India used its advanced anti-ballistic missile defence capability to conduct a kinetic anti-satellite test (“Mission Shakti”) against one of its own satellites on March 27.
India became the fourth state, after the United States, Russia, and China, to demonstrate an ASAT capability and only the third to conduct a direct intercept of an object in space.
Details of the event are still being uncovered, but it is that a BMD (Ballistic Missile Defense) missile interceptor developed by the Indian Defence Research and Development Organisation was launched from Abdul Kalam Island launch complex. It then intercepted an unnamed Indian satellite at roughly 300 km of altitude. India’s Ministry of External Affairs claimed, “The test was fully successful and achieved all parameters as per plans.” According to the Indian government, the test makes India a “space power.”
But India was already a rising space power. This test was simply reckless.
India’s regional rivalry with China, itself a space power, is a key driver for its actions—a situation also plays well with domestic audiences. But the consequences are global.
The first concern that immediately comes to mind is the production of space debris, which poses a hazard to all other spacecraft in the proximity of the strike. India claims that it took a responsible approach to the production of debris. Because the strike was at the relatively low altitude of 300 km, all resulting debris should re-enter Earth’s atmosphere within a few weeks.
While this is a better outcome than the massive cloud created by China in 2007 – which continues to pose a threat in space – it is by no means satisfactory. We don’t know yet exactly how much debris was produced and exactly how widely distributed it will be. But even if short-lived, debris poses a threat. What if it reaches the International Space Station, which currently houses six astronauts? Until the debris is catalogued, avoiding it will be difficult.
Further, this test breaks the taboo against kinetic intercepts that has existed since the Chinese and U.S. demonstrations over a decade ago. There are other ways that India could have demonstrated such a weapons prowess without creating debris. China for example, is known to have performed a number of flyby tests in recent years. Less spectacular than blowing a satellite out of the sky, such testing is certainly safer. But even so, such demonstrations remain aggressive.
The fall-out from India’s ASAT is more than debris.
India’s test adds fuel to what is already a simmering arms race in outer space and exacerbates growing military tensions. Because, although India claims that the test was conducted to safeguard its assets in space, ASAT weapons are inherently offensive. The sense of aggressiveness is heightened by the fact that the test was conducted with no warning to the international community.
Such a destructive capability does little to enhance national security in space. Instead, the best way to preserve a global commons with a fragile natural and strategic environment is to support common security through rules and restrictions on weapons and dangerous behaviour.
Seen from this angle, India’s test was also diplomatically reckless. This week a group of governmental experts representing more than 25 states is concluding talks in Geneva that explore options for advancing additional measures to prevent an arms race – and armed conflict.