By Misbah Arif*
History repeated itself once again and India’s claimed civil space program ended up in military like its nuclear program. India shot down one of its low-orbit satellites dubbed ‘Mission Shakti’ in a nod to the 1998 series of nuclear weapons tests called “Operation Shakti.” Ironically, Indian Prime Minister Modi proudly declared his country a “space power,” becoming only the fourth country to deploy space weaponry. Alas! Indian Prime Minister took his election campaign in to outer space. Furthermore, Former Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) chief VK Saraswat equated the test of India’s anti-satellite missile (A-SAT) mission with the 1998 Pokhran nuclear tests. Yes! It is as precarious, unprincipled, and against the Indian rhetoric of peaceful use of outer space as Pokhran was. Yes! it is similar to the way they diverted declared peaceful technology for military use.
Anti-satellite weapons allows attacks on enemy satellites, blinding them or disrupting communications, as well as providing a technology base to intercept ballistic missiles. Indian foreign minister said that the recent test provides credible deterrence against threats to India’s growing space-based assets from long-range missiles, and proliferation in the types and numbers of missiles. Hence, it is evident that this is for military purpose. Moreover, the de-facto inclusion of India into the so called “space super league” will trigger a never ending and expensive arms race in to outer space and Indian officials are happy about it.
It has been estimated that the target was Microsat-r (SATNO 43947, 2019-006A). It was an Indian military imaging satellite which was launched in late January. It can be argued that this launch was intentionally meant to be a target for this test. Having said this, the timing of this launch is notable as the threat of war between India and Pakistan reaches boiling point and it is just few days before elections in India. Along with military implications, it is an obvious political publicity stunt by Indian Prime Minister.
The long-term impetus behind this test is obviously national pride and to communicate and demonstrate India’s power in space relative to China. India has always considered itself in competition with China for regional hegemony and focusing on internal and external balancing against Beijing. The Indian Space and Research Organization (ISRO) is fully involved in dual projects as it is evident from its close cooperation with India’s DRDO and the Defense Research and Development Service (DRDS).
On one side Indian Prime Minister claimed the test to be peaceful in nature on the other hand, Indian Minister Subramanian Swamy gave a contradictory statement threatening Pakistan by military application of this capbility. Indians themselves are not on the same page. There is dichotomy in their statements. Likewise, DRDO Chairman said “India’s anti-satellite missile test is a reflection of the country’s growing capability to develop critical technology and it will act as a good deterrence.” How a technology claimed to be peaceful in nature will add credibility to deterrence?
India’s future war plans also include a satellite-based dedicated Defence Communications Network (DCN), which will provide secure and reliable inter-service communications. In the meantime, the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) will provide military-grade accuracy to the navigation and targeting capabilities of airborne platforms, thus multiplying their effectiveness .Likewise, ASAT weapons and Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) are interlinked and any attempt to stymie one will impact the other. The Indian quest for space weaponization would deteriorate deterrence stability in South Asia.
It is quite strange that western media and academia keeps a spotlight primarily over Pakistan all the time but the same media is quite about India’s ASAT test. The silence is deafening. Enduring discrimination would ultimately undermine the support towards universality of the non-proliferation regime. The anti-satellite demonstration must be taken seriously as a space weapon. The resulting space debris is not controllable, claims by India of vanishing space debris in forty five days is not more than a face saving statement. The U.S. military is monitoring more than 270 pieces of debris from this test.
Along with Pakistan, Russia and China should see this development more closely as they are also major victim of this development. The test is likely to fuel the growing regional rivalry between India and China. Likewise, Russia has been looking for space cooperation with India, but should consider India’s perilous ambitions which contradicts Russia’s call for prevention of arms race in outer space. As expressed by the U.S. that the issue of space debris is an important concern for the U.S. government. So, as U.S. went for Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) after the India’s 1974 nuclear blast, there is a dire need for initiative to ban ASAT test and space militarization leading to space weaponization. All states should go for space disarmament before it gets too late.
This rapid technological advancement of India backed by the West is threatening for Pakistan, China and Russia. Non-proliferation measures have already been affected badly due to Indo-U.S. nuclear deals and space militarization leading to space weaponization will end up in strategic instability in South Asia. India’s so-called hegemonic deigns beyond region further boost its aggressive and highly adventurous military polices and strategies. The nuclear deterrence and prevalent strategic stability will be highly affected by these developments. Military threats posed by India will have a deeper impact on the economic, political and societal sectors. Knowing that regional competitor is having space weapons, will persuade other states to take precautionary counter measures as no one can compromise on their security.
Regionally, efforts should be made to have Transparency Confidence Building Measures (TCBMs) to ensure strategic stability and crisis stability. Pakistan has been regularly urging states including India to not go for militarization or weaponization of space. Pakistan called on the international community to condemn the act and strengthen international laws regarding the militarization of space. Internationally, there is a dire need to re-conceptualize and revise the existing space laws and develop a new legal framework to address the gaining momentum towards the weaponization of outer space.
*Misbah Arif, M.PHil scholar and independent researcher.