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ASAT launch
India’s test of an anti-satellite weapon has heightened concerns about both harming the space environment and destabilizing the South Asia region. (credit: DRDO)

The implications of India’s ASAT test


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On March 27, India conducted Mission Shakti, an anti-satellite missile test. This was a technological mission carried out by the Defence Research and Development (DRDO). During this test, India targeted one of its own satellites with a ground-based missile. With this successful demonstration, India becomes the fourth country to test an ASAT after China, Russia, and the United States.

This and previous ASAT tests

The satellite used in the mission was one of India’s existing satellites, Microsat-R, operating in a low orbit about 300 kilometers high. Such tests require an extremely high degree of precision and technical capability and, with the success of the test, India has demonstrated such capabilities. This test also demonstrates the maturation of India’s missile defense program.

Looking at the types of missile interceptors being used for these tests broadly, it could be argued that such tests are the offshoot of ballistic missile defense programs of the respective nations

Before debating the rationale and implications of this test, it could be of interest to situate this test in comparison with the similar tests in recent times. ASAT testing is not a new phenomenon. During the Cold War period the United States and former Soviet Union conducted a number of such tests. More recently there have been two ASAT tests. In January 2007 China conducted an ASAT test, the first such test conducted in the post-Cold War era. This test was followed by the US test in February 2008 when they destroyed an out-of-control intelligence satellite at an approximate altitude of 250 kilometers.

These two tests and the test conducted by India were essentially hit-to-kill or direct ascent systems or a KKV (Kinetic Kill Vehicle) missions. Here the warhead of a missile is not an explosive but rather a piece of metal. This metal warhead hits the satellite and, owing to the impact velocity and the kinetic energy thus generated, the satellite is broken up. The Indian test used DRDO’s Ballistic Missile Defense interceptor, which is a part of India’s ongoing ballistic missile defense program. Reports indicate the test has generated at least 250 to 300 pieces of trackable debris. Such debris is expected to reenter the atmosphere within next one to two months because of the low altitude of the satellite struck by the ASAT.

The 2007 Chinese test involved the destruction of an old weather satellite. This 750-kilogram satellite was orbiting at altitude of about 850 kilometers. China used ground-based midcourse missile interception technology in that test. The problem with the Chinese test was that since it was conducted at higher altitudes, much of the debris created remains in orbit today. Moreover, it is even increasing in numbers as debris strikes each other or other objects in orbit. The US test a year later was conducted by using a modified Standard Missile-3 interceptor, essentially designed to counter short to intermediate-range ballistic missiles. This missile was launched from a ship-based platform. The debris created by this test reentered, mostly within weeks of the test.

Looking at the types of missile interceptors being used for these tests broadly, it could be argued that such tests are the offshoot of ballistic missile defense programs of the respective nations. ASAT weapons of the KKV variety are useful only for hitting targets in low Earth orbit, up to about 2,000 kilometers. DRDO is confident that they can hit a satellite by a ground based interceptor up to a distance of 1,000 kilometers. There is no authentic information available in regards to capabilities of countries like Russia, the US, and China about the orbits they could reach with their missile interceptors. Some reports indicate that China is testing kinetic interceptors that can reach satellites in the geostationary orbit, 36,000 kilometers high.

The need for ASATs

Over last two decades India has steadily and thoughtfully increased its investments in the space domain. At present, India has about 50 operational satellites in different orbits. Most of satellites are communications (19) and Earth observation (17). Obviously, India needs to ensure that their satellites are safe. India’s space research organization has been working on satellite hardening technologies, while scientists and policymakers are trying to ensure that redundancy would be built-in in various system as such. However, owing to geostrategic compulsions, India’s government felt the need to display the technological capabilities related to anti-satellite weapons.

With the prime minister’s announcement this mission, it becomes clear that India wants to be transparent in all activities it wants to undertake in space. Space security is an important issue for India.

