Say no to war, even in Space!
India’s A-SAT missile test success is commendable, but building a development trajectory towards war, particularly in outer space, can be devastating for humankind
'India has achieved an unprecedented achievement and registered itself as a space superpower. Shortly before, our scientists killed a live satellite in space, 300 km away from Earth's surface in the Lower Earth Orbit. The live satellite, a predetermined target, was shot down by an Anti-Satellite weapon in just three minutes. With this, India is now only the fourth country to enter the elite league of space powers after USA, Russia and China,' PM Modi described in his address to the nation on March 27. Not many understood the depth or outcome of the address – the idea of 'killing a live satellite' and India thus establishing itself as a 'space superpower' seemed enough to titillate audiences. A unique achievement in science, no doubt, deserves applause; but lurking political motivations and consequences require more than ignorant appreciation.
What India achieved in 2019, was accomplished by USA in 1959 and Russia (then Soviet Union) in 1964, followed by China in 2007. Anti-Satellite (A-SAT) weapons and missiles are launched from land, sea or air to demolish enemy satellites that appear to threaten national security. A rage during the Cold War, A-SAT weapons have never been employed in a war-like situation. So far, they have only been tested and reserved for potential national exigencies. Foremost, these are costly mechanisms and, second, there are strict regulations against the exploitation of space. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, the principal document governing the use of outer space for national interest, strictly enforces that "the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind".
Our conventional reliance on satellites and corollary information from surrounding orbits has increased the relevance of outer space and also amplified the consequences of any potential space warfare. A (any) country's communication, navigation and information systems, conveyance mechanism, modes of transaction, and every other minute aspect of everyday life is governed by satellites in space – making them a most lucrative option to settle animosities. Destroying your enemy's satellite system will virtually render your enemy paralysed. But, as every action comes with its corollary reaction, so will space warfare. Debris generated in any collision causes irrecoverable damage to space orbits, eventually making them inaccessible to human intervention.
A BRIEF HISTORY
The Cold War changed political equations across the globe. It was also a most ripe time for scientific innovation, though not with an eye towards prospering humanity. Two greatest superpowers of the world, USA and USSR, had collided. Naturally, when both are equipped with almost equal might in strength, innovation and technological advancement seize the day. When USA and USSR weren't satisfied by just colliding on land, air and water, they found a new ring to combat their political differences – outer space.
To further accentuate the capacities of its air power, US Air Force (USAF) had long begun testing the possibility of anti-satellite missions. However, when USA, and indeed the world, was taken aback by USSR launching its satellite Sputnik 1 in 1957, USAF began seriously considering the development of A-SAT weapons. After many half-successes and full-failures, finally, under programme Bold Orion, conducted on October 13, 1959, USA proved that building A-SAT weapons was a sure possibility. Naturally then, USSR followed. By 1964, they too tested and proved their A-SAT abilities. However, unlike the US which relied on missiles loaded on A-SAT weapons, USSR launched a 'killer satellite' that would enter the same orbit as its target and approach it for destruction – almost like a satellite suicide bomber.
The realisation that two superpowers engaging in a battle in space could only bring devastating consequences for the entire world led to a number of treaties and declarations making their way to protect space autonomy and understanding outer space as a subject of collective harmony and responsibility – not an empty plot of land to settle differences away from public eye.
Nevertheless, both USA and Russia have continued to test A-SAT weapons and China has followed suit. On January 11, 2007, China tested its A-SAT missile, destroying an FY-1C polar orbit weather satellite, 865 km away from Earth's surface. China received widespread international criticism for its test which left back massive space debris that seriously hampers operations and access to the relevant orbit. Now, in 2019, with Mission Shakti, programmed by DRDO from Dr APJ Abdkul Kalam Island launch complex in Odisha, India is the fourth country to join the elite league of space powers that have tested A-SAT weapon technologies. Though emboldened by this power, India must not forget its additional responsibility of ensuring that the outer space remains a sanctum sanctorum of knowledge and technological advancement, not a new battleground to settle petty diplomatic scores.
