Bharath Gopalaswamy and Subrata Ghoshroy

In February the U.S. military destroyed a defunct and out-of-control spy satellite, USA 193, with a specially designed SM-3 ballistic missile with pin-point accuracy. The United States described this event as an effort to get rid of the huge amount of toxic hydrazine fuel on the satellite that was heading for the Earth and would cause unexpected health hazard to humans.


However, it would be really nave to not acknowledge the feat that the U.S. military has been able to accomplish; it also would be nave to not acknowledge that the United States valued the political impacts of the test more than its technological feat alone. It must be pointed out that United States had tested a similar anti-satellite (A-Sat) weapon in 1985 against a satellite in an even higher orbit by firing an interceptor from an F-15 fighter aircraft. With this strike, the United States clearly has demonstrated its technical ability to field anti-satellite weapons. The Pentagon has strenuously denied that the test had anything to do with A-Sat weapons primarily because the altitude of interception was too low for any orbiting satellite. The intercept took place at an altitude of at least 320 kilometers lower than necessary to demonstrate a full-up A-Sat capability. This is true, but on the other hand the velocity of the satellite was much higher, making the intercept more difficult.


In fact, the test was a twofer. The SM-3 interceptor, which is part of the Aegis missile defense system, has been used for the first time to shoot down a satellite. This intercept was made by engaging the target, which was moving at 27,200 kilometers

per hour.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates was quick to state after the successful interception that the “missile defense system works.” With this test the Department of Defense (DoD) has achieved an impressive intercept success rate with 34 out of 42 since 2001, and 10 out of 10 in 2007. Thus, this test strengthens the position of the advocates of the missile defense system in the U.S. administration, which already has invested more than $57 billion in developing it. This test proved that the United States is capable of hitting objects at very high velocities when it matters the most – and that with extreme pin-point accuracy.


China has asked the United States
to share data about the satellite shootdown, and its reaction has not been surprising. It must be pointed out that this test
was carried out just days after Russia and China proposed a treaty banning weapons in space. While the timing might have been purely coincidental,
its significance could not be overstated.
By shooting down this satellite, the
United States has brazenly asserted that it has the right to weaponize space all the while opposing any international measures restricting it.
The debate over this event
also has been complicated by the ongoing controversy
about the proposed U.S. missile defense system in Eastern Europe. The
United States perceives
that the treaty banning weapons in space is primarily aimed at curbing the U.S. military technology and
gives the provision to Russia and China to attack U.S. satellites with ground-based missiles or perhaps high-power lasers.


China also conducted an A-Sat test in January 2007, when it struck a Chinese FY-1 weather satellite in low Earth orbit (LEO). The A-Sat’s kill vehicle most likely was boosted by a two-stage mobile launcher based on a DF-21 medium-range ballistic missile. This successful test, which was carried out at twice the altitude of the U.S. interception, demonstrates the Chinese capability to threaten a number of U.S. satellites in LEO, which are used primarily for reconnaissance, electronic surveillance, remote sensing and other military applications. It also signifies that the U.S. technological and military monopoly of outer space is not likely to last long.


The Chinese and the American tests clearly have opened the door to other spacefaring countries, who might feel that they need to develop and perhaps even demonstrate such technology to negate space assets of others with hostile intentions perceived or otherwise.


India, Iran and Israel fall into this category. India’s space program is quite developed and there have been hints that India wishes to integrate space in its military affairs, which is an unprecedented departure from its decade’s old policy of using space only for development. A recent statement by India’s Minister of State for Science and Technology confirmed that view when he said: “India has expressed its opposition to weaponization of space, but the way the geopolitical situation is evolving, I think it would be foolish if we do not develop a capability.”


also recently has launched an Israeli spy satellite Techsar-1, which has created friction with Iran because Israel has openly admitted that it wants to spy on Iran’s nuclear activities and on Syria. Although Iran’s space program is in its infancy, it has a significant ballistic missile program that
can allow it to develop an A-Sat
capability, although U.N. sanctions on its nuclear program that
limits dual-use items
would make it challenging.

However, India has demonstrated that it can defy sanctions and indigenously develop seeker technology essential for an A-Sat system. It is doubtful whether China will use its A-Sat capability, which currently can be used only to hit LEO satellites, against India. Even though the Indian remote sensing series of satellites fall into this zone, they may not be a lucrative target since they primarily are concerned with agriculture. The satellites that can be future targets are the Cartosat and the Technology Experiment Satellite.


Pakistan also could benefit from Chinese space technology and this has strategic implications for India. So, the Indian space program appears to have reached a crossroads. India plans to spend $3.4 billion to land a man on the Moon by 2020. It has its first lunar orbiter scheduled for 2008, first unmanned lunar landing for 2010, and a first manned spaceflight for 2014. These kind of ambitious missions could be a priority for China, which has met its minimum security needs and has an impressive $1 trillion in the world’s largest foreign-exchange board.


However, for a country like India, these ambitions are still extravagant considering
it still has to rely on the European Space Agency’s Ariane launcher to launch its telecommunication satellites.
If it were to marshal unwavering political will, India could, with its latent capabilities, build an ICBM in a crash program
with half the lunar-project budget and well before an Indian spacecraft lands an astronaut on the
Moon. Hence, it is no wonder that India is rethinking
its space policy priorities
after the U.S. test.


Satellite development efforts that are under way in the Middle East nations of Saudi-Arabia, Egypt and Iran could be per
ceived by Israel as hostile
. Furthermore, Israeli experts
also have argued that Israeli A-Sat
capabilities will be necessary to defend the growing number of imaging as well as military communications satellites that Israel plans to deploy over the next couple of decades. It also must be
noted that Israel not only considers
the spy satellite developments in the region as hostile, but also the proliferation of widely available and increasingly capable commercial remote sensing capabilities in the region
. Israel also fears a nuclear-capable Iran, with the deployment of a high-resolution remote sensing satellite and a highly accurate ballistic missile capability giving them a very credible first-strike capability. Israel neither denies, no admits, its nuclear weapon capability.
also is one of the very few nations in the world that routinely abstains from voting for a resolution that bans weapons in space.

There is currently no ban on attacking satellites in space. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty
prohibits only placement of nuclear weapons on celestial bodies. However, the
United States under
President George W. Bush
has repeatedly asserted that there is no potential arms race in space and hence no need to have a new treaty – the Outer Space Treaty
is adequate.
But recent events have brought into sharp relief the fallacy of such reasoning.

The anti-satellite tests, no matter how nuanced, have demonstrated once again the fragility of satellites and that nobody has a monopoly in such technology.


Bharath Gopalaswamy is a postdoctoral associate at Peace Studies Program, Cornell University. Subrata Ghoshroy directs a project on South Asian security at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was until recently a Senior Defense Analyst at the U.S. Government Accountability Office.