Mission Impossible? India’s Recent Space Triumph Causes Deep Concern

On March 27, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that the country had successfully tested its anti-satellite missiles (A-SAT) by striking down one of its own satellites.  Labeled “Mission Shakti” (which means power), the initiative was carried out by the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO).  The missile was specially designed by the DRDO, and “was not a variant of its Prithvi missile, as has been reported by some media.”  This test was conducted at an altitude of 300 kilometers, though it is capable of reaching up to 30,000 kilometers.  For the Indian leadership, this achievement in space was so successful that PM Modi has said that India has “established itself as a global space power.”  Only three other nations have been able to accomplish this feat: The United States, Russia, and China. 

As India joins this exclusive club of space powers, this demonstration of Indian technical skills and prowess has emboldened the South Asian nation in its pursuit of great power status.  While India has long focused on economic development and military modernization, the domain of space is increasingly becoming another theater in which the country can assert its place on the world stage.  Over the past five years, India has increased its presence in space.  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.  In total, India has undertaken 102 spacecraft missions, firmly establishing it as a premier space power.   

India’s space accomplishments have not stopped there.  The country has “carved a niche for itself in space and missile technology by hosting the largest constellation of civilian satellites in the Indo-Pacific region”; it also holds a world record on the number of satellites launched in one go (104); furthermore, it has carried out some of the most technically challenging missions, such as the Mars Orbiter Missions.  In addition, India is the “only country to have launched satellites for a group of countries for free, in the form of SAARC satellites.”   

Following up on the success of Mission Shakti, on April 1, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) launched the EMISAT, an electronic signals intelligence (ELINT) satellite, through a new PSLV rocket carrying 29 satellites in total.  This recent feat witnessed the ISRO placing payloads in three orbits in one launch for the first time.  It also allowed the PSLV’s fourth stage to turn into an orbiting research platform conducting space research for the first time. 

Overall, Mission Shakti “demonstrated India’s indigenous space capabilities and added another achievement to its already well-established space program.  India is the most preferred destination for nations and corporations to launch their satellites, and this recent accomplishment further enhances the country’s economic potential.” 

While contributing to a sense of Indian pride and national self-confidence, this recent space venture and other extraterrestrial activities have been guided by India’s desire to strengthen its national security and ensure that space remains a global commons.  In terms of national security, this new capability will allow 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.”  Such capabilities could allow India to gain the upper hand in a potential conflict.  In addition to gaining the ability to sabotage enemy communications and navigation systems, this technology will allow India to monitor the activities of its adversaries. 

In terms of immediate national security concerns, the test was prompted by a similar test conducted by China in 2007.  The Chinese test was understood as potentially altering the strategic balance in the Indo-Pacific.  Thus, Mission Shakti sought to bring back that balance and deter China from pursuing an aggressive, and potentially threatening, space policy. 

At the same time, India has been cautious in not further militarizing “the final frontier.”  Eager to present itself as a pillar of the international rules-based order, India has maintained that space must be used only for peaceful purposes.  For India, outer space is the common heritage of humankind and that it is the responsibility of all nations to preserve and protect it.  Furthermore, India is a party to all the major international treaties regarding outer space and supported the UNGA resolution 69/32, or the No First Placement of Weapons on Outer Space resolution.  Of greater importance is that India is a party to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which prohibits the installation or use of weapons of mass destruction in outer space. 

There have also been other aspects of India’s commitment to be a responsible space power.  When the test occurred, PM Modi was sure to immediately inform the world about it, and this announcement was aimed to “maintain transparency of India’s space program, as well as to reiterate, at the highest level, India’s continued adherence to a peaceful outer space policy.  In contrast, China kept its test secret until it was forced to admit it after information was revealed from other sources.”  The international response to the test confirmed the respect that India enjoys throughout the world.  The United States highlighted its “shared interests in space and scientific and technical cooperation including cooperation on safety and security in outer space,” while also noting that the “Indian test was designed to minimize debris.” Likewise, Russia “highlighted the non-directedness of the test as well as India’s continued peaceful outer space policy.”

More generally, 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.  Furthermore, unlike some other space powers, India has continued to share its scientific programs with the rest of the world, particularly with its South Asian peers.  In the future, India is likely to come up with a new “space doctrine” that might offer some innovative mechanism to ensure a peaceful outer space. 

Despite these efforts to reassure the international community, there are some significant dangers of such space activities.  One is the debris left over from the missile strike.  Like previous anti-satellite missile strikes, the presence and spread of debris have been regarded by some as significant risks to other orbiting space devices.  Brian Weeden, director of program planning for the Secure World Foundation, a non-profit that tracks space weapons, spoke to NPR and said, “The big question though is whether the intercept created dynamics that threw pieces into higher orbits.”  It is feared that, like other tests, hundreds or thousands of pieces of debris could be in space.  Such pieces could hit other nations’ space devices and spark tensions.  However, in line with past space policy, certain precautions have been taken by India’s space community in order to minimize the risk of its test to the rest of outer space.  Indeed, the A-SAT was designed to minimize debris by choosing the target at the altitude of 300 kilometers, in contrast to China’s test, which was at 800 kilometers.  While the debris generated by China would be in the outer space for decades if not centuries, the debris generated by Mission Shakti would be cleared within weeks.

But it is not only the fear of space debris that worries some space experts.  Such an expression of military power in space is likely to increase anxieties and tensions with India’s de facto adversaries and rivals, China and Pakistan.  Both countries have their own prominent space programs, of which the Chinese is particularly advancing.  Thus, just as the three countries are seeking to expand their power and influence on Earth, they increasingly view space as an extension of these rivalries.  While the space race of the 1950s and 1960s was dominated by the United States and the Soviet Union, the space race of the 21st century will be led by Asian countries. 

Just as nuclear proliferation has posed a challenge for the international community since 1945, the emergence of a number of Asian nations as space powers in their own right presents both challenges and opportunities.  It is not beyond reason that Star Wars (either the film series or the Reagan administration’s nickname for the Strategic Defense Initiative program) could become reality.  With a relatively nascent and underdeveloped international legal infrastructure regarding space, there are few constraints on what space powers can and cannot do.  It is hoped that the emerging Asian space powers will take the lead in creating and strengthening norms that will promote cooperation and mutual understanding and learning.