Mission Shakti: One month after the completion of India’s first ASAT

Tomorrow marks one month of the successful completion of Mission Shakti- India’s first Anti-Satellite (ASAT) testing. The test has received mixed reactions from the international community. In this post, we address the three main concerns arising from the ASAT test.

First, we examine the technological aspects of ASAT weapons and their significance. Second, we examine the impact of space debris that may potentially be generated by such tests. Third, we examine the outcome of this test on the future of regulation of outer space.

What is an Anti-Satellite Missile?

An Anti-Satellite Missile or the ASAT is a space weapon which destroys or interferes with satellites, impeding a nation’s ability to collect intelligence or direct attacks. Such a weapon can be air, land, or sea-based. While it is estimated that several nations may possess this technology, only four countries – USA, Russia, China and India have demonstrated their ASAT capabilities successfully.

ASATs can come in various forms since as several different mechanisms can be used to target or otherwise interfere with a satellite. India’s ASAT employed the kinetic-kill model, whereby an object in space or on the ground is sent to collide with an orbiting satellite, destroying both object and target with the energy of the crash.

India, in testing its new ASAT capabilities shot down a pre-determined targeted Low Orbit Satellite which was orbiting at about 300 km from the Earth. This puts the satellite in the lower thermosphere or the ionosphere of the Earth’s atmosphere. For reference, we can consider that the International Space Station usually orbits at a radius of about 350 to 400 km. This was achieved using the DRDO’s Ballistic Missile Defence interceptor and demonstrates India’s ability to intercept satellites through the use of indigenously developed technology.

In the FAQ’s uploaded by the Ministry of External Affairs shortly after the test, the Government clarified that the technology has been developed to protect and preserve domestic assets and reaffirmed its intention to use it only for protection, not as an offensive measure. The main objective identified by the FAQ’s was to demonstrate the capability to safeguard national assets and interests in outer space.

India has undertaken 102 spacecraft missions consisting of communication satellites, earth observation satellites, experimental satellites, navigation satellites, apart from satellites meant for scientific research and exploration, academic studies and other small satellites. The space programme now forms a critical component of India’s security, economic and social infrastructure, and is recognized as a significant commercial investment by the Government of India. With the expansion of the space programme, India has now emerged as one of the frontrunners in the ‘Space Market’.

Although four states have declared themselves as having ASAT’s, this technology has never been used against another state. In most cases, states have used it to dismantle their own satellites for strategic or technical reasons. Many describe it as a posturing tool, rather than an arms race for space weapons. The range of this technology is accurate against low earth satellites, which are mostly communications satellites, such as those used for telecommunication, earth observation satellites, the Hubble telescope etc, but does not necessarily cover satellites in Medium and High Orbit zones which contain satellites which have military and strategic uses.

Space Debris

One of the major concerns relating to the use of such weapons is the generation of space debris that could linger in outer space for many years. The test was followed by international disapproval by both states and scientific communities alike over possible concerns due to space debris. Some bodies have since called upon an absolute ban upon the testing of any space weapons. However, political will to introduce such a ban appears lacking.

Another notable response to the test was a call from some members of the industry to boycott India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. Launching secondary payloads on the PSLV generates significant income for India. Those calling for a boycott of India’s PSLV have taken the view that the creation of space debris in low Earth orbit through anti-satellite testing activities by India could harm the business models of PSLV’s launch customers. A boycott of this nature could significantly hurt India’s interests. However, no concrete measures were taken by any companies and most smaller companies refused to comment.

In response to concerns about orbital space debris generated by Mission Shakti, the Pentagon announced that the US Military’s Strategic Command was tracking 250 pieces of space debris generated by the missile test and would issue close-approach notifications as required, until the debris enters the Earth’s atmosphere. Whereas, the MEA had stated that any debris generated would burn up ‘in a few weeks’ in the atmosphere before contact and thus pose minimal harm. The original estimate provided by ISRO was 45 days, however new reports state that some pieces could take between 1-2 years to fall back to earth.

This is in contrast to the 14,000 pieces of space debris that had been generated by China’s ASAT test in 2007, which hit one Russian satellite and potentially endangered others in the vicinity, provoking strong reactions from the international community.

International Law and the Militarization of Outer Space

This test highlights a lacuna in the present international legal framework that governs outer space. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 only forbids the deployment of weapons of mass destruction in outer space. This creates a grey area in this framework that operationalizes the principle of peaceful uses of outer space. ASAT weapons are neither considered WMDs, nor are they otherwise explicitly prohibited by treaty law. The lack of international consensus on the issue has enabled nations part of the so-called ‘elite space club’ to develop and retain such technology without being censured or sanctioned. Efforts to build such a consensus also remain stagnated.

One of the prime examples of stagnated International Law in space is the Prevention of an Arms Race in Space (PAROS) treaty, which was originally proposed by China and Russia. The treaty has categorically been opposed by the US from the beginning of the negotiations in 1985 to the first draft, which was submitted by Russia in 2008. In 2017 UNGA resolution 72/250 established a group of governmental experts (GGE) to “consider and make recommendations on substantial elements of PAROS”.  The GGE met for the second time in March 2019.

A promising effort was put forward in the European Union’s proposed International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities — this sought to address the present challenges posed by the growing availability of Anti-Satellite technology and required states to resolve to not damage or destroy any satellite except for reasons of safety, self-defence or to avoid debris production. An Anti-Satellite test would have been prohibited under this regime. However, the draft code was a non- binding, voluntary international instrument which aimed at building norms of responsible behaviour in space activities. Additionally, the discussion of the draft in 2015 was further complicated by procedural complications and the continued rejection of the code by the Russia and China. Barring a revival by a powerful stakeholder, like the US, the draft code currently appears to be dead.

Current Concerns

While this test raised several difficult questions about the framework of Space Regulation, it does have the effect of putting the issue of space disarmament back onto the drawing board. With growing international coverage on the issues relating to the regulation of space, this may be a good time for the international community to try and frame updated rules to operationalize the principle of ‘peaceful use of outer space’ and prevent an arms race in outer space. With India’s de facto inclusion into the ‘elite club’ of ASAT capable countries, it could significantly contribute to the conversation as well.

With India’s growing presence in the field of space exploration, this would be an excellent opportunity to frame national guidelines in relation to the use and regulation of outer space. This would have two advantages; firstly, it would allow the state to regulate the use of ‘space technology’ as an up and coming sector which is of interest not only because of potential national security concerns but also as a commercial avenue for generation of revenue. Secondly, this would allow India to articulate norms which can serve as evidence of State practice and may later influence the formation of international law on the subject.

A lot has changed in the last decade, with increased commercial investments into outer space in the form of satellites, it is possible that this test may prove to be a wake-up call rather than a panic alarm, urging states and commercial stakeholders to come together to form a sustainable and effective form of space regulation. 

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