The Indian A-SAT test in 'Context'

On March 27, the military research division of the Indian government (DRDO) conducted its first Anti-Satelite weapons test by destroying a decommissioned satellite in Low Earth Orbit. This was celebrated by the current right-wing government in India as the establishment of India as a 'space power'. Criticisms were varied. Questions were raised within India on the timing of the tests right before the elections and on the damage to the fledgeling space economy that is beginning to find its stride in the country. Externally, reactions were more measured but most notably raised by the chief of NASA. This article intends to demystify some of the factors leading up to the test and what may follow.

I shall not be focussing on the potential dangers of the test. They are real and can't be underplayed. India must bear responsibility for any damage that may happen in the future as a consequence of this test. As such, the space-related industries in India have reacted to it appropriately and questions on the proper method of testing, kinetic vs capture kill, political motivations for the same are being debated. However, the criticism from external agencies, media and individuals felt lacking in background and more often than not lacking honesty. I hope that the article brings the required balance in the narrative.

Lessons learnt from NPT

The world saw one of the craziest periods of Nuclear Testing in its first two decades after their invention with a whopping 999 tests carried out before the NPT came into effect in 1970. 631 of these were by the United States alone. India refused to be party to the NPT arguing that it provides preferential treatment to the countries that already had the bomb and allowed for continuation towards maintaining such status by recognised nuclear power states. The 'have-nots' were in short dependent on the generosity of the 'haves'. India's stance to obtain a capability for minimum deterrence gained further ground in the aftermath of Nixon's actions following the genocide in Bangladesh when he sent a nuclear carrier into the Bay of Bengal. After 1970, the US tested 400 more Nuclear weapons while India faced sanctions for 4 such tests.

In the following decades, India has gained a hard-fought ground against sanctions, blockades from joining the NSG, etc. to finally be able to successfully enter into a deal to grow its civil nuclear energy sector. It was only obvious that when the next 'NPT' came, India wanted a seat at the table rather than knock on the door.

Why Now?

The enormous Satelite Launch Capabilities exhibited by ISRO had certainly set beyond doubt India's technical abilities for manoeuvrability and precision in space. Earlier tests by DRDO has already chased an electronic target in space 1 2 3. So it really wasn't a question of ability but rather of an exhibition. Following China's successful tests with ASAT in 2007, there were already calls by China and Russia to sign an NPT like treaty to prevent the weaponization of space. This had gained further steam in recent years and India felt a need to act. This was actually openly discussed in 2012. The Govt. of India sanctioned the project in 2017.

Why at all?

It is no news that India has ambitions in space. From launching interplanetary missions to its own navigational system to military assets in space, Indian ambitions are currently only limited by the ISRO's meagre budget. The ASAT effectively provides the doctrine of mutually assured destruction in space. You avoid damage by posing one. It would be a curious incident if any country ever used one of these against each other. But it does make Indian assets breathe safer.

The absence of moral ground

In the midst of all the criticism that flew in after the tests, the only genuine one seemed to be that from Pakistan. After all, they hadn't weaponised space. China took a more reserved route as the debris from its own test still revolves around the planet. Further, the Chinese tests were themselves sparked by an unwarranted US withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistics Missile Treaty in 2002 following a US Congressional committee's suggestion that "the U.S. government should vigorously pursue the capabilities called for in the National Space Policy to ensure that the president will have the option to deploy weapons in space to deter threats to, and, if necessary, defend against attacks on U.S. interests." After the 2007 tests, China stated that it had been publicly advocating the ban of space weapons, which had been rejected by the United States under George W. Bush. The US instead of moving towards curbing ASAT tests took out its own satellite in 2008 (in response to Chinese tests) which was internationally perceived as having been done under false pretexts. The Indian test closely paralleled the US Operation Burnt Frost of 2008 which kept debris in space for about a year.

While the US media would like to bury the context of these affairs, it must realise that the first weapons in space belonged to the USA which started this whole exchange. The arguments by the western media in the light of the test have only cemented India's reasoning for the tests. In an increasingly global world, the US must realize that it can not act as the sole sheriff or the sole country with interests in space.

The article is not intended to support any form of weaponisation in space. Space must be treated as a civil frontier and regulations to exploit it must be laid down with urgency. Instead, I only want to make my readers aware of the significance of historical and current political factors that led to this scenario. The citizens of the USA must, therefore, take special care when their president openly speaks of militarization in space. Each step will be followed by a threatened China. And each Chinese test will be followed by a reciprocating India. Countries will seek parity. It is important, therefore, not to raise the bar.

Published:- 5th April, 2019