Russia carried out a Direct-Ascent Anti-Satellite Test in November after it shot down an old satellite called Cosmos 1408 in the Lower Earth Orbit at an altitude of 480 kilometres. The satellite was itself an ordinary and non-operational reconnaissance satellite that was launched in 1982. However, the test was remarkable because of the consequences. According to the US Space Command, it generated more than 1,500 piece of large space debris and several hundreds of thousands of smaller orbital debris. This was also Russia’s first ever Direct-Ascent Anti-Satellite Test or DA-ASAT. And by conducting it, Russia became the fourth country – after China, the US and India – to have deployed missiles against a satellite target in space.
The biggest impact of this test? Raising doubts about sustainability in space.
Why Russia did it now
The presence of innumerable space debris in the Lower Earth Orbit (LEO) represents a growing threat to the satellites that operate in the same orbit as well, due to the increasing possibility of collision. What makes the Russian test particularly noteworthy is the fact the defunct satellite was destroyed at a considerably higher altitude when compared to other DA-ASAT tests. And this could have been even higher since the missile used to intercept the Cosmos 1408satellite – the PL 19 Nudol – is designed to reach up to an altitude of approximately 850 kms. The higher the altitude, the more the likelihood that the debris will persist longer in space, thereby possibly heightening the concerns about danger from such long-lasting space debris. Making matters worse is the fact that the Cosmos 1408 satellite was a particularly hefty satellite, weighing around 1,750 kilograms.
Understandably, condemnation from other countries was swift and immediate. The US government called the test “dangerous and irresponsible”. Even though the US itself had conducted a DA-ASAT test in 2008, reaction against the same was considerably muted since the altitude at which that test was conducted was approximately 250 kms and most of the debris were reportedly burned when making its way through the atmosphere. The test was, therefore, considerably spotless when compared to the Russian one.
But why do the test at all? And why do it now? Reaction from experts seem to point to the Russian desirability of averting a nuclear first strike by adversarial countries. Traditionally, shooting down targets, such as nuclear warheads may require intercontinental ballistic missiles – that are capable of reaching even higher altitudes. However, as per international conventions, if this were to happen, this would trigger the obligation on the country that uses such missiles, to warn other countries about their use. The DA-ASAT test skirted that possibility.
Even if we assume that the Russian DA-ASAT test was possibly to target ‘enemy warheads’ at distances that were farther away, why conduct the test now? And especially when Russia, together with China, has been demanding a treaty that prohibits the use of weapons in space? The answer may be apparent from the way Russia has gone about demanding this treaty. While Russia has been insistent that any ban on weapons should be regarding weapons used in outer space (and not ground-based weapons), its own proposal has not said anything about a larger ban on DA-ASAT testing – something against which there is increasing momentum now. Indeed, in September 2021, a bevy of academics and outer space experts had petitioned the UN General Assembly President to consider a DA-ASAT ban treaty. Also, the UN has an upcoming Summit for the Future in 2023 in preparation of which a Common Agenda report was released in September 2021. The Common Agenda report states that it seeks “better management of critical global commons, and global public goods that deliver equitably and sustainably for all”. The report even singles out outer space matters as one of the six areas that are a part of the common agenda.
Therefore, successfully testing the PL 19 Nudol missile means that Russia may no longer have to worry in case the UN Summit leads to an outright prohibition – due to their DA-ASAT test having already been conducted.
Preserving a global common good
So where do we go from here? Is international cooperation in outer space matters fraught with conflict with each spacefaring nation trying to chart its own course? In this regard, a reassuring lesson can be learnt from the most-successful international cooperation endeavour among spacefaring nations currently – the International Space Station (ISS). The ISS is by far the most visible form of a multilateral framework in outer space. NASA even calls it “the most politically complex space exploration program ever undertaken”.
However, there are doubts about continued Russian participation in the ISS. Furthermore, while NASA argues that the ISS is going to be a viable space station till 2028, current framework between the partner countries behind the ISS envisions it being operated till 2024. In the meantime, China has announced its plans to have its very own space station, the Tiangong space station, by 2022. The eventual retiring of the ISS without a replacement would mean that there would be a considerable gap period during which there would be no commercial crew or commercial cargo being ferried to the ISS. This would have repercussions in terms of losing the technical experience that has already been amassed with respect to commercial supply and re-supply missions to the ISS. The significance of a space station is not lost on India as well, with ISRO Chairperson K. Sivan having announced in June 2019 that ISRO eventually plans to have a separate space station of its own.
Therefore, establishing consensus even on an undertaking as multilateral as the ISS is complicated. Perhaps it is time to consider whether incremental steps towards cooperation can be taken. For this, we can look at the recent DA-ASAT test and consider whether agreements between spacefaring nations regarding space situational awareness (SSA) can be executed. While a moratorium on further testing of DA-ASAT weapons may take time, there is no reason why in the meantime countries cannot start off with exchanging data/services on tracking debris in outer space. This would go a long way in ensuring sustainability in outer space and help preserve a global common good.
This article is part of a series examining the relationship between the global and the local, in partnership with Carnegie India, leading up to its Global Technology Summit 2021 (14th-16th December 2021). Click here to register.
Konark Bhandari is an associate fellow at Carnegie India. He tweets @KonarkBhandari. Views are personal.