Is India headed for a space war?



By Asif Durrani

On 27 March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that India has conducted Anti-Satellite Missile (ASAT) test and established itself as a “global space power”. He informed the world that so far only three countries in the world– USA, Russia and China—had this capability and that now India had become the fourth country to acquire this status “as a space power”.  As far the test, Mr. Modi conveyed that the target was a live satellite which was flying in a Low Earth Orbit. The missile travelled a distance of almost 300 kms from earth and hit the target within three minutes of its launch.

Mr. Modi further said that India has always been opposed to the weaponization of space and an arms race in outer space, and that this test, named as “Mission Shakti (power)” does not in any way change this position. “Today’s test does not violate any international law or treaty obligation to which India is a party”, he assured the world.

Reactions to the Indian test were on known lines with some concerns expressed about space debris. The State Department statement was supportive of the Indian tests which shows that India had coordinated with the US prior to conducting ASAT test. The State Department statement said: “as part of our strong strategic partnership with India, we will continue to pursue shared interests in space and scientific and technical cooperation, including cooperation on safety and security in space. The issue of space debris is an important concern for the US government. We took note of Indian government statements that the test was designed to address space debris issues”.

Chinese reaction to the Indian test was that “we have noticed reports and hope that each country will uphold peace and tranquility in outer space”.  Pakistan’s reaction to the Indian test was a reminder to the world against militarization of the outer space. It also called for the need of developing international instruments to prevent military threats relating to the outer space. Referring to boasting of ASAT capabilities by India, the Foreign Office spokesman sarcastically described it as “reminiscent of Don Quixote’s tilting against windmills”.

Prime Minister Modi’s announcement of ASAT test has been widely commented upon by the media. It is reflective of the emerging developments that are likely to unfold in the strategic arena in which space has acquired extraordinary significance. Obviously, Mr. Modi was reading from a statement which the Indian establishment had handed over to him. He didn’t bother to ponder over the words uttered in the statement that by conducting the ASAT test India was making a mockery of its own declarations in the past that it was “opposed to weaponization of space and an arms race in outer space”. Just rewind a few decades and the same India was vociferously telling the world that it did not want to weaponise its nuclear programme, but conducted nuclear tests in May 1998 and declared its status as a nuclear weapons state. For Pakistan, the morale of the story was that once you acquire a certain capability, intention can be changed irrespective of the commitments of the past. India precisely did that; once it acquired the capability of nuclear weapons it took no time in changing its intentions in declaring the country a nuclear power. Therefore, ASAT is a declaration by India that it will not hesitate to use the outer space for military purposes.

Secondly, Mr. Modi claimed that India’s tests did not violate any international law or treaty obligation to which India is a party. Quite true. Given the fact that there is complete paralysis in the disarmament machinery ever since the end of the Cold War, no serious dialogue has been held on the subject. Hence there is no international regime governing the outer space. During the past four decades the UN General Assembly has been adopting resolutions under the title “Prevention of Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) which ritualistically calls upon the states not to take any action which may lead to weaponising of the outer space. However, despite declaration of noble intentions major powers have continued to build their capabilities in the outer space. Mr. Modi’s euphoria on India gaining the status of the “fourth state” to have acquired the capability of ASAT and designation of ASAT as “Mission Shakti” (Power) itself is suggestive of future Indian intentions. Indian commentators term this success as a “counterbalance to China-Pakistan nexus in the nuclear arena”.

Timing of Prime Minister Modi’s announcement of ASAT test is significant. Coming soon after the post-Pulwama tit-for-tat exchanges between Pakistan and India, Mr. Modi’s announcement serves twin purposes. First, to boost up the sagging morale of its armed forces over the shooting down of IAF aircraft and arrest of its pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan. The event also fits the ongoing electioneering in which Mr. Modi’s macho image is projected as a savior of India while opposition parties in India are describing the announcement as “electoral gimmickry”. Second, the test should serve as a veiled warning to Pakistan about India’s plans of developing full spectrum strategic forces. It has already taken measures in developing the triad of its nuclear capabilities by developing delivery systems through land, air and sea. Now with ASAT, India while trying to attain parity with China would be directly threatening Pakistan as ASAT capability would be a precursor to the development of Ballistic Missiles Defence (BMD). This would force Pakistan to take counter measures.

Since becoming member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) Indian missile programme has intensified. This is a direct spin off of increasing access being granted to India to dual use sensitive technologies by many members of the export control regimes based on commercial and strategic reasons. The facts on ground negate the argument by the supporters of India that its mainstreaming in the non-proliferation regime will bring global non-proliferation benefits. On the contrary, Indian missile testing has increased more than three folds since 2016 when India became member of the MTCR. This should serve as a lesson to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG)’s members to adopt a stringent and non-discriminatory criterion to the aspirants.

Pakistan will have to take counter measures to effectively address the threat that India’s ASAT test poses. While Pakistan may not need the exact matching response to the Indian ASAT, it would need to focus on R&D in the space technology as mere good intentions expressed by India are not enough. We need to develop the capability in space sciences with the intention that it would not be weaponised, but would also not allow others to blackmail us.

The writer is a former ambassador.