Militarisation of space: terrestrial geopolitics or prevention strategy?

by Giorgio Cardile

On the cover: The 1984 Strategic Defense Initiative concept of a space laser pumped from a nuclear reactor or chemical hydrogen fluoride laser satellite led to this illustration of one laser-equipped satellite firing at another, causing a change in momentum in the target object by laser ablation. Only to have to cool down and aim again at other possible targets.

1. Settore bellico e spazio

Currently, space is unarmed. There are no weapons deployed in space or on the ground (in the air, at sea or on the ground) intended to attack space objects, such as satellites. Nor are there any satellite weapons deployed against terrestrial targets. Space is used for communications, surveillance and targeting on battlefields; for weather forecasting; for mapping and positioning military assets; for early warning of missile and air attacks; and for general military, economic and technological intelligence around the world. Thus space is 'militarised' even if not yet 'armed'. However, even countries like India - which has no history of military activity in space - have begun to enter the field, when the Shakti Mission was launched on 27 March 2019. India's test illustrates the dilemma faced by many space-faring countries: should they act independently and aggressively in this arena to protect their interests, or should they put their trust in international forums to try to contain the current space arms race?

Image: The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) successfully launched the Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) Interceptor, in an Anti-Satellite Missile Test (A-SAT) 'Mission Shakti' by engaging an Indian target satellite in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) in a 'Hit to Kill' mode from Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Island, in Odisha on March 27, 2019.

Space weaponry poses two major threats. First, it poses a security threat, as unilateral actions by countries to arm space increase uncertainty within the international system. For example, some space researchers have recently warned that the proposal to establish a US space force increases the risk of conflict and exacerbates tensions with its rivals. Secondly, it poses an environmental threat, since anti-satellite weapons experiments have led to the creation of large amounts of space debris and increased the difficulty of conducting near-Earth operations. If the process of weaponizing space were to accelerate, space could become dangerous and less accessible to actors who would make commercial and scientific use of it.

2. World leaders' approach to the militarisation of space

The United States, Russia and China constitute the three main space superpowers: they have independent capabilities to develop, launch and control satellites for all space orbits and manned space programmes. The medium-sized space powers are the