[dropcap]T[/dropcap]HE timing of the latest ASAT test (and the manner of its announcement) was significant considering the fact that national elections to India’s Parliament were scheduled to begin from April 11, 2019, which was then just two weeks away. The editorial in the Deccan Herald(Bengaluru) dated March 28, 2019, and titled “Desperation is showing, Mr PM”, has placed the intent and timing of the ASAT test in its proper perspective. Questioning the PM’s decision, the editorial noted:
“But did it call for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to go on television and address the nation while the election code of conduct is in operation? Clearly, this was political theatre designed to claim credit for the ASAT test and pose as a strong leader. It fooled no one but has opened India to the charge that its politicians take critical national security decisions – especially such an important one as India moving away from its longstanding position that space should not be militarised – merely for reasons of domestic politics.”
While PM Modi was trying to claim credit for developing the anti-satellite weapon technology as a great achievement (implicitly of his Government), there is no dispute over the fact that India had developed the ASAT capability as early as the year 2011. In an article titled “Capability to neutralise enemy satellites proved”, The Hindu on March 7, 2011, had reported that:
“The fresh success of the interceptor missile mission on Sunday has demonstrated the country’s capability to neutralise adversarial satellites in space, according to V.K. Saraswat, Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister. India has “all the technologies and building blocks which can be used for anti-satellite missions” in the low-earth and polar orbits. However, ‘India’s policy is that it will not weaponise space, and we are committed to the peaceful uses of outer space,’ he said.
Read Part 1 here: Part 1 | Mission Shakti: ASAT Test & National Security
It may be noted that the announcement regarding the success of that test in 2011 was not made by the then prime minister but by Dr.V.K.Saraswat, the then Advisor to the Defence Minister and Chief of India’s Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO). Under the circumstances, it appears that since his government’s performance during his five-year term in office was abysmal on several socio-economic fronts, PM Modi was desperate to divert attention on to the issue of “National Security” as the main agenda of the forthcoming elections and to project himself as the champion of “National Security”. The decision to carry out the ASAT test just two weeks prior to the national elections was a calculated ploy on the part of Modi to reap maximum mileage for himself and his Party out of the scientific progress made in the country during the previous fifty years through self-reliant scientific development.
The news report in The Times of India dated March 28, 2019, with the subheading “Project Got Nod 2 Years Ago, Went Into ‘Mission Mode’ 18 Months Later” is a giveaway in this regard. Quoting the current DRDO Chief, Dr Satheesh Reddy, the newspaper report states that “while the work on the ballistic missile defence (BMD) programme was going on for years ‘the [ASAT weapon] project only got the official go-ahead about two years ago. And we got into mission mode only six months ago’.” The said TOI report further noted: “The launch, about two weeks ahead of the first round of polling in Lok Sabha elections, was read by political circles as likely to reinforce the tough on national security image of BJP and Modi after the air strikes on a Jaish-e-Muhammed terror camp in Balakot” Thus, the synchronisation of the ASAT test with the forthcoming parliamentary elections was a remarkable feat indeed. No doubt, the Balakot air strike was also timed to perfection!
The sarcasm depicted in the cartoon published in The Hindu and from the banner-headline of The Times of India dated March 28, 2019, provides two opposite public perceptions about the intent and purpose of carrying out the ASAT weapon test. The said cartoon succinctly points out that India’s ranking in terms of quality of people’s lives based on a variety of socio-economic factors stood at an all-time low of 140 out of 156 countries in a survey that was carried out by a UN-affiliated agency and published on March 20, 2019 in the World Happiness Report 2019(Chapter 2, Figure 2.7). However, in a desperate attempt to divert attention from this ugly truth, all that Modi could do was to project India as a “Space Superpower” by catapulting India into the ‘Star Wars Club’ as its fourth member. The banner headline in The Times of India highlighted precisely that: “INDIA SHOOTS INTO STAR WARS CLUB” (as though joining that elite club was the panacea for raising the low socio-economic status of the bulk of Indians to a higher level).
To drum up public support for the weaponisation of space, there is also a concerted attempt to leak sensational information from DRDO to selected media outlets. This is evident from yet another banner headline in The Times of India dated April 7, 2019, which was as follows: “Satellite-killer, not a one-off, India working on star wars armoury”.
Quoting the DRDO chief, G Satheesh Reddy, the report said, “We are working on a number of technologies like DEWs [Directed Energy Weapons], lasers, electromagnetic pulse (EMP) and co-orbital weapons etc. I can’t divulge the details, but we are taking them forward.” Such information seeks to romanticise space wars by claiming that ASAT weapons “Can ‘blind & deafen’ enemy forces by taking out satellites vital for surveillance, communication and missile early warning.” Thus, space wars are made to look very desirable and something to look forward to. At the same time, the real consequences and implications of space wars are sought to be hidden from the people. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (USA), “The act of destroying a satellite can damage the space environment by creating dangerous amounts of space debris. What’s more, the impairment or loss of an important satellite, such as one used for reconnaissance, can quickly escalate a conflict or generate other unpredictable and dangerous consequences.” (Para 2) If the confronting parties are nuclear weapon powers, a full-scale nuclear war would be the outcome.
Highlighting the consequences of waging space wars, a researcher at the Pardee Rand Graduate School, California, in his doctoral dissertation titled “Deterring Space Wars”(2017) has also warned as follows:
“If outer space becomes an active theatre of war, the impact to daily life on earth would be substantial. Unintended consequences of attacks in space are hard to contain and are not always readily reversible—debris or radiation generating attacks render specific orbits unusable, not just for the duration of the war, but for the foreseeable future. With the loss of those orbits, our lives would be very different—accurate weather maps, overhead imagery, access to breaking international news, and navigation services that guide our cars, airplanes, and ships would all disappear. Even in the absence of catastrophic attacks, a war in space would have a chilling effect on commercial uses. Deploying new capability in space is risky, and war would make it infinitely more so. Space entrepreneurship would grind to a halt, denying mankind capabilities we have yet to dream of.”
Far from ensuring “National Security”, every attempt at developing and deploying different types of ASAT weapons would only deepen distrust between nations. Any attack on an adversary’s satellite would tantamount to declaration of war. The disruptive power of Anti Satellite weapons is such that they are antithetical to “National Interest” and “National Security” of every nation in every way. Therefore, the sooner the world prohibits ASAT weapons the better.
Not only has the MEA remained silent on the “unpredictable and dangerous consequences” of targeting an adversary’s satellite but the MEA has also tried to discount the adverse impact of the debris generated by the ASAT test by arguing that: “The test was done in the lower atmosphere to ensure that there is no space debris. Whatever debris that is generated will decay and fall back onto the earth within weeks.” (Para V) Reportedly about 400 pieces of orbital debris were created as a result of India’s ASAT test. However, the MEA’s contention is under challenge. According to a report published on April 9, 2019, in SpaceNews: “At least a dozen fragments from India’s March 27 anti-satellite test reached altitudes above 1,000 kilometres, meaning some debris will stay in orbit much longer than estimated by India, according to research from Analytical Graphics Inc. (AGI). One fragment was spotted at 2,222 kilometres…. The ISS [International Space Station], which orbits at roughly 410 kilometres, was among the top 60 spacecraft threatened by the debris, according to AGI.”
Space debris is a major problem because it could trigger what is known as the Kessler Syndrome. It is a scenario in which the density of live and defunct satellites, space stations, etc., in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) is high enough that collisions between objects could cause a cascade where each collision generates space debris that increases the likelihood of further collisions. The implications of such collisions are so serious that the distribution of debris in orbit could render space activities in specific orbital ranges impractical for many generations.
Can the ASAT weapon system protect a single Indian satellite in outer space? The answer is an emphatic NO. Then what was the purpose of this sabre-rattling by the Indian Government? The theatrics on the part of PM Modi was all for domestic consumption by giving false hopes to Indians on the eve of the national elections that India’s assets in space could be safeguarded by his government with ASAT weapons. The untenable claim that ASAT weapons can ensure India’s “National Security” is a complete mirage. If that is the case, why are the Chinese conducting ASAT tests? Suppose the Chinese were asked whether they are trying to safeguard their assets in space with ASAT weapons, their answer would be NO. The Chinese were compelled to carry out their ASAT test on January 11, 2007, primarily to bring the United States to the negotiating table to negotiate a ban on the weaponisation of space. This is acknowledged by researchers at India’s premier institute for strategic studies, the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), Delhi. In an article titled “The ASAT test and China’s Space Ambitions”, which was published in IDSA’s journal on February 12, 2007, it was noted:
“Many experts believe that China conducted the test to compel the US administration to negotiate a treaty forbidding such weapons. Till now, the US vetoed Russian and Chinese proposals in this regard on the ground that it would restrict and violate American “freedom of action” in space. However, according to the 2004 International Union of Concerned Scientists Report, both China and Russia have pushed for an international ban on space weapons since 2002, but the US has refused to negotiate.”
This was also noted in the backgrounder titled “China’s Anti-Satellite Test”, which was published in Foreign Affairs on February 22, 2007. According to it:
“Beijing has joined with Moscow in its long-time efforts to convince the United States to sign a treaty banning the deployment of weapons in space. The two nations drafted an outline presented in Geneva in 2002 that made little headway. A month after conducting the  January 11 test, Beijing called for talks on a space weapons treaty.”
The said backgrounder then went on to add that: “The Bush administration has been resistant to restrictions that would limit its freedom of action or technological dominance in space.”Unfortunately, the situation has not changed for the better in the last thirteen years; instead, it has only gone from bad to worse.
Therefore, the challenge before the rest of humanity is to bring the United States to the negotiating table to negotiate an equitable treaty to ban the weaponisation of outer space. It is the intransigence of the United States and its obsession to dominate the world, which is the root cause of the problem of weaponisation of space that is confronting humanity today.
ASAT is antithetical to national security
There are two draft treaties, namely, the draft treaty on Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) and draft treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and of the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects (PPWT), which are currently pending before the UN’s Conference on Disarmament in this regard. It is the United States, which is the main stumbling block in the adoption of these draft treaties (that may require some further refinement). It is in India’s best interests to ensure the speedy adoption of these treaties. On the contrary, far from ensuring “National Security”, every attempt at developing and deploying different types of ASAT weapons would only deepen distrust between nations. Any attack on an adversary’s satellite would tantamount to a declaration of war. The resulting disruption of communication systems would set off panic reactions leading to all-out war by using all types of weapons at one’s disposal, which would push humanity towards doomsday in the form of mutually assured destruction (MAD) of not only the confronting parties but also of passive onlookers. The disruptive power of Anti Satellite weapons is such that they are antithetical to “National Interest” and “National Security” of every nation in every way. Therefore, the sooner the world prohibits ASAT weapons the better.