India makes strides towards space security

Considering that the test was conducted after the Parliamentary elections were announced, people have tried to assess this move politically. But the domestic impact of the test is not only about politics. Politicians may come and go, but India’s defence and foreign policy will always be.

This test — in which India targeted one of its own satellites with a ground-based missile — was carried out by India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). Since the early 1980s, DRDO has been developing and testing various categories of missiles, including Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles with a range exceeding 5000 kilometres. These missiles have gone through the process of operational testing and are in the inventory of the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force. The recent ASAT is an extension of this program.

This test is a unique event as it was conducted with precise technical planning and because of India’s proactive policies. India’s foreign policymakers had secured possible loose ends well before the test. Prior to India’s test, China, Russia and the United States were the only ASAT capable countries. India informed these spacefaring nations of its test well in advance, suggesting that India wants to be totally transparent with their actions.

The US Strategic Command Chief General John E Hyten defended India before members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. 

He claimed that the country had conducted the ASAT because it needed the capability to defend itself in space. India’s foreign policy establishment may have ensured that no major international backlash takes place against this test.

Regionally, India, Pakistan and China all have nuclear weapons and various categories of missiles in their arsenals. But while China conducted an ASAT test in 2007, Pakistan is not a major player in the space domain. Yet they have reasonable expertise in the missile domain. With China’s assistance, Pakistan could demonstrate their ASAT capabilities if the government wants to follow a tit-for-tat strategy.

In the coming decades there could be a

 ‘space race for resources’ with asteroid

 mining becoming a reality. India needs

 to ensure that all treaties in the 

space domain are fair

The test has also led to some concerns regarding space debris. Since India conducted the test at an altitude of 280 kilometres, it was expected that major debris would evaporate when entering the Earth’s atmosphere within a few weeks’ time. During the first 10–15 days there was also a possibility of the debris coming into the path of the International Space Station (ISS). That period is now over and NASA has identified the debris floating above the ISS. 

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine expressed his discomfort with the test and mentioned that ‘[it] is a terrible, terrible thing to create an event that sends debris at an apogee that goes above the ISS’.

The ISS is well-equipped to handle any debris related threat. In the past they have carried out debris manoeuvres to avoid possible impact and there is a hypervelocity impact shield for protection. Since 2017, the Space Debris Sensor has been available to monitor small debris around the space station. It is highly unlikely that the Indian test would pose a danger to the ISS considering the protections available to address such a threat.

Another major concern is the weaponisation of space. India has always been against the idea, as it understands that space is an important medium for the socio-economic development of the country and it would be a foolish act to weaponise such a useful medium. Currently, India uses space for education, telemedicine, weather forecasting and resource management purposes.

Now, India will be able to contribute constructively towards establishing multilateral treaties and norm building mechanisms concerning missile capabilities. India has a vibrant space program and is keen to use space for 

developmental and commercial purposes. 

In the coming decades there could be a ‘space race for resources’ with asteroid mining becoming a reality. India needs to ensure that all treaties in the space domain are fair.

India is expected to launch its second mission to the moon with a rover and lander system in the coming months, with its first human space mission predicted to occur by 2021 or 2022. They have also made good inroads in the global small satellite launch market. 

All this indicates that India has major plans for a future in the space domain and has an interest to keep space secure. Its ASAT test is one such step towards ensuring the security of this medium.

Group Captain Ajey Lele (Retd.) is Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi