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India’s A-SAT missile test must trigger a discussion on earth orbital security

Orbital security can easily suffer from the tragedy of the commons unless states rake proactive measures

analysis Updated: Mar 29, 2019 08:35 IST
Pavan Srinath
Pavan Srinath
The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) successfully launched the Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) Interceptor missile in an Anti-Satellite (A-SAT) missile test(ANI)

India successfully tested the use of an anti-satellite missile on Wednesday, becoming the fourth country to do so. India likely had much of this capability since 2012, and was able to successfully demonstrate its use by taking down a live satellite, likely Microsat-R, which was in orbit about 300km above the earth. The satellite was taken down by a kinetic strike by DRDO’s Ballistic Missile Defence Interceptor, where the satellite was hit at high speed by an inert missile tip, disintegrating the satellite. This is an important defence achievement by India, and one that requires further discussion.

Mission Shakti’s A-SAT technology is primarily offensive in nature, and its use in defence is by deterrence. India has demonstrated that it can take down satellites in Low Earth Orbits of less than 2000km above the surface. to This means that India’s current A-SAT technology cannot take down broadcast and communications satellites that are mostly at geostationary or geosynchronous orbits about 36,000km above the earth. Nor can the A-SAT tech take down Medium Earth Orbital satellites in the 2,000-20,000km range that are used in global positioning systems by most countries. Incidentally, Indian and Russian positioning systems occupy the higher geosynchronous orbits.

What India’s A-SAT tech can currently take down are largely earth imaging and remote-sensing satellites that occupy Low Earth Orbits. It is difficult to ascertain how effective this can be in war time, given how most countries have fleets of remote-sensing satellites, further enhanced today by a growing number of commercial imaging satellites. A-SATs’ ability to increase the fog of war is uncertain at best, at the current level of technology. Nor can A-SATs currently remove the ability of hostile armed forces to use satellite-based positioning systems. There is a small chance that China currently has the capability to take down higher orbital satellites using kinetic warheads. This means that India may need to continue developing anti-satellite missile technology for it to be sufficiently useful in warfare, and hence be an effective deterrent.

However, just like India has shown itself to be a responsible nuclear power, India can also be a responsible power in space. This successful A-SAT missile test also opens up the opportunity for much-needed discussions both in India and abroad on earth orbital safety and security. The worst-case scenario is captured well in the movie Gravity and is known as the Kessler syndrome. In this, orbital debris travelling at high speeds destroy other satellites, leading to a cascade where the Low Earth Orbit is covered in a large number of fast-moving debris in random directions, and ending satellite technology as we know it. Even without this nightmare scenario, space debris and the decreasing size of satellites with short lifespans can lead to risks for all.

India has shown responsibility and restraint by targeting a satellite at 300km altitude as opposed to China destroying a satellite at the height of 857km in 2007, which created a lot of risky debris. But even the Indian test has a small likelihood of creating some debris that get thrown into higher orbits.

Earth orbital safety in the 21st century is as vital as shipping lane security was in the 20th century. Orbital safety can easily suffer from the tragedy of the commons unless sovereign states take proactive measures. This starts from disclosure and sharing of orbital tracks of all satellites and known objects. Initiatives like Space-Track are vital, by being active, open repositories of satellite trajectories. The US Air Force took a positive step in December 2018 by disclosing more orbital data of its military satellites, and more can be done by all countries.

There are over 22,000 artificial objects currently in orbit that are being tracked by one government agency or another. The European Space Agency estimates that currently there are over 34,000 pieces of debris in orbit that are larger than 10cm in size, close to a million pieces between 1cm and 10cm, and 128 million pieces of debris less than a centimetre in size. With reducing satellite size and the increasing frequency of space launches, this is set to grow rapidly.

Orbital safety also needs the development of new global norms, rules and treaties. Treaties currently proposed by some countries are largely concerned with placing military weapons in orbit, but orbital safety concerns go well beyond that. It’s also vital to develop technology to safely dispose defunct satellites and space junk, and this is best done by collaboration.

Without earth orbital safety, humans have a slim chance of reaching for the stars. India has a positive role to play in this, beyond the development of offensive capability.

Pavan Srinath is a public policy researcher and host of The Pragati Podcast and The Thale-Harate Kannada Podcast. He tweets at @zeusisdead

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Mar 28, 2019 20:20 IST