Since 1999, India has launched 269 foreign satellites from 32 different countries. This has positioned it as a relevant player in the field of space exploration. The Indian Space Research Agency (ISRA) is involved in Earth observation and support for disaster management and telecommunications from space; and has its own launch site, the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota. Finally, India is, along with the US, a country that cares about sustainability in space: it has a reusable launch vehicle (RLV-TD) under development.
However, a new dimension has been added to these significant advances. On 27 March 2019, India tested an anti-satellite missile for military purposes. This represents a clear militarisation of the Indian space programme, with potential consequences for the multilateral management of outer space.
According to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India has demonstrated its ability to destroy satellites in orbit. Last March’s test seems to show that India has mastered what is known as anti-satellite weapons technology (ASAT). With this test, Prime Minister Modi claimed India’s space power status.
A successful ASAT test is first and foremost a demonstration of strength and power. It demonstrates not only a country’s ability to bring down potentially hostile satellites, but also its ability to use this technology to intercept threatening intercontinental ballistic missiles.
This type of testing has raised concerns about the possibility of a new arms race in space. However, India asserts that the development of these capabilities is for strictly defensive purposes.
Potential Consequences of the Indian Test
India’s action and the development of anti-missile technology could paralyse or slow down the negotiations currently under way in the Conference on Disarmament on the proposed treaty on the prevention of the placement of weapons in outer space and the prohibition of the use of anti-satellite weapons.
On the other hand, the development of these capabilities brings with it security risks that go beyond a hypothetical militarization of space. For example, the creation of hundreds of thousands of debris. Destroying satellites with missiles can create hundreds to thousands of pieces of debris that remain in space for years. This is what happened in 2007 when China destroyed its own satellite during an ASAT test.
Amateur satellite trackers estimate that the test created more than 3,000 new objects, many of which have moved into other orbits since the incident. These debris are a real concern for satellite operators as orbiting objects move at about 27,000 kilometres per hour in space. If one of these pieces hits another satellite, it can cause damage that could render it inoperative. In addition, some of these pieces are quite small, making them difficult to track.
The Response the Great Powers
For their part, the great powers are already preparing for the new space race: the Trump administration’s decision to speed up the return of American astronauts to the Moon in 2024 surprised everyone, including NASA. This proposal is clearly framed, as Vice President Mike Pence indicated, in the context of a new space race against China. In fact, the U.S. has designed a new space shuttle, the Boeing X-37, which can capture a satellite without difficulty and incorporate it into its hold to bring it back to Earth or eject it from orbit. This has increased China’s concern about the possibility of the U.S. using this technology against its satellites.
For its part, China has deployed direct access systems to anti-satellite communications designed to destroy U.S. satellites located in low-Earth orbit. These weapons could also easily be directed against Indian satellites. In a crisis, that would allow China to reduce the land capability of the Indian armed forces (IAF), jeopardize the effective command and control of IAF, and eliminate surveillance and recognition of intelligence based on space-based data. It is therefore likely that India’s actions were motivated by a desire to establish a credible space deterrent against China.
Faced with this new scenario, many questions arise: will China use the test carried out by India as a justification for accelerating and expanding its ASAT programme, how could India then respond, how could the U.S. respond? These questions force us to not ignore the possibility of a space arms race under an action-reaction logic.
General and Forward-Looking Appraisal
India has been able to develop a very sophisticated space programme, as demonstrated by its test last March. Of course, there is a national security dimension that has conditioned this type of development: India is concerned about the incipient arms race in space and new trends in arms manufacturing. That is why it wants to ensure that it has the technological capacity available should current trends consolidate.
However, even though India can position itself as a space power, it is a country with an uncertain socio-economic situation, making this achievement a simple anecdote in a few years’ time if its economy stagnates and financial funding for future projects becomes restricted.