Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced on Wednesday that India has conducted an anti-satellite missile test against a live satellite in low earth orbit (LEO). The ASAT test from the Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam Island launch complex lasted for three minutes and was claimed to be “fully successful” and accomplished all the parameters set out for the missions.
Modi also tweeted that this was a proud moment for India and stated that this test is special for two reasons: First, “India is only the 4th country to acquire such a specialised and modern capability,” and second, “The entire effort is indigenous. India stands tall as a space power! It will make India stronger, even more secure and will further peace and harmony.”
Thereafter, the Ministry of External Affairs provided some additional details on the rationale and the timing for the test in the form of FAQs. The document underlined the rationale for India to demonstrate its ASAT capability as a means “to safeguard our space assets”.
ASAT itself is not a new technology. The US and the Soviet Union had conducted many ASAT tests during the latter years of the Cold War. After a voluntary moratorium that was in place for more than two decades, China conducted its own first successful ASAT test in January 2007.
The Chinese ASAT test was conducted at an altitude of 865 km and resulted in the creation of 3,000-odd pieces of long-lasting space debris. This was followed by the US, which conducted its own ASAT test, bringing down an old satellite in 2008 at an altitude of 275 km, but with very limited debris. India’s test today was at an altitude of 300 km and thus any debris that has been created could burn up in the atmosphere or come down in a few weeks and months. The larger pieces of debris will come down much faster because gravity will act on them more, but even the smaller pieces should down-enter the atmosphere and burn up in a few months’ time.
India’s demonstration of its ASAT capability has obvious implication for national and international security. For instance, though other countries have tested this capability, they are not thought to have actually deployed it. India is also likely to follow the same path and avoid deploying this system. However, this does not take away from the utility of the demonstration itself. This was required in order to avoid some of the mistakes that India had done in other areas, such as the nuclear domain. India refused to test its nuclear capability in the 1960s, thus being left out of the Non Proliferation Treaty’s category of “nuclear weapon state”.
Clearly, India does not want an NPT for space to be developed and then be banned from developing and demonstrating its ASAT capability. Before today’s test, there were only three countries that have demonstrated this capability and the three could easily come up with an international mechanism that would ban additional ASAT tests. India has been mindful of any such efforts to develop political and legally binding agreements addressing the trend towards weaponisation.
The other key question is the rationale for India to do the ASAT test. Since China’s ASAT test in January 2007, India has been concerned about the security of its space assets. Given India’s investment in the outer space domain including the services and ground infrastructure, India has significant material stakes. Therefore, developing certain deterrent capabilities against any ASAT threat is important.
Now that India has demonstrated its ASAT capability, it should move away from its current position of ambiguity to taking a proactive role in shaping the norms, rules and regulations in this area. Having crossed the rubicon, it can join the conversations along with other established space powers to ensure that space remains weapons-free.
There have been a number of efforts in recent years, including the Code of Conduct proposed by the European Union in the early 2010s to the current UN Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on Prevention of Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS), which will submit its report soon to the UN General Assembly for further action. India can and should be an active player in these deliberations.
Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan is a Distinguished Fellow and Head of the Nuclear and Space Policy Initiative at Observer Research Foundation.