Last week, the world was up-in-arms over the fact that democratic India, one of the world’s leading economies with nuclear arms, launched an anti-satellite test. Codenamed “Mission Shakti” by India’s military, the test of their anti-satellite capability was a resounding success: the target was a derelict Indian weather satellite in low-Earth orbit (LEO). By launching a missile at the dead weather satellite, India was sending an unmistakable signal to the world that it was a major power and not to be messed with.
Presently, India is experiencing what some might call a quasi-war with its Muslim-majority neighbor of Pakistan and the tensions between India’s other major neighbor, China, have long been an issue. While Pakistan does not possess anywhere near the same amount of space capabilities that India does, China is in many respects farther ahead of India in space. So, with the recent success of Mission Shakti, India sent a message that it possesses a superiority in space that Pakistan lacks, and it let the Chinese know that India was not going to cede space to them.
It’s strange that the anti-satellite test caused such consternation among America’s elite. Yes, the test created a great deal of debris in orbit. The more debris that is created in orbit, the greater the danger to other satellite constellations and potentially manned spacecraft that debris cloud poses. Since the space around Earth is so cluttered with satellites and debris from previous space missions, the concern is that an irresponsible anti-satellite weapons test, such as the kind that the Indians engaged in, will have unforeseen consequences for the rest of humanity. But India’s test is in keeping with human nature (which is flawed but fixed). Such a move should have been anticipated by the so-called “elite” in Washington.
The Kessler Syndrome
In 1978, NASA scientist Donald J. Kessler posited the notion that orbital debris could reach such a density that collisions between objects could cause a cascade that only increases the probability of more collisions. And, since space is a vacuum, once an object gains momentum it is unlikely to stop until it crashes into a nearby object. This was the basis of the 2013 hit film, Gravity, starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock.
If a sufficient explosion were to occur near such a dense cloud of manmade debris in orbit, the concern is that the ricocheting, hyper-velocity debris would inevitably crash into sensitive satellite constellations — or even ultimately the International Space Station — and cause irreparable damage. Yet, for all of the handwringing over the Indian test, few seem to acknowledge that there was little blowback from that test. Other space experts lamented the fact that, clearly, the world was entering into a new arms race in space. With each castigation of democratic India, though, few acknowledged that the world has been in an arms race in space since at least 2007, when China suddenly conducted an anti-satellite weapons test of their own. And, the debris field that China created in orbit from that test remains the largest manmade debris field in orbit in history. What’s more, unlike the Indian anti-satellite test, the Chinese test was clearly intended for the United States.
China, Not India, Is the Irresponsible Space Actor
More menacingly, since the Chinese did their reckless anti-satellite weapons test in 2007, they’ve expanded their offensive space capabilities and developed doctrines of using space as another warfighting domain. Shortly after their test, China also tested a laser that was capable of blinding American surveillance satellites. Brian G. Chow, a space warfare expert, has written that China has invested heavily in what he has called, “space stalkers.” These are small satellites that are hard to track and are designed to tailgate behind sensitive American satellites in orbit, latch onto the American satellites, and then either damage those satellites or simply push them out of their orbit. In so doing, the United States would lose a key capability along with losing whatever satellite was targeted. At every turn of its development, China’s space program has had an overt military aim: to empower China while being able to deny the United States access to the essential strategic domain — the ultimate high ground — of space.
Utopian space policymakers in the United States are upset that India’s anti-satellite test has ushered in an arms race. They are wrong. If anything, India’s recent anti-satellite test is a wake-up call for Washington to start taking space more seriously. The arms race began in 2007 and it was initiated by the People’s Republic of China. India joining this new space arms race is a good thing. Together, the United States and India can counter the rising threat of China in space. Our two countries can bring their considerable resources to bear to prevent the Chinese from monopolizing space.
For all of their rhetoric about the importance of space, the Trump Administration has yet to overcome the bureaucratic inertia inherent within the Department of Defense to fully realize an effective national security space policy. Rather than whine about the Indian’s testing anti-satellite weapons, Washington must invest in creating its own suite of offensive systems for space. Instead of complaining about the space debris human activity is creating in orbit, the United States should take a page from China’s playbook and attempt to develop and deploy a laser that can push the debris out of the way. For too long utopian thinking has pervaded America’s space policy and it has made us weaker and allowed for our enemies to gain an advantage over us.
India’s anti-satellite weapons test should be a wake-up call for Washington: great power politics is here, and the next great arms race is in space… and the United States is behind.
Brandon J. Weichert can be reached via Twitter @WeTheBrandon.
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