treaties.


 Today, the soft law approach manifests itself inform of an ‘International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities”. This would not ensure the security and safety that mankind needs. To borrow a helpful metaphor from another researcher, such a conduct is akin to a blackhole that will swallow precious time and resources, yet whose gravitational pull is irresistible to governments. Today, such a soft approach is no longer enough. Though the OST has been able to maintain a peaceful outer space. The development of newer technologies such as laser based weapons and newer actors such as private entities warrants another look at the existing legal corpus. The ambiguities surrounding weapons apart from WMDs, the dual-use dilemma and the looming threat of kessler syndrome need to be addressed. We need binding and hard laws to ensure compliance and verification. With the fate of the earth and heaven on the line, surely our leaders can find a way to manoeuvre through. It is not after all “rocket science”.

[1] Qizhi, H. (1997). The outer space treaty in perspective. Journal of Space Law, 25(2), 93-100.

[2] von der Dunk, F. G. (2021). Armed Conflicts in Outer Space: Which Law Applies?. International Law Studies Series. US Naval War College, 97, 188-231.

[3] Esparza, R. (2018). Event horizon: examining military and weaponization issues in space by utilising the outer space treaty and the law of armed conflict. Journal of Air Law and Commerce, 83(2), 333-358.

[4] Esparza, R. (2018). Event horizon: examining military and weaponization issues in space by utilizing the outer space treaty and the law of armed conflict. Journal of Air Law and Commerce, 83(2), 333-358.N

Shreyash Dube
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2 thoughts on “Weaponisation of Outer Space”

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