Co-authored by Adam Bower and Ryder McKeown
On 27 March 2019, India announced that it had destroyed one of its satellites in low earth orbit with a ground-based interceptor missile. With this operation—known as Mission Shakti—India entered an exclusive club, becoming only the fourth state after China, the United States, and Russia to publicly demonstrate such an anti-satellite (ASAT) capability. The Indian government lauded Mission Shakti as a powerful symbol of India’s arrival as a modern nation. Yet the United States and other space-faring actors have raised profound concerns about the consequences of this test for both strategic stability on earth and the long-term sustainability of the outer space environment.
India’s ASAT test complicates an already dynamic and complex situation in outer space marked by the increasing military importance of space capabilities, the rise of new space-faring nations, and the rapid growth of private actors beyond the atmosphere. In the words of the 2010 US Space Policy, ‘space is becoming increasingly congested, contested, and competitive.’ The development of counter-space capabilities is particularly alarming since satellites provide vital data and communications platforms for modern militaries and are integral to intelligence-collection, reconnaissance and surveillance, early warning, navigation, command and control, and targeting for precision-guided weapons. Yet satellites also serve crucial civilian applications including telecommunications and cyberspace, mapping and geolocation, shipping and transportation, agriculture, air travel, banking and finance, environmental monitoring, and scientific research. This reliance on space-based technologies renders human societies highly vulnerable to disruptions caused by deliberate interference or accidents.
In this brief article we situate the Indian ASAT test within wider concerns for security in outer space. We contend that India’s own portrayal of the test, and the international responses, do not suggest a legitimation of offensive counter-space capabilities. Rather, we foresee the endurance of a norm against causing space debris, even as the range and sophistication of these technologies will continue to grow.
The Indian ASAT test in context
As a consequence of their regular and predictable orbital paths, satellites are vulnerable to attack and interdiction by those motivated and technologically advanced enough to track and engage targets moving at high speeds in the blackness of space. Since the dawn of the Space Age, a range of anti-satellite technologies have been envisioned. For instance, kinetic direct ascent systems utilise missiles fired from earth, naval vessels or aircraft to intercept a satellite in orbit, using either an explosive warhead or, more commonly, a ‘kinetic kill’ in which the warhead collides with the satellite. Various co-orbital systems—including lasers, mechanical hooks, robotic grapplers, and nets—have also been proposed. Finally, cyber-attacks and other forms of electronic interference are emerging as viable threats; for example, a number of governments including Iran, North Korea, and Russia have successfully employed satellite-jamming technologies to disrupt GPS signals and block the transmission of television, internet, and social media. While the technological capability exists, to our knowledge no satellite has ever been destroyed or permanently disabled as the result of a hostile act. Yet the testing of kinetic anti-satellite weapons portends a future where space may become an arena of conflict.
At least four states now possess a demonstrated anti-satellite capability, of which India’s March 2019 test is the most recent example. In 2007 China successfully destroyed one of its weather satellites (named FY-1C) utilising a kinetic interceptor. The destruction of FY-1C generated the largest-ever debris incident, with over 2000 pieces large enough to be tracked and a further estimated 35,000 smaller pieces – a worrying prospect given that debris travels at 8km/second. Indeed, the debris from the Chinese ASAT test significantly raised the risk of collision for other satellites in the densely populated low-earth orbit, and threatened the International Space Station. This caused a major international backlash as governments and scientific organisations criticised the Chinese government for endangering future space exploration. A year later the United States used a modified ship-board ballistic missile defence system to destroy inoperative reconnaissance satellite USA-193 which was said to pose a hazard due to its dangerous hydrazine fuel; this also produced orbital debris, although the test was calibrated to ensure the large majority burned up in earth atmosphere soon after. Finally, the Russian Federation has conducted a number of ASAT tests as recently as 2016 and 2018, though these do not appear to have involved the interception of a target in orbit.
The Mission Shakti test employed a ground-based interceptor missile to destroy an Indian Microsat-R satellite in orbit approximately 300 kilometres above the earth. This is significant since, as we explain further in a moment, the target was placed in a relatively low orbit with the intention of minimising the threat from debris generated by the impact. The expectation is that the vast majority of the pieces will ‘de-orbit’ and burn up in the earth’s atmosphere over a short period of time – a claim that has been challenged by external actors.
India’s ASAT test and the implications for space security and governance
A demonstrated anti-satellite capability holds important implications for Indo-Chinese strategic relations particularly as India and China seek to position themselves as leading space powers in the 21st Century. Both states already have extensive national assets in orbit and in any future conflict between the two regional rivals, neither side could rely on space as a sanctuary free from threat. In this respect, ASAT technologies may be integrated into, or challenge, the broader Indo-Chinese deterrence architecture that is centrally defined by nuclear weapons, long-range ballistic missiles, space-based sensors, and satellite communications systems. Importantly, in times of war, the ability to destroy space-based enablers could also confer significant warfighting advantage. Of course, many of the same dynamics apply to the enduring Indo-Pakistani conflict as well.
