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Anti-Satellite Weapons Versus National Security: Part One

The Indian Government’s decision to carry out the ASAT test just two weeks prior to the scheduled beginning of national elections to India’s Parliament was merely intended to shore up the sagging fortunes of the ruling party by proclaiming it as a great achievement (implicitly of the present government). It did so by cashing in on the progress made during the previous fifty years of India’s self-reliant development in the field of science & technology. In the absence of tangible progress on socio-economic fronts during its five-year term in office, the ruling party was desperate to pose as the champion of “National Security” and to push “National Security” as the central focus of attention in the ensuing elections. Contrary to the assumption that ASAT weapons would augment “National Security”, the contention in this article is that such weapons are actually antithetical to “National Security” and “National Interests” of every nation in every way. So, the sooner the world prohibits ASAT weapons, the better.

On 27 Mar, 2019, India became the fourth nation – after USA, Soviet Union and China – to carry out an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon test. Through a much-hyped live nation-wide televised address, Prime Minister Narendra Modi disclosed that India had successfully tested an anti-satellite weapon system by destroying an Indian satellite, which was orbiting in Low Earth Orbit some 300 kms above the Bay of Bengal. However, in an attempt to justify his decision to conduct the test, which has been dubbed Mission Shakti”, Mr.Modi has made several contradictory claims, some of which are as follows:

“…India has accomplished an unprecedented achievement.  India has today established itself as a Space Superpower…”

“For every Indian there cannot be a greater moment of pride.”…

 “Today’s Anti-Satellite (A-SAT) missile will give new strength to the country in terms of India’s security and India’s development journey. I want to assure the world community today that this new capability we have achieved is not against anybody. It is a defensive initiative of India moving forward at a fast pace.”

“India has always been against arms race in space and there has been no change in this policy. This test of today does not violate any kind of international law or treaty agreements. We want to use modern technology for the protection and welfare of 1300 million citizens of the country.”

“It is necessary to have a strong India to create an environment of peace and security in this region. Our strategic objective is to maintain peace and not create an atmosphere of war. [1]

Contradictory Claims

From Mr.Modi’s pronouncements it is evident that he was trying to address two different audiences: one domestic and the other international. In attempting to do so, Mr.Modi was actually indulging in doublespeak: he is desperate to prove to his domestic audience that he is a hawk while at the same time pretending before the rest of the world that he is a dove. To his domestic audiences, he loudly proclaims that India has turned into a space superpower by catapulting into the star-wars club and accordingly tries to instill in Indians the belief that India’s new self-ordained status as a hawkish nation is a matter of national pride. To his international audiences, he wishes to project India as a conciliatory and peace loving nation and tries to assure the world at large that India’s new weapon is not targeted at anyone. Similarly, Mr. Modi wishes to project the ASAT weapon system as a weapon of defense, whereas the truth is that the ASAT system is an entirely offensive weapon system that is intended only to destroy its target. It is incapable of providing protection to anyone or anything because of its inherent nature as a weapon that is launched from Earth to destroy a predetermined target in space. ASAT weapons can destroy satellites of one’s adversaries or one’s own; they cannot shield a single Indian satellite from being a target of attack. The assertion that deployment of ASAT weapons can protect Indian satellites and other assets in space is, thus, a completely false and misleading claim. Under the circumstances, how could the ASAT weapon system, which is incapable of safeguarding a single Indian satellite in outer space, provide protection to 1300 million Indians? Such absurd claims are only intended to hoodwink Indians in order to elicit their support for the mindless attempt of Mr.Modi’s government at weaponization of outer space.

As part of his international posturing, Mr.Modi has been forced to state that “India has always been against arms race in space and there has been no change in this policy.” Unfortunately, the second half of that statement is again a false assertion. By launching a weapon into outer space, India is guilty of joining the three other star-war warriors in militarizing and accelerating the arms race in space. Mr.Modi’s claim that “This test of today does not violate any kind of international law or treaty agreements” is merely half truth. This is evident from the letter and spirit of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which unequivocally states that:

“The States Parties to this Treaty…. Recognizing the common interest of all [hu]mankind in the progress of the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes [Preamble] …. Have agreed on the following: ….

