Editorial | India’s Anti-satellite Comments Illustrate Underlying Reality

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The Indian government’s assertion that it is developing anti-satellite technology didn’t trigger much international furor but certainly raised eyebrows among those whose job is to pay attention to such things. In a televised press briefing Jan. 3 during the 97th Indian Science Congress in Thiruvananthapuram, India, V.K. Saraswat, director of India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation, said work is under way on a kill vehicle capable of destroying satellites as part of the nation’s missile defense program, and that lasers would be developed for spacecraft-targeting purposes. He emphasized, however, that while India plans to lay the technical groundwork over the next several years for fielding an anti-satellite weapon, it will not actually build and test such a device until the country needs it.

Arms control advocates were nonetheless troubled by the revelation, citing it as evidence that the danger of proliferation in space weaponry is real and growing. Conventional wisdom holds that Mr. Saraswat’s remarks were directed at China, India’s longtime rival, which like India has a robust space program and which successfully tested a destructive anti-satellite weapon three years ago. Coincidentally or not, China announced Jan. 11 it had successfully tested a ground-based missile defense system, the technology and hardware for which are readily adaptable to an anti-satellite role.

From a U.S. perspective, the timing is both odd and unfortunate. Indo-U.S. cooperation in space has been minimal over the years for a number of reasons, most prominently India’s 1998 nuclear tests. A post-Sept. 11, 2001, initiative to improve high-tech ties between the two nations has progressed at a snail’s pace. But more-recent events have generated some positive momentum: NASA provided scientific instruments, some featuring fairly sensitive technologies, for India’s Chandrayaan-1 lunar orbiter, which launched in late 2008, and the two sides in July signed a technical safeguards agreement permitting U.S. civil space hardware to routinely fly on Indian rockets. Washington and New Delhi also have been actively discussing India’s entry into the commercial launch market, where many, if not most, of the payloads are subject to U.S. technology export restrictions. And on Nov. 24, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and U.S. President Barack Obama agreed to expand cooperation in space, among other areas, during Mr. Singh’s state visit to Washington.

Acknowledging anti-satellite ambitions wouldn’t seem the best way to advance the cause of cooperation, from which India stands to benefit. But India’s nuclear program attests to New Delhi’s longstanding determination to develop the full range of military capabilities, including those that others, its neighbors in particular, view as threatening, regardless of the diplomatic consequences. Besides, as Indian officials may well have noted, international outrage at China’s anti-satellite test — debris from which will pose a hazard in a heavily used belt of Earth orbit for years to come — didn’t last very long: Just before meeting with Mr. Singh in Washington, Mr. Obama visited Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing, where the two announced that the heads of the U.S. and Chinese space agencies would exchange visits in the coming year.

While Mr. Saraswat’s remarks can legitimately be seen as an unnecessary and unhelpful provocation, in a sense he was merely pointing out the reality that missile defense and anti-satellite technology are often interchangeable, if not indistinguishable. The United States clearly demonstrated this in early 2008 when it downed one of its own satellites — a classified craft that had failed and was tumbling out of control — using its Aegis sea-based missile defense interceptor.

It is not realistic to expect India — which has two nuclear-armed and potentially hostile neighbors in China and Pakistan — to abandon missile defense. Given that, the international spacefaring community has little choice but to accept the fact India and a growing list of countries developing missile interceptors — Israel comes to mind — will have what one arms control advocate describes as a latent anti-satellite capability. This illustrates once again the fundamental problem in attempting to negotiate an international ban on space weapons, as China and Russia have occasionally called for and which the Obama administration endorsed last year.

What the international community — in particular the United States, Europe and perhaps Russia — can and should do is make crystal clear that there will be consequences should India decide to go through with a full-blown test of its anti-satellite capability a few years from now. Such an event not only would inflame tensions and encourage others to conduct similar tests, but also would create more dangerous clutter in Earth orbit. Meanwhile, spacefaring nations need to get serious about negotiating a set of operating guidelines designed to minimize the chances of misunderstandings and other incidents that could trigger more proliferation and testing of anti-satellite weapons. The discussions should be extended to cover missile defense testing given its potential to contribute to the problem.