Space must not be militarised

India must take the lead to call for a comprehensive global treaty.

It has become an urgent imperative for the international community to come together to negotiate a global treaty to explicitly ban the weaponisation of space. The United States announced last week the creation of a new, and sixth, arm of the US military — the United States Space Force, a step that in all likelihood will prompt other space-faring nations to follow suit. US President Donald Trump had made his intentions clear in this regard in March when in a speech at a US Marines’ base, he equated space as a war-fighting domain to land, air and sea and called for America’s “dominance” of space. Last week, Vice President Mike Pence detailed the plan to achieve it. This marks a significant shift away from the stance of the major space-faring nations hitherto, maintaining that space is a global common meant for peaceful purposes. The US announcement can be expected to trigger similar moves, or countermeasures, by other governments, notably Russia and China, all of which have demonstrated anti-satellite and other military space capabilities. Global concerns over the weaponisation of space have been around for many decades, indeed since the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957. Those concerns worsened in the 1980s with Ronald Reagan’s announcement of the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI), or Star Wars programme. Now, thanks to the Star Wars effort, and the emergence of new technologies and military doctrines, the militarisation and weaponisation of space is well-nigh upon us.    

In 1967, the US, the Soviet Union and the UK signed the Outer Space Treaty (OST). Under its Article IV, they undertook not to place in the Earth’s orbit or outer space any objects carrying nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction. Establishment of military bases or installations or conduct of military manoeuvres in outer space were forbidden, too. However, the OST did not explicitly ban all military uses of space. It left enough loopholes to allow the big powers to militarise space, which they have exploited over the decades. But space is no more the exclusive domain of a handful of state entities. Businesses and even individual adventurers are present, too, in what’s called ‘New Space’, wanting to do business and pleasure, and scientific and industrial exploration, all on a scale hitherto unimaginable. Any country or corporation that flexes its muscles to dominate outer space will therefore be fiercely challenged.

It’s time the OST is replaced by a global and comprehensive treaty to prevent the militarisation of space. India, which boasts of an impressive peaceful space programme, should take the lead and call for an international conference on the issue. The militarisation and weaponisation of space must be prevented now.

 

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