(a)  “States Parties to the Treaty shall carry on activities in the exploration and use of outer space… in the interest of maintaining international peace and security and promoting international co-operation and understanding.” [Article III]

(b)  “The establishment of military bases, installations and fortifications, the testing of any type of weapons and the conduct of military manoeuvres on celestial bodies shall be forbidden”. [Article IV]

(c)  “If a State Party to the Treaty has reason to believe that an activity or experiment planned by it or its nationals in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, would cause potentially harmful interference with activities of other States Parties in the peaceful exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, it shall undertake appropriate international consultations before proceeding with any such activity or experiment.” [Article IX] [Emphasis added]

India is a party to the Outer Space Treaty of 1967’ and the Treaty clearly states in its preamble that the State Parties to the Treaty recognized that it was in the common interest of all humanity to ensure the “use of outer space for peaceful purposes”. As per Article III, the State Parties to the Treaty had also agreed to carry on activities in outer space “in the interest of maintaining international peace and security”. Moreover, Article IV unambiguously states that: “the testing of any type of weapons and the conduct of military manoeuvres on celestial bodies shall be forbidden”. It is also abundantly clear that none of the four nations, which conducted ASAT tests, had ensured “appropriate international consultations before proceeding with any such activity or experiment” as per the stipulation under Article IX of the Treaty.

It can of course be argued that the Treaty had not specifically banned testing or use of weapons other than weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in outer space. Does it mean that the absence of such a clause (which was not inserted deliberately or otherwise) was an open invitation to the State Parties to the Treaty to militarize and test all kinds of weapons in outer space other than WMDs? Was it “in the interest of maintaining international peace and security” that attempts are being made to militarize and test weapons other than WMDs in outer space? If there were loopholes in the Treaty, was it not incumbent on all concerned State Parties to take prompt action to plug those loopholes when there was a specific provision in the form of Article XV in the Treaty to do so? By violating the spirit of the Treaty and exploiting the loopholes in it, in what way are the said star-war warriors promoting the “common interest of all humanity”? The truth is that all those who have violated the spirit of the ‘Outer Space Treaty of 1967’ have completely sidelined the goal of promoting common interest of all humanity.

Earlier, in repose to the Chinese ASAT test of 11 Jan, 2007, a backgrounder titled “China’s Anti Satellite Test” that was published on 22 Feb, 2007 in Foreign Affairs (the journal of one of the foremost U.S. think tanks on international affairs, the Council on Foreign Relations), had commented that: “By the 1980s, both the United States and the Soviet Union had performed anti-satellite missile tests—all of them arguably in technical violation of a 1967 UN treaty banning such activities.” In other words, it is a recognized fact that all the four nations, which have conducted ASAT tests in space, have violated the spirit of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. Therefore, India’s contention that it is not guilty of such violation is not true.

Another pet argument of Mr.Modi is that: “It is necessary to have a strong India to create an environment of peace and security in this region”, which is a typical argument advanced by major nations to defend militarization. In other words, in Mr.Modi’s view, to create an environment of peace and security, every effort should be made to ensure that India remains armed to the teeth! That is, by piling up more and more deadly weapons, India would be creating an environment of peace and security! It is just incredible how unsuspecting people get easily swayed by such fallacious arguments! In addition, Mr.Modi says: “Our strategic objective is to maintain peace and not create an atmosphere of war.” Indeed, if maintenance of peace is the real objective, finding ways and means to encourage confidence building measures (CBMs), followed by global arms control and disarmament initiatives, should have been the top priority. On the contrary, confidence negating measures (CNMs) by nations (such as acquisition of new weapon systems, etc.), only fuel suspicions and aggravate tensions between nations that result in creating an atmosphere of war.

