Space Terrorism: Is it a Possibility?

07 Mar, 2003    ·   981

Sqn Ldr Ajay Lele evaluates the possibilities of terrorism in outer space

Post-9/11, the US administration has become paranoid with terrorism. The Columbia space shuttle disaster is a case in point. Since, neither the hundreds of nuclear weapons nor the missile defence shield are capable of saving the US from potential terrorist attacks, there is good reason to worry about.  The Columbia disaster has given rise to a new debate on the issue of “Space Terrorism” in this newly emerging syndrome.

Destroying a space shuttle in the upper atmosphere at an altitude of 60 to 70 km above the surface of the earth and traveling at 12,500 mph is no child’s play. To create a disaster of such magnitude is impossible for any terrorist organization; hence, the terrorism angle has been rightfully ruled out, notwithstanding the fact that apart from one Israeli crew-member, the rest were Americans. Despite its improbability, one important fact cannot be overlooked – to engineer a disaster in space does not necessarily require inflicting physical damage to the orbiting shuttle; it can be effectively tampered at the ground segment/mission control center itself. Any sabotage from the ground is very difficult as most of the critical controls of the space system are generally onboard the shuttle. Nevertheless tinkering with the space vehicles is not impossible.

Today, the US has unmatched space superiority. Its space technology played a critical role during the Gulf War, the Kosovo conflict and the recent operations in Afghanistan. While utility of space technologies is undeniable, overdependence on space-based systems exposes US vulnerability to terrorist sabotage; evidently, any interference in its space program would entail an enormous cost. Therefore, it is understandable that the administration is paranoid about terrorist threat to the “Continental US space assets.”

American global military operations rely heavily on the Global Position System (GPS). It uses a constellation of thirteen satellites that transmit three dimensional triangularized locations anywhere on the earth’s surface. It is not too difficult for a terrorist organization to develop an area jamming capability that can ensure smart missiles used by US troops are misguided while attacking targets, say in Iraq.

Jamming the GPS is not the only form of space terrorism; there could be other similar space weapons. This concept is not new. The idea originated after the launch of Sputnik-1 in 1957. By the sixties various proposals to destroy orbiting satellites were put forward. However, the 1967 outer space treaty thwarted the ‘lethal’ use of space systems. Despite the treaty, several space powers continued developing anti-satellite weapons. These weapons, designed as jammers, could be placed on a satellite, which can then interfere with the operations of the enemy satellite. With technological advancement, ground based laser weapons capable of afflicting satellite operations are available. Given its accessibility, terrorists could use such weapons in the future.

Cyber-terrorism is another facet of space terrorism. Security of military installations, power plants, air traffic control centers, banks and other communication networks is already at stake due excessive dependence on Internet. Increased Internet usage is the vulnerable component in space operations. Reports indicate that militant groups like the Al-Qaeda and Hamas are equipped to carry out cyber attacks. Soon after the Columbia mishap, there were reports that seven of the NASA computer servers were hacked. Since foolproof security of any computer system is a myth, the US has plenty to worry about.

It is also feared that terrorists may adopt unconventional methods of attacks; futuristic scenarios involving terrorists traveling as a ‘space tourist’ and then unleashing an act of terror, is not impossible.

American superpower status and its unilateral posturing are fostering a hostile environment. It is quite conceivable that states like Iraq, Iran and North Korea can challenge US supremacy by interfering with satellites – a feasible option despite limitations imposed by asymmetric power equations. In the war against terrorism, outer space supremacy has not helped the US nab Osama bin Laden; now its major concern would be to ensure that terrorists do not capture the remaining high ground of outer space.