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Does Mission Shakti Violate International Law or Is It Shielded by Right to Free Access to Space?

Mission Shakti, which was led by the Defence Research and Development Organisation, was aimed at strengthening India’s overall security, Modi said in his address that came a fortnight before the start of the Lok Sabha elections.

Debayan Roy | News18.com

Updated:March 27, 2019, 8:51 PM IST
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Does Mission Shakti Violate International Law or Is It Shielded by Right to Free Access to Space?
Picture of Anti-satellite missile released by ministry of defence.

New Delhi: India has become the fourth nation in the world after the United States, China and Russia to demonstrate anti-satellite missile capability by shooting down a satellite. In a special address to the nation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday described it as a rare achievement that puts the country in an exclusive club of space superpowers.

According to reports, the target was a decommissioned Indian satellite that was eliminated within three minutes. The anti-satellite (A-SAT) weapon was launched at 11:16 am.

Mission Shakti, which was led by the Defence Research and Development Organisation, was aimed at strengthening India’s overall security, Modi said in his address that came a fortnight before the start of the Lok Sabha elections.

News18 decodes A-SATs and the law governing this area:

What are Anti-satellite Weapons?

Anti-satellite weapons (A-SATs) are space weapons designed to incapacitate or destroy satellites for strategic military purposes. Several nations possess operational A-SAT systems, with others in development. It’s essentially a missile that can destroy or jam an enemy country’s satellite in space. Since most of the communication networks are satellite-based, this can have a disastrous impact on the country whose satellite is targeted.

Which nations have used A-SAT?

Although no A-SAT system has yet been utilised in warfare, several nations have shot down their own (defunct) satellites to demonstrate their A-SAT capabilities in a show of force. Only the US, Russia, China, and now, India, have successfully demonstrated this capability.

Why are A-SATs used?

Satellites are potential targets of attack for those wishing to cause harm to military or civilian operations. Should satellites ever become targets, their destruction could render key orbits around the Earth unusable as a result of the accumulation of “space debris” that, when it collides with other satellites and pieces of debris, can cause further fragmentation and create more debris, more collisions, and so on.

Which law governs A-SAT and is it prohibited?

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which came into effect in October that year. It is the second “non-armament” treaty (the first being the Antarctic Treaty of 1961). There is no expiration date. The first three articles of the treaty set out general principles for the use of space; the other articles are intended to guide the behaviour of signatories.

While Article IV bans WMDs (weapons of mass destruction) from orbit, it does not prohibit missile-borne WMDs from transiting space or weapons other than WMDs being placed in space orbit and used to attack targets in space or on Earth. There is no ban on air-, ground-, or conventional space-based anti-satellite or anti-missile weapons.

In addition to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, five other treaties address space issues.

These are: the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963, which prohibits nuclear tests and any other nuclear explosions in the atmosphere or outer space; the Astronauts Rescue Agreement of 1968, requiring the safe return of astronauts and objects launched into space to their country of origin; the Liability Convention of 1972, establishing procedures for determining the liability of a state that damages or destroys space objects of another state; the Registration Convention of 1976 requiring the registration of objects launched into space; and the Moon Agreement of 1984, which took the first steps to establish a regime for exploiting the natural resources of space.

Does the Limited Test Ban Treaty prohibit the use of A-SAT?

In 1963, the then Soviet Union, US and UK concluded the Limited Test Ban Treaty whereby each state undertook “to prohibit, to prevent, and not to carry out any nuclear weapon test explosion, or any other nuclear explosion, at any place under its jurisdiction or control”.

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits the stationing of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction in space. However, it does not prohibit the stationing of other kinds of weapons in space. The treaty’s stipulation that the moon and other celestial bodies be used “exclusively for peaceful purposes” does not extend to satellites or spacecraft.

But doesn’t A-SAT cause space debris, thereby violating international law?

A missile strike against a satellite can create tens of thousands of pieces of space debris. These pieces then orbit the Earth at speeds of up to 28,100 km per hour, with relative speeds — with respect to other satellites and spacecraft — of up to twice that figure. Space debris is consequently very hazardous to satellites and other space objects.

After China tested the A-SAT, it produced a large amount of space debris. It was, in fact, the “worst debris-generating event on record,” creating 2,087 pieces large enough to be monitored by the US military’s Space Surveillance Network 25 and approximately 35,000 pieces larger than one centimetre across. This resulted in a 20% increase in objects in orbit and a consequential 37% increase in predicted collisions.

It is important to note that A-SAT weapons are not explicitly prohibited by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty or the other treaties that currently exist for the space domain. However, if an A-SAT weapon is used in a manner that creates a large amount of space debris, this could violate the right to free access to space that is set out in these treaties and is also part of customary international law.

Moreover, general international law — including the United Nations Charter, the customary international law of self-defence, international humanitarian law, and even international environmental law — applies in space and, therefore, to A-SAT weapons.

Since international law allows satellites to be used for military purposes, how is this a violation?

International law allows the use of satellites for military purposes, but disallows attacks against them. Article 2(4) of the UN Charter prohibits the “use or the threat of force against the territory or political independence of a member state of the United Nations”.

However, the right to self-defence is one of the two exceptions to the Article 2(4), with the other exception being action authorised by the UN Security Council.

Article 51 states: “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations …”

Can India Say its Trial Today Does Not Violate International law?

The Chinese test in 2007 was like India — directed at one of its own satellites — and, therefore, not covered by the international rules on military force. The relevant rule in this instance was, instead, the right of free access to space, which is a rule of customary international law codified in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and continues to exist in parallel to it.

However, diplomatic activity aimed at reducing or eliminating the creation of space debris was given a new direction as a result of the 2007 Chinese A-SAT test. A month after it was conducted, the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) adopted the Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines. Guideline 4 spelled out, “Avoid intentional destruction and other harmful activities.”

The IOS Space Debris Mitigation Requirements are not legally binding. However, in 2015 they were adopted by the European Cooperation for Space Standardization, whose standards the 22 member-state European Space Agency accepts and imposes upon all of its projects. The ESA is involved in dozens of space missions and hundreds of other space-related projects.

Non-defensive attacks on satellites are already prohibited by Article 2(4) of the UN Charter. However, neither Article 2(4) nor the right of free access to space precludes the use of A-SATs in self-defence.

The “inherent” right of self-defence is a rule of customary international law that is recognised in Article 51 of the UN Charter as an exception to one of the international community’s most fundamental rules, such as the prohibition on “the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state”.

If India wants to avoid space debris at all cost, is there an alternative?

It’s not only the kinetic A-SAT which can be used to assert dominance over space military capacity. A non-kinetic A-SAT weapon might operate by capturing a satellite, simply nudging it off course, or “blinding” it with a laser or other form of directed energy beam.

In 1997, the US Navy’s Mid-Infrared Advanced Chemical Laser was tested against its Air Force Force satellite. Although it failed to have the desired effect, a second, lower-power chemical laser was able to temporarily blind the satellite’s sensors.

In 2006, China tested an A-SAT laser by directing its beam at a US satellite, blinding it for a few minutes. Other kinds of non-kinetic A-SAT weapons could use electronic jamming to similar effect.

Cyber-attacks constitute another form of non-kinetic A-SAT weapon. Such attacks could involve jamming or hacking into the communications link between a satellite and its ground stations. They could even involve taking over the satellite’s control systems to repurpose, shut down, or direct it into a disadvantageous orbit.

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