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  • Star Wars of The Third Millennium: Legal Implications of Satellite Shooting

    Paper number



    Mr. Dhruv Sharma, NALSAR University of Law, India


    Ms. Runjhun Noopur, NALSAR University of Law, India



    The US shooting down of its own satellite last month must be understood from the strategic and technological perspective. It was the first time that a low-orbiting satellite about to enter the earth’s atmosphere was shot down by a ship-launched missile. The Pentagon planners must be happy that the very first attempt of the modified missile was a success in terms of hitting and destroying the crippled satellite to avoid large, possibly toxic, debris falling to earth. However, space debris are not the only fallout of this application of missile defence technology. The satellite shooting down blurs the lines between defending against a threat such as an attacking missile and targeting a satellite in low-earth orbit.
    Outer space assets have been in use for several military support functions such as reconnaissance, surveillance, strategic communication, navigation and even weapon guidance. But actual deployment of weapons in space or against space assets of adversaries has not happened yet. Fortunately, military exploitation of outer space has been limited to passive roles and scientific/commercial endeavours have been able to progress with minimal interference from military planners, making space assets a vital component of international economic and development activities. 
    Satellite shooting incidents and deployment of missile defence systems threaten to destabilise the peaceful environment of outer space that has remained a common space for all civilian satellites, space transportation systems as well as ballistic missiles and missile defence systems. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty was the result of shared international concern that military exploitation of space may not only seriously jeopardise civilian space programmes but even upset deterrence-based power balance equations and endanger international peace and stability. However, in the past decade continued advances in technology and changing perceptions of security have added a new momentum to increased militarisation of outer space. 
    Where is all this leading to? Increasing use of outer space has produced considerable amount of space debris and this has become a major threat to spacecraft and satellites. In 2001, the UN Committee on Peaceful Use of Outer Space mandated the Inter-Agency Debris Coordination Committee to develop international debris mitigation guidelines. Today, over 9,000 space debris of 10 centimetre or larger size are constantly monitored and thousands of other smaller debris are floating around that can cause serious hazard to low-orbit satellites/spacecraft. If we are going to have more problems with space debris, perhaps there is a case for evolving a structured international cooperation for shooting falling satellites or other objects. 
    Any further weaponisation of outer space will make things very difficult. It could destabilise the existing system of nuclear-missile deterrence that has held the international strategic balance of power. It could also seriously jeopardise the smooth functioning of satellite-based activities in the economic and commercial domain. 
    The joint Russia-China proposal for Prevention of Arms Race in Outer Space as well as the evolving US preference for a ‘Code of Conduct’ need to be synchronised soon, before tensions due to US missile defence deployment or another satellite shooting down makes any future international consensus difficult to achieve. The world is now so dependent on space technology that we must preserve outer space for peaceful applications. The need of the hour is to take proactive steps in building the right momentum towards preservation of peace and stability in outer space and to prevent this star war from shaping into a mammoth form.
    Abstract document


    Manuscript document