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Weapons in Space~II

In the previous centuries, dominance on earth was decided by controlling the sea routes. Airpower was added in the last century and in this century, it would likely be space power, for which the ability to place military assets in space – especially in Low Earth Orbit – will become the determining factor. Whoever controls the LEO will become a gatekeeper.

GOVIND BHATTACHARJEE |

In “Astropolitik: Classical Geopolitics in the Space Age” (Routledge, 2001), Professor Everett Carl Dolman from the US Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College applied Halford Mackinder’s famous Heartland Theory of 1904 to space. Space, according to him, is not featureless but “a rich vista of gravitational mountains and valleys, oceans and rivers of resources and energy.” 

Dolman divided space into four territories: (1) Terra, sur- rounding the earth and up to the limit where a spacecraft can orbit without being powered, (2) Earth Space, up to the GEO, (3) Lunar Space, up to the lunar orbit and (4) the unlimited Solar Space, beyond the lunar orbit. 

In Mackinder’s Theory, Heartland was a region around the then Russian Empire. Mackinder postulated that whoever controls East Europe controls the Heartland and whoever controls the Heartland controls the world. Dolman’s version was that whoever controls LEO controls the near-Earth space; whoever controls the near-Earth space controls the Terra and whoever “dominates Terra determines the destiny of mankind.” 

Realism, one of the oldest theories of international relations, believes that in the international system, states aim to increase their own power, especially in military terms, in relation to their rivals. 

According to the modern version of realism, or neorealism, the international system is anarchical, implying that there is no central authority. While cooperation between states is unlikely, an alliance or coalition between states is a possibility which in turn may trigger the formation of counter-alliances in order to balance the power of other entities in the system. Dolman believes that “the state that dominates space is specifically chosen by the rigours of competition as the politically and morally superior nation, culture, and economy”, obviously meaning the USA. 

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. 

The 19th century American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan’s concept of “oceanic chokepoints” which are crucial to the maritime trade routes are examples of such features ~ and such chokepoints like Gibraltar, Malacca, Bab-el-Mandeb, Suez etc. remain as crucial today to maritime powers as they were in Mahan’s time. 

Drawing upon Mahan’s analogy, Dolman also characterised space as “offering orbits, regions and launch points of geo-strategic significance”, suggest- ing that similar space choke- points or traffic corridors will develop in space due to the efficiency costs of rocket propulsion to earth orbits leveraging the gravity of the earth. Just like the establishment of naval bases on earth to facilitate control of maritime trade, Dolman advocates the creation of space bases for stock-piling of fuel and life-support supplies for further exploration and commercial exploitation of space. A state that succeeds in gaining control of the space chokepoints and such way-stations on space routes can expect to gain significant advantages over other states; a state that controls such corridors “can ensure for itself domination of space commerce and, ultimately, terrestrial politics.” 

As Tim Marshal corroborates in his book, in the previous centuries, dominance on earth was decided by controlling the sea routes. Airpower was added in the last century and in this century, it would likely be space power, for which the ability to place military assets in space ~, especially in the LEO ~ will become the determining factor. LEO is also the area where any spacecraft travelling to the Moon and beyond can be refuelled and resupplied, and refuelling will be a necessity if distant planets like Mars or asteroids
are to be explored for energy and mineral resources. Hence whoever controls this corridor will become a gatekeeper to the outer space beyond and can prevent a rival from refuelling within it. 

It is just like what is happening currently on earth in the Ukraine War ~ Turkey, a Nato member which is the gatekeeper to the Black Sea, has restricted Russian warships to sail from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea through the Bosphorus Strait. 

LEO also assumes significance, as Marshal points out, for commercial considerations. A technology to deflect solar energy upon the earth for power generation using a vast array of solar reflectors will likely be placed on the LEO. Given this is also where spaceships would need refuelling, a gatekeeper can easily charge a fee to allow any space- ship to travel beyond for mining or exploration purposes. 

