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April 17, 2019

The emerging space scenario

Opinion

April 17, 2019

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently announced the successful test-firing of a rocket, which shot down one of its live satellites orbiting about 186 miles above the earth at a velocity of nearly 17,000 miles per hour. It considered the test safe enough for debris to fall down to earth in due course, though some pieces are already few miles above the apogee of the manned International Space Station (ISS).

This harks back to the 2013 science fiction thriller ‘Gravity’ in which two astronauts are stranded in space after mid-orbit destruction of their space shuttle but the US is playing down the danger. Interestingly, Modi’s announcement comes soon after President Trump’s order to establish the sixth branch of its military – to be named the ‘Space Force’.

As acknowledged by Lt-Gen David D Thomson during a Senate hearing, the US was aware of India’s intention and had some evidence but made no effort to persuade it not to go ahead with the test. In a hollow sermon after the test, the US showed concern that ‘proliferation of this technology and capability would make the space order very unstable’. With this capability, India will now be able to stage a pre-emptive attack on Pakistan’ satellites to reduce its effectiveness to defend itself against aggression. This will unsettle the well-established doctrine of mutually assured destruction, followed so far by both India and Pakistan in the nuclear domain.

By leveraging its new anti- satellite technology to move ahead with basic anti-missile defences, which require hitting an incoming warhead in space, there could be a change in India’s nuclear strategy which could change the strategic balance. India had so far maintained that it would make no first use of nuclear weapons, and by implication absorbing loss of one or more major cities in a nuclear exchange before striking back. Pakistan had so far not been committed to no first use declaration but that position will now be rendered of little or no significance.

The Indian Navy, already numerically superior, enjoys communication security and its units at sea cannot be detected through interception which was an important factor in past wars. Pakistan Navy platforms, therefore, have to venture close enough for detection which obviously places them in a vulnerable position. The Pakistan Army and the air force could also be affected in some similar ways. The challenge could become more serious as India continues to launch four to five satellites in space every year for many countries which gives it the financial flexibility to cross-fund towards military projects.

An ASAT destruction typically litters the space with a lot of shrapnel of various sizes. The Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, which tracks objects in space, estimated before the Indian test that the number of debris pieces exceeding four inches in size could be as high as 1,000. The number of smaller pieces is difficult to estimate with any degree of accuracy; these are no less dangerous. Nasa estimates the number of debris larger than one centimetre to be more than 35,000 odd bits of riffraff, any of which could seriously disrupt a functioning spacecraft. The debris field could typically extend from 125 miles above the earth to 2,292 miles, with the majority of pieces floating around at a mean altitude of 528 miles. It took ten years for the risk of junk rain colliding with other satellites or the ISS to decline steadily after Chinese ASAT test in 2007 and collision of Russian and US satellite in 2008, but it will again increase after the Indian test. Not surprisingly, Nasa has termed the Indian test as a hindrance to global progress.

India started early in space technology when it first launched its satellite in 1975. It joined a manned space mission with Russia in 1984 and launched a Mars orbiter in space in 2013. Last year, India sent a communication satellite weighing 5,000 pounds into space, the heaviest so far. India’s destruction of a satellite at 186 miles altitude is relatively basic by international standards since some other countries in the space club can destroy satellites at altitudes of 22,000 miles and above, yet it is a capability which has placed India in a select club comprising the US, Russia and China, with potentially ominous repercussions for Pakistan.

Many Indians were quick to suspect political underpinnings to the announcement and opposition leader Rahul Gandhi had a dig at Modi, wishing him ‘Happy World Theater Day’. Some people have called it India’s 1974 ‘Smiling Buddha’ moment, which irreversibly changed the nuclear calculus in the region and continues to render it more unstable with each passing year. Although India repeatedly cites China as the motivation behind such actions, the world clearly knows that there is never going to be a war between India and China and in reality it is a move to further outpace Pakistan in strategic communication security.

It is interesting to note that none of space club members has developed any large inventories of ASAT weaponry. This could be due to the limited nature of deterrence offered by anti-satellite weapons or possible advancement in other technological means such as cyber warfare and laser to disable an adversary’s satellite. Another reason why there isn’t a great appetite for ASAT rockets could be redundancy in both military and dual purpose space vehicles, which renders destruction of one or two satellites of marginal gains. In a major conflict situation, it is quite likely that other means of mass destruction could come into play well before adversaries start aiming at each other’s satellites.

There has been a non-binding ‘International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities’ which the West put in place after China’s ASAT test in 2007. It was aimed at stopping further ASAT tests by states advanced enough in space technology, including India. Such ‘codes of conduct’, as well known by now, always leave sufficient room to manoeuvre. This one too carried provisions for self-defence and minimization of space debris, which was duly exploited by India. Starting from 1974, India always had credibility issues like the inherent contradiction in the instant case, where its stated position supports no weapons in space but its actions in steady accrual of assets in space are just the opposite.

India routinely participates in all UN-based space-related norm building forums such as the Vienna-based Committee on the Peaceful Use of Outer Space (COPUOS), the Inter Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee and the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament where it has been involved in discussions on Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS). It is not, however, a part of the group of governments on transparency and confidence-building measures (TCBMs) in outer space which was set up by the UN in 2013; South Asia is represented by Sri Lanka in this. Regular attendance in such forums, among other factors, has enabled India to resist any draft code till such time that a fait-accompli situation in its space accomplishment is reached.

This latest development should awaken us to recognize the emerging threats from outer space, but our response should not lose sight of our economic constraints. Remember, during the cold-war era, Ronald Reagan had announced the militarization of space, hoping it would pull former USSR into an expensive race and further cripple its faltering economy but Moscow didn’t take the bait. There is also a difference between space militarization and space weaponisation, often used in interchangeable manner, but more on this on some other occasion.

One immediate and short-term solution to reduce the threat could be to enter into arrangements with friendly countries for network-centric space-based platforms for military/dual use – thus complicating India’s targeting problem.

The writer is a retired vice admiral.

Email: [email protected]