India’s ASAT Test: A False Sense of Prestige


BY  Senator Sehar Kamran

“Unchecked ‘weaponization of outer space’ and ‘prestige’ led space arms race has the potential to trigger lethal ‘cascading effects’ for international peace and stability.”Outer space is ‘global commons’ and ‘common heritage’ for all mankind. It has a tremendous amount of significance for socioeconomic development. According to the Bank of America, the current space market is valued at roughly $350 billion and will continue to grow to reach roughly $2.7 trillion within the next three decades.

Countries and commercial entities are investing in telecommunication, earth observation, and orbital manufacturing and private habitat and it will further develop and increase the share of space economy in the future. Apart from civilian and peaceful use of space, high tech advanced countries are using the space for military purposes, and hence their defensive and offensive military activities have the spectre of the arms race in the outer space. That in turn, will further increase the potentially ruinous consequences by creating the space debris and risking the relative stability in the outer space.

The issue of prevention of arms race in the outer space (PAROS) has been on the agenda item of the Conference of Disarmament (CD) but up till now, no substantive outcome or legally binding guidelines have emerged.

On 27 March 2019, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced in a national address that India carried out maiden anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon test for the first time. According to India’s DRDO press statement, the ‘Mission Shakti’ took three minutes to destroy the intended target i.e. satellite at an altitude of 300 km, in low earth orbit (LEO). With this test, India joined the league of three nations namely USA, Russia and China, who already demonstrated that capability in the past.

India’s ASAT test once again highlighted the ineffectiveness of international regimes governing the activities of outer space and failure to formulate the binding rules to regulate countries space endeavours. Moreover, the absence of ‘no rules’ opens a window for states to exploit these legal loopholes for their geopolitical and geostrategic considerations while threatening the global prosperity on one hand and setting of a precedent for other states to follow suit. Unchecked ‘weaponization of outer space’ and ‘prestige’ led space arms race has the potential to trigger lethal ‘cascading effects’ for international peace and stability.

Pakistan condemned the Indian ASAT test and according to Foreign Office press statement “Pakistan remains a strong proponent of non-militarization of outer space.” Furthermore, it stated that it’s a “matter of grave concern for the international community not only in terms of generation of space debris but also because of its ramifications for long term sustainability of peaceful space activities. And if these moves were unchecked, it could pose serious consequences for “global and regional peace, stability and security.”

In the context of the current state of play in South Asia, where strategic stability is under tremendous pressure due to Modi’s irrational and delusional blunders, since 14 February 2019, the threat of ‘nuclear nightmare’ has been looming large on the horizon and currently, there is no hope that the security situation will be diffused till the conclusion of Indian ‘General Elections’ in May 2019. According to Indian domestic political analysts, the primary purpose behind the ‘Balakot Misadventure’ and ‘ASAT test’ was to woo its electorates to win the elections; and for this very purpose, Narendra Modi could go at any length.

The recent statement of Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi added further context to that premise. He said “India is planning a new attack on Pakistan… this could take place between April 16 and 20,” and it is the “responsibility of the international community” to shun their silence for the larger stability of the region.

Given post-Balakot domestic and international scrutiny of India’s Ministry of External Affairs and Indian Airforce false narrative regarding the tally of casualties of alleged militants in Balakot and downing of F16 jets, subsequent international reports regarding Indian claims tell different story and for instance, the ‘Foreign Policy’ magazine’s exclusive report on ‘F16 Controversy’ further embarrassed the Indian air force and pushed PM Modi into tight spot. According to Lara Seligman, “two senior U.S. defense officials with direct knowledge of the situation told Foreign Policy that U.S. personnel recently counted Islamabad’s F-16s and found none missing.”

Amidst increasing domestic criticism, Indian Air Vice Marshal R.G.K Kapoor held a press conference and refuted the assertion of FP story. Air Vice Marshal Kapoor stated that India has “irrefutable evidence” that Indian jet downed Pakistani F-16 in a dogfight. Interestingly, in his concluding remarks, he said that IAF cannot provide more information to the public due to “security and confidentiality concerns.” That essentially means that there exists no such information and if it had, India would have made it public to embarrass Pakistan.

In a quid pro quo, DG ISPR Major General Asif Ghafoor while commenting on Indian Air Vice Marshal’s presser said that “repetitions do not make [the] truth a lie” and fact is that PAF shot down two IAF jets, wreckage [has been] seen on the ground by all.” Likewise, MIT Assistant Professor, Vipin Narang said that “it looks worse and worse for the Indians,” and it seems India “failed to impose significant costs on Pakistan, [instead] lost a plane and a helicopter of its own in the process.”

That said, India’s testing of ASAT capability again perceived as an attempt of face-saving by the Modi government on one hand and divert the ‘microscopic’ scrutiny on the other.  However, the abrupt response from NASA administration was a setback as it briefly halted working with ISRO after the Indian ASAT test. The NASA administration not only visualizes the test from the strategic stability perspective but also as a threat to the concept of space as global commons.

In the background of these dangerous developments in the region, it appears that Indian government narrative is not finding traction in national and international level. Also, it remains to be seen how testing an ASAT capability would elevate the socioeconomic status of a country whose seventy-five percent of population is living under the abject poverty, 200 million people don’t have sufficient access to food and 25 percent children do not have access to education.

(Senator Sehar Kamran is the President of Centre for Pakistan and Gulf Studies (CPGS) and member of the Senate Forum for Policy Research (SFPR). She has also served as a member Senate of Pakistan for the term 2012-2018)