Event ReportsPublished on Dec 28, 2019
The realm of space is “fluid, contested and driven by politics.”
Outer space and international security

Despite the growing interest in the realm of outer space, its application in matters of international security remains a relatively unexplored one. On this note, the Chair, Prof. Rakhahari Chatterji, inaugurated the talk on “Outer Space and International Security” held at ORF Kolkata on 19th December, in collaboration with the International Relations Department of Jadavpur University.

The chair opened by placing the relevance of the talk in two recent developments in the sphere of international relations; one, in the global chase for militarising and weaponising outer space; and two, the collapse of arms control agreements and missile control regimes. In such “dangerous and uncertain times,” he went on to identify weaponsing outer space in the absence of international agreements as detrimental to nuclear peace ensuring Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) regimes. He highlighted that “outer space as global commons” should be treated as a vital point for discussion.

In his introductory remarks, Prof. Shibashis Chatterjee, Director, School of International Relations and Strategic Studies, Jadavpur University, highlighted the dearth of discourse on outer space in security and strategic studies and its emerging centrality in the same. He probed further into the nature of outer space, the civilian-non-civilian/institutional-non-institutional dichotomies it represented, the extent to which it is a free space and if at all it is a strategic space.

Presenting on the topic, Shounak Set, Marie Curie Research Fellow, King’s College, London, grounded his work on inter-state factors on military strategy. Stating that the realm of space is “fluid, contested and driven by politics,” he categorised the use of space technology into civilian and military. The former category is mobilised in everyday use in booking cabs, in operation of ATMs etc., and the latter in communication, reconnaissance and surveillance, and navigation among others. He further maintained that there has been a paradigm shift in warfare from land, to water, to air, to outer space now. He distinguished between preparation for war — militarisation and installing devices with offensive capabilities in space weaponisation — and noted the paradoxical existence of space weapons sans the actual weaponisation of space. Space weapons like anti-satellites may actually be derived from missile defence technologies and not be offensives. Further, with the integration of combat operations with satellite systems satellites had extended their use to target-acquisition in addition to the traditional military uses. He elaborated this with the example of the first space war, the Gulf War, in 1991, in which satellite-powered GPS-navigation vehicles and precision-guided ammunitions had substantially improved successful hits.

Set observed that “outer space today is in a transition zone, from being an appendage of military strategy in the earlier times to being an independent area of conflict.” This has been complicated by the return of great-power politics and proliferation of actors in international relations as well as outer space, a development which according to the game theory would yield fewer chances at co-operation. He iterated that the potential of outer space is immense as it offered both height and speed — the 2 variables to which war outcomes can be attributed. However, space weapons prompt offence and first-use, whereas, nuclear weapons due to are essentially deterring and therefore by extension, stabilising. In conclusion, therefore, he identified militarisation and weaponisation of outer space as being essentially destabilising.

Discussing the presentation, Prof. Anindya Jyoti Majumdar, Professor, Department of International Relations, Jadavpur University posed outer space as an enigma which usually provokes many fantasies and science-fictions. He predicted an approaching shift in power relations discourse from geo-politics to astro-politics, given the scarcity of accessible orbits and the importance of satellites as force multipliers and enablers of operations on ground. The scarcity of orbits, subsequent space congestion and the onslaught of actors at the intersection of international relations and outer space would, in his view, necessitate new technologies and formats of warfare. Such developments can only be sobered by cognizance of the perils of the Frankenstein Syndrome where creations turn against the creator and of Marten’s Clause which places a prohibition against anything that goes against the laws of humanity.

Attempts to militarise outer space, Prof. Majumdar iterated, fell under the realm of ‘insecurity’ and not security discourses. Security itself, he maintained, is an elusive term that cannot be divorced from insecurity. The militarisation and weaponisation of outer space hence, marks a new moment in strategic studies, its conjunction with and international security presents a lucrative field for research.

This report is prepared by Nidhi Sharma, Research Intern, ORF Kolkata.

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