CONSEQUENCES OF A SPACE WAR
'Don't make a mess in space,' USA bellowed to other countries after India's successful A-SAT weapon test. There is a lot of truth in the message, though the messenger is deeply suspect. USA has been no guardian of space – it has exploited the resources in space to its own benefit, conducting repeated tests and threatening to 'blow up' enemies. Nevertheless, polluting space is condemnable. The problem of space wars is not merely in the act – it is in the debris that is left behind after an attack. Space debris deters the possibility of navigating through space and, when not in the lower earth orbit (LEO) it takes years, even generations, to dissipate. Over time, repeated attacks in space will ultimately destroy Earth's access to the rest of the Universe. The outer orbit will become so crowded with debris that no movement outside Earth will any longer be possible. In a more specific context, space today isn't what it was six decades ago during the Cold War. Our world today is far more dependent on information from satellites. Defence, particularly, is heavily dependent on satellite communication and navigation. In a time of war, countries damaging each other's satellites will not only alienate them from critical sources of information but will also pave the way for an Earth devastated by space debris and inaccessible to the rest of the Universe.
THE INDIAN CONTEXT
Space research has perhaps been one of India's more remarkable contributions to modern science and technology. Experts have unanimously agreed that building A-SAT weapons is complex – it requires the conceptualisation and creation of highly reliable surface-to-air and converted ballistic missiles along with long-range radar and tracking systems.
The ability of scientists at ISRO and, in the case of Mission Shakti, DRDO too, cannot and must not be underplayed. Yet, political motivations cannot be ignored in the frenzy of celebrating science. DRDO, in 2012, had informed the previous government that it had the requisite tools to build A-SAT weapons; yet, it never received a nod. The present government did give a nod, ironically putting Mission Shakti in mission mode six months ago, as DRDO chief disclosed yesterday – hardly a coincidence that the successful testing concurs with the onset of Lok Sabha polls. Though many experts appreciating India's Mission Shakti have said that March to mid-May is the most appropriate time for space tests, USA, Russia and China have followed otherwise. Also, interestingly, many countries other than the said four are known to harness technologies for developing A-SAT weapons, yet they haven't. USA has, in line with its usual approach of being an incorrigible king; USSR did during the peak of its military excellence; and China does it now, again complementing its overall objective of matching and outdoing the West, and also for fulfilling its goal of bringing back moon rock samples to Earth. Space too has so far failed to escape the Dragon's (almost blinded by fury) wrath.
But, what motivates India? Our country appears to be interested in building A-SAT weapons to combat China which has displayed its success in space more than once. China is no kind friend and, after Doklam, it is perhaps correct of India to be wary of its well-equipped neighbour. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, USA, Russia and China (with reckoning economies) can all afford to invest in A-SAT weapons, which are ultimately mere embellishments, given that they are condemned globally and will perhaps never come of use until we near the end of human civilisation. And, if and when we do use it, we can be well-prepared for a reaction that would disconnect our communication as a society from the rest of the world.
The political motivation two weeks prior to Lok Sabha elections cannot be ignored. The Balakot wave has subsided and Wing Commander Abhinandan is safe with his family, neither are important for Indians in today's digital age with memory spans as ephemeral as the life of a Mayfly. They need more fodder, more doses of nationalism and more reasons to bloat their 56-inch chests which promise to expand until they explode under the weight of their own falsity.
Ultimately, while we celebrate the development of world-class space weapons and snigger at political parties for their cheap electoral tactics, we must also invest in a discourse on wars, at large, and specifically in space – a place we acknowledge so little, other than in fiction that titillates us, but one that plays such a pivotal role in our everyday modern life. India has been cautious and diligent in abiding by international regulations and reinstating its commitment to maintaining peace in outer space. Yet, developing weapons, even for protecting national security, doesn't blend well with the discourse of rejecting war as a way of life. In fact, building weapons only paves the way for a possible tomorrow of using such weapons, no matter the promise otherwise. After all, even in ensuring national security, offence is the best defence.
We mustn't forget that in a sense, space can be the antithesis of modernity and existence. A void with nothing to lose, its exploitation will ultimately reverberate evil consequences for mankind. Space doesn't follow rules of geography and shouldn't become a victim of petty political tropes. Once we destroy outer space, neither our family legacy nor our chest width can come to the rescue.
(The author is Assistant Editor, Millennium Post. The views expressed are strictly personal)