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A-Sat: Amid Modi brag, some key policy queries

Manish Tewari is a lawyer and a former Union minister. The views expressed are personal. Twitter handle @manishtewari
Published : Mar 31, 2019, 12:00 am IST
Updated : Mar 31, 2019, 12:00 am IST

The March 27 test does not square up with this position but represents a holistic turnaround.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi announces the success of Mission Shakti on Wednesday. (Photo: PTI)
 Prime Minister Narendra Modi announces the success of Mission Shakti on Wednesday. (Photo: PTI)

On March 27, 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a rather dramatic address to the nation. He announced that India had deployed an anti-satellite kinetic kill vehicle to neutralise a low earth orbit (LEO) satellite at an altitude of 300 kilometres.

The satellite in question was ostensibly the Microsat-R. It was launched on January 24, 2019.  The Microsat-R weighs 740 kg and was in a 268-km-by-289-km orbit.  Elaborating on its specifications, Gunter's Space Page states, "Microsat-R is an small Indian satellite built for the Indian military by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), likely as a target satellite for A-Sat testing. The satellite has a launch mass of 740 kg and orbits the earth at a height of 274 km. Reportedly, it was built by a handful of DRDO laboratories, not by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). The satellite was destroyed in an A-Sat test on March 27, 2019 (confirmation pending)."

The fact that the test was conducted slam bang in the middle of an election and the manner in which the Prime Minister chose to address the nation raised a lot of eyebrows because the current NDA/BJP dispensation is not chary of using the national security paradigm as a political prop.  As an aside in the minutes leading up to the Prime Minister's address there was both tittering and trepidation on social media with people asking whether they should run to the bank or the bunker. The references were obviously to the disastrous demonetisation proclamation by the Prime Minister on November 8, 2016, and the recent standoff between India and Pakistan post the Pulwama suicide bombing.

It is important to put the A-Sat test in perspective. India started developing a ballistic missile defence capacity 20 years ago - in 1999. An anti-satellite weapon is a part of that capacity. In 2011, India tested its interception capability by neutralising an incoming missile at an altitude of 16 km. Academics tracking the progress of the programme are of the considered opinion that between 2011 and now there have been six tests - five of them successful and one unsuccessful. The significant thing about these tests was that each time the altitude of the test kept increasing from the previous one by a height of 16 km.   

It, therefore, would be completely incorrect to believe that this kinetic kill capacity emerged out of the blue on March 27 or, for that matter, the technology demonstration had been recessed by the previous UPA government. It was a simple case of a calibrated and graduated mastery over a complex technological process.

What, though, was a first was the manner in which the Prime Minister sought to take ownership of a two-decade-old programme in poll season by spinning it off as a personal achievement rather than a national one that spanned the tenures of several successive governments.

Also, there are deeper issues of space theology at play. The test represents a reversal of India's position with regard to militarisation and weaponisation of outer space.

As late as April 4, 2018, India had told the Conference of Disarmament in Geneva that it "believes that outer space should be an ever-expanding frontier of cooperative endeavour rather than an area of conflict. India, as a space-faring nation with wide-ranging interests in outer space activities, remained opposed to the weaponisation of outer space and support(s) collective efforts to strengthen the safety and security of space-based assets". The March 27 test does not square up with this position but represents a holistic turnaround.

V.K. Saraswat, head of DRDO, in 2012, had explained India's diffidence, if not aversion, to an anti-satellite test, saying: "We will not do a physical test [actual destruction of a satellite] because of the risk of space debris affecting other satellites." The fact that he has turned his earlier position on its head by now stating that the previous UPA government did not accord permission to carry out the test is logic-defying. Incidentally, the former national security advisor, Shiv Shankar Menon, has publicly contradicted Mr Saraswat.  He said, "This is the first I have ever heard of it. Saraswat never asked me for permission for an A-Sat test." He added that while Mr Saraswat made an informal presentation, he did not seek any sanction or approval.

The more serious concern, meanwhile, is that there has not been enough public discussion about India's policy towards outer space as there was when we decided not to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996, or separate our civil and military nuclear programmes, as a condition precedent to the Indo-US nuclear deal.  Should India go down the same path as the United States, China and Russia with regard to engaging and neutralisation of space assets? This is a question that India has not seriously asked itself. Only the US and China have piloted tests of anti-satellite systems against live targets in the recent past. In 2007, China was at the receiving end of pervasive international censure for neutralising a satellite at an altitude of over 800 km in low earth orbit. The test generated more than 2,000 pieces of debris, hundreds of which will remain in orbit for years to come.

In 2008, the US validated an anti-satellite competence when a US Navy Ticonderoga-class cruiser, USS Lake Erie, launched a Standard Missile-3 interceptor. The test revealed the similarities between ballistic missile defence interception technologies and those required to destroy satellites. Russia is evolving a new anti-satellite system known as the PL19, or Nudol. That weapon is yet to be verified against a live satellite target.

Finally, did the A-Sat test carried out by India go against the grain of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 to which we are a party? An article of the treaty states: "The States Parties to this Treaty… Recognising the common interests of all humankind in the progress of the exploration and use of outer space, agree to the following: State Parties to the Treaty shall carry on activities in the exploration of space and use of outer space… in the interest of maintaining international peace and security."

Whether an A-SAT does that or not is a question that does not require a knowledge of rocket science to answer. It would, however, be only fair to add that the US, former Soviet Union and China have been the original offenders in this regard and in that order.

Tags: narendra modi, low earth orbit