India’s leap in space

ASAT Test

Prior to the prime minister’s televised 10-minute address in Hindi on the noon of March 27, few had expected that he would be announcing the beginning of a new space age for India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that India had successfully conducted an anti-satellite missile test, lauded the scientific establishment, emphasised that this was a measure for national security without contravening any international law and assured the world that the step was not aimed at any specific country. The exercise, dubbed ‘Mission Shakti’, represented a direct ascent kinetic kill, where a ballistic missile launched from the earth without any explosive warhead destroys the targeted satellite upon impact.

Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), the sixth largest space agency in the world, marks 50 years this year, having been established by Indira Gandhi in 1969 (although its earlier avatar INCOSPAR – within the Department of Atomic Energy — came into being in 1958, with Jawaharlal Nehru establishing the space programme, the DRDO and finalising the country’s three-stage nuclear programme that year). Isro has carved out a niche not only through exemplary cost-effectiveness and innovative societal applications but by hosting the largest constellation of civilian satellites in the Indo-Pacific region, the success of the Mars Orbiter Mission and creating the world record of launching 104 satellites from a single rocket.

But Isro being a civilian space programme, the ASAT test was carried out under the aegis of the DRDO, the architect of the indigenous missile programme that started in 1983. The DRDO has had the ASAT capability since at least 2012. The March 27 test was conducted by adapting the indigenous Ballistic Missile Defence interceptor vehicle and targeting a recently-launched Indian satellite in Low Earth Orbit, at a height of 300 kilometres from the earth.

Satellites enable a range of capabilities, from civilian to military, scientific and commercial. Thus, outer space is integral to the functioning of modern societies as a diverse range of services and devices ranging from missiles to mobiles, banking to navigation, meteorology to disaster management are irreversibly dependent on it. The strategic utility of space was evident from the early years of the Cold War, when both the US and the erstwhile Soviet Union demonstrated a wide array of space weapons, including anti-satellite missiles. As the Space Age dawned with the advent of Sputnik in 1957, research and development in various types of anti-satellite systems can be traced, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, back to this time. However, the 1980s marked the crest, with President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative, followed by a prolonged trough.

Ending decades of stability, China conducted an ASAT test in 2007 and the US responded a year later. Since then, the US, China and Russia have accelerated their military space activities in varying degrees. The arrival of new technologies, like hypersonic glide vehicles and nano-satellites further complicates the picture. While there has not been any conflict in space itself and establishing weapons in space is proscribed as per the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, strategic applications of space technology are nevertheless widespread. Deploying a weapon system in space denotes weaponisation of space and is in contravention of the Outer Space Treaty; in contrast, militarisation of space entails utilising space for military purposes, and is legitimate.

Incidentally, subsequent proposals to restrict the arms race in space have been languishing in the United Nations Conference on Disarmament since the 1980s, owing to opposition primarily from the US. The European Union, Russia and China have in the recent past put forward various proposals, ostensibly to prevent weaponisation of outer space. But the platitudes notwithstanding, consensus remains elusive. India has consistently opposed weaponisation of space and upholds space as a common heritage of mankind. It was the Chinese ASAT test that aggravated India’s security concerns and catalysed the establishment of an Integrated Space Cell within the Ministry of Defence. Outer space being integral to key strategic and civilian functions, securing assets in space has emerged as a crucial priority. India now joins the select quartet of countries in the world possessing the ability to project hard-power into space, along with the US, Russia and China.

The test seems to have been driven by considerations of security, demonstrating technological prowess and by the rightful Indian insistence on having a voice at the high table of global politics, a recurring theme of Indian diplomacy. As the Ministry of External Affairs underlined, “India expects to play a role in the future in the drafting of international law on prevention of an arms race in outer space…in its capacity as a major space-faring nation with proven space technology.”

The selection of a target in Low Earth Orbit aimed to prevent space debris, since space pollution is a universal concern. Further, the assertion of upholding international conventions signalled India’s desire to be perceived as a responsible global player. The Chinese ASAT test of 2007, on the other hand, had been condemned globally for lack of transparency and generating the largest amount of space debris in history.

The unequivocal assertion about the military nature of the tests is welcome for a country whose enduring amnesia about the role of force in international relations circumscribes its emergence as a great power. Space assets had been harnessed for ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) functions — cross-border raids and aerial strikes like that of post-Uri and Balakot being facilitated through satellite reconnaissance and remote sensing, for example — but the ASAT test establishes a new aspect to the deterrence matrix. Still, the optimal utility of space power cannot be realised absent an integrated Space Command, accompanied by a coherent space doctrine and possessing a comprehensive gamut of ASAT measures. The test conclusively establishes India as a pre-eminent space power, but it remains to be seen whether political will sustains subsequent steps crucial to consolidate this momentum.

(Harsh Pant is Director, Studies, at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and Professor of International Relations, King’s College, London; Shounak Set is a PhD candidate at King’s College, London)

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