Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with just two weeks to go before polling begins for elections in the world’s largest democracy, has declared his country a “space superpower.” The grounds for that declaration were a technical accomplishment: an indigenously developed Indian ground-launched missile successfully shot down one of the country’s own satellites in low orbit, some 187 miles above the Earth’s surface. India’s accomplishment is significant, but it’s not without risks – both in the region and for the burgeoning militarization of space.
Anti-satellite weaponry of the sort demonstrated by India isn’t a category all its own. Rather, these weapons fall into a broader set of “hit-to-kill” systems, so called for their fundamental task of using the sheer kinetic force of one object to destroy another. In the American missile defense context, this task is often compared to hitting one bullet with another. Indeed, last week, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency hit a milestone of its own when it launched multiple interceptors to destroy one incoming intercontinental-range ballistic missile target.
What India demonstrated is no simple feat. As Modi underscored, New Delhi did gain entrance into a fairly exclusive club of countries that have shown themselves capable of destroying satellites in low Earth orbit. What he obscured, however, is what the accomplishment says about India’s burgeoning missile defense capabilities and how they might be perceived by its neighbors.
Fundamentally, using a “hit-to-kill” interceptor to destroy a satellite in low Earth orbit and destroying, say, a Pakistani nuclear-armed missile reentry vehicle on ballistic trajectory outside of the Earth’s atmosphere are similar tasks. The former travels at an amazing 28 times the speed of sound but on a highly predictable path. The latter is slower, but it can appear suddenly in the throes of a crisis, giving ground crews less time to prepare. Ballistic missiles can also create additional challenges by introducing countermeasures to trick missile defenses.
For Pakistan, watching India’s successful anti-satellite demonstration will be a reminder that what it presumes to be a secure nuclear second strike today may not be so tomorrow. As recent scholarship has convincingly demonstrated, Indian policymakers are flirting – heavily – with the idea of a more aggressive nuclear strategy, one that may rely on disarming Pakistan of its nuclear weapons early in a crisis.
But as the Indian military should have learned just last month, it can’t always rely on hitting what it’d like to the first time around. Even the most capable militaries miss from time to time, and missing even one city-busting Pakistani nuclear missile during a conflict could spell disaster. That’s where advanced “hit-to-kill” missile defense systems might make all the difference: by mopping up whatever remains of Pakistan’s nuclear forces after an Indian first strike.
India isn’t close to realizing this kind of a defense posture today, but its anti-satellite test demonstrates that the suite of technologies it might need to consider a serious shift in approach are being realized. The implications are dangerous: India’s test may prompt Pakistan to expend serious resources expanding its nuclear forces in quantity and quality which, in effect, will precipitate a new arms buildup.
For China, India’s demonstration will be less concerning. Any conflict where India would find it useful or even plausible to contemplate shooting down Chinese military satellites would be an all-out war – one that India is otherwise positioned poorly to manage. Besides, China has commensurate capabilities of its own.
Outside the ramifications on its neighbors’ military planning, India’s test heralds a new age with regard to “hit-to-kill” technologies being deployed for anti-satellite purposes. In 2007, China irresponsibly conducted a high-altitude anti-satellite test that created debris that will remain in orbit for decades, threatening other satellites. After that, there was some hope that a global ban on testing these weapons against satellites might have been possible. Partly in reaction to that test and amid a recognition that militarization of space was accelerating, the European Union proposed a nonbinding draft international code of conduct for space activities; that effort went nowhere.
Those hopes were undermined when the George W. Bush administration, one year later, authorized an American demonstration of an anti-satellite capability using a ballistic missile defense interceptor. That test succeeded, demonstrating that the very same interceptors the U.S. deploys on land in Europe and at sea on its Aegis destroyers could also be used against satellites with a few software tweaks.
India’s action, making the nation the first “new” arrival in the anti-satellite club since China’s 2007 test, undermines any further hope for a ban. Aside from Modi’s possible political calculations ahead of India’s upcoming elections, which will begin in mid-April, the test serves to ensure that India will be guaranteed a seat if and when rules for anti-satellite weapons are developed. After the test, an Indian statement noted that New Delhi now “expects to play a role in the future in the drafting of international law on prevention of an arms race in space.”
Reacting to the Indian test, acting U.S. secretary of defense Patrick Shanahan underscored that there are “certain basic principles” that must be followed with these tests. The Trump administration is not known for its fondness for arms control, but it should seize on Shanahan’s observation and pursue a multilateral process to codify norms – even if nonbinding – on anti-satellite weapon testing. The Indian government has correctly noted that its test violated no “international law or treaty.” But given the risks of these kinds of tests, this shouldn’t have been the case.
Russia may prove an obstacle to any immediate codification of rules against testing “hit-to-kill” systems. A new system known as the Nudol has been undergoing a series of tests in recent years but has yet to see action against a live satellite. If and when Russia decides to put its new hit-to-kill system to the test, it must do so responsibly.
One basis for a norm may be to use 187 miles – or 300 kilometers, the approximate altitude of the recent Indian intercept – as a cutoff point for any future anti-satellite testing activity. That altitude is comparable to the 150 miles at which the United States conducted its test in 2008 and generates debris that is prone to quickly decaying in orbit and burning up in the atmosphere. Of course, a complete test ban would be preferable, as debris creation in orbit altogether should be beyond the pale, but that appears out of reach now.
Above all, India’s anti-satellite test is a reminder that technologies that had previously been considered within reach of only the world’s superpowers are no longer exclusive. Modi celebrated the ingenuity and hard work of Indian scientists in realizing this capability, but there’s little unique to India’s circumstances that made the realization of last week’s achievement possible. Other countries can and will follow. Before that happens, it’ll be time to have set rules of the road.
– – – Panda is an adjunct senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists.