India’s ASAT test has not violated any norm, but it is a reminder of the need for a global regulatory regime
Last Wednesday, on March 27, India carried out an antisatellite (ASAT) test using an interceptor missile (as a kinetic kill vehicle) to neutralize a target satellite (possibly the Microsat-R launched in January this year) in a Low Earth Orbit (LEO) at an altitude of around 300 km. While India is the fourth country (after the U.S., Russia/USSR, and China) to acquire this capability, Prime Minister Narendra Modi became the first leader to have announced the successful test in a national address. In contrast, China had quietly carried out its first successful hit-to-kill intercept in January 2007 till international reports about the consequent increase in space debris forced Beijing to acknowledge the test. France and Israel are believed to possess the capability. India’s test has not violated any norm as there is no international treaty prohibiting the testing or the development of ASATs.
Keeping Watch, Keeping Pace
After the Indian test, a senior U.S. Air Force Space Command official, Lt. Gen. David D. Thompson, appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee (Strategic Forces Subcommittee) and said that based on public information, the U.S. had expected a test and that a base in Colorado had tracked it. U.S. systems are monitoring between 250-270 objects of space debris that were created following the test. The U.S. will notify satellite operators in case a threat to any is assessed. He added that the debris did not pose a threat to the International Space Station, which orbits at an altitude of around 350 km.
An ASAT capability is normally a part of a Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) programme. While a BMD targets an incoming ballistic missile, an ASAT interceptor targets a hostile satellite. Since a satellite moves in a precise orbit which is tracked, it gives greater time for target acquisition through satellites in higher orbits pose greater challenges for the kill vehicle.
Faced with Pakistan’s growing missile capability in the 1990s (Pakistan acquired the M-9 and the M-11 missiles from China and the No-dong from North Korea), India embarked on its BMD programme in 1999. A modified Prithvi was to be developed as the intercept missile. Work on a long-range tracking radar (Swordfish) that could track incoming ballistic missiles to enable target acquisition was also taken up. Testing began nearly 15 years ago followed by the integration of the various systems, including the active RF seekers, fiber optic gyros and directional warheads. In 2011, an incoming Prithvi missile was destroyed by the interceptor missile over the Bay of Bengal at an altitude of around 16 km. Another half a dozen tests have been carried out since 2011, gradually expanding the parameters of the system to enable taking on targets at higher altitudes.
Both the U.S. and USSR began to develop ASAT systems as a part and parcel of their anti-ballistic missile programmes. During the 1980s, both countries concluded their kinetic kill interceptor testing.
Instead, they began to focus on co-orbital anti-satellite systems and directed energy (laser) systems which could neutralize a satellite without fragmenting it and generating space debris.
With developments in offensive cyber capabilities, a promising new area is to disrupt communication links between the satellite and ground control by damaging the transponders or the power source.
After the 2007 test, China too has carried out subsequent ASAT development along these lines.
A crowded space
Since the Sputnik was launched in 1957, more than 8,000 satellites/manmade orbiting objects have been launched, of which about 5,000 remain in orbit; more than half are non-functional. Currently, more than 50 countries own/operate the nearly 2,000 functional satellites in orbit. The U.S. accounts for more than 800 of these, followed by China (approximately 280), Russia (approximately 150). India has an estimated 50 satellites.
Of these 2,000 satellites, over 300 are dedicated military satellites. Once again, the U.S. has the biggest share here, with nearly 140, followed by Russia with nearly 90 and China with nearly 40. India has two dedicated satellites, one each for the Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force. Indian defense forces also use the civilian government-owned satellites extensively for communications, remote sensing, and location accuracy and meteorology.
Growing amounts of space debris pose a real risk to satellites and spacecraft, as the Oscar-winning film Gravity demonstrated. There are over 20,000 objects of debris which are the size of golf balls while those of smaller size run into hundreds of thousands, totaling nearly 6,000 tonnes. The U.S. Department of Defense routinely tracks approximately 23,000 man-made objects achieving orbit to ensure the safety of its space-based assets. One of the reasons that the international community protested strongly about the 2007 Chinese test was that it added nearly 3,000 pieces of debris as the test was done at a higher altitude (800 km), from where it would take decades to dissipate. The debris created by the Indian test, which was undertaken at a low altitude, is expected to dissipate much faster.
Patchy international control
The salience of space in defense is evident from the fact that all three countries — the U.S., Russia, and China — have set up ‘Space Commands’. This has given rise to demands to prevent the militarization of space so that it is preserved “as the common heritage of mankind”. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty followed by the 1979 Moon Treaty laid the foundations of the legal regime for space beginning with the rule of law, refraining from appropriating territory, non-placement of any weapons of mass destruction in space, and prohibition of military activities on the moon and other celestial bodies. However, these treaties were negotiated when the technology was still in a nascent stage. Satellite registration was introduced in the 1970s though compliance has been patchy. The U.S. has been adamantly opposed to negotiating any legally binding instrument to prevent ‘militarisation of space’, questioning the very meaning of the term, given that space as a medium is increasingly used for military applications.
In 2008, Russia and China had proposed a draft to kick off negotiations on the Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and of the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects. It was rejected by the West, and not merely because it is such a mouthful of a title. The European Union, mindful of U.S. allergy to any negotiations on this issue, began to develop an international code of conduct based on transparency and confidence-building measures.
