How should India respond to the US's unilateral ASAT test ban?

Apr 27, 2022 04:38 PM IST

While the ban is to mitigate the risk of space debris, it neither guarantees the redressal of an arms race in space, nor does it signal the onset of international norms against ASAT testing. Here is how India should respond:

The United States (US) has pledged to stop conducting destructive direct-ascent anti-satellite (DA-ASAT) testing in space. During the announcement made on 18 April, US vice-president Kamala Harris called on other nations to follow suit in hopes to induce the norm of responsible behaviour in space and mitigating the problem of space debris. To date, China, India, Russia, and the US have been the only countries that have demonstrated debris-creating ASAT capabilities.

The American self-imposed test ban is a step toward reducing space debris, and an attempt towards introducing a broader set of multilateral risk reduction measures in space. (Getty Images/Representative image) PREMIUM
The American self-imposed test ban is a step toward reducing space debris, and an attempt towards introducing a broader set of multilateral risk reduction measures in space. (Getty Images/Representative image)

Russia conducted its test on November 15 last year, when it shot down one of its satellites 500 km above the earth’s surface. The test created around 20,000 pieces of trackable debris and inevitably threatened the safety of assets in space, including the International Space Station.

The US demonstrated its DA-ASAT capability in February 2008, when it shot down an old spy satellite using the SM-3 interceptor. The mission, named Operation Burnt Frost, was carried out under the pretext that the toxic fuels of the target satellite could contaminate the earth's surface if left unattended. Coincidentally, this show of capability came just over a year after China conducted its destructive DA-ASAT test in January 2007.

Indeed, the American self-imposed test ban is a step toward reducing space debris, and an attempt towards introducing a broader set of multilateral risk reduction measures in space. But the announcement neither guarantees the redressal of an arms race in space, nor does it signal the onset of international norms against ASAT testing.

A limited promise

Although the unilateral ban is the first of its kind, the carefully worded announcement leaves enough room for the US to design, develop, deploy, and improve existing and future counterspace capabilities with little or no constraints. Here, I outline three primary reasons.

First, the ban is on the testing of debris-producing ASATs. It is not a pledge, however, to refrain from using DA-ASATs. In theory, the US could threaten to use or use DA-ASATs during a conflict or crisis in the hopes of deterring an adversary’s belligerent actions in space or to blunt an enemy’s warfighting capabilities. Further, the US could choose to destroy a satellite justified under the banner of safety, similar to the exercise conducted in 2008. Although such scenarios are unlikely to take place in the near future, a ban on the use of DA-ASATs would have set a higher bar both for the US and for other countries to follow suit.

Second, the ban does not prevent the US from conducting DA-ASAT tests in non-destructive modes or at high altitudes. This means that the US could continue testing ASATs by launching interceptors into Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) against a virtually simulated target to obtain results similar to the one conducted against a physical target.

Moreover, since missile defence systems and DA-ASATs are based on the similar hit-to-kill technology — the use of kinetic force to destroy an incoming, fast-moving target — the US still preserves the freedom to test its missile defence interceptors at high altitudes and simulate ASAT tests against virtual targets. With no ceiling or ban on the altitudes at which long-range interceptors can be tested, the American self-imposed ban is of little consequence.

Finally, the ban does not make any mention of a co-orbital ASATs or the issue of physical interference with other satellites in orbit. This is understandable, as the main target of the unilateral ban is to mitigate the risk of space debris. However, the issue of interference with government and privately-owned satellites is of burgeoning concern among space-faring nations. A declaration that the US would not interfere with critical space assets, including nuclear command and control satellites, would have been a welcoming pledge.

Thus, by carefully constraining its declaration, the US has positioned itself such that it continues to preserve and improve its advantages in counterspace capabilities, even while earning brownie points from the international community for its effort to reduce space threats.

How should India respond?

Since conducting its ASAT test titled Mission Shakti in March 2019, India has neither tested more DA-ASATs nor has it announced its intention to test DA-ASATs in the future. India laid down its diplomatic position on reducing space threats at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) last November, where it stressed the need for non-discriminatory multilateral legally-binding measures to ensure the sustainable use of space.

However, India has two potential ways to respond to the US declaration. First, India could welcome the American unilateral ban and issue a statement clarifying that India has no intention to conduct further ASAT tests.

On the other hand, India could make more concrete pledges regarding its military activities in space. Since conducting the ASAT test in 2019, India has not issued a space doctrine. Such a doctrine is likely in the works. The space doctrine could include a declaration of no-first-use (NFU) of space weapons — a pledge where it undertakes not to use both kinetic and non-kinetic forms of weapons against adversaries unless India faces an attack in space first.

Of course, An NFU declaration in space comes with its own set of challenges. One major issue with an NFU of space weapons is that it might not be seen as credible. For example, would India choose to attack an enemy’s space assets if that enemy temporarily tampers with India’s satellites? India may not choose to respond at all as such an attack from the enemy might be perceived to have no strategic impact on India. At the same time, India’s response may be symmetric and calibrated or, India may be forced to respond at a greater proportion to deter further attacks.

Such hypothetical scenarios aim to raise questions about the credibility and sincerity of an NFU declaration. The credibility of an NFU of space weapons hinges on its framing and the inclusion of possible caveats. Nonetheless, such a pledge would prove beneficial for India and set a benchmark for other countries to follow.

Making declaratory statements is not the only way that India can respond to the urgent need to mitigate the risks of space debris. India, in recent years, has been building up its Space Situational Awareness (SSA) capabilities, which include using land-based electro-optical sensors and space-based sensors to monitor and track objects and incidents in outer space.

In March 2022, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) published its first-ever assessment of India’s Space Situational Awareness (SSA) capabilities and the application of these capabilities. The Space Situational Assessment 2021 provided relative transparency, revealing the number of debris leftover from India’s PSLV launches, along with details of debris produced by other global events, particularly Russia’s ASAT test conducted in November last year. More recently at the 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue, the two countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Space Situational Awareness to expand cooperation on space activities.

Multilateral cooperation using SSA capabilities on tracking space debris could prove to be a viable pathway for introducing confidence-building and risk-reduction measures in space. As the international community prepares to deliberate the issue of space security at the United Nations Open-Ended Working Group in May, India must make use of both normative and material means to push for multilateral legally-binding measures.

Pranav R Satyanath is a research analyst, Takshashila Institution, who is working on military space policy issues

The views expressed are personal

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