India has demonstrated its anti-satellite (ASAT) capability by destroying one of its own satellites launched recently. The test places India in an elite club of advanced technology countries, possessing the wherewithal to deny the use of outer space assets to their adversaries. While regional security concerns played a crucial role in this decision, the American perspective on outer space, in addition to attempts to find a global consensus on banning ASAT development and testing also played its part. Therefore, the test has enabled India’s space deterrence and simultaneously enhanced its negotiating strength in global forums such as the Conference on Disarmament (CD). Moreover, the fact that this capability has been demonstrated using indigenous technologies proves the level of sophistication of military research and development activity in India.


Geopolitical and International Status Rationale


India began developing space technology for economic development purposes, leading to building of two of the world’s largest communications and remote sensing satellite constellations. These satellites help build and sustain India’s economic activity by transmitting television signals, imaging agricultural and urban areas, detecting cyclones and facilitating navigation. In addition, satellites aid India’s armed forces to plan and execute their operations, and even during wartime. The utility of space technology for command and control, navigation, targeting and damage assessment has been proved by the United States (US), especially during the 1991 Gulf War, compelling other spacefaring nations to adapt.


Given the pervasive use of space technology by India, its space infrastructure, especially the space-based assets, need to be secured. The US and Russia demonstrated their respective ASAT capabilities during the Cold War. The nuclear weapons too are known to be effective at destroying satellites en masse. These demonstrations were discontinued with the end of the Cold War, but China reignited the competition when it tested its kinetic kill ASAT capability in 2007. It continues to enhance its ASAT capabilities through laser ASAT weapons, which are known to have targeted American reconnaissance satellites, and ballistic missile defense tests. The US responded with its own demonstration in 2008 and adopted a militarist stand on outer space calling for space supremacy. Consequently, Russia too has reinitiated developing ASAT technologies.


Given the possibility of an arms race in outer space, the international community began deliberating over an international treaty that would ban the development and testing of ASAT weapons. Currently, the European Union (EU) and Russia-China combine have made their draft proposals, which are being discussed at the international level. However, the US is adamant about accepting new arms control measures, citing the lack of verification mechanisms in these proposals as well as the lack of credible national technical means for the purpose of verification.


These developments imply that India’s space assets are at risk of being targeted without the fear of reprisal. Moreover, a global consensus on ASAT ban would lead to India losing its option of developing and testing ASAT weapons for the purpose of deterrence. This resuscitated a familiar situation India faced during the 1960s and 1970s, when it debated weaponising nuclear technology in the backdrop of successive wars with China and Pakistan, as well as American coercion during the 1971 war. The primary motivations for this debate are China’s nuclear weapon test in 1964 and the advent of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1970. This treaty legitimized nuclear weapons only in the possession of the current P5 states (the US, Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom). This meant severe restrictions on India’s option to test nuclear weapons, undermining its status in the international nuclear order.


Space technology and ASAT weapons too have come to bear such significance. By demonstrating the capability, India has signaled its political will to employ ASAT weapons, solidifying its space deterrence. Also, this option allows India to drive international negotiations towards global disarmament, failing which its space assets are secured via military means.  


Political and Scientific Leadership


An immediate consequence of India pursuing technology demonstrations are international sanctions. The pariah status following the 1974 test, Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) sanctions following India-Russia cryogenic deal in early 1990s as well as the sanctions in the aftermath of the 1998 nuclear weapon test targeted India’s premier scientific institutions. However, these sanctions served only as blessings in disguise as India was able to develop the required defence technologies indigenously. The missile development programme under A. P. J. Abdul Kalam’s leadership, has yielded a series of conventional missiles and Agni re-entry technology. Today, the Agni missiles cover India’s immediate national security perimeter, enabling India’s nuclear deterrence.


Moreover, some of these missile system elements have been adapted for ballistic missile defence (BMD) programme, which would help India thwart missile attacks on its political and economic centres such as Delhi and Mumbai. The BMD expertise allowed India to develop all the required building blocks for an ASAT system given the similarities in target detection, tracking and missile guidance. The adaptable nature of this technology has been proven by China, which disguised its ASAT tests as BMD tests over the last few years. The indigenous nature of this system also allows India to neutralize possible technology sanctions that could be imposed as a consequence of the test.


However, such a reaction from the West, particularly the US, may not be forthcoming as a result of the change in its own attitude towards outer space and also the improved bilateral relations with India. Even though India had been sanctioned because of the 1998 nuclear tests, India and the US revitalized their political relations soon after by resolving concerns over nuclear, space and defence technologies under the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP) initiative. Not only did it strengthen the civilian component of India-US bilateral space relations but also initiated discussions on space security. Moreover, India’s entry into the global non-proliferation regimes such as the MTCR strengthened these relations.


India’s Responsibility


One of the key irritants of demonstrating a kinetic kill ASAT capability is debris. Already, the international community is concerned with the debris growth as a result of space commercialisation, especially with NewSpace projects orbiting hundreds of small satellites in low Earth orbit. China’s 2007 ASAT test has spiked the amount of debris in this orbit, still circling the Earth. Therefore, India’s ASAT test has naturally raised a similar concern. However, the low altitude (300 km) of India’s ASAT test means that the resulting debris will deorbit sooner, in about 45 days. India has factored the debris problem into its ASAT test design leading to launching a tailored mission for this purpose.


The larger responsibility of India, however, is at the global level for disarmament. India was one of the 18 nations that served on a committee that eventually turned into the present CD. However, it is known to have resulted in no major outcomes concerning global disarmament over decades of deliberations. Given India’s legacy at the United Nations (UN) and its ascension to global non-proliferation regimes in recent years, it needs to build international consensus on restricting proliferation of space and missile technology components that can be adapted for an ASAT weapon. Moreover, it should help design legal instruments banning the development, testing and fielding of ASAT weapons either on ground or in space. The wide usage of space applications, expanding space economy and evolving human space missions stress the need for a safe and secure outer space, which is in India’s interest itself.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the view of Manipal Advanced Research Group.