The morning of 27 March witnessed a palpable buzz in the strategic community and in think tanks across India, as news trickled in that the Prime Minister would shortly be making an important announcement. The election dates to the Lok Sabha had already been announced and the model code of conduct was in place, so obviously, the announcement could not be a political one. Speculation was rife on what exactly the Prime Minister had to say and all news channels were on edge. When the Prime Minister spoke, it was but for a few short minutes, and the statement was on Mission Shakti.
Mission Shakti is an ongoing anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon program of India. In the anti-satellite test conducted in the early morning hours of 27 March, the Defence Research and Development Organisation’s (DRDO) Ballistic Missile Defence interceptor was launched off the Odisha coast, aimed at an existing Indian satellite operating in low Earth orbit (LEO). Within three minutes of launch from the Dr A.P.J Abdul Kalam Island launch complex off the coast of Odisha, the missile hit its intended target, signalling success of the mission. This was a “kinetic kill,” with the missile directly hitting the target and destroying it with the force of the kinetic impact, much akin to a bullet hitting another bullet. This technology is only one of many with ASAT capabilities. The Chinese used the same technology when they successfully carried out their own ASAT test in 2007.
The Prime Minister announced the success of the mission in his short broadcast to the nation. Speaking in Hindi, the Prime Minister said, “Our scientists shot down a live satellite 300 kilometres away in space, in Low-Earth orbit. With this, India has made an unprecedented achievement today and registered its name as a space power”. The moment marked a major breakthrough in both space technology and the country’s military might. It was the first time that India has ever successfully tested such technology and after the United States, Russia and China, India became the fourth country in the world to have demonstrated this capability. Prime Minister Modi, while declaring India as an established space power with the success of Mission Shakti, also congratulated scientists at the DRDO for this achievement, through which the country now rivalled achievements made earlier by only three countries.
Many in the media as also in the strategic community did not comprehend the import of such an achievement. Perhaps they were anticipating a more dramatic announcement, related to India’s strained relations with Pakistan, but gradually as the significance of the test became clear, the realisation set in that India was now in the big league, as far as space was concerned. India has already made a series of breakthroughs in its space programme, making earth imaging satellites and launch capabilities as a cheaper alternative to western programmes. India has also sent a mission to Mars and to the moon, and also hopes to have a manned space mission by 2022.Why then was this test considered so important that it required a person of the stature of the Prime Minister of India to announce its success to the world? The reasons are not hard to find. The ability to hit a satellite in space is not just a notable military achievement but also a major engineering and aerospace feat. More importantly, it gives India deterrence capability and puts the country in the select group of nations which will be party to formulating laws with respect to the use of outer space, if so required, in future, by virtue of this test.
Here, it is important to consider how India got left out of being categorised as a nuclear power. When India exploded its first nuclear device on 13 May 1974 at Pokhran, Rajasthan, it perhaps had come a tad too late. Had India tested its nuclear capability in the mid 1960s, it would not have been left out of the Non Proliferation Treaty’s (NPT) category of “nuclear weapon state”. Speaking on this issue, Mr Gulshan Luthra, the Editor of India Strategic, who was then in UNI, had an occasion to ask Mrs Gandhi her reasons for conducting the test. She gave two reasons. The first was to ensure that an aggressive China would not be allowed to hurt India. And second, Mrs Gandhi stated that if this was the requirement for getting the UN Security Council membership, so be it. India’s attempt to gatecrash into the nuclear club however received a rebuff and India was placed under sanctions. More than two decades later, Prime Minister Vajpayee again made a bid to enter the nuclear club through the Pokhran II tests of 13 May 1998, under the codename “Smiling Buddha”. Mr Vajpayee declared India a full-fledged nuclear state, and a nuclear doctrine was soon promulgated envisaging self moratorium on further tests. The world community nonetheless came crashing down on India with sanctions, as they had done during Mrs Gandhi’s premiership also, and while India weathered the storm, it took many years for the US and other nations to cooperate with India on nuclear issues.
India’s experience with the Non-Proliferation Treaty has demonstrated that it needed to be among the powers with the “proven capability” to be able to sit at the decision-making table. The consequences of a delayed nuclear test was that India remained out in the cold and was prevented from being declared as a nuclear weapon state. This fact needs to be assimilated to fully comprehended and understand India’s compulsion in carrying out an ASAT test. Before India successfully conducted an ASAT test, there were only three countries that had demonstrated this capability. These three could have come up with an international mechanism that would ban additional ASAT tests, which would have been detrimental to India’s national interests. Now, with the success of Mission Shakti, India will be a party to any future laws that may be made governing the use of space. That is why the ASAT test assumes great significance, as in the event of an NPT for space coming into force and being made part of the world order, India will remain part of the group that cannot be banned from developing and demonstrating its ASAT capability.
