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Should India Conduct an ASAT Test Now?

Gp Capt Ajey Lele (Retd.) is a Consultant at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • July 11, 2012

    India’s successful test of the Agni V missile two months ago also indirectly demonstrated the theoretical capacity to undertake an ASAT (anti-satellite) test, if required. However, possessing technological ability should not be the only reason for undertaking such a test; it is more important to analyses the political necessity of carrying it out. Presently, only three countries, namely the US, Russia and China, have demonstrated this capability. Is the time ripe for India to undertake an ASAT test?

    Is debating an ASAT test without any major provocation (assuming that the 2007 Chinese ASAT test was not a provocation) justifiable? Here, it is important to note that the security policy of a state is not only about responding to the prevailing geopolitical situation but also to cater for its long-term interests. It is not only about reacting to a major event but also about influencing global events to favour the state’s agenda either through diplomacy or through actions that would force others to take notice of its concerns.

    For the last few years the European Union (EU) has initiated a debate on the need to introduce transparency and confidence-building measures in outer space activities (TCBMS). In this regard, it has also prepared a draft code of conduct (CoC) for others to consider. In October 2012 global negotiations for an International Code of Conduct (CoC) for Outer Space would commence in New York. There is a possibility that a CoC mechanism would be in place by 2013. This multilateral diplomatic process to discuss and negotiate an International CoC for Outer Space is the first serious step towards negotiating on outer space issues after the launch of the first satellite Sputnik in 1957.

    Against this backdrop, it is important to discuss various issues concerning space security, and ASAT is one of them. There is a need to undertake a detailed appreciation of this issue by assessing various geostrategic, geopolitical and technological factors.

    The first question which India needs to ask itself is: would the states with proven ASAT capability be in a position of strength to undertake the CoC negotiations than other powers? And, if so, should India undertake such potency demonstrations before setting out for negotiations?

    The second question that India must ask itself is: what is the history of non-proliferation negotiations with regard to states having an advantage if they have proven technological superiority over others? The experience in global negotiations on nuclear weapons shows that the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) is essentially about a group of five nuclear weapons states coming together and deciding the policies for the rest of the world. A hypothetical scenario exists that in future states with ASAT capability could come together and device a treaty mechanism which could prove biased like the NPT. If India does not become an ASAT power by that time, then it could be part of a discriminated group of nations once again. In the field of chemical weapons as well, it has been seen that only the US and Russia are missing the deadline for destruction of their weapon stockpile and that too, as per the current estimates, by around 10 years. The reasons given for such lapses are technological and economic limitations and the rest of the world has meekly accepted this.

    The third question for India in this regard is: would India’s ASAT start the process of space weaponisation and arms race in the region? The regional geopolitical landscape does indicate the possibility of a knee-jerk reaction from Pakistan or China. However, China has already demonstrated its ASAT capabilities and its investments and achievements in the space arena supersede those of India. Pakistan being a non-space-faring nation does not belong to the same category as that of India and China. However, it is important to note that a non space-faring nation too can develop an ASAT capability if it is a missile power. Also, knowledge of rocket science is not essential to develop jamming capabilities.

    The fourth question for India is: what is the nature of the threat to India’s space assets and which actors pose a probable threat? For any adversary, India’s remote sensing satellites like Cartographic satellites or Radar satellites could become prime targets. China has proven capability to undertake such attacks.

    The fifth question is: if India were to decide to demonstrate its ASAT capabilities, then which technology trajectory should it follow? Broadly, there are two technological routes in this regard. One, the Kinetic Kill Vehicle (KKV) method, where a missile with a metal warhead (without any munitions) is fired from the ground towards the target and the target gets disintegrated by the impact. The other option is to use jamming technologies (“softer” methods). However, jamming may not be an ‘impact’ weapon’. With regard to KKV, it is important to note that accurate engagement of the target is critical for success. China had used a similar technology to demonstrate its ASAT potential in January 2007 and various reports suggest that China succeeded only in its third or fourth attempt.

    The sixth question is: should India behave as an irresponsible nation and increase space debris by undertaking an ASAT test the way China did? The obvious answer to this is no. Is it possible to demonstrate ASAT capability without creating debris? For this purpose India could conduct a test in the lower part of atmosphere (say in the range of 150 to 250 km altitude) where the created debris would enter the earth’s atmosphere and burn off. For such a demonstration, India first would have to launch a dummy satellite as a target.

    The seventh question is: “what could be the global reaction to such a demonstrative test by India? Globally, two major tests have been conducted (by China and the US) during the last five years. The Chinese test has been criticized vociferously mainly because it ended up creating massive debris, while the US test was conducted under the garb of ‘transparency’ and was announced beforehand. The US test was done in lower altitudes thus avoiding any major injection of debris in space. It appears that the hidden motive behind both these states was successfully achieved. Since no proper legal regime exists in the space arena, technically neither test violated any global norm. Hypothetically, if India were to conduct such a test (without creating any debris) then it should be viewed as a technology demonstrator.

    These are some basic questions that India needs to ask itself. A decision to conduct an ASAT test has to be a nuanced one considering the strategic advantages such a test could offer and the diplomatic elbow room that it would give during negotiations on a space arms control mechanism.