The UN General Assembly has called for a declaration of political commitment by all countries that they shall not be the first to place weapons in space. This initiative too has floundered as norm building cannot take place in a political vacuum.
At present, the U.S. is the dominant presence in space, which reflects its technological lead as well as its dependence on space-based assets. It, therefore, perceives any negotiations as a constraint on its technological lead. While countries have developed and tested ASATs, they are not known to have stockpiled ASAT weapons. Effective use of an ASAT also requires space situational awareness capability, which works best if it is a cooperative effort. India’s successful ASAT test is, therefore, a technology marker.
Further development of interceptor technology and long-range tracking radars is necessary for a robust BMD and the Defence Research and Development Organisation also needs to move on to newer technologies to enhance its ASAT capability in the coming years.
The arrogance of the ignorant
It is tragic that ‘New India’ chooses to attack Adivasis and forest-dwellers instead of those destroying its ecology
When the tsunami hit the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in 2004, thousands perished. However, some of the oldest Adivasi tribes, the Jarawas and the Onges, lost nobody. These communities followed animals to the highlands well before the waves hit. Formal education was of little survival value in a context where you needed swift instincts.
When Western drug and pharma corporations send their scouts to remote regions in India to look for herbs to patent, the scouts do not consult top Indian doctors or scientists first. They smuggle their way into jungles inhabited by Adivasis where, in a moment of weakness, an elderly woman adept in the healing arts may divulge a secret or two. Later, the companies might test the herb in their labs and find that the woman’s claims were correct. This has long been the staple of biopiracy.
That those forests inhabited by Adivasis are some of the best conserved in the subcontinent is a long-standing fact contrary to the understanding of supposedly educated Indians.
What is invaluable is what is often described as ‘indigenous knowledge’ — as though the knowledge gained over centuries of lived experience is of somehow lower valency than the literacy acquired in a school, or perhaps of no value at all.
Relationship with nature
Sadly, the articulate arrogance of ‘New India’ is such that it is unable to see any virtue in the lives of Adivasis and other forest-dwellers who have lived in and by the forests since times immemorial.
Ensconced as it is in the air-conditioned offices of metropolitan India, duly estranged from any living ecology of the earth, while fully predatory on it, it seems people who live in and by the jungles as ‘underdeveloped’ criminals who are among those responsible for the thinning of the forests.
This appears to be the view held by petitioners, including retired forest officers and conservation NGOs, in a lawsuit filed in the Supreme Court in 2008. They seem to believe that humans are not a part of nature and can never coexist with it. It is far from their imagination to distinguish between Adivasis who know something about living sensibly with nature and the rest of us, who do not.
That even the courts would fall to such abysmal levels of understanding has become a defining feature of the reforms era.
On February 13, the Supreme Court ruled that over 1.12 million households from 17 States, who have had their claims rejected under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006, are to be evicted by the State governments before July 27. It is not clear what fraction of these are individual claims and what fraction are community claims. Nor are all of these Adivasi households. Some might fall under the ‘other traditional forest-dwellers’ category. Critically, the Central government failed to send its attorney to the court. Ironically, the FRA contains no legal provision for the eviction of rejected claimants. In the face of loud protests from around the country, the court issued a stay order (till July 10) on its ruling. This suits the political goals of the incumbent BJP as it prepares for the polls. The many States are yet to give their details to the courts. Once they do, the number of households to be evicted may rise. Close to 8-10% of the Adivasi population may be asked to vacate their traditional homes and abandon their livelihoods. Has the court contemplated the gravity of the implications? Where are these people supposed to live and make a living? What justice is there in acting in such an inhumane manner?
It betrays ignorance. The judges know that we live in an ecologically imperiled time when metropolitan India has much to answer for its corporate-consumer excesses. And yet, it is among the weakest and the wisest that they choose to attack. The world’s largest refinery is coming up in the Konkan, uprooting 17 villages, over half a million cashew trees and over a million mango trees. Thousands of acres of Himalayan forests and over a hundred villages will be submerged by one of the world’s tallest dams coming up in Pancheshwar in Uttarakhand. Are the conservationist petitioners and courts doing anything to stop any of this? They show little courage when it comes to tackling the land mafias, builder-developers, realtors, constructors, and miners, but their conscience is ablaze over conserving Adivasis in the jungles.
A dying civilization
This is the arrogance of ignorant India and it shall not abdicate till it has laid to rest the last hopes of what was ‘a wounded civilization’, and is now a dying one. For, let us be clear about one thing: freeing the forests of their traditional inhabitants is almost certain to expose their erstwhile habitats in short order to the speedy, organized depredations of the forces of what has come to be seen by the elites as ‘development’.
If remote habitats are emptied of Adivasis, there may be nobody to forewarn us when ecologically perilous tipping points are crossed in the future. To make matters worse, worrying amendments that have been proposed to the Indian Forest Act, 1927, which further strengthen the stranglehold of forest officials over India’s jungles and its inhabitants, have now been made public.
Perhaps someday, when their decisions affect them, the folly of their pronouncements will dawn upon those who preside on the fates of millions today. But it shall be too late then. Before July, the safe-keepers of justice might wish to ponder Gandhi’s words: “A time is coming when those, who are in the mad rush today of multiplying their wants, vainly thinking that they add to the real substance, real knowledge of the world, will retrace their steps and say: ‘What have we done?