Down to earth on the ASAT test

M.K. Narayanan  

Shortly before noon on March 27, India carried out a successful test of an Anti-Satellite (ASAT) weapon, launching an interceptor missile from the Balasore range in Odisha to hit a live satellite in Low Earth Orbit. It thus became the fourth country in the world to develop an ASAT capability.

Not a game changer

An ASAT test is hardly a game-changer as far as space warfare is concerned. Yet, the element of triumphalism seen in the Prime Minister’s announcement on television regarding the test seemed to send out a message that India was on the threshold of embarking on a new era of weaponisation of outer space. Official circles may have preferred to project the test as a technology demonstrator, but the Prime Minister’s claim that India was now capable of performing as a ‘chowkidar’ in space, and several claims that India now had a “credible deterrence” against attacks on the country’s growing number of space assets seemed to suggest that India was not averse to weaponisation of outer space.

India has, no doubt, sought to reassure the global community that it has not violated any international treaty or understanding with this test. India has also taken great pains to advertise the fact that the international community, especially the U.S., had not faulted India for carrying out this test, in marked contrast to what had happened when China had carried out an ASAT test in 2007. Nevertheless, it would be facile to think that the world endorses India’s claims regarding its peaceful intentions.

India’s demonstration of ASAT capability comes a little more than a decade after China’s, and nearly six decades after that of the U.S. and Russia. An ASAT test is, undoubtedly, less threatening than a nuclear explosion, but the world is likely to ask why India decided to demonstrate its capability at this time, though it possessed the ability much earlier. The implications of carrying out a test of this nature, as also the concerns that previously existed about doing so, are no secret from the global community of space experts. Why India chose to ‘cross the Rubicon’ by testing an ASAT weapon at this juncture is, hence, likely to cause consternation among many, given the tacit agreement among nations not to weaponise outer space. The international community cannot be faulted if it were to think that India had deliberately breached an unwritten convention against weaponisation or militarisation of outer space.

ASAT capabilities are generally perceived as integral to ballistic missile defence programmes. This clearly identifies an ASAT test as a military programme. In turn, it implies an intention to embark on weaponisation of outer space. It is, perhaps, for this reason that countries such as Israel and France, which are believed to have this capability, have so far refrained from carrying out such tests.

Cold War phenomenon

Given the hype surrounding ASAT weapons, it is also germane to mention that their strategic importance in providing effective deterrence in space is highly debatable today. ASAT was essentially a Cold War phenomenon whose strategic importance has declined over the years. Currently, none of the other three countries which possess an ASAT capability extol its strategic value and importance. The U.S., Russia and China, all seem to demonstrate less and less interest in pursuing ASAT weaponry. These countries are increasingly focussing on laser and cyber capabilities to achieve the objective of neutralising killer satellites. Countries are experimenting with directed-energy weapons, radio frequency weapons, etc. rather than concentrating on shooting down satellites in space. The last named also carries the danger of hitting satellites that may not be on an offensive mission, apart from the issue of space debris.

It is again a moot point whether India’s ASAT test, and its positioning as a critical element in India’s strategic defence capability, will have the desired impact that the nation’s leaders hope for. It could well result in something very different. It is almost certain, as was the case with India’s nuclear test, that Pakistan will immediately try to acquire the same capability, in all likelihood with generous assistance from China. China can also be expected to become increasingly wary of India’s intentions in space, and take appropriate counter-measures. The bottom line is that by carrying out the March 27 test, India has neither achieved a higher level of deterrence nor is it likely to lead to a more stable strategic security environment.

India would, hence, do well to play down the military objective of its ASAT test, all the more so given that the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) recently indicated that it has, of late, carried out certain new launches such as the Microsat-R and EMISAT satellites which are intended for ‘strategic use’. More ‘defence satellites’ are reportedly in the offing. This could only fuel concerns about where India is headed. Countries not too well disposed towards India such as Pakistan and China — and perhaps some others as well — may well be carried away by our professed capabilities, and be inclined to fear the worst. This could give a country such as Pakistan ‘itchier trigger fingers’.

Neighbourhood concerns

India’s strategic planners also would not be oblivious to the fact that it does not take much imagination, given the plethora of information coming from drone feeds, satellite data and claims made by responsible leaders, for countries to develop a totally distorted picture of an adversary’s capabilities and threat. The mere existence of such a situation could lead to heightened tensions. Based in one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in the world, India needs to do everything in its power to convince other nations that space is not part of India’s overt defence calculations.

Instead, India should highlight the fact that its enormously successful space programme, unlike those of many other countries, is notable for being conceived and implemented as a civilian programme, quite distinct and separate from any military programme or objective. It is this which distinguishes India’s space programme from that of countries such as the U.S., Russia and China. India’s space programme — totally civilian in nature — was conceived back in the 1960s. ISRO was set up in 1969, and the Space Commission came into existence in the early 1970s. Vikram Sarabhai is credited with creating India’s vision for exploration of space and, following his untimely demise in 1971, the mantle fell on Satish Dhawan.

It would be useful to stress that both Sarabhai and Dhawan, especially the latter, were particular that India’s space programme should steer clear of any military dimension, and that it should solely concern itself with communications, weather forecasting and the like. Consequently, India’s space programme had always steered clear of any military objectives.

India’s achievements in space have been many and it has several milestones to its credit. ISRO launched its first Indian satellite, Aryabhatta, in April 1975. In April 1982, ISRO launched the first Indian National Satellite System (INSAT-1A). The first Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) took off from Sriharikota in 2001. In October 2008, ISRO launched Chandrayaan-1, the first Indian planetary science and exploration mission to the moon. In November 2013, ISRO launched the Mars Orbiter Mission (Mangalyaan) spacecraft. Since then there have been many more launches.

Sarabhai’s legacy

A generation of internationally recognised Indian space scientists (among whom may be mentioned U.R. Rao and K. Kasturirangan) after Sarabhai and Dhawan have scrupulously adhered to the same peaceful mission of the earlier preceptors, and seen to it that India steered clear of weaponisation of space, remaining committed to non-military applications.

It is critically important for those in authority to take up this task in all earnestness lest the view prevails, as is already evident in some circles, that India is keen to embark on weaponisation and militarisation of outer space. There is little strategic advantage accruing from an ASAT test; on the other hand the damage that could be caused to India’s image as a peaceful and responsible nation intent on, and committed to, peaceful uses of space could be immense.

M.K. Narayanan is a former National Security Adviser and former Governor of West Bengal