Why Mission Shakti may start a space tiff

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address on March 27, 2019 began with the declaration that India had “established itself as a global space power.” This statement was premised on the notion that an anti-satellite (ASAT) test was “necessary” to demonstrate India’s status as a space-faring nation.

However, India has been internationally recognised for its space-faring prowess for decades, given its unique ability to manufacture innovative technology at economical rates evidenced by the increasing use of Indian launch services by foreign nations.

Some base this argument of ‘necessity’ on the need to prove Indian military capabilities. This, too, is untenable, as most space technology is dual-use, serving both military and civilian functions — such as space technology for surveillance and reconnaissance purposes.

The ASAT technology, on the contrary, was purely offensive in nature. It used “kinetic kill” technology, which employs the kinetic energy of the projectile to strike a target at high speeds and is solely intended to disrupt the functions of another space object (such as a satellite), or worse, destroy it entirely. India was not under any immediate threat, nor did the state have any urgency to exhibit offensive capabilities — except perhaps, the then upcoming elections.

Yet,Modi was quick to reassure that India’s ASAT test “is not directed against anyone” and that “India has always been opposed to the weaponisation of space and an arms race in outer space…today’s test does not violate any international law or treaty obligation to which India is a party.”

Legal perspective

This conclusion on the legality of India’s ASAT test is inaccurate, as there is no global consensus on the status of ASAT weapons. Weapons in outer space can be broadly classified into two categories: nuclear and non-nuclear. Non-nuclear space weapons can be further classified into kinetic weapons and non-kinetic.

A significant risk of ASATs is that their use would likely lead to indiscriminate consequences, as rendering the target temporarily or permanently dysfunctional may impact other objects in the vicinity. These include those belonging to the state that launched the ASAT. Naturally, the question that arises is, why is the law unclear about the use of such a destructive weapon?

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