India is justifiably proud of Mangalyaan and its progress. This signifies the progress ISRO has made in space technology. Very recently, India had the relative satisfaction of being able to prevent massive casualty in Orissa by round-the-clock monitoring of the powerful cyclone Phailin, which was possible by India’s progress in space technology. However, India can not afford to rest of her laurels.
I express my gratitude to Air Marshal Narayan Menon’s excellent article ‘Weaponisation of Space’ in Indian Defence Review, for the argument that I will present below.
The USA, Russia and China are at least very close to weaponizing outer space, if they have not done it already. In the year 1967, UN initiatives, supported by key players, had resulted into the landmark Outer Space Treaty (OST). This prohibits weaponisation of outer space. A clear differentiation needs to be made between militarisation and weaponisation of outer space. Outer space was militarised the moment the first communication satellite was launched. A communication satellite can be used both for civilian and military purpose. Weaponisation of outer space alludes to placing weapons in space that can attack targets on earth or in space. This is what is banned in OST. India had signed and ratified OST. But, so did the USA, Russia and China. It can not be said with certainty that the USA, Russia and China have weaponised outer space, presence of weapons in outer space can not yet be established. However, we know that the USA, Russia and China have all conducted Anti-Satellite test (ASAT). This means that these countries can destroy satellites in outer space. This also means they may have mastered the technology to destroy targets on earth, from outer space. India claims that the ISRO scientists have ‘all the building blocks’ of ASAT, but India has not tested this yet. India’s track record of international treaty obligations is exemplary. India has never signed NPT or CTBT, and India became nuclear power. However, India has signed anti-chemical-weapons convention, and India fully complies with it. India fully discharges her responsibilities towards water-sharing treaties. These are just examples. The same can not be said about the USA, Russia and China. They are signatories of anti-chemical-weapons convention, but still posses chemical weapons. India will most probably follow her treaty obligations and not weaponize outer space. The same confidence can not be expressed about the USA, Russia and China.
Consider the impact of Chinese destruction of Indian communication or weather-monitoring satellites. This alone is spine-chilling. India must debate whether we are prepared to weaponise outer space within a short turnaround time, should the situation so warrant. Treaty obligations can not be held up to restrict India alone, if risk to India’s security increases due to weaponisation of outer space.
Even on the subject of completely peaceful use of space technology, India must buckle up. At present, India has significant dependency on the GPS system of the USA. India is just building her INRSS (Indian Regional Navigational Satellite System), July 1st 2013 saw the launch of the first satellite under this program. This is completely for peaceful use. It is important to note that China’s corresponding system will not only be used by Chinese PLA, but also by Pakistan Army. Such ‘all-weather-friendship’ is not something for India to ignore.
Progress on space technology must be monitored not only by the executive, but by parliament, media and common Indians too. Mangalyaan is good news. However, a lot more must be done, and not only at the level of technology, but first at the level of political leadership, to build the right strategy.