India’s Anti-Satellite Missile Test Underscores the Need for a New Space Treaty

India’s Anti-Satellite Missile Test Underscores the Need for a New Space Treaty
Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle C-45 lifts from Satish Dhawan Space Center in Sriharikota, India (Indian Space Research Organization photo via AP Images).

On March 27, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi took to the airwaves to make a dramatic announcement: India had successfully shot down one of its own satellites in low-Earth orbit with a missile. Only three other countries have demonstrated that capability: Russia, China and the United States. “India stands tall as a space power,” Modi declared, noting that the technology had been developed indigenously.

But Modi’s glee at this demonstration of his country’s technological prowess was not shared by many space experts, who caution that the debris created by the missile test poses a threat to other satellites and spacecraft orbiting Earth. NASA Administrator James Bridenstine was sharply critical, calling the operation “a terrible thing,” while adding that it had increased the risk of the International Space Station hitting a piece of debris by 44 percent over the 10 days following the event.

Regional analysts note that for India, the test actually had little to do with its space program. It was more likely intended as a demonstration of India’s ability to shoot down an incoming ballistic missile, and its effectiveness in that regard was limited. According to Jayita Sarkar, an assistant professor at Boston University who specializes in South Asian security issues, the satellite that India shot down last month was launched in January 2019 precisely for the purpose of this test. “That is not a good enough test-run for ballistic missile defense because successfully hitting an incoming missile takes more precision,” she says in an email interview with WPR.

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