Mission Shakti: Why it was important for India to test ASAT now

Published: March 28, 2019 12:21:52 PM

With the Big Three space powers gearing up for an arms race in outer space, it is clear that India felt it had to act to avoid its biggest fear in international relations: once again being left behind as a “have not” country in military power stakes.

India on March 27, 2019 became the fourth country to overtly test an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon (PTI Photo)India on March 27, 2019 became the fourth country to overtly test an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon (PTI Photo)

By Theresa Hitchens

India on March 27, 2019 became the fourth country to overtly test an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon, following in the footsteps of the United States, Russia and China. The test should not come as a surprise: India has been openly debating the need to “prove itself” in military space for a decade or more. That debate solidified into a plan for ASAT testing not long after China conducted its first test in 2007. And with the Big Three space powers gearing up for an arms race in outer space, it is clear that India felt it had to act to avoid its biggest fear in international relations: once again being left behind as a “have not” country in military power stakes, as India sees its failure to test a nuclear weapon before the signing of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is of course up for re-election soon, announced the test on television and social media, tweeting “India stands tall as a space power!” India’s Ministry of External Affairs also rushed out a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) document about the test, called Mission Shakti. It involved a DRDO Ballistic Missile Defense interceptor and an Indian satellite (not named) and took place in a very low orbit so as to minimize dangerous space debris. The FAQ claimed that the test “provides credible deterrence against threats to our growing space-based assets from long range missiles and proliferation in the types and numbers of missiles.” This statement is somewhat debatable. What is clear is that the Indian government sees the test as a matter of national pride, and as a clear signal to China that India too is a regional space power to be contended with.

It is somewhat ironic that the test took place only two days before the latest United Nations effort to slow or stop an arms race in space is to wrap up its final meeting. The UN Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space began its work in 2018 to “consider and make recommendations on substantial elements of a legally binding instrument on the prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS), including inter alia, on the prevention of the placement of weapons in outer space.” India is a member of the GGE, along with Russia and China that sponsored the GGE’s initiation based on their longstanding efforts to open UN negotiations on a treaty to ban on-orbit weapons. The United States is also a member, although Washington opposed the GGE’s stand-up because the U.S. saw (quite rightly) the effort as a Russian and Chinese move to push through their proposed treaty that most of the Western states oppose. The United States has long protested the Russian-Chinese treaty proposal, first made in 2008, in part because it fails to bar the type of ASAT that India just tested. The Ministry of External Affairs FAQ claims that India continues to oppose the weaponization of space – India in the past has sided with Russia and China on the need for a legally binding PAROS instrument.

The FAQ further claims that “India has no intention of entering into an arms race in outer space.” But the facts on the ground say otherwise. India’s ASAT test puts the country firmly into the proto-arms race the United States, China and Russia have been engaged in for at least a decade. All three countries have been experimenting with and testing ASAT technologies, that include not just ground-based kinetic energy weapons such as demonstrated by India but also electronic jamming and directed energy (i.e. laser) weapons to disrupt satellite functions. The Big Three in the past several years have gone past what could be called “preventative testing” of capabilities to actually developing systems. They at the same time point fingers at each other as the “bad guy” first deploying ASATs and weaponizing space, meaning that they themselves have no choice to “counter” with ASATs of their own.

Further, given regional geopolitics, there is no doubt that Pakistan will now follow in India’s footsteps as soon as Islamabad can do so. The regional arms race may be even harder to contain than it has been involving the Big Three. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan are also developing pursuing ballistic missiles/satellite launchers that could be used as ASATs. North Korea has already tested such long-range nuclear missiles and shows no sign, despite the somewhat unorthodox diplomatic efforts of the Trump administration, of backing away from its program.

India’s test is the final signal that the ASAT games among military space powers, regrettably, have begun. And this is extremely bad news for everyone working in space, or wishing to in the future – especially as the type of ASAT India tested and within reach of most space powers is the worst possible for the space environment. Ground-launched kinetic energy (i.e. non-explosive) ASATs create space debris, which is already a growing danger to working spacecraft. Even tiny pieces of debris can kill a satellite. And space debris knows no nationality; it is uncontrolled and is just as likely to strike a “non-combatant” as the pugilists involved in a conflict. There are only two ways forward from India’s test: either it adds urgency to the need to ban debris-creating weapons; or it spurs the world into a potential suicide in space.

(The author Is a Senior Research Associate at the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland, and the former Director of the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva. Views expressed are author’s own.)

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