India tested the anti-satellite weapon on March 27, 2019, which demonstrates New Delhi's prowess to destroy satellites in orbit. The missile test is a technological accomplishment of India’s Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO). Hitherto, only three states – the U.S., Russia, and China – have tested anti-satellite missiles. Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted, “In the journey of every nation there are moments that bring utmost pride and have a historic impact on generations to come. One such moment is today. India has successfully tested the Anti-Satellite (ASAT) Missile.” However, the test caused a massive cloud of dangerous space debris and placed other space-faring nation's satellites at risk. Moreover, ASAT missile test exacerbates arms race in the outer space and creates a destabilizing impact on the South Asian strategic environment.
Although the space-faring nations have not deployed space-weapons in the outer space, yet they have been using satellite technology in their advanced weapon systems aboard aircraft and warships to carry out precision-strike capabilities. One cannot ignore the vitality of satellite systems in the military realm. The satellites are used to guide missiles and drones to their destination, facilitate communication between soldiers on the battlefield, and spy on adversaries. According to Daryl Kimball, the Executive Director of the Arms Control Association, the ASAT missile would be seen as an “extremely provocative step, because it could potentially mean that one side is trying to blind the other from detecting a nuclear attack.” This could, in theory, escalate the conflict between the nuclear-armed states toward nuclear war.
Prime Minister Modi and his cohorts are publicizing that ASAT missile tests would provide a great striking advantage to the Indian armed forces without realizing that proliferation begets proliferation. India’s ASAT capability will unleash lethal space arms race between the global and regional strategic competitors. Scientifically speaking; currently, many nations including Russia, China, United States, etc. have the capacity to mess up a satellite by the satellite jammers, lasers, and high-power microwave gun systems. The Americans, Russians, and Chinese had already sent micro-satellites into space, which they can covertly maneuver close to other nations’ commercial satellites. "Experts believe the small satellites could be used for a kamikaze-type mission to ram another satellite or to snoop on it for data collection or jamming to interfere with its capabilities." Therefore, India’s ASAT missile test has the potential to destabilize the strategic stability in South Asia.
India developed ASAT capability through its ballistic missile defense (BMD) program, which is a flagship project of the DRDO. India’s BMD program is aimed at producing two-tiered missile defensive systems that comprise the Prithvi Air Defense (PAD) system and Advanced Air Defense (AAD). The PAD provides long-range high-altitude ballistic missile interception during an incoming missile's midcourse phase, and the AAD offers short-range, low-altitude defence against missiles in the terminal phase of their trajectory. The Prithvi Delivery Vehicle Mark-II (PDV MK-II) struck and destroyed 1,653 pound (740 kilogram) Microsat-R satellite orbiting at an altitude of 270 kilometers (170 miles). India launched this satellite in January 2019. The interceptor employed a Kinetic Kill Vehicle to strike and shatter the target satellite. The test proves India’s counter-space capability and also contributes to its efforts in developing BMD capabilities.
India’s ASAT missile test was a Low Earth Orbit (LEO) test. Therefore, the satellite’s destruction created debris that ought to fall on Earth. While commenting on the fallout of the Indian Microsat-R satellite debris, Jim Bridenstine, the administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the United States government agency that conducts research into space, opined that ASAT missile test created at least 400 pieces of orbital debris that placed the International Space Station (ISS) and its astronauts at risk. He said, “That is a terrible, terrible thing to create an event that sends debris at an apogee that goes above the International Space Station.” He added: "It is not acceptable for us to allow people to create orbital debris fields that put at risk our people." Many aerospace-industry experts fear that “debris in LEO could reach a tipping point, known as an ablation cascade, also dubbed the Kessler Effect, where debris from one impact could trigger a chain reaction of additional impacts.” In 1978, the NASA scientist Donald J. Kessler proposed the Kessler syndrome. It is a theory used to describe a self-sustaining cascading collision of space debris in LEO. "It is the idea that two colliding objects in space generate more debris that then collides with other objects, creating even more shrapnel and litter until the entirety of LEO is an impassable array of super swift stuff. At that point, any entering satellite would face unprecedented risks of headfirst bombardment."