Devious Propaganda

In addition to PM Modi’s statement, India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) had issued an official press release on “Mission Shakti”. Like Mr.Modi, the MEA too has made several contradictory claims, half truths and false assertions. The MEA seeks to justify the test by claiming that: “The test was done to verify that India has the capability to safeguard our space assets.” (Para VI, 3) As has already been pointed out above, India’s ASAT weapon system cannot protect a single Indian satellite deployed in outer space. The assertion that it can is merely intended to hoodwink the domestic audience. Of course, there is absolutely no doubt, as the MEA”s statement has asserted, that: “It is the Government of India’s responsibility to defend the country’s interests in outer space.” (Para VI, 3) In that case, the question is, how should India carry out that responsibility: through militarization or demilitarization of outer space? In this regard, the MEA in its statement appears to take a very laudable position, which is that:

“India has no intention of entering into an arms race in outer space. We have always maintained that space must be used only for peaceful purposes. We are against the weaponization of Outer Space and support international efforts to reinforce the safety and security of space based assets. India believes that Outer space is the common heritage of humankind and it is the responsibility of all space-faring nations to preserve and promote the benefits flowing from advances made in space technology and its applications for all.” (Para VIII, 1 & 2)

The MEA has further asserted that: “India is a party to all the major international treaties relating to Outer Space…. India has been participating in all sessions of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space…. India supports the substantive consideration of the issue of Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) in the Conference on Disarmament where it has been on the agenda since 1982.” (Para VIII, 3 & 5) This reassertion of India’s position on PAROS is a very welcome stand. Unfortunately, this progressive position regarding PAROS appears to be merely intended to assuage the concerns of the international audience. This is evident from MEA’s subsequent submission.

After highlighting the virtues of PAROS, MEA did a quick u-turn: it came out defending the ASAT test by claiming that: “The test is not directed against any country. India’s space capabilities do not threaten any country and nor are they directed against anyone.” (Para X, 1) Unfortunately, this assertion by the MEA that the test was not intended to “threaten any country and nor are they directed against anyone” was immediately negated by India’s Finance Minister, Mr.Arun Jaitley, who blurted out that there was indeed an ultimate motive behind the test. Mr.Jaitley, who addressed a press conference soon after the ASAT test, had no compunctions in loudly proclaiming that: “We must remember that tomorrow’s wars will not be the same as yesterday’s wars…. This country should remain prepared for cyber and space wars.”  Therefore, wholly contrary to MEA’s claim, Mr.Jaitley made no bones about the fact that the ASAT weapon system was to be inducted as part of India’s armoury for “tomorrow’s wars” – specifically for “space wars” – targeted at other nations and peoples (since wars are all about attempts at imposing hegemony over nations and peoples). Thus, MEA’s attempt to cover-up the truth about the purpose of the ASAT test was of no avail.  

In conclusion, the MEA statement again tried to justify the test with the explanation that: “The capability achieved through the Anti-Satellite missile test provides credible deterrence against threats to our growing space-based assets from long range missiles, and proliferation in the types and numbers of missiles.” (Para X, 2Mr.Jaitley too tried to offer the same explanation by stating that: “Just like our nuclear capability, this too is a deterrent capability.” However, the utter untenability of the concept of deterrence was laid bare way back in 1981 by none other than Dr.K.Subrahmanyam, India’s best known strategic affairs analyst, when he called deterrence a myth.[2]  In fact, Dr.Subrahmanyam had very emphatically commented that: “The way to hell is paved with good intentions, and it is carpeted with the doctrine of deterrence.” [3] Nobody could have explained the duplicity of the concept of deterrence any better!

Intent & Timing

The timing of the latest ASAT test (and the manner of its announcement [4]) was significant considering the fact that national elections to India’s Parliament were scheduled to begin from 11 Apr, 2019, which was then just two weeks away. The editorial in the Deccan Herald (Bangaluru) dated 28 Mar, 2019 and titled “Desperation is showing, Mr PM”, has placed the intent and timing of the ASAT test in its proper perspective. Questioning the PM’s decision, the editorial noted:

“But did it call for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to go on television and address the nation while the election code of conduct is in operation? Clearly, this was political theatre designed to claim credit for the ASAT test and pose as a strong leader. It fooled no one but has opened India to the charge that its politicians take critical national security decisions — especially such an important one as India moving away from its longstanding position that space should not be militarised – merely for reasons of domestic politics.”

While PM Modi was conceitedly trying to claim credit for developing the anti-satellite weapon technology as a great achievement (implicitly of his Government), there is no dispute over the fact that India had developed the ASAT capability as early as the year 2011. In an article titled “Capability to neutralise enemy satellites proved”The Hindu (Chennai) on 07 Mar, 2011 had reported that:

“The fresh success of the interceptor missile mission on Sunday has demonstrated the country’s capability to neutralise adversarial satellites in space, according to V.K. Saraswat, Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister. India has “all the technologies and building blocks which can be used for anti-satellite missions” in the low-earth and polar orbits. However, ‘India’s policy is that it will not weaponise space, and we are committed to the peaceful uses of outer space,’ he said.”

It may be noted that the announcement regarding the success of that test in 2011 was not made by the then prime minister but by Dr.V.K.Saraswat, the then Advisor to the Defence Minister and Chief of India’s Defence Research & Development Organization (DRDO). Under the circumstances, it appears that since his government’s performance during his five-year term in office was abysmal on several socio-economic fronts [5], PM Modi was desperate to divert attention on to the issue of “National Security” as the main agenda of the forthcoming elections and to project himself as the champion of “National Security”. The decision to carry out the ASAT test just two weeks prior to the national elections was a calculated ploy on the part of Mr.Modi to reap maximum mileage for himself and his Party out of the scientific progress made in the country during the previous fifty years through self-reliant scientific development.

The news report in The Times of India (Mumbai) dated 28 Mar, 2019 with the subheading “Project Got Nod 2 Years Ago, Went Into ‘Mission Mode’ 18 Months Later” is a giveaway in this regard. Quoting the current DRDO Chief, Dr.Satheesh Reddy, the TOI report states that “while the work on the ballistic missile defence (BMD) programme was going on for years ‘the [ASAT weapon] project only got the official go-ahead about two years ago. And we got into mission mode only six months ago’.” The said TOI report further noted: “The launch, about two weeks ahead of the first round of polling in Lok Sabha elections, was read by political circles as likely to reinforce the tough on national security image of BJP and Modi after the after the air strikes on a Jaish-e-Muhammed terror camp in Balakot.”  Thus, the synchronization of the ASAT test with the forthcoming parliamentary elections was a remarkable feat indeed! No doubt, the Balakot air strike [6] was also timed to perfection! [Uncomfortable questions as to why the CRPF convoy was denied adequate security cover before the Pulwama terrorist attack despite adequate prior warnings, of course, should be left unanswered!]

The sarcasm depicted in the cartoon published in The Hindu and from the banner-headline of The Times of India dated 28 Mar, 2019 provides two opposite public perceptions about the intent and purpose of carrying out the ASAT weapon test. The said cartoon succinctly points out that India’s ranking in terms of quality of people’s lives based on a variety of socio-economic factors stood at an all-time low of 140 out of 156 countries in a survey that was carried out by an UN affiliated agency and published on 20 Mar, 2019 in the World Happiness Report 2019 (Chapter 2, Fig. 2.7). However, in a desperate attempt to divert attention from this ugly truth, all that PM Modi could do was to project India as a “Space Superpower” by catapulting India into the ‘Star Wars Club’ as its fourth member. The banner headline in The Times of India highlighted precisely that: “INDIA SHOOTS INTO STAR WARS CLUB” (as though joining that elite club was the panacea for raising the low socio-economic status of the bulk of Indians to a higher level).