Just like on earth, space also can become an arena for intense competition. Five points denoted as L1, L2, L3, L4 and L5, known as the Lagrange’s Points, surround the earth where the gravitational forces of the sun and the earth cancel each other out, giving stability to a spacecraft placed therein while requiring minimal energy to keep it there.

Two of these points allow commanding views of the belts containing satellites and one in particular, L2, where the giant James Webb Space Telescope was positioned last year, is directly behind the earth in the line joining the sun and the earth. This is also where China has placed a satellite recently, allowing it to view the dark side of the moon where it is also contemplating establishing a military base. All these points will become objects of intense competition for the strategic advantages they confer. 

All the past efforts for disarmament of space through international consensus have so far met with failure. In 2008, China and Russia had together submitted a draft treaty called the “Prevention of the placement of weapons in outer space and of the threat or use of force against outer space objects” (PPWT) to the Conference on Disarmament, but the USA rejected it, as it did again in 2014 when a revised draft of the PPWT was submitted by Russia and China, on the pretext that since there was no arms race in space at the moment, there was no need for an arms control treaty. Since the USA possesses space technology superior to other nations, it will be unlikely to agree to any similar treaty. In any case, the issue is far too complex to be addressed through treaties. 

Only a global governance system ~ akin to what the world is trying to achieve for climate ~ entrusted and empowered with the mandate of restoring and preserving space as a global common can provide a sustainable model for making and keeping space weapons-free, because, just like the environment, how a nation uses space affects all other nations on earth. 

In “Dark Skies: Space Expansionism, Planetary Geopolitics, and the Ends of Humanity” (Oxford, 2020), American political scientist Daniel Deudney examined the effects of humanity’s space expansionism for colonization, military and planetary security purposes.

Contrary to the widely-held belief that space expansion is necessary for the survival of humanity from mega-disasters on earth and to meet the demands for far higher energy in future, Deudney warned against the risk of space expansion, stressing rather upon cooperative space ventures which alone can bring far-reaching security benefits by “defusing conflict situations and providing safeguards against the degeneration of international relations”. He cited the examples of such cooperation in respect of projects such as the International Geophysical Year (IGY) and the International Space Station (ISS). 

In fact, activities in space to ensure a better future for the earth will necessarily call for cooperation between space powers, whether for building large-scale orbital infrastructures, or for developing capabilities to monitor the movements of, and if necessary to deflect or destroy, asteroids, or for establishing lunar or planetary bases for manned missions to Mars or other planets in future, as a single nation will always be constrained by the demands for enormous resources and capacity necessary of such endeavours. 

But for such cooperation to materialise, mutually restraining arms control in space will be a prerequisite, like restraints on testing and deployment of ASATs, creating international organisations “with treaty-verification capacities” and test bans in space to restrict weapons innovation. 

Deudney also believes that space weaponization will lead to a hierarchical world order that may ultimately degenerate into totalitarian oppression, the possibility of which cannot be ruled out given the potential for extensive surveillance capabilities likely to be developed when states compete for supremacy on earth through space-based monitoring and surveillance systems. 

He feels that “promoting mutual understanding through planetary-scale information and defusing confrontation through space ventures is far more realistic than eliminating the causes of war with abundant energy.” 

It is doubtful whether such cooperation in space can be achieved without first eliminating nuclear weapons or their testing on earth because any conflict on earth has the potential of escalating into a conflict in space by targeting each other’s space assets by fighting nations. “Disarmament of outer space cannot be divorced from disarmament on earth”, as Evgeny Korovin, a prominent Russian scholar of space law stated in 1959. 

For a species that has not yet learnt to eliminate war on earth, the peaceful use of space will remain a chimaera. But the alternative is again too frightening ~ it is fraught with a Hobbesian nightmare ~ a no-holds-barred war of every nation against every other nation. 

Hobbes believed that only a common power like a state can ensure law, justice and virtue to save man’s life on earth from being “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. But a planetary rule under a single, dominant state is an absurdity. It cannot be a Pax Americana or a Pax Sinica or a Pax Russica ~ it can only be a Pax Mundi.