The world, by and large did not react negatively to India’s ASAT test, which simply indicates how far the country has progressed in this field. There were concerns expressed in some quarters with respect to the space debris created by the test, but these fears were allayed by the fact that the test was conducted in low earth orbit at just 300 km, and the debris is unlikely to exist for more than a couple of months or so. This is in sharp contrast to the ASAT test carried out by China in 2007, which though in LEO, was conducted at 700 km and whose space debris still exists.
As of now, most countries of the world are bound by the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. This Treaty represents the basic legal framework of international space law. The Treaty prohibits the placement of weapons of mass destruction in the earth’s orbit, or in installing such weapons on the moon or any other celestial body or otherwise stationing them in outer space. It exclusively limits the use of the Moon and other celestial bodies to peaceful purposes and expressly prohibits their use for testing weapons of any kind, conducting military manoeuvres, or establishing military bases, installations, and fortifications (Article IV). However, the treaty does not prohibit the placement of conventional weapons in orbit, which can in future lead to the weaponisation of space. The treaty explicitly forbids any government to claim a celestial resource such as the Moon or a planet, though a state that launches a space object retains jurisdiction and control over that object.
Since the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 came into force, international law regarding the use of outer space by nations and individuals has been dominated by the ‘res communis’ doctrine, which means that space belongs to mankind and not to one individual or country. This doctrine was the product of those times, and was noble in intent, but strides in technology as well as the evolution of the socio-political and economic environment have brought forth fresh challenges, which may necessitate a review of the Treaty. Today, the utilisation of space impacts on most aspects of our lives, especially in telecommunications, financial services, navigation, remote sensing and a host of other areas. All such activities depend upon space infrastructure, which makes it vital for nations to see that such assets remain protected.
Destruction of space assets have not just military implications but could also cripple the economies of the targeted countries. ASAT weapons pose the prime threat to space based assets, which makes it vital that such assets be protected. Deterrence is an effective tool to ensure such an outcome, and with India having successfully conducted an ASAT test, it has acquired a certain level of capability to deter other nations from targeting Indian space assets. Since China’s ASAT test in January 2007, India has been concerned about the security of its space assets, especially as India has made a huge investment in the outer space domain including in services and ground infrastructure. With the demonstration of its ASAT capability, protection of such assets is to some extent assured through deterrence.
Besides the element of deterrence, it is important to consider whether a change in the res communis doctrine would in future be considered, whereby nations may be allowed to claim zones around their respective space assets as national territory, in order to protect them. Should such a contingency arise, India will be party to making such laws and will thus be in a position to protect its interests.
India has since long been mindful of its quest to be a leading power in world affairs. While the focus has been on economic development, there has also been a consistent effort in increasing its footprints in space. India’s lunar mission, Chandrayaan-1 reached the lunar orbit on 8 November 2008 and mapped its chemical, mineralogical and photo-geologic properties for over nine months after orbiting at 100km away from its surface, till the 675 kg spacecraft was lost on 29 August 2009. The Chandrayaan-2, India’s second mission to the Moon is planned for the current year and is a totally indigenous mission comprising of an Orbiter, Lander and Rover. After reaching the 100 km lunar orbit, the Lander housing the Rover will separate from the Orbiter and after a controlled descent, will soft land on the lunar surface and deploy the six-wheeled Rover which will move around the landing site in semi- autonomous mode as decided by the ground commands. This will perform the objectives of remote sensing the moon, collecting scientific information on lunar topography, mineralogy, elemental abundance, lunar exosphere and signatures of hydroxyl and water-ice.In 2013, the Mangalyaan Mission to Mars was successfully launched. The Indian government has also sanctioned the Gaganyaan Mission, which will take Indians to outer space. The first unmanned mission of Gaganyaan is scheduled for December 2020 and the second for July 2021, while the first Gaganyaan mission with astronauts is scheduled for December 2021. For Gaganyaan, the launch vehicle and the crew capsule will be India-made. Till date, India has undertaken 103 spacecraft missions, the latest being the launch of the EMISAT on 1 April 2019, an electronic signals intelligence (ELINT) satellite. India’s achievements in space have thus been tremendous and have firmly established India as a premier space power.
There is no denying the fact that India has carved a niche for itself in space and missile technology. It has launched the largest number of satellites in one mission (104) and has also launched satellites for a group of countries for free, in the form of SAARC satellites. All this has been guided by India’s desire to strengthen its national security and ensure that space remains a global commons. But the capability also has important military implications.
