Counterspace capabilities such as ASAT weapons have been criticised for accentuating regional insecurities rather than diminishing the threats faced by countries.
In response to many who felt that India is ditching the peaceful uses of space, Prime Minister Modi called the test a defensive move to secure India’s own assets in space. India indeed has no intention to pursue the path of space weaponisation, but it would have also been imprudent for India to not demonstrate its ASAT capability because of China’s growing counterspace prowess including ASAT capabilities. India had remained concerned about China’s growing space power since its first successful ASAT test in January 2007. This pushed India to invest in its own capabilities to deter China. The former DRDO Chief, Dr VK Saraswat, claimed on several occasions that India is developing the necessary technologies to demonstrate the capability to destroy an enemy satellite. However, counterspace capabilities such as ASAT weapons have critics both within and outside India. There is a perception that the development and demonstration of such capabilities are in no way diminishing the threats a country faces, and that they accentuate the insecurities in the region, leaving every party worse off. The only way any country can be secure from these threats is by ensuring that the adversaries in the region do not seek such technological capabilities. It could at best work in the short term, but ASAT weapons and such systems make other states vulnerable, which will force them to re-evaluate their options sooner than later. This is what happened with India. India for decades has had a policy against the weaponisation of space. However, after the Chinese ASAT test, India had to explore ways to make its space assets secure by looking at options to deter China because China was not impressed by Indian arguments against the weaponisation of outer space. Given the generally worsening international and regional security conditions, it is likely that more states will pursue this path despite the uncertainties and insecurities that come with it. Therefore, even states that want to keep their space programmes focused on civilian applications will likely focus on national security considerations under duress. Unless every major space player acknowledges the dangers of ASAT weapons and puts a halt to the weaponisation of space, the threat will be inevitable. As long as certain countries believe they have a legitimate security interest in pursuing an ASAT capability, others will find ways to justify it as well. This is a classic security dilemma where all sides end up worse off.
India’s ASAT test hit a target satellite at an altitude of 300 kilometres, close to the altitude of the US ASAT test in 2008. Nevertheless, this has kickstarted a new debate about ASATs, their dangers and consequences for international security.
One fortunate aspect is that ASAT weapons have not been deployed yet by states. They are still in the phase of demonstration of technical feasibility. This provides a narrow window of opportunity to prevent deterrence requirements from driving state policy in outer space. This necessitates urgent multilateral discussions on ways to reduce tensions, enhance openness and transparency and take some baby steps to instil greater confidence in each other. Because even as these weapons are not deployed, the fear of the possibility of their deployment in a relatively short period increases the dangers of more countries pursuing ASAT weapons. There are other dangers too. Compared to the Cold War days and the superpower rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, the competition now involves many more countries. Also, given the much larger dependence on space by all major space powers, including for conventional military operations, the temptations for targeting each other’s space assets are that much higher. During the Cold War, outer space was used in a relatively much more limited manner, mainly for a handful of strategic operations, including arms control verification and early warnings of ballistic missile launches. In the post-Cold War period, the US’ dependence on outer space for conventional military operations has been studied by adversaries such as Russia and China. And China’s increasing tendency to use force, including potentially in outer space, has increased the vulnerabilities not just for the big powers but for India as well.
The only way any country can be secure from these threats is by ensuring that the adversaries in the region do not seek such technological capabilities.
The only way the race towards the development of counterspace capabilities including ASATs can be prevented is by making ASAT tests a prime issue in multilateral arms control discussions. A limited conversation among the four ASAT powers can be a starting point and a step in the right direction. The current Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) under the UN on reducing space threats through norms, rules, and principles of responsible behaviours could be a platform that might generate such commitments. Alternatively, we are looking at a much more dangerous environment for outer space activities.
During the Cold War, outer space was used in a relatively much more limited manner, mainly for a handful of strategic operations, including arms control verification and early warnings of ballistic missile launches.
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Dr Rajeswari (Raji) Pillai Rajagopalan is the Director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology (CSST) at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. Dr ...Read More +