There are differing opinions globally in regards to the rationale behind this test. However, it is important to take note of a typical security scenario existing over South Asia. China, India, and Pakistan share borders, but some border issues are still unresolved. Terrorism is a major challenge for the region. Unfortunately, no immediate solution to this problem appears to be in sight. The region has a history of conventional wars irrupting out of border disagreements. All three nations are nuclear powers and have various missile systems in their inventory. The last classical war that this region witnessed was the 1971 war between India and Pakistan. At that time both the states were non-nuclear weapon states. India and Pakistan became nuclear weapon states by 1998. There have been various major security-related disagreements in the region over the years, but luckily no major war has broken out. Hence, there is a case to argue that nuclear deterrence has delivered.

In the missile domain, in spite of all these nations conducting various tests, no untoward incident has happened so far. India and Pakistan have a treaty that requires both nations to give advance warning to each other in respect of their proposed ballistic missile tests. This arrangement is working well.

In the space arena, China has put in place a major space program. India also has reasonable capabilities in the space arena. In a relative sense, Pakistan’s investments are limited, but they have some sort of “space umbrella” from China. China demonstrated its ASAT capabilities more than a decade ago. The general notion that testing of military systems is destabilizing is found bit misplaced in this region. In fact, the acts of terrorism in the region have been more destabilizing that testing of any military systems. It is obvious that India’s ASAT would be criticized by both of its adversaries, but there is a space for such noise in international politics. However, in the longer run India’s ASAT testing is expected to emerge more as a stabilixing action for the region. Such a demonstration of technological capabilities is expected to deter potential adversaries.

More importantly, India’s test is not likely increase the space debris problem. Experts have already mentioned that there is no threat to the International Space Station since the Indian test took place well below the station’s 400-kilometer altitude. Also, since the debris created by the 2008 US test disappeared within days after the test, the same is expected to happen in this case. Hence, there is no need for other space powers to fear the debris menace.

Also, there is a need to take a note that India is the only state that has officially announced its ASAT testing. This announcement was made by none other than the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself. Presently, India is in the grip of election fever. However, there is a need to look beyond domestic politics and assess the importance of the prime minister owing the test. With his announcement this mission, it becomes clear that India wants to be transparent in all activities it wants to undertake in space. Space security is an important issue for India.

Arms control concerns

The possible weaponization of space is an issue of major concern for many nations, including India. Unfortunately, the space arena has very limited globally accepted multilateral treaty mechanisms, and such available mechanisms are mostly issue-centric and could not be viewed as all pervasive. For example, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST) is basically about the banning of testing of weapons of mass destructions in outer space. For last decade or so, some efforts have been made to address this issue, such as the European Union and its International Code of Conduct.

India fully supports the formulation of universal and non-discriminatory transparency and confidence-building measure, although such measures have limited relevance since they typically are not legally binding. Nonetheless, India believes such mechanisms have a useful complementary role and could become an “appetizer” for formulation of any future treaty. India has participated actively in the consultations called by the EU since 2012 to discuss a draft Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities.

The possible weaponization of space is an issue of major concern for many nations, including India. Unfortunately, the space arena has very limited globally accepted multilateral treaty mechanisms.

Resolution 69/32, titled “No First Placement of Weapons on Outer Space” and adopted in the United Nations General Assembly on December 2, 2014, has the full support by India. However, India feels that there is a need to grow beyond such ideas and decide on a released and legally binding treaty. In this context, India is ready to give consideration to the revised PPWT (Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects) presented by Russia and China in the Conference on Disarmament. There has been a total rejection of this proposal by some major powers. However, India is of the opinion that such ideas needs to be discussed under the UN umbrella.

Conclusion

Since the inception of its space program, India has followed the policy of the use of space for socioeconomic development, and this agenda remains valid today. At the same time, owing geopolitical realities, India needs ensure that its assets in space are secure.

India fully understands that space is an extremely important area for human survival and should not be tinkered with unnecessarily. Modern-day life is totally dependent on assets in space. India’s growth story, scientific and economic, also involves the contributions made by its space agency and space industry. Today, space offers a major soft-power potential for India, and India believes that it is in nobody’s interest to weaponize space. The need of the hour is to evolve a rule-based and transparent mechanism for protecting space.


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