[Burning Issue] ASAT; An overview

CONTEXT

India has tested the Anti-Satellite System(A-SAT) from Dr A P J Abdul Kalam Island, formerly known as Wheeler Island, an island off the coast of Odisha.

  • The test was named as Mission Shakti.
  • It has successfully destroyed a live satellite in the Low Earth Orbit(an altitude of 300 km).
  • With this test India is now in the league of three countries after the U.S., Russia, and China to have such technology.

What Is ASAT?

  • It is missile-based system to attack moving satellites.
  • It is of 2 kinds— based on launching from the ground or from planes.
  • Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has -developed Anti-satellite (ASAT)completely indigenously.

Mission Shakti

  • While Mission Shakti may have targeted an object in outer space, India has long developed the ability to intercept incoming missiles.
  • In 2011, a modified Prithvi missile mimicked the trajectory of a ballistic missile with a 600-km range.
  • The DRDO-developed Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) Interceptor Missile successfully engaged an Indian orbiting target satellite in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) in a ‘Hit to Kill’ mode.
  • The interceptor missile was a three-stage missile with two solid rocket boosters.

What are low earth orbit satellites?

  • The Indian satellite that was shot down was a Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite.
  • These are satellites roughly at an altitude of 2,000 kilometres from the earth and that’s the region where the majority of satellites are concentrated.

ASAT through history

  • ASAT is the technological capability to hit and destroy satellites in space through missiles launched from the ground.
  • ASAT weapon systems have a long history and were a product of the Cold War hostilities between the United States and the Soviet Union.
  • They came back into popular currency after China conducted an anti-satellite missile test on Jan 2007.
  • The target was a Chinese weather satellite — the FY-1C – that sailed at an altitude of 865 km. (537 mi).
  • A year later, the US launched ‘Operation Burnt Frost,’ the code name to intercept and destroy a non-functioning satellite named USA-193.

Why target satellites?

  • Satellites are extremely critical infrastructure of any country these days. A large number of crucial applications are now satellite-based.
  • These include navigation systems, communication networks, broadcasting, banking systems, stock markets, weather forecasting, disaster management, and military applications etc.
  • Destroying a satellite would render these applications useless.
  • It can cripple enemy infrastructure, and bring it down on knees, without causing any threat to human lives.

The Significance of the test

  • Ministry of External Affairs describes it as a ‘credible deterrence’ against attacks on India’s growing number of space assets.
  • Although only three other countries, the U.S., Russia, and China, have previously demonstrated this capability, it is possible to surmise that countries with long-range missiles could do the same with equal effectiveness.
  • But India, surely, is staking a forward claim as a space weapons power.

1. A message to the world

  • While the government has conceded that India has long had ASAT capabilities, this is the country’s first demonstration to the world.
  • It has shown that it is capable of bringing down a satellite, and disrupting communication.
  • Because the test was carried out on a satellite placed in the low-earth orbit, one might question whether India can hit any satellite.
  • Targeting satellites in the higher orbits, however, is only a matter of scale of powering the rockets enough to go deeper in the space.

2. It might propel Arms Race in the neighbourhood

  • This might lead to its none-too-friendly neighbour Pakistan into a competitive frenzy.
  • Also, in the absence of a credible threat to India’s space assets from China or any other country with Anti-Satellite missile capabilities, whether the ‘deterrence’ sought to be achieved by this test would lead to a more stable strategic security environment is not certain.

3.Concerns with the timing of test and elections

  • But, within India, the timing of the test, when the country is already in election mode, does raise concerns whether this was aimed at the domestic constituency.
  • The Election Commission is now seized of the question whether the Prime Minister might have violated the Model Code of Conduct.
  • If it does find the timing amiss, the government could be in for some serious embarrassment.

4.The problem of space debris

  • Anything launched into the space remains in space, almost forever, unless it is specifically brought down or slowly disintegrates over decades or centuries.
  • Satellites that are past their life and are no longer required also remain in space, orbiting aimlessly in some orbit.
  • According to the NASA, there were 19,137 man-made objects in space that were large enough to be tracked.
  • These included active and inactive satellites, rockets and their parts, and other small fragments.
  • A satellite that is destroyed by a missile disintegrates into small pieces, and adds to the space debris.
  • The threat from the space debris is that it could collide with the operational satellites and render them dysfunctional.

Outer Space Treaty of 1967

  • The Outer Space Treaty, to which India is a signatory, prohibits countries from placing into orbit around the Earth “any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction”.
  • Among its principles, it bars states party to the treaty from placing weapons of mass destruction in Earth orbit, installing them on the Moon or any other celestial body, or otherwise stationing them in outer space.
  • The moon and other celestial bodies shall be used by all state parties to the treaty exclusively for peaceful purposes, says the treaty.

Indian stance on Claims Of violating Space Treaty

  • There are at least four more multilateral treaties that deal with specific concepts agreed to in the Outer Space Treaty. None of these, however, prohibits the kind of test that India carried.
  • India believes in peaceful use of the common outer space that belongs to humanity.
  • India is not in violation of any international law or treaty to which it is a party or any national obligation.
  • The MEA said the A-SAT test was not directed against any country and that India plans to play a role in future in drafting global laws on prevention of arms race in outer space.
  • As is mandatory for any missile test, India did issue a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) to airline authorities across the world informing them about an impending missile test.
  • MEA reiterated India’s support of Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) in the Conference on Disarmament “where it has been on the agenda since 1982.

Present global space architecture

  • There is no global regulatory regime to address the growing militarisation in space.
  • Last year, at the UN Disarmament Commission, India expressed concern about the “weaponisation” of outer space, and sought collective action to secure space-based assets.
  • In this regulatory vacuum, India has legitimate reasons to develop deterrence for the security of its space-based assets.

Need For formulating Space Programme

  • India is assiduously putting in place a space military architecture.
  • That is precisely why the government should articulate much more clearly the doctrinal aspects of the space programme, as well as the deterrence sought to be achieved by it.
  • India must communicate its peaceful intentions just as it showcases its capabilities, so as to contribute to a better understanding among countries it hopes to deter and thereby reduce the chances of wrong inferences being drawn in crisis situations.
  • After all, missiles are but one aspect of space warfare.
  • There are other, less visible but equally effective methods to incapacitate satellites that are being developed and are of equally serious concern.

 

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