In political terms, the Indian ASAT test is striking for diversity and complexity of claims that have surrounded it. First, space technologies have long been regarded as markers of status in international society as they are associated with advanced scientific capabilities and (often) military prowess. The successful interception was hailed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a national speech as ‘a highly complex operation which required great precision and extremely high technical competence’ utilising indigenously developed technologies. With this event, ‘India has become the fourth country to acquire this status as a space power. There can be no bigger moment of pride for every Indian than this.’
The power of space technologies as symbols of modernity and sophistication imbues such events with considerable political potency. The timing of this test is therefore highly significant, as it appears that India has possessed the requisite technical ASAT capabilities since 2012. India began a national election cycle just two weeks after Mission Shakti, raising questions as to whether the two events were connected. Opposition political parties complained that the ASAT test announcement amounted to advertising for the current government and violated the Indian Electoral Commission’s Model Code of Conduct which places limits on policy statements in the run-up to elections. Yet the Electoral Commission subsequently determined that Mr Modi had not violated its code with his 27 March announcement. Despite this official finding, the nationalist administration of Mr Modi may well have seen this as an opportune moment to employ its space program in the service of temporal political concerns.
Yet the Indian government has also been at pains to portray the technology as defensive in nature, despite the fact that the ability to shoot down satellites in orbit also has clear offensive implications. Prime Minister Modi sought to reassure the international community—and especially, one assumes, India’s regional rivals of Pakistan and China—that ‘the new capability we have developed is not directed against anyone…. This is an effort to secure a fast-growing India.’ The Ministry of External Affairs similarly characterised the ASAT program as providing a deterrent against ballistic missiles that may be utilised against Indian space or ground-based assets.
The Indian justification thus follows a similar pattern to previous ASAT tests in which the states in question denied any offensive intentions. After the extensive—and likely unanticipated—criticism following its 2007 test, China characterised future tests as part its comparatively less controversial ballistic missile defences. As noted already, the US rationale for destroying USA-193 was as an ultimately successful effort at reducing threat to human life posed by a wayward satellite. These experiences further reinforce Robert Jervis’ influential observation that security dilemmas between states are centrally driven by both material and perceptual factors and that it is often difficult to determine whether specific technologies are offensive or defensive in nature.
At the same time, the ASAT test can be interpreted within the broader concern for a potential arms race in outer space. India continues to oppose the weaponization of outer space, a point that Prime Minister Modi explicitly reiterated in his 27 March speech. China and Russia have regularly proposed an international treaty for the Prevention of Placement of Weapons in Outer Space but the United States has long opposed this initiative due to perceived defects with its scope and verification measures, amongst other concerns. Officially, the Indian government regards the ASAT test as conforming to its obligations under outer space law and does not see this as destabilizing the existing norm against of the placement of weapons in outer space. This may be more than just cheap talk. Indeed, it is significant that all of the four states with declared anti-satellite capabilities continue to resist normalizing war in space even as they prepare for it. In short, the diplomatic signals surrounding this event are complex, and require further unpacking.
Finally, India has sought to position itself as a responsible space power, noting the lengths it took to mitigate debris risks stemming from the ASAT test. Interestingly, it seems that India learned from the markedly different reactions to the previous Chinese and US satellite shootdowns. However, this did not insulate India from criticism, as evidenced by the concern that debris was ejected beyond the orbit of the International Space Station, potentially endangering its crew and physical structures, in addition to other satellites in low earth orbit. The NASA administrator was blunt in describing the test and its fallout as ‘a terrible, terrible thing… [that] is not compatible with the future of human spaceflight.’ The US Acting Secretary of Defence also raised concern for the ‘mess’ that could be generated by ASAT tests, while both China and Pakistan issued statements calling for the avoidance of further weaponization of space.
Ultimately, the Indian ASAT test demonstrates three important things. First, rivalry and conflict in space and on earth are inextricably linked. With space-based systems enabling terrestrial force projection, as well as deterrence, strong incentives inevitably emerge to attack these assets. ASAT development—and the reactions of various players—must be viewed through terrestrial as well as extra-atmospheric lenses. In other words, states may look to the heavens, but they do so with their feet planted firmly in the muck of great power politics.
Second, the development and testing of counterspace capabilities, while potentially justifiable, threaten spaceflight, science, and commerce. The use of debris-causing ASAT weapons raises particularly pressing concerns as the number of state and private space actors has grown—and will continue to grow—markedly. The Indian ASAT test can thus be seen in the context of growing efforts to monitor and potentially alleviate orbital debris. It is notable, for example, that the Indian test and its aftermath was picked up by US sensors designed to track space debris.
Third, space is not a controllable environment: actors can—and should—try to limit debris but ultimately cannot be sure what the full consequences of an impact in space will be. ASATs could thus affect more than strategic stability as the economic and social impact of war in space would be catastrophic. In short, this latest portent of war in the heavens lays bare an enduring strategic challenge for all would-be space powers: how can states legitimately protect themselves in and through space without imperilling security and prosperity on earth, or calling into question the future of humanity in space?