Watch This (Outer) Space
Having taken the anti-satellite genie out of the bottle, India should push for legislating weaponisation of space.
India officially crossed the Rubicon on Wednesday by using an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile to shoot down a target satellite at an altitude of 300 km. For a country long sworn to preventing the militarisation of outer space, this surely ranks as a paradigm shift in India’s strategic security concerns. That it has happened now is a matter of pride for the country, just as it is a matter of grave concern.
It is inarguable that the electromagnetic spectrum will dictate future warfare and military planners seek the high ground — be it a hill, a balloon, an observation aircraft or air superiority — to equip themselves with a decisive advantage. And space being the ‘ultimate high ground’, it is naturally the most attractive option.
In an increasingly wired world where everything from traffic lights to the Sensex is satellite-based, a robust ASAT capability allows a country to cripple hostile satellite systems and bring an enemy virtually to its knees without firing a shot. No wonder then that India has abandoned its steadfast support for preserving outer space as a ‘sanctuary’ from weapons and fine-tuned its space programme, which had kept its focus largely on the scientific and commercial uses of space for a long time.
In fact, India’s ASAT test was on the cards ever since China tested an anti-satellite ballistic missile in 2007, which destroyed an orbiting weather satellite. The successful test made China only the third country — after the former Soviet Union and the US — to shoot down an object in space. In effect, it implied that Beijing was theoretically capable of shooting down spy satellites or other orbiters operated by other countries.
New Delhi had reacted cautiously to the Chinese test — even though the Indian security establishment had reportedly known that China was working on such a weapon and even anticipated the test. If at all there was a concern, it had to do with the fact that the Chinese weapon was tested using ‘terminal guidance’. Instead of going in for a ‘soft kill’ — using laser to disable the target — the ‘hard kill’ alternative of shooting the target down was apparently preferred.
The Great Wall in Space
Soon after China’s derring-do in space, India’s then-external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee had called for preserving outer space as ‘a sanctuary from weapons’, reiterating India’s long-standing opposition to the militarisation of outer space.
ASAT weapons have a fatal flaw, as the former Soviet Union and the US — both of whom destroyed several satellites in space in the 1980s — discovered, when the problem of debris from destroyed satellites forced them to end their space weapons programmes. Today, US, Russian and European space agencies have active programmes to track large pieces of space junk orbiting the planet.
They are also working to limit future garbage, in part by manoeuvring defunct satellites into different orbits. Still, current satellites are shielded with elaborate bumpers and special coatings to survive encounters with space debris.
With space junk increasing at a linear rate and more and more nations sending satellites aloft, space agencies are toying with new ideas to deal with the challenge. These include pushing debris into designated ‘junkyards’. Never mind if these are all bumper sticker solutions that overlook the urgent need for an international law for space debris.
As far as India is concerned, the strategic concerns arising out of the China bogey strengthened the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) case for establishing a dedicated aerospace command in the last few years. As part of its preparations, the IAF went in for its own tests, such as using soupedup Prithvi missiles with terminal guidance to knock down target missiles beyond the atmosphere.
Basically, the idea was to carpenter together an aerospace command by integrating several modules from the IAF, along with Indian satellites, radars, communications systems, fighter jets and helicopters. The effort received a shot in the arm after the 1999 Kargil War when experts pointed out that the conflict could have been prevented if India had used space for military purposes, or at least delivered more accurate firepower to inflict maximum damage on the enemy.
Having let the genie out of the bottle, however, India’s efforts to become a responsible space power depend on how it sorts out the problems of definitions and the confusion between ASAT and other forms of space technology. The very rockets that launch satellites double as missiles capable of destroying satellites. Much like nuclear technology, this poses a dilemma for nations that struggle to legislate on Earth in a bid to find order in the heavens.
The Final Frontier
Space law is a tricky business, and there is no way to saddle the technology of space systems and weaponry for potential use without restraining them with sensible controls. Now that India has taken its first step in this minefield, it had better start cheerleading a new international push for legislating the weaponisation of outer space.
For, while it is true that technology has advanced space science too far for a foolproof treaty to put together, there is much to be said for getting the best legislation possible to introduce the element of stability that’s missing today. Maybe a good first step would be a broad treaty to protect satellites that is crafted in such a way that it would apply in times of crisis, as well as in war.
Courtesy: The Economic Times (International)
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