Some nationalists would like to mark 27 March 2019 as the day India showed the world what it could do in case a war were to go extra-terrestrial. It’s the day that the country conducted “Mission Shakti" by testing an anti-satellite missile (A-SAT) for a precision strike. An orbiter called Microsat-R, which was moving around the globe some 300km above sea level and, that too, at an estimated 27,000kmph, was shot mid-orbit by a rocket developed under the Manmohan Singh government and okayed for a live test later by the Narendra Modi regime. It is no coincidence that the name of the exercise recalls India’s 1998 Pokhran tests of nuclear devices, termed “Operation Shakti". There are indeed some parallels, even if not of the same significance. Defence analysts speak of a triad of air, land and sea warfare capability. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi has declared, Indian prowess now extends far beyond. Espionage satellites could be struck down if hostilities break out. Spying could thus be deterred. Long-haul nukes could perhaps be intercepted as well, but it would be a folly to see this technology as a nuclear shield. An incoming nuke could be neutralized high above the earth, but an A-SAT is helpless against a weapon of mass destruction fired from a low altitude. In that sense, the test doesn’t do very much to safeguard the country.
The timing of the test raises questions of its own. The project began in 2010, the capability was reportedly achieved by 2012, and although the government insists that the go-ahead was given several years ago, Mission Shakti comes suspiciously close to this year’s general elections. It fits in with the ruling party’s tough-on-security posture and zest for hyperbolic self-proclamations. Few are surprised that the Prime Minister addressed the nation live to announce it, an act now under a cloud for a possible violation of the Model Code of Conduct. Given the high-voltage rhetoric that followed India’s response to the Pulwama terror attack, people are likely to see it as part of the same story.
Domestic obsessions apart, the implications could reach far beyond this subcontinent. As a spacefarer, India has a record of allegiance to various multilateral conventions aimed at barring outer space to all exploitation, except for peaceful purposes. The country adheres to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, participates in Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination activities to keep the great yonder clear of debris, and supports the UN General Assembly resolution 69/32 on “No First Placement of Weapons in Outer Space". Whether India intends to abide by these might now come under doubt globally. New Delhi could face international pressure to sign a new treaty against space weaponization. Some argue that Wednesday’s success will grant India a voice in framing new rules to govern what can and cannot be placed in space. This may or may not be so. What’s clear is that our planet must reckon with the spectre of weapons in orbit around it. If “Star Wars" jingoism of the Indian variety sets off a global arms race in space, we will have to share the blame for an unsafe world.