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The secret space race- Why India’s timing of the ASAT tests were of utmost importance

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On 27th March 2019, India test fired its indigenously developed anti-satellite (ASAT) missiles successfully by destroying a low orbiting satellite, thus entering an elite group of countries who possess the ability to destroy satellites that are deployed in space. While in India, most of the immediate reactions had a distinct political tone and revolved around the timing of the tests: Why did the government choose to test the ASAT missile now, with elections right around the corner? Was it merely fireworks to kickstart the election season? Why was it important for the Prime Minister of India to address the nation?

The answers to the questions lie outside India, in events that were unfolding over the past weekend in Geneva, Switzerland. Beginning on 18th March, a week long closed door meeting was hosted by the United Nations between diplomats and experts from 25 nations, aimed at bringing into force an international space non-proliferation law that given the sensitive nature of space, would potentially outlaw countries from building their own anti-satellite technology, much along the lines of the nuclear non-proliferation treaties (NPT) that was signed first in 1968. This law would essentially mean that India could not test its ASAT missiles on its own, and instead would have to go through a process similar to Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) which exists for acquiring nuclear technology. Only the United States of America, Russia, China and perhaps few other countries would be allowed to possess these missiles and the transfer the technology to other countries would involve complex international laws intended to prevent proliferation of the technology.

During the meeting held in Geneva, the Space’s Big 3 – USA, Russia and China – countries which already possess ASAT technology were at logger heads with the European Union over the usage of this new age technology, with much of the debates ranging around the space debris left behind after the destruction of satellites, and how the debris would interfere with other objects in space. The European Union representatives had maintained that the tests conducted by the Space’s Big 3 already resulted in significant debris, and none of the Big 3 showed interest in resolving the space debris problem. Instead they were merely interested in testing their missiles further.

The United States under the Trump administration has made no secret of its ambition to develop advanced space weapons. Apart from possessing ASAT missiles, the Pentagon is reportedly studying particle beam and laser gun based space weapons. Trump has publicly declared space to be a “war-fighting domain” and has called for creating a military branch devoted to space. Beijing for its part has blamed USA for fostering a space race and create a competition to develop advanced weapons, while maintaining that China does not consider space as a frontier for war.

It is in this context that India’s successful ASAT test, which was timed to perfection and right on the last day of the UN hosted meeting in Geneva, assumes much greater importance than what is being assigned to it. By deploying ASAT missiles, India announced its arrival in the space race with a bang right at the time when the existing powers were looking to close the door. From not being in the picture at all, with one swift move India became part of the select few nations who possessed this technology. The Big – 4, as it stands now.

By acquiring indigenously developed technology before the space NPT treaty comes into effect, India has established itself as a key player in the space arms race. Any space NPT treaty cannot be signed without making India a key party to the discussion. This marks a strategic shift in India’s role in space technology, unlike the Nuclear NPT treaty where India was excluded from the elite nuclear group after 1974, and was denied access to nuclear technology by the western world in an effort to coerce India to sign the nuclear NPT treaty. Even today, as a non signatory to the nuclear NPT, India has to negotiate and sign agreements with individual countries to import and build nuclear reactors for its domestic power requirements.

In contrast, by showcasing its prowess in space technology, India has established its ambition to be a key player in this emerging race. Post India’s ASAT test, both Russia and USA have more or less appreciated India’s entry, even suggesting India can work with the other 3 countries towards achieving similar goals. Considering the implications of the fast changing global space race, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement that “India stands tall as a space power” marked India’s official entry into the latest technology race among big industrial nations, the fruits of which will be tasted by India in the decades to come.

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