It might be time for ‘space superpowers’ to bring in a new space treaty

Space 'superpowers' (left to right): Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi; US President, Donald Trump; President of the People's Republic of China, Xi Jinping and Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Vladimirovich PutinBusiness Insider India, Wikimedia

  • India successfully conducted its first anti-satellite (ASAT) missile weapon test yesterday.
  • The other super powers — Russia, the US and China — also have this capability.
  • The current treaties in place do not specify when and how the use of these weapons is justified.
India just conducted its first test using anti-satellite (ASAT) missile weapon called ‘Mission Shakti’. Donald Trump, the US president, is calling for a ‘Space Force’. And, space technology — preventive or offensive or benign — has become an integral instrument for the functioning of daily life.

It’s not quite an arms race when only four countries — Russia, India, China and the US, the supposed space ‘superpowers’ — are building up their technology, that too years apart.

But, it is a cause for concern if other countries follow in their footsteps — especially in light of the fact that there are no terms of agreement in place for the use of ASATs.

The Outer Space Treaty, formally the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, does not address the use of ASATs either.

“If more and more countries come up with this technology, there may be an arms race. But, India will not be triggering factor. But, India might be an excuse,” Kumar Abhijeet, a member of the International Institute of Space Law, told Business Insider.

He goes on to say, “Nowhere is ASAT testing prohibited. We are very much within the international laws to make use of it.”

So, while testing of ASATs doesn’t violate any international treaty, there is little information around when the use of ASAT may be permitted. So far, whenever the technology has been tested, it’s only be used to take out a country’s own satellite.

So far, whether its India, China, US or Russia, all of these have demonstrated ASAT capabilities with the destruction of their own satellites. None of these states have targeting satellite from other countries.

Kumar Abhijeet, Member of the International Institute of Space Law and Research Scholar at the Institute of Air and Space Law

But, in reality, an ASAT can take out any kind of satellite. What matters is the intention behind the attack. According to Abhijeet, “If there is proof that a satellite is being used to spy and that there is a threat to the national security or if there is a threat of any kind of armed attack - then a preemptive attack can be made.”

He goes on to explain, “The treaty doesn’t say anything with regard to that. But then, whenever there is a necessity — necessity knows no boundary. Particularly in the national interest if anything is there — a country can do that.”

While India maintains that they have no intention of weaponizing the space race, its neighboring nations have perceived the progress of Mission Shakti in a different way.

For India, the objective is preemptive. The geopolitical strategy which is prevailing between the countries, our neighbors being Pakistan and China, it has become a necessity for the defence sector to develop those capabilities.

Kumar Abhijeet, Member of the International Institute of Space Law and Research Scholar at the Institute of Air and Space Law

Brian Weeden, the director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation took to Twitter asking if any commercial space companies would be interesting in taking a stand and boycotting the polar satellite launch vehicle (PSLV).


Though he later clarified that he was only fostering responsible behavior by asking companies to analyse the role that they want to play in the peaceful use of resources in outer space.

Pakistan is calling for the international community to condemn the act while China took a more subtle approach stating, “We have noticed reports and hope that each country will uphold peace and tranquillity in outer space.”

The ambiguities about space law and its enforceability can lead to uncertainty for stakeholders. The U.N. chief, Antonio Guterres, has already expressed his cynicism stating, “Key components of the international arms control architecture are collapsing,” with respect to global disarmament efforts.

Although war in space isn’t a phenomenon just yet, it is both, a grim reality and a technological feat, that countries are arming themselves with ASATs to show that they are ready to counter any threats from outer space.

See also:
India enters an elite club after scientists shoot down a low orbit satellite 300 km away in space

India's test of its anti-satellite weapon may have weakened its fight against dangerous space debris

The race to become the next space ‘superpower’ lands China on the ‘dark side’ of the moon
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