Mission Shakti: Did the 'chowkidar' of space actually put India in danger?

If Pokhran is anything to go by, Pakistan may soon want to test their own ASAT, as they did two weeks after India's nuclear tests. Wouldn't that turn space into the next battleground?

 |  8-minute read |   03-04-2019
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"There is a real danger that developing nations may adopt a space programme largely for the glamour, devoting resources not through a recognition of the values of which we are talking about here, but from a desire to create a sham image nationally and internationally." 

— Vikram Sarabhai.

The BJP is in full form and the Congress — screaming hoarse on issues like the economy, lack of transparency and achievement and their promise of minimum income guarantee — is, frankly, not cutting the mustard. 

In the war of optics, the BJP seems to be winning hands down.

Hema Malini cuts hay with a sickle in a matching saree and make-up, a few days after admitting she has no recollection of what she might have done for her constituency, Mathura, but is sure she has done “a lot” of good work.

01hema-malini4_040219080007.jpgYes. She's cutting the (publicity) mustard. (Source: Twitter)

Modi’s face is plastered all over the place — from sarees to bindi packets. Even paper cups in the Shatabdi Express were not spared and were hastily pulled out when there was a public outcry about the words “Main Bhi Chowkidar” printed on them. They were apparently printed on behalf of the Sankalp Foundation, which described itself as a 'charitable trust without any object of profit-making' on its website. However, they had reportedly done the same thing in 2015. At that time, the cups had a toll free number and an appeal to join the BJP. “Bhajpa ke sadasya banein. Saath aayein, desh banayein (Become a member of BJP. Come along, build the nation).”

If one feels this NGO's activities and the biopic on Narendra Modi starring Vivek Oberoi — which the BJP claims to have nothing to do with — are not connected in a grand plan that combines falsifying facts, 24/7 Goebbelesian psychological assault and militarist grandstanding, then one is exceedingly naïve.

We are long past howling in indignation at the Election Commission (EC) code of conduct being violated. If a court can obligingly uphold a ban of social media comments reportedly at the behest of the latest wunderkind of the BJP, a 'youth' leader based down south, then there is hardly any forum left to exercise freedom of free speech, let alone speak truth to power.

Any criticism of the government or anyone from the ruling party is apparently considered either defamatory — or treasonous.

The BJP is quick with their repartee and adept at snatching back the narrative. The modus operandi has the juvenile simplicity of kindergarten fights. The popular parlance for this is “Tu-tu, Main-main.” You lob a Rafale scam accusation at us, we give you an airstrike (following a lapse of security whose details are apparently taboo to question). If the airstrike does not suffice and the 'Chowkidaar Chor Hai' slogan is still around on some lips, we reply with 'Main Bhi Chowkidaar', making everyone complicit fellow travellers. If Rahul Gandhi ups the ante with an announcement of a minimum income scheme, the attention of the nation has to diverted by another act of bravado — namely, shooting down one of our own satellites (believed to be Microsat-R satellite, weighing 740 kgs which India launched on January 24) by launching a missile, thus proving we are a formidable space power.

mission-shakti_040219075429.jpgThe Mission Shakti announcement came a day after Rahul Gandhi's NYAY welfare scheme was proposed. (Source: Reuters)

The Ministry of External Affairs, in its statement, said the Indian test was done in the lower atmosphere to ensure that there was no space debris and whatever debris is generated will decay and fall back on to earth within weeks. This claim is contestable.

The leader in tracking objects in space is the US military through its 18th Space Control Squadron. It maintains an online database of more than 23,000 orbiting objects, including active satellites, defunct satellites, pieces of rockets and debris from previous tests of anti-satellite weapons. These objects include more than 3,000 pieces of space debris created in a Chinese anti-satellite test in 2007 and more than 1,000 from an accidental collision in 2009 between a Russian satellite and an Iridium satellite.

US Air Force Lieutenant General David Thompson, vice commander of Air Force Space Command, told a Senate hearing on Wednesday that the United States was tracking about 270 different objects in the debris field several hours after the Indian test. Thompson said it was "likely that the number is going to grow as the debris field spreads out and we collect more sensor information."

Acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan has warned that any nations contemplating ASAT weapons tests — as the one India carried — risk making a 'mess' in space because of debris fields they can leave behind.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration chief Jim Bridenstine on Monday reportedly criticised India’s anti-satellite missile test strongly, saying that it has created 60 pieces of orbital debris big enough to track. Of these, 24 pieces rise higher than the International Space Station’s orbit around Earth.