Consequences

To drum up public support for weaponization of space, there is also a concerted attempt to leak sensational information from DRDO to selected media outlets. This is evident from yet another banner headline in The Times of India dated 07 Apr, 2019, which was as follows: “Satellite-killer not a one-off, India working on star wars armoury” Quoting the DRDO chief, G Satheesh Reddy, the report said, “We are working on a number of technologies like DEWs [Directed Energy Weapons], lasers, electromagnetic pulse (EMP) and co-orbital weapons etc. I can’t divulge the details, but we are taking them forward.” Such seemingly exiting information seek to romanticize space wars by claiming that ASAT weapons “Can ‘blind & deafen’ enemy forces by taking out satellites vital for surveillance, communication and missile early warning.” Thus, space wars are made to look very desirable and something to look forward to! At the same time, the real consequences of space wars are sought to be hidden from the people. According to a report published by the Union of Concerned Scientists (USA), “The act of destroying a satellite can damage the space environment by creating dangerous amounts of space debris. What’s more, the impairment or loss of an important satellite, such as one used for reconnaissance, can quickly escalate a conflict or generate other unpredictable and dangerous consequences.” If the confronting parties are nuclear weapon powers, a full scale nuclear war would be the outcome.

Similarly, a report titled “Avoiding a War in Space” published by Stratfor, reportedly a leading geopolitical intelligence platform, underlined the implications of space wars as follows:

“There is little doubt that a full kinetic strike on U.S. satellites, which would inflict physical damage, would invite a devastating response…. A war in space would be devastating to all, and preventing it, rather than finding ways to fight it, will likely remain the goal…. A war in space would disable a number of key satellites, and the resulting debris would place vital orbital regions at risk. The damage to the world economy could also be disastrous. In severity, the consequences of space warfare could be comparable to those of nuclear war. What’s more, disabling key constellations that give early launch warnings could be seen as the opening salvo in a nuclear attack, driving the threat of a wider conflagration.”

[To be continued]

N.D. Jayaprakash (jaypdsf@gmail.com) is Joint Secretary, Delhi Science Forum (DSF), and Member, National Coordination Committee, Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament & Peace (CNDP). The views expressed are personal.

NOTES & REFERENCES.

[1] Translated from the original Hindi text of PM Modi’s speech (27 Mar, 2019)

[2] K. Subrahmanyam, “The Myth of Deterrence” in K. Subrahmanyam, ed., Nuclear Myths and Realities: India’s Dilemma ABC Publishing House, New Delhi,1981, pp. 52-70

[3] K.Subrahmanyam, “Fighting the Nuclear Cult”, in K.Subrahmanyam, Ed., “Nuclear Proliferation and International Security”, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi, 1985, p.293

[4] The PM made the dramatic announcement on 27 Mar, 2019 at 12.25 pm IST after the media was alerted an hour earlier that the PM was going to make an important announcement in the next 30 minutes. The PM had made sure that he would corner complete attention of the national and international media before he made the announcement.

[5] See: Vamsi Vakulabharanam and Sripad Motiram, “The governance dashboard: the BJP regime and its promises”, The Hindu, Delhi, 08 Apr, 2019 at:  https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/the-governance-dashboard/article26763433.ece

[6] On 26 Feb, 2019, the Indian Air Force had bombed a terrorist camp in Balakot, Pakistan, which the Government of India claims killed hundreds of Pakistan based terrorists. The bombing was in retaliation for the terrorist attack on India’s Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) convoy on 14 Feb, 2019 near the town of Pulwama in the Kashmir Valley, which killed 44 CRPF personnel.

 

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N.D. Jayaprakash is Joint Secretary, Delhi Science Forum and Co-Convenor, Bhopal Gas Peedith Sangharsh Sahayog Samiti (Coalition for supporting the Cause of the Bhopal Gas Victims).

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