January 23, 2024
NEW DELHI – It was recently reported that the Indian Air Force (IAF) is renaming itself as the Indian Air and Space Force (IASF) as part of its on-going overall drive to transform itself from “a potent air-power” to “a credible aerospace power” for the future. It has also formulated a new doctrine for effective exploitation of the “air and space continuum” and a “Space Vision 2047”, for which it expects the government’s approval soon.
It is now readying itself to fully exploit the final frontier of space assisted by DRDO, ISRO and its commercial arm, NewSpace India Limited (NSIL) which was set up in 2019, besides IN-Space (Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre) which was set up in 2020 to facilitate collaboration between the private sector and ISRO. Other major space powers already have similar structures in place ~ China has the People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force for space domain and the United States has created a full-fledged Space Force (USSF) as a distinct branch of its armed forces in 2019. Several other countries like the UK, Japan, France and Russia have also set up their space commands or wings in the air forces.
Space is definitely turning into the battleground for future wars and has to be integral to any country’s security system. Hence IAF’s existing fully-automated air defence network, called the Integrated Air Command and Control System (IACCS), will also have to evolve into IASCCS. IAF wants India to have over 100 big and small military satellites in the next 7-8 years when the tri-Service Defence Space Agency set up in 2019 evolves into a full-fledged Space Command.
Geopolitics is now slowly transforming itself into astropolitics. In the 19th and 20th centuries, geopolitical theories of Alfred Mahan and Halford Mackinder showed the limits of a country’s power based on its geography ~ its mountains, rivers, oceans and other features. Now we are beginning to focus on the space which is not featureless. As Tim Marshall said in his “The Future of Geography” (Elliott & Thomson, 2023), space has regions of intense radiation, its oceans of distance, its superhighways where a planet’s gravity can be utilised to accelerate spaceships, its strategic corridors where military and commercial equipment can be placed and bodies like planets and asteroids which can be exploited for their natural resources which may be extremely valuable to humanity. No big power can ignore the immense possibilities of space. International law classifies outer space as a “Global Common” ~ meaning outside of any country’s national jurisdiction and hence to be governed only by international legislation.
The high oceans, Antarctica, and even cyberspace are examples of Global Common, in respect of some of which there are international treaties. International law, including the Charter of the United Nations, applies to outer space and celestial bodies, which are free for exploration and use by all nations in conformity with international law. Activities in space are regulated by the United Nations Outer Space Treaty (OST ) of 1967 which has been ratified by 111 nations.
The treaty forbids nations to subject outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies “to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” It also prohibits the “establishment of military bases, installations and fortifications, the testing of any type of weapons and the conduct of military manoeuvres on celestial bodies” while binding nations not to “place in orbit around the earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction, or install such weapons on celestial bodies, or station such weapons in outer space in any other manner”.
The responsibility for enforcing these provisions lies with the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), which lacks the necessary legal authority or even the institutional capacity to enforce these effectively. As a result, the OST remains only on paper. Another agreement, the Moon Agreement of 1979 similarly forbids the use of the moon for military purposes or its weaponisation, but this treaty has been ratified by only 18 countries, which includes no spacefaring nation including the big three ~ the USA, Russia and China. As the space race heats up, it becomes even more necessary to bring nations together into agreements about the peaceful use of space.
The difficulty in this is exemplified by the fact that presently nations don’t even agree on a definition of space ~ NASA defines space as beginning at 80 km above sea level on earth, while the Swiss-based “Fédération Aéronautique Internationale” reckons space at the Kerman Line at 100 km above earth at which a spacecraft will begin to break free from the earth’s gravity and enter the Cislunar space ~ the region between the Earth and the Moon which is at a distance of 3.85 lakh kms.
Thus, if one nation believes that space begins at 80 km and another believes that it begins at 100 km, then the former can shoot down the satellite of the latter flying a satellite at 90 kms over it, triggering a conflict. There are three more space treaties: the Rescue Agreement of 1968 on the rescue of astronauts, the return of astronauts and the return of objects launched into outer space; the Liability Convention of 1972 on international liability for damage caused by space objects and the Registration Convention of 1976 on registration of objects launched into outer space.
India has signed all five, but has not ratified the Moon Agreement as yet. In May 2023, the UN had issued a Policy Brief titled “For all humanity ~ the future of outer space governance” to develop a framework for a peaceful world by “promoting peace, international law and digital cooperation” in space which recommended negotiation and development of a new treaty to ensure peace, security, and the prevention of an arms race in outer space, and also to establish international norms, rules, and principles to address emerging threats and promote responsible space activities. Nothing further has been done.
The UN or any other international body clearly lacks the necessary authority and the persuasive power to bring nations to such a negotiation, in the absence of which space remains a domain where might is right and the law of the jungle prevails. Since 1957, when the first satellite Sputnik-I was launched by the erstwhile USSR, till 2012, the number of satellites launched into outer space remained practically consistent, at approximately 150 each year. But then they began to rise exponentially, and in 2022, as many as 2,470 satellites were launched in space.
The USA leads the constellation of satellites with nearly 2000 satellites, followed by China at a distant second with about 500, Russia and UK (about 200 each) and Japan (about 100). As of February 2022, India had only 52 operational satellites in space, 23 and 29 operational satellites respectively in LEO and GEO. According to ISRO, till 2022, India has launched a total of 124 Indian satellites, including those from private operators.
Throughout history, certain specific geographical features of the world have been arenas for intense competition between rival states because of their inherent commercial, military and political advantages. They include the chokepoints of Gibraltar, Suez, Malacca, Bab-el-Mandeb, Strait of Hormuz, etc. ~ the last two are flashpoints in the Middle-east right now. Their equivalent in space could be the Low earth Orbit (LEO) extending up to 2,000 km from Earth, which hosts most of the satellites today.
There are about 5,000 active satellites today, but they will be joined by many more in the years to come. More than three fourths of these satellites are in LEO, and about 10 per cent are in Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO) at a distance of almost 36,000 km, also known as geostationary orbit as a satellite here appears stationary to an observer on the Earth due to the same orbital period. It is here that most of the communication and TV, radio and weather satellites are placed, because each satellite placed in GEO can ‘see’ as much as 42 per cent of the earth’s surface.
Due to signal interference, there are only limited slots and frequencies available for communication, and the UN’s International Telecommunications Union awards both positions and frequencies to satellites in GEO, recorded in its Master International Frequency Register. Till now, nations have registered radio frequencies with ITU for a staggering number of over 1.7 million non-geostationary satellites that may be launched into orbit by the beginning of 2030.
GEO is also where most dual-use military communication satellites of the big three space powers and other nations are placed. Beyond GEO is the area where satellites go to die in deeper space at the end of their useful life, when their thrusters push them out of harm’s way for other active satellites. More than a hundred satellites are also in the Medium Earth orbit (MEO), between the LEO and the GEO.
Over half of the more than 500 satellites estimated to have military or dual-use purposes are in LEO, where their low altitude coupled with short orbital periods make them ideal for Earth observation and surveillance. Some of the LEO satellites, like the International Space Station at 400 km, can even be seen with naked eyes. More than 90 countries have placed satellites in space, using the launch facilities which only 11 countries including India have developed so far.
(The writer is a commentator, author and academic. Opinions expressed are personal)