Keep our eyes on the sky
Now that India has successfully demonstrated its ASAT capability, it should play an important role in mitigating problems such as space debris, space traffic management, orbital frequency issues and other issues.
India became the fourth country to demonstrate an anti-satellite (ASAT) capability by conducting its first test on 27 March. This has ensured that New Delhi does not meet the same fate as it did in the nuclear domain, should there be a global initiative that bans ASAT tests in the future.
There was a fear that India might miss the bus again and the three countries that had conducted such tests in the past — the US, Russia and China — could formalise an instrument that would place an effective ban on India from conducting an ASAT in the future. Indian policymakers from across the civilian, scientific and military bureaucracies were mindful of such an eventuality.
Make space for me
But now that it has demonstrated such a capability and ensured a seat at the ‘high table’, India should take a leading role to channelise its efforts to avoid weaponisation of outer space. This is to be undertaken both for the internal and external aspects of India’s space security policy.
Reports such as Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking National Security Adviser Ajit Doval to prepare draft space doctrine could send misleading misperceptions about India’s objectives. This government appears to be taking the same approach as the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government did after the Pokharan-2 nuclear tests in 1998, when it immediately began preparing a draft nuclear doctrine.
While clarity is required in terms of the future steps, GoI must also appreciate that there are important differences with the 1998 nuclear tests and what followed from that. ASAT capability is not a war-fighting capability and, therefore, plans to operationalise such capability need to be treaded carefully.
"While clarity is required in terms of the future steps, GoI must also appreciate that there are important differences with the 1998 nuclear tests and what followed from that."
In this sense, it is different from the circumstances of 1998. Though nuclear weapons tests were not for war-fighting purposes either, there was a need then to come out with a doctrine to outline India’s deterrent posture and its limited nature. But such operationalisation is not required with the ASAT capability — unless it turns out that others are operationalising their ASAT capabilities too, of which there is no sign yet.
It is reported that India plans to create institutional authority along the lines of the Nuclear Command Authority (NCA), which will deal with issues of actual operationalisation of this capability within India’s military with clear counter-response options appropriated.
One senior official is reported to have said, “We have to lay down the defensive/offensive steps required in case Indian satellites are destroyed or degraded or there is access denial by an adversary through electro-magnetic radiation.”
While this clarity is appreciated, such actions should not lead to more alarm bells ringing. So far, none of the other countries who have acquired such ASAT capability have operationalised such a capability. The fact that space has not become part of overt deterrence calculations for any of the spacefaring powers is an encouraging sign that must be maintained.
"So far, none of the other countries who have acquired such ASAT capability have operationalised such a capability."
Some of the immediate steps that India needs to articulate are, first, what kind of activities in space need to be restricted. This can be done by first producing a backgrounder or policy paper highlighting the importance of outer space for meeting India’s developmental and strategic functions.
This should detail the kind of space environment that must be maintained to ensure that deterrence does not become a reality in outer space and, thereafter, to suggest means and ways to strengthen norms of responsible behaviour. India may be accused of being hypocritical, but India was more of a reluctant ASAT power and has been compelled to act because of the worsening security competition within the space domain.
Not a LEO toy
But having decided to do an ASAT, it must be recognised that India conducted the test in a responsible and transparent manner. The fact that India decided to do it an altitude of 300 km in low earth orbit (LEO) ensured that its action did not lead to the creation of long-lasting space debris.
"It must be recognised that India conducted the test in a responsible and transparent manner."
Despite a much-reported complaint from NASA about the Indian test leaving debris that could “pose a risk to the International Space Station” and adding that it was a “terrible, terrible thing”, so far, according to the US Strategic Command’s Joint Force Space Component Command (JFSCC), there are about 250-270 debris pieces that have been generated from the Indian ASAT test — which is more along the lines of the debris created during the US ASAT test in 2008, which was also at a similar altitude.
A second aspect that India needs to emphasise is outlining rules for what is permissible. India has interests in ensuring that outer space is kept clean, safe and secure for future generations to use as well.
It also has interests in strengthening its credentials in global space governance. Until now, New Delhi could not play an active role in this because it did not have that capability that gives it a voice in this arena.
Now that India has successfully demonstrated its ASAT capability, it should play an important role in mitigating problems such as space debris, space traffic management, orbital frequency issues and other issues that are important for ensuring safe and secure access to outer space. India should partner with like-minded countries in initiating these conversations and take them to meaningful international platforms such as Conference on Disarmament, UN First Committee and UN Disarmament Commission.
This commentary originally appeared in The Economic Times.
Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan (ORF)
12 April 2019