Wednesday, May 29, 2024

The Grey Zone In Space: Navigating Ambiguity

By Commander Rahul Verma 

It is difficult to fathom whether Sun Tzu envisioned Earth’s orbit as a ‘vantage point,’ ‘precipitous height’, or a ‘sunny spot.’ However, it is intriguing to speculate whether such a perspective would have altered his understanding of battle strategies and the potential for winning wars.

Military thinkers (and even science fiction writers) have frequently relied on Sun Tzu’s statements to elucidate their choices or validate the audacity of their approaches. Yet, the true significance of Sun Tzu’s words may lie in guiding operational commanders on how to best position their forces and, more importantly, how to identify the path to victory. 

If that holds true, then it is evident that Russian and Chinese space policymakers drew inspiration from a different warning of Sun Tzu: “So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong and to strike at what is weak.” The realm of outer space is confronting unparalleled and disruptive challenges. 

Graphical Representation

Drivers of instability include the entanglement of conventional and nuclear space sensor systems; The proliferation of kinetic energy direct ascent anti-satellite weapons testing, along with the rapid expansion of constellations consisting of numerous commercial satellites, represents significant challenges in the realm of outer space. China plays a crucial role in all three of these concerns, highlighting the gap between the evolving technological landscape and the existing infrastructure for space governance. The increasing number of space actors further emphasises the urgency to update and adapt the governance framework to effectively address these emerging issues.

During World War I and World War II, visionary naval officers engaged in future warfare discussions and simulations known as ‘Fleet Problems,’ exploring the potential of carrier-and submarine-based naval power. This was in contrast to the prevailing belief in the supremacy of battleships during that period. Through exercises conducted under the name War Plan Orange, these naval strategists sought to test their theories and gain operational experience, which proved crucial after the events of December 1941. 

The Paris Air Show is a prominent event in the aerospace industry, showcasing the latest aviation and aerospace technology advancements. It brings together industry professionals, government representatives, and enthusiasts worldwide. In the context of space ambiguity, the Paris Air Show provides a platform where discussions on space-related topics can take place alongside discussions on aerospace advancements. 

The space domain requires a forward-looking and innovative approach to examining strategic concepts. Just as the naval officers utilised Fleet Problems as a crucible to shape their future strategies, space exploration and warfare necessitate their own set of ‘furnaces’ to forge the path forward. It is crucial to engage in proactive analysis and preparation before experiencing a metaphorical ‘Space Pearl Harbor’ event, which would highlight the urgency and significance of being well-prepared. The exploration and utilisation of outer space have always been at the forefront of scientific and technological advancements. 

As humanity ventures further into the cosmos, it is confronted with legal challenges concerning the governance and regulation of activities in space. The International Space Treaties and other laws provide a framework for space activities but also give rise to certain grey areas that necessitate careful examination. In this article, I delve into these grey zones, exploring the ambiguities and challenges they present in the context of space law. 

The Outer Space Treaty of 1967: The cornerstone of space law is the Outer Space Treaty (OST) of 1967, which establishes fundamental principles governing the exploration and use of outer space. While the OST is hailed as a landmark achievement, it also leaves certain matters open to interpretation. 

For instance, Article I states, “Outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means,” but it does not explicitly address the ownership of celestial bodies or their resources. The ambiguity surrounding resource extraction from celestial bodies became evident when several companies expressed interest in mining asteroids for valuable resources. The legal status of such activities remains unclear under the Outer Space Treaty.

Liability for Space Activities: The question of liability is another grey area in space law. The Liability Convention of 1972 aims to ensure compensation for damage caused by space objects. However, determining liability becomes complex when multiple actors are involved, such as in the case of satellite collisions or debris creation. 

The absence of clear guidelines regarding liability apportionment and the absence of a universal claims mechanism poses significant challenges in determining responsibility and providing adequate compensation. In 2009, a redundant Russian satellite stuck an operational American satellite, generating thousands of debris fragments. Determining liability and allocating compensation in such cases becomes complicated due to the involvement of multiple nations and private entities. 

This is clear when Ban Ki-moon, Former UN Secretary-General, said, “Space debris is a serious problem that threatens the continued access and use of outer space.” Private Commercial Activities in Space. The rise of private companies engaging in space activities has added another layer of complexity to the grey zones of space law. The OST provides a framework for states to authorise and supervise non-governmental entities but does not offer comprehensive guidance on licensing, liability, and jurisdiction issues. 

As private ventures like SpaceX and Blue Origin extend their reach beyond Earth’s orbit, questions arise concerning the application of national laws, the protection of intellectual property rights, and the boundaries of liability for damages caused by privately-owned space objects. The emergence of private space companies raises questions about the application of national laws in space. 

SpaceX launch: File Photo

Issues such as intellectual property rights and jurisdictional authority remain clear with specific regulations. This was clearly brought out by Donald Trump, Former President of the United States, on signing the Space Policy Directive-2 in 2018, “For too long, the United States has had a monopoly on space commerce. Today, we begin to break that monopoly.”  