Military Uses of Space
Space is the ultimate high ground and for the last few decades, space assets have been used for reconnaissance and surveillance, communications, navigation, meteorology, and geodesy. Electromagnetic radiation emitted or reflected from terrestrial objects can be detected from space in any of the three wavelength bands to which the intervening atmosphere is transparent—the visible band, certain infrared bands, and the microwave radio band—which is why they are used for military surveillance. Such remote sensing techniques are suitable during peacetime but can also be used for wartime purposes such as tracking the movement of fleets, offensive columns or even monitoring air and naval bases. Remote sensing technologies can be used for both tactical and strategic intelligence, but for the former, being time sensitive, it would have to be supplemented with other sources such as aircraft and remotely piloted vehicles.
For imagery, resolution quality of a picture is directly proportional to altitude. Here, LEO satellites are more useful for photo reconnaissance, but for continuous coverage of an area, a larger number of satellites would be required. Radar satellites can provide night time and all weather imagery. Satellites can also detect discrete signals in the three atmospheric bands, which makes them useful for detecting pulses which emanate from air defence radars, flash of a nuclear burst or the launch of an ICBM.
But it is in communications where satellites play an extremely important role. The trend is towards higher frequencies in military communication satellites due to higher limit to their data-carrying capacity. Also, transmitting antennas for higher frequencies can be made smaller without sacrificing performance (effectiveness of a transmitter dish is determined by the ratio of its size to the wavelength of the radio waves it is transmitting), and it is easier to protect higher-frequency links against hostile jamming. In addition, higher frequencies suffer less distortion in passing through an ionosphere disturbed by nuclear detonations. Satellites also play an important role in navigation for supporting reconnaissance and for weapon delivery. Military operations also require met data which satellites can provide.
In any future conflict, space will play a vital role and the side which has space warfare capability has an edge over the rest. Future wars will see attempts by all the parties in the fray to disable the opponents satellites, which could be done in multiple ways, and not necessarily through the physical destruction of a satellite which throws up a host of challenges with respect to space debris. For India, it is important to be a player in the game, so that it sits on the high table when in future, rules are framed or modified concerning the use of outer space. As part of military capability, it would enable India to protect itself from satellite surveillance in the event of war as well as the ability to cripple the enemy’s space-based communications and navigation systems within the opening hours of a conflict as also allow India to monitor the activities of its adversaries. The ASAT test conducted by India was perhaps also prompted by the test conducted by China in 2007, which was understood as potentially altering the strategic balance in the Indo-Pacific. Mission Shakti has sought to redress the imbalance. There are fears that the Indian ASAT test could lead to a space race and eventually the weaponisation of space. That possibility obviously cannot be discounted and India accordingly must use its influence to calm such fears. There are today five major laws of space, the most important being the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. The others relate to The Rescue Agreement (Rescue and return of Astronauts), the Convention on the International Liability for Damage caused by Space Objects, The Convention on the Registration of Objects launched into Space and The Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (the “Moon Treaty”). The UN General Assembly has also adopted several resolutions that are non-binding, but are generally followed by the international community. However, as technology advances further, there will be changes made to the Outer Space Treaty or a new treaty may well be drafted. It is important to understand that such changes or drafting will co- opt those nations that have demonstrated space capability and India now falls into that select group. Space, as mentioned earlier, is the ultimate high ground and all future conflicts will make use of space assets to a greater or lesser degree, based on capability. It is vital for India to be at the cutting edge of space technologies to better preserve its national interests.
Spencer Wong, “Mission Impossible? India’s Recent Space Triumph Causes Deep Con-cern”, available at http://www.southasiaathudson.org/blog/2019/4/1/mission impossible-indias-recent-space-triumph-causes-deep- concern
Seminar Report, IPCS, 18 April 2007, available at http://www.ipcs.org/comm_select.php?articleNo=2276 Jennifer Williams-Alvarez, What you need to know about the laws of space, available at https://www.engadget.com/2015/05/11/what-you-need-to- know-about-the-laws-of-space/
Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, Having tested its ASAT capability, India should help shape global space norms, available at https://www.orfonline.org/research/having-tested-its-asat- capability-india-should-help-shape-global-space-norms- 49384/
Michael J. Listner, It’s time to rethink international space law, available at http://www.thespacereview.com/article/381/1 Ashton B. Carter, Current and Future Military Uses of Space, available at https://www.belfercenter.org/sites/default/files/legacy/files/C ARTER-1986- Annals_of_the_New_York_Academy_of_Sciences.pdf