Many nations have been using the outer space for military missions. However, the world does not bear the unbridled militarization of space. Therefore, Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) Treaty was proposed in the Conference on Disarmament (CD) to prevent an arms race in space in 1983. Regrettably, the CD has failed to finalize the PAROS draft to-date. The acting United States Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan opined: "Space should be a place where we can conduct business, space should be a place where people have the freedom to operate. You cannot make (space) unstable. We cannot create a debris problem that ASAT tests create." India's testing of its ASAT capability raises alarms about the weaponization of space. The Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit science-advocacy organization based in the United States, stated: "India's test comes against a backdrop of a languishing international effort to ensure space remains a peaceful and secure environment." Kimball rightly concluded: “One thing to keep in mind about knocking out satellites with military weapons is that it creates a debris field that all commercial and military satellites of every country will have to avoid for years to come.”
The timing of ASAT missile test, dubbed ‘Mission Shakti’ ("power" in Hindi), is very critical because it was conducted just weeks after Pakistan Air Force shot down two India Air Force fighter jets and arrested one pilot on February 27, 2019. The Pakistan Navy also detected the Indian submarine that tried to enter Pakistani waters on March 4, 2019, and successfully thwarted its attempt. Pakistan Navy’s spokesperson claimed: “The submarine could have been easily engaged and destroyed had it not been Pakistan’s policy to exercise restraint in the face of Indian aggression and to give peace a chance to prevail.” Indeed, the ASAT missile test was an attempt to boost the Indian armed forces’ morale, which was demoralized due to a befitting-cum-restraint response of the Pakistan Armed Forces to India’s military misadventures after the Pulwama incident on February 14, 2019. Realistically, it is impossible for India to use its conventional and nuclear power for pursuing its strategic objectives against Pakistan. Therefore, it has been advancing its missile defence program. For the sake of technology and procurement of missile defence systems, India signed agreements with space-faring nations. For instance, in 2004, India and the U.S. signed an agreement which boosted India's space program including ballistic missiles. India has been purchasing advanced radar systems and missile technologies from Israel.
The ASAT missile test was a few days before the start of voting in the current Lok Sabha election. Prime Minister Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have made national security, particularly enmity with Pakistan, the focus of their campaign for a national election. Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science at MIT opined, "It is very provocative to do an ASAT test. It seems like this is an effort to brandish [Modi’s] security credentials with the general election coming up and in the wake of the crisis with Pakistan.” Hence, the ASAT missile test was a political move to bolster poll numbers but having severe repercussions for the regional strategic stability. It reinforces the arms race between India and Pakistan.
India’s strategic pundits are claiming that the ASAT missile test improves India’s military punch. Satish Dua, former Chief of Integrated Defense Staff of the Indian army pointed out: “India has to be fully equipped for war — whether it is subsurface, surface, air or space warfare.” He added, “Space pervades all warfare as it enables intelligence and surveillance, information warfare, [and] cyber domain[s]." Indeed, the Mission Shakti test was meant precisely to demonstrate India’s military potential. Ashley J. Tellis concurred Dua’s opinion, "India's ASAT test also undoubtedly validated several emerging Indian ballistic missile defense technologies, including the infrared imaging sensor in the PDV MK-II's kill vehicle and its divert and attitude control system, but the larger gains sought were strategic." Hence, India’s ASAT missile test was a demonstration of India’s ballistic missile defence system.
Pakistan cannot ignore the arms race in the outer space because India has been developing, testing and operationalizing BMD systems. The Indian strategic pundits believe that BMD provides Indian armed forces freedom to conduct sub-conventional, short-range and swift military action against Pakistan. It may conduct surgical strikes or other preemptive or aggressive military action, short of full-scale war, without the fear of Pakistan’s response. Despite, India’s development of BMD and ASAT missile test, Islamabad maintains its principal stance about the prevention of arms race in the outer space. While responding on India’s ASAT test, the Pakistan Foreign Office reiterated its stance: "Pakistan remains a strong proponent of non-militarization of outer space. We will continue to work with like-minded countries to address gaps in the international legal regime governing the exploration and use of outer space to ensure that no one threatens peaceful activities and applications of space technologies for socio-economic development. In the absence of strong legal instruments, other states could also follow suit by demonstrating such capabilities.” Theoretically, it seems an appropriate response to India’s ASAT missile test, but practically one needs to be vigilant about India’s BMD development and chalk out countermeasures.
Although, shooting a satellite in LEO is much easier than intercepting a ballistic missile, yet India’s ASAT missile test is a destabilizing development in the South Asian strategic environment. What Pakistan accordingly needs more than ever is effective antidotes to the Indian BMD. Only such capabilities will enable Islamabad to deter New Delhi's aggressive designs against Pakistan credibly. Thus, Pakistan needs to improve its ballistic and cruise missiles inventories.
The writer is Professor at School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. He is also the author of India’s Surgical Strike Stratagem: Brinksmanship and Response.
E-mail: [email protected]
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