PM Narendra Modi announced Wednesday afternoon that India had successfully used an anti-satellite missile to shoot down a live satellite. His praise for ‘Mission Shakti’, however, only brought one film to mind.
No safe space
Amongst the most terrifying scenes in Alfonso Cuarón’s film Gravity was the one during a spacewalk when mission control tells the astronauts to get into the space station as soon as possible because a deadly wave of space debris was approaching. It was ironical that one of the astronauts conducting the spacewalk was also singing an old Bollywood song – Mera Joota Hai Japani.
The debris strike was a gruesome scene visually and technically, because not only did the debris claim lives, it also destroyed the space station.
The debris in the film was the result of a Chinese missile strike on a defunct satellite in space. The remnants of the strike caused havoc. The debris was not fiction, the movie may have been. In a similar manner, the debris created from India’s strike Wednesday on a low earth orbit satellite is a fact and not fiction.
The Ministry of External Affairs put out a series of FAQs on the anti-satellite test after PM Modi’s announcement. Among the interesting points it covers, one is on the debris generated. The MEA declares: “The test was done in the lower atmosphere to ensure that there is no space debris. Whatever debris that is generated will decay and fall back onto the earth within weeks.” But the fact is that low-earth orbit or higher up, there is going to be debris, and like all pollution, it is damaging, whatever its shelf life.
The goal of the missile strike is politically motivated.
No security sense
PM Narendra Modi’s announcement of India’s membership in an elite club of countries that can destroy a satellite in space is a technical achievement. But it pales in comparison to sending a mission to the moon, like Chandrayaan-1. The use of a missile on a live satellite as claimed by the government makes little military sense and virtually no security sense.
By conducting this test, India has, in fact, joined the club of irresponsible nations that lack global citizenship ethos and suitable environmental concerns. Just as the oceans are, so are the rivers and so is space – a global commons. And concern for the commons is a responsibility of every citizen and nation in the world. By adding to the debris in space, India has demonstrated its complete disregard for the moral principles governing the commons. Creating debris in space is as bad as Kanpur adding industrial sewage to mother Ganga.
The main reason why satellites can be used as weapons of war is for reconnaissance, communications and to guide missiles toward their designated targets. That situation arises in an all-out conventional war. A scenario that looks highly unlikely now and if it were to happen, it would be the result of gross diplomatic failures. In the foreseeable future, the conflicts that India is going to remain engaged in will be low intensity in nature, whether in Kashmir or the Naxal areas of central India, or the northeast. In these conflicts, the only satellite user is going to be India and its security forces. Given these scenarios, destroying a live satellite on 27 March 2019 raises questions that are completely in the non-security realm.
No race with China
Any claim that by conducting by one anti-satellite test India is at par with China in terms of space capabilities is the figment of somebody’s vivid imagination.
India has a very advanced and admirable space programme with non-military uses. Dovetailing that into military use doesn’t take much tweaking or relearning, but what it requires is an entire network that is on land, on the sea, in the air and in space.
India is far from developing the military network that joins the three services and gives them a space use platform. On that score, China is so far ahead of India that they didn’t even announce their anti-satellite test, until the US Department of Defense confirmed it in 2007.
The author is a Congress leader and Editor-in-Chief of Defence & Security Alert.
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