India recently destroyed one of its own satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO). Although analysts have noted the security motives behind India’s ASAT test, the discourse surrounding this event—articulated by the Modi Administration and echoed by foreign media—suggests additional motives, and sets a dangerous precedent.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi went on public television to announce India’s successful anti-satellite test, claiming that India “made an unprecedented achievement,” and that it had “registered its name as a space power.” Abroad, international media similarly described the event in a curious manner, claiming that India had joined an “exclusive club” of states—including the United States, Russia, and China—to conduct an ASAT test.
This framing suggests that the ASAT test was an attempt to increase India’s status in world politics. Although international politics is typically conceived of as driven by concerns over profit or security—a growing body of scholarship finds that states—like the humans that comprise them—care deeply about position, and perceptions of where they rank on a social hierarchy. Status is a valuable form of symbolic currency at the international level and it is also an important means by which states can enhance national pride domestically.
States compete for status in several arenas—including athletics, military power, and technological prowess. In attaining status, states seek distinguish themselves, demonstrating that they belong to an exclusive group. Formal groupings such as the G8 and the UN Security Council represent a few examples of high status “clubs” in international politics. Yet, other informal groupings also exist, such as being a “naval power” or a “space power.” The domain of space is an important arena in which states vie for status. As space capabilities typically require high costs and technological sophistication, the states that possess difficult and complex capabilities can signal that they belong to an exclusive club of great powers. It is for this reason that the discourse surrounding India’s ASAT test is dangerous. Should ASAT tests be perceived as a marker of status for aspiring space powers, more countries could be tempted to demonstrate their own ASAT capabilities—to signal their status aspirations both at home and abroad.
Should more states conduct ASAT tests, this could have several significant consequences. ASAT tests creates large amounts of space debris—shrapnel flying at high velocities and threatening any space assets in its path. Much of this debris, traveling at thousands of kms per hour, will remain in orbit for decades to come. Some scientists warn that as space debris continues to increase—and collide into other objects in space (including other space debris) it will result in a slow acting chain reaction (the Kessler Syndrome), making LEO effectively inaccessible to human activities for decades. Considering the amount of assets located in this orbital trajectory, and the dependence of modern day global economy on these assets—space debris constitutes a threat to all states.
India portrays its ASAT test as a “responsible” test. Unlike China’s 2007 ASAT test, carried out at an altitude of 800 km, India destroyed a satellite at 300 km. Consequently, the resulting debris is estimated to stay in orbit for months, as opposed to decades (as in the case of China). Even if this should prove true—which is increasingly appearing to be unlikely—this demonstration sets a dangerous precedent. If India’s ASAT test is recognized by other states as demonstrating its technological prowess in space, it may encourage other states to conduct similar tests. The formation of an “ASAT club” may be viewed as an important status marker for other emerging space powers. Moreover, future ASAT tests may be executed in a less “responsible” fashion—creating space debris that threatens space based assets for decades. Criticism of India’s ASAT test may ring hollow, as the United States, Russia, and China have each carried ASAT tests. Yet, two wrongs do not make a right (let alone four).
For these reasons, it is important that the United States and other states condemn and stigmatize ASAT tests. The idea that social opprobrium may help prevent these kinds of tests may sound outlandish, as it is often assumed that in the anarchic state of world politics, states do whatever is needed to maximize their power or security. Yet, stigmas and normative taboos have worked effectively in the past. Despite the security benefits of landmines, states across the world have worked together to ban and stigmatize their use. In a similar manner, nuclear weapons have also attained a similar stigma. Once the marker of great power status, states that acquire nuclear weapons today are viewed as “rogue” or “revisionist.” ASAT weapons similarly need to be stripped of any symbolic power as a marker of status.
So far the international response to India’s ASAT test has been weak. This partly reflects diplomatic sensitivities and perhaps even the genuine belief that India’s test was somehow innocuous. Criticism of ASAT testing should be applied uniformly and not simply in a reactive fashion. Norms against ASAT testing should be codified in international law. As of now, the Outer Space Treaty does not forbid testing of ASAT weapons, and China and Russia’s proposed draft Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force (PPWT) similarly does not include bans on ground based hit-to-kill vehicles. If great powers are unwilling to take leadership on this issue, civil society should place greater pressure on governments to do so. The stakes on this issue are incredibly high—as states, businesses, and individuals would all be impacted should space debris continue to proliferate. For all of the potential reasons a state should want to carry out an ASAT test, status should not be one of them.