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By William Tucker
Columnist, In Homeland Security
On March 27, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that his nation had successfully tested an anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) via a missile launch earlier that day. Modi would go on to claim that the success of the test made India a “space power.”
India is now only the fourth country to ever launch an ASAT weapon.
Dubbed “Mission Shakti” by India’s Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO), the ASAT struck an Indian target satellite in low earth orbit. The test produced a large debris field that Indian scientists claim will dissipate over the next few weeks, although NASA, among others, disputes India’s claims about the degradation of the debris field.
NASA Chief Jim Bridenstine said the risk to the International Space Station had increased 44% and the agency was now tracking over 400 pieces of debris with 24 pieces labeled a risk to the ISS. As he spoke about the heightened risk, Bridenstine “also emphasized that both the space station and the astronauts aboard it are safe. The station can be maneuvered out of harm’s way if needed, he added,” according to a National Public Radio report.
Addressing NASA employees, Bridenstine said, “That is a terrible, terrible thing, to create an event that sends debris in an apogee that goes above the International Space Station. And that kind of activity is not compatible with the future of human spaceflight that we need to see have happen.”
NASA has an aggressive road map to return astronauts to the moon and a new debris field can play havoc with planned launches. Indeed, debris from a 2007 Chinese ASAT test is still in orbit and is being tracked by NASA.
The Purpose of ASAT Capability
The rationale for possessing anti-satellite capabilities gives India the ability to disrupt enemy tracking, targeting, intelligence gathering and communications during a potential conflict.
Anti-satellite capabilities have been included in military planning since the Cold War. For instance, when the Soviet Union successfully placed its Sputnik satellite in orbit in 1957, the U.S. launched the first successful ASAT in 1959. Some military planners in the U.S. and in the former Soviet Union considered detonating a nuclear warhead in low earth orbit to jeopardize all space-based objects near the explosion – should the targeting of specific satellites fail in wartime.
In Addition to ASATs, Other Methods Exist to Disrupt Enemy Satellite Capabilities
In the case of the Indian test, a kinetic ASAT struck the target satellite, but there are other methods for disrupting enemy satellite capabilities. Other types of ASAT weapons include the use of a satellite to collide with an adversary’s satellite or a military force might use powerful lasers to disrupt enemy satellite data collection.
As noted, the debris field created by kinetic weapons, or the collision of space-based objects, increases the amount of space junk in low earth orbit. That can disrupt other satellites as a secondary effect. In 2013, a Russian satellite was destroyed by debris from a Chinese ASAT test in 2007.
The Continued Weaponization of Space
The militarization, or weaponization, of space is traditionally defined as placing munitions or offensive weapons in earth orbit, but that definition is too narrow. Space is a warfighting domain in its own right, and modern militaries and weapon systems are dependent in some fashion on space-based systems for guidance and communications. This means, in essence, that space is already militarized and nations such as India are taking the initiative to target space-based systems that could harm them in future conflicts.
For India, the ASAT test is but one step toward developing a comprehensive strategy to deal with modern threats. India may not test another kinetic ASAT, but it will test other methods to disrupt enemy space-based systems. India may not yet be a space power as Modi has claimed, but it is certainly heading in that direction.