Military Activities & Weaponisation: The militarisation and weaponisation of space present a significant challenge in the grey zone of space law. The OST prohibits deploying nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction in space. However, it does not explicitly prohibit the placement of conventional weapons or the use of space-based capabilities for military purposes. The absence of clear boundaries raises concerns about an arms race in space and the potential for destabilising international relations. 

The development of anti-satellite weapons and the testing of space-based capabilities by several nations have heightened concerns about the weaponisation of space. The lack of explicit prohibition in the Outer Space Treaty on placing conventional weapons in space creates a grey area. This has been in the context since the cold war, “The militarisation of outer space is more dangerous than the nuclear arms race,” said Mikhail Gorbachev, Former President of the Soviet Union.

Space Traffic Management & Debris Mitigation: With increasing number of satellites and space objects orbiting the Earth, space traffic management and debris mitigation have become pressing issues. While guidelines and best practices have been developed, there is no universally binding treaty or comprehensive legal framework specifically addressing these matters. The absence of clear rules regarding space traffic management, coordination of launches, and debris mitigation measures creates uncertainties and risks for space activities. India, which is growing its National Space Program and also simultaneously developing its own private space companies, is equally concerned about this. “We need to develop internationally accepted rules for responsible behaviour in space to avoid collisions and resulting space debris”, said the Hon’ble Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi.

The grey zones in international space treaties and laws present challenges that demand attention and resolution. As the exploration and utilisation of outer space advance, it is crucial to address these ambiguities through international cooperation and dialogue. The development of clearer legal frameworks and guidelines is essential to ensure the responsible and sustainable use of space. By working together, states, international organisations, and private actors can navigate the grey zones of space law, fostering a secure and prosperous future for humanity’s cosmic endeavours. 

An additional significant obstacle is the constraint of time or its insufficiency. The ongoing legal and diplomatic efforts within UN bodies to enhance regulatory frameworks and promote responsible behaviour are progressing at a sluggish pace, especially when compared to the rapid advancements in counter-space technology and the expansion of commercial space capabilities. 

Meanwhile, the global strategic landscape is deteriorating at an equally swift rate. The sluggishness of the legal process may hinder its ability to effectively adapt to the rapid changes unfolding in its surroundings. This creates a void in which non-democratic actors find an opportunity to exert influence. Since observing the space race between Moscow and Washington that began in the 1950s, China has viewed space capabilities as a symbol of national strength. In the 1990s, China earnestly began its efforts to develop space capabilities for military purposes. The significance of space in modern high-tech warfare, particularly evident during the US-led Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm against Iraq emphasised the crucial role of space in command, control, communications, and intelligence (C3I). 

By 2002, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) recognised the ‘space battlefield’ as an essential element of warfare and started incorporating it into China’s military operational plans. China’s military strategy subsequently evolved to prioritise ‘winning local wars under the conditions of informatisation’ and later ‘winning informationised local wars.’ Ambiguity in space law regarding the allocation of satellite coordinates has been a contentious issue for many years. 

The lack of clear guidelines for the allocation process has led to disputes between countries and private companies over the ownership and usage of specific orbital slots. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) coordinates the allocation of satellite frequencies and orbits, but its regulations are often open to interpretation. Additionally, the rapid growth of the commercial space industry has further complicated the allocation process as more companies seek to launch satellites into orbit. 

This ambiguity has thus given China the flexibility to pursue its space ambitions, including its strategic goals, without facing significant pushback from the international community. The concepts presented in ‘The Art of War’ are believed to be the culmination of generations of military knowledge derived from real battle experiences and give many insights into current events. Sun Tzu had the advantage of drawing upon the accumulated wisdom of past conflicts, learning from victories and defeats. Similarly, Clausewitz and Mahan developed their land and sea strategy theories by building upon centuries of battle-tested plans and experiences. 

They utilised these lessons to advance military doctrines, weapons, and the effective use of armed forces. However, when it comes to space warfare, we need more depth of experience to rely upon. No significant historical lessons on how force was applied or useful exercises could be extrapolated to actual combat situations. The realm of space warfare still needs to be explored, leaving us with a blank slate. While the ‘Art of War’ principles remain unchanged, their application must be adapted. This is also true for space warfare, where we must apply the timeless philosophical foundations while transcending grand concepts and focusing on operational strategies and capabilities. Efforts have already commenced in this regard, but much more work is still required.

Cdr. Rahul Verma is presently posted at TDAC looking after Unmanned Systems and Aviation Innovations. He is a Seaking Pilot with 4,000 flying hours experience. The officer is also a qualified RPA crew with an extensive experience in unmanned flying operations. He holds a Masters degree in Aerospace Law and a Post Graduate Diploma in Autonomous Systems and Product management. He is also pursuing MBA from Washington University and IIT-Bombay

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