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5-min read

Beyond National Security: Why Weaponization of Space With India's ‘Mission Shakti’ is a Terrible Idea

‘National Security’ is trotted out as the clinching post-facto argument in favour of the A-SAT missile test conducted by India recently.

N Kalyan Raman |

Updated:April 4, 2019, 2:52 PM IST
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Beyond National Security: Why Weaponization of Space With India's ‘Mission Shakti’ is a Terrible Idea
Illustration by Mir Suhail. (News18)
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‘National Security’ is trotted out as the clinching post-facto argument in favour of the A-SAT missile test conducted by India recently.

But even national security must be pursued on a sound and rational basis, without hurting the interests of the Indian people and without harming the principles upholding the collective interests of the international community. In any such argument, these concerns also need to be taken into account.

Here is a detailed presentation of a few wider ramifications of India’s A-SAT missile test and an interrogation of its strategic relevance to facilitate a wider understanding of such concerns.

Potential Impact on ISRO

All space technologies are potentially capable of dual-use i.e. for civilian and military applications. The technology used for launching satellites into space can also be used to launch missiles for the delivery of warheads. Therefore, in most countries including the US, agencies responsible for the development of technologies for civilian applications are kept strictly away from the programmes
and activities of the country’s defence establishment.

Without such separation, international co-operation, free exchange of ideas across borders and import of technologies and products where
necessary, a vital characteristic of the international space community from the beginning, wouldn’t
be possible.

In India, the space programme was founded by thinkers like Vikram Sarabhai who placed a great emphasis on the use of space technology and applications for the benefit of the common man. Therefore, ISRO was the lead civilian agency for developing the required space technologies and applications.

DRDO’s initiatives in this domain came after a time-lag. Understandably, a few experts and critical expertise were transferred to the DRDO programme in the early eighties (Dr Abdul Kalam being one of the prominent examples), but the separation between the two agencies was strictly maintained, eschewing any material involvement of the former in the latter’s programmes.

It is this separation that is being violated in the government’s public presentation of the A-SAT missile test as a collaborative effort of the two agencies. It’s dismaying to see a fine principle that has been followed for so long, and one which has served the Indian people so well, being thrown away so casually in a burst of all-consuming jingoism.

Besides, the breach can potentially have an adverse impact on ISRO’s present and future programmes, in which international co-operation has always played a vital role. Therefore, this unseemly development should worry not only India’s scientific community but all Indians who care about our collective welfare.

Weaponization of space

Since their advent in the mid-sixties, artificial earth satellites for various civilian applications have brought immense benefits to mankind. Although the Cold War was raging at the time, it was recognized by the international community that space belonged to everyone and that it was of utmost importance that outer space should be used exclusively for peaceful purposes.

The weaponization of space had to be avoided at all costs. The kind of progress made in space applications across the world would be unthinkable without this cardinal principle being upheld by the international community for five long decades and counting. This is one of the reasons why the A-SAT programme, when it was originally mooted by the Reagan Administration of the US in the mid-eighties, invited trenchant criticism from the international community.

It’s also a reason why the capability has been limited to just three countries until recently. We in India should ask ourselves if
we want to contribute to this retrograde move of militarizing space on less-than-compelling grounds of “national security”. Apparently, it is a matter that was handled with commendable discretion by the UPA govt back in 2012. We must demand such prudence from every succeeding government, in our own interest and in the interests of all inhabitants of our planet.

Impact of debris

It is a fact that debris from the destroyed satellites in low earth orbit will slowly lose altitude and burn out on entering the atmosphere. This may take several months and in the meantime, the debris might pose a non-trivial risk to the spacecraft of other countries. Polluting the space used by other countries and creating the risk of danger to their assets in space is certainly an irresponsible act on the part of any country that conducts A-Sat missile tests.

No compelling rationale

There is NO compelling ‘national security’ rationale for developing and testing A-SAT missile capability. It’s a no brainer that satellites by themselves cannot be used directly as attack weapons. They can at best facilitate strategic military communications or gather surveillance information.

LEO (low earth orbit) satellites are not the most suitable platforms for providing always-on strategic military communications at a reasonable cost. Given the earth’s rotation, many satellites in orbits of different inclinations will be required to provide uninterrupted coverage for communications.

Satellites in a geostationary orbit are a more viable option for defence communications and hence are more commonly used for that purpose. In either case, targeting ground station facilities will be far simpler and more effective than taking out satellites.

The kind of information that can be gathered by a satellite in a 300km orbit (images of ~1m resolution) is available from several other sources. Here, too, continuous surveillance of the same area with LEO satellites will require a complicated multi-satellite system with expensive ground stations.

Where such a system exists, taking out one or two satellites is not going to help. During the Arab-Israel conflict in 1973, also known as the Yom Kippur war, the USSR used its lightweight, recoverable Cosmos series of satellites in highly inclined orbit to track troop movements. These satellites typically had a lifetime of 20 days. But with advances in imaging and communication technologies, those days are well and truly over.

In the present-day scenario with extended ground and aerial attack capabilities, destroying spy satellites can be of little strategic consequence. Moreover, satellites for military applications are normally used in orbits of higher altitudes of > 1000km going all the way up to the geostationary orbit (36,000km). Hence they would be normally beyond the reach of India’s missile system. Destroying a satellite in a 300km low earth orbit is hardly an adequate strategic measure.

Finally, all objects launched into an earth orbit are tracked immediately and indexed with all the key parameters up to the end of their lifetime by several establishments across the world. This information is also available from international sources. No sudden or secretive manoeuvre is possible by means of orbiting satellites. It’s hard to understand what the threat perception from an
orbiting satellite might be.

These, then, are the grounds for informed criticism and thoughtful dissent on our government’s ill-advised and sinister move to conduct an A-SAT missile test on March 27. Since they go beyond ‘national security,’ they should be brought to the notice of a wider public for their consideration.

While the cheerleaders of “a muscular Hindu nation” and our desi version of Dr Strangelove may still disagree, the rest of us must firmly refuse to “learn to stop worrying and love the bomb.”
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