The Space Race for Mega Satellite Constellations and its Global Implications

The race for mega satellite constellations is a double-edged sword. Mega constellations comprising small and mobile satellites are less susceptible to atmospheric interference, leading to reduced latency and enhanced internet accessibility. However, if left unrestrained, the potential drawbacks would outweigh the benefits. These drawbacks include risks to aviation safety, astronomical research, the escalating influence of private enterprises, and the prospects of weaponisation. Nearly 1 million satellites await approval of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to be launched into the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) by the end of this decade. To mitigate these potential fallouts, an effective governance structure is imperative.

At present, private companies and state parties are jostling to capitalise on the economic potential without giving due consideration to the accompanying threats. Starlink and OneWeb, two private firms, are leading the race with a presence of 5,000 and 630 satellites, respectively, in LEO. Starlink, being a pioneer, holds $1.4 billion of the growing space-based internet market which was valued at $92 billion in 2022. State parties are also making advances. China and Europe are planning their own mega constellations named Guowang and IRIS2 respectively.

Beyond major powers, reduced costs and prospects of financing from large firms have made the endeavour enticing to the developing world as well. Thus far, the Rwandan Space Agency (RSA) has submitted the largest proposal to send nearly 330,000 small satellites with funding from a private firm OneWeb. Such a huge number of satellites would make debris management nearly impossible and jeopardise space research.

Apart from these risks, the surging influence of private firms on key strategic events is far more concerning. In the Russia-Ukraine war, Russia blocked the satellite communication to paralyse the Ukrainian military operations. Elon Musk’s Starlink not only restored military communications but played a crucial role in Ukraine’s fight against Russia. The system helped Ukraine coordinate drone strikes which inflicted heavy losses on the Russian forces thereby halting their onslaught.

Nevertheless, the ultimate control rests with the service provider. It became evident when Elon Musk refused to provide Ukraine with Starlink service over Crimea to attack the Russian naval fleet, arguing that the step could have provoked a harsh  response from Russian President Vladimir Putin. This amply depicts how the surging influence of private firms could reshape the outcomes of key geopolitical events, thereby threatening the global strategic equilibrium.

Acknowledging the strategic and economic significance of these constellations, the US Department of Defence (DoD) took an anticipated measuring by commissioning Starlink to develop a military version called Starshield. The Starshield will have the capability of earth observation, communication, and custom payload. It remains obscure what could be the custom payload. Given the fact that these satellite constellations use laser communications and revolve in LEO, the possibility of weaponising them with non-kinetic space-to-earth or space-to-space weapons to neutralize the ground-based targets or drones cannot be dismissed. The LEO further incentivises the use of these satellites for military purposes as there would be lesser atmospheric interference, thereby making non-kinetic weapons more effective. The development of Starshield could possibly be the first step toward the race to weaponise LEO.

Moreover, the induction of Starshield could spell danger for the strategic equilibrium in the South Asian region. The US and India’s cooperation has been on the ascent in the backdrop of their converging interests vis-à-vis China. The signing of the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) has already granted India access to geospatial intelligence which would enhance the accuracy of its weapon systems. In the future, if the cooperation between the two expands to the domain of mega-constellations, it could significantly compromise the already delicate state of strategic stability in South Asia, by further tilting the balance in favour of India.

In light of these threats, the ITU, an organisation responsible for governing space endeavours, should establish a more stringent framework. Currently, the ITU demands state authority as an intermediary to ensure the compliance of companies with ITU’s Radio Regulations. These Radio Regulations lack a proper mechanism to limit the proliferation of satellites in space.

In addition, there is no enforceable treaty compelling companies to address debris from small satellites, which, due to their shorter lifespan of small satellites, require more frequent replacement. The United Nations (UN) Space Debris Compendium agreement, signed mostly by European states and organisations, has set standards for Space Debris Mitigation (SDM). However, the scope of this mechanism is confined to disseminating information regarding the latest methods for debris clean-up. The UN as well as space-faring nations should formulate a legally binding framework that places responsibility on the satellite producers and operators, making the clean-up of space debris obligatory.

Finally, the prospects of weaponisation necessitate urgent action. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 is limited to preventing the weaponisation of space with Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). Understandably, it does not address these emerging technologies, given their nascence. Urgent reconsideration of the treaty is needed to dissuade states from militarizing space and particularly the LEO should remain free from such races.

Tayyab Ali

The author is currently enrolled in Bachelors of Strategic Studies at National Defense University, Islamabad

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