44766_imrankhanreute_040219080600.jpgWhy would Pakistan not demand their own version of Mission Shakti? (Source: PTI)

That apart, we may also have started an arms race in space as well, with Pakistan wanting to execute their own version of Mission Shakti.

In 1998, on May 11 and 13, India conducted a set of five nuclear tests in Pokharan — Pakistan followed soon after, in just two weeks. “Pakistan was forced to take that decision as a response, in self-defence, to the nuclear tests and accompanying hostile posturing by its neighbour,” the Foreign Office said in a statement. “These developments, unfortunately, put an end to the prospect for keeping South Asia free of nuclear weapons, an objective which Pakistan had actively pursued.”

The Foreign Office said that Pakistan remains “steadfast in its commitment to non-proliferation and global peace and strategic stability”. The country has shown “utmost restraint and responsibility” in exercising its nuclear capability since the 1998 tests, the statement read.

However, in the face of “rapidly expanding nuclear and conventional forces” in the region, and “aggressive security doctrines”, Pakistan is “confident of its ability to deny space for any misadventure,” the statement added.

The recklessness of militarism opens the gateway to further escalation. We may have given them a reason not to “deny space for any misadventure.”

One has a sense of unease and déjà vu when one looks at history and how these things tend to play out.

In 1958, the Soviet Union had called for a ban on atmospheric tests of nuclear weapons and went so far as to unilaterally stop such testing. Under external political pressure, the US fell in line. However, in late 1961, political pressures internal to the USSR forced Nikolai Khrushchev to break the moratorium, and the Soviets began testing once again — under pressure, the US responded with tests of their own.

In 1962, when America detonated a nuclear warhead in the upper reaches of the atmosphere in a test called Starfish Prime, it took out at least six satellites — it was part of a dangerous series of high-altitude nuclear bomb tests at the height of the Cold War. Its immediate effects were felt for thousands of kilometres. Twenty-one years later, in 1983, the Soviet Union, then under Yuri Andropov’s leadership, decided to respond to President Ronald Reagan’s announcement of the Strategic Defense Initiative by declaring a self-imposed moratorium on anti-satellite testing.

nuclear_040219080224.jpgWhat happens in space does not stay in space. It can have very hard impacts on earth too. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

It is well known that we had developed this technology in 2012. It is also well documented why we did not carry out any such demonstration.

“Political will” as former head of DRDO, V.K. Saraswat claims, had nothing to do with it.

Better sense had prevailed.

Saraswat may have changed his tune after apparently coming closer to the BJP, but in an interview to India Today in 2012 he had explained why he was not in favour of testing India’s ASAT capabilities at the time.

“We don’t want to weaponise space but the building blocks should be in place. Because you may come to a time when you may need it. Today, I can say that all the building blocks (for an ASAT weapon) are in place. A little fine-tuning may be required but we will do that electronically. We will not do a physical test (actual destruction of a satellite) because of the risk of space debris affecting other satellites.”

In any case, this latest posturing is very likely a waste of time, money and effort. According to former ISRO Satellite Communication Engineer, N Kalyan Raman, who has worked with ISRO for over two decades, "Most of the countries' satellites are in the higher orbit, and even with this India won't be able to knock out those satellites." Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science at MIT, reportedly told Wired that while China can knock out all of India’s satellites, India cannot do the same to China. "So it’s kind of a weird balance for India if it’s interested in getting into the anti-satellite deterrence game."

The DN-3 is thought to be China’s most capable midcourse hit-to-kill interceptor, but the country has other systems capable of exo-atmospheric ballistic and anti-satellite interception, including the DN-2, the HQ-19, and the ASAT-oriented SC-19.

Neither we, nor the Russian Nudol anti-satellite system come close to that.

The political sparring between the INC and the BJP resembles an arms race too — one salvo from one side, followed by another from the other side.

Some may even find it amusing, but this recent escalation goes beyond the permissible ethical ambits of election campaigning. It is an overreach with serious potential consequences and displays, to my mind, immense political immaturity and recklessness. A 'chowkidar in space', as PM Modi grandly proclaims India has become, would have taken care not to have indulged in this adventurism. 

Also read: Why I think PM Modi's Mission Shakti announcement was in fact just empty space!


Gautam Benegal Gautam Benegal @gautambenegal

Award winning animation filmmaker, artist, author, and social commentator.

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