Spaced Out

Spaced Out

Of anti-satellite missiles, complicated national security issues and endless TV debates

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The story of the destruction of the satellite proved to be as complicated as the debate over the Balakot strike had been. (Express photo/Nirmal Harindran/File)

The high point of the week was the ascent of an anti-satellite missile, which was prefaced by the Prime Minister’s announcement that he would make an announcement. It is reported that this message without a payload sent foolish people scuttling off to ATMs. They should have known that governments do not strike twice on the same vulnerability.

The story of the destruction of the satellite proved to be as complicated as the debate over the Balakot strike had been. Why are national security issues so complicated these days? Back in the last major conflicts, there was never any doubt that Saigon had fallen or that Nagasaki had been nuked. It was only within the pages of Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle that the reader could reasonably wonder if The Grasshopper Lies Heavy was a history or a work of fiction. But operations these days are so nuanced that they can be debated for weeks. Well after the Balakot effect had worn off, India Today was still producing evidence concerning the use of F16s in the limited conflict. And now, this business of a missile destroying a satellite promises to be just as confusing.

The initial questions were simply baffled: “Why have we destroyed our own satellite?” Oh, it was kaput anyway, and this was a proof of concept. So why wasn’t it done earlier since, as India Today TV reported, we have had the capability for years? Cue Republic TV’s ‘massive disclosure’ by former DRDO chief VK Saraswat, that the UPA government had blocked it in 2012 and 2013. Former ISRO chairman G Madhavan Nair also chimed in to Times Now, declaring that the proof of concept could have been provided by 2015. So why was it blocked? Out of Congress cussedness or pusillanimity, was the default interpretation. But looking back on the stories published at the time, you would find that there were fears about space debris. Indeed, after the test, Nasa voiced precisely those fears again.

That controversy drew attention away from an understanding of precisely what has been achieved. The satellite that was targeted was in low earth orbit. Most space objects which the human race has sent up are in that region. However GPS and communications satellites, which are of strategic importance and serve as a neural system of military command and control architectures, fly much higher, at least 20,000 miles up — GPS for reasons of Doppler and other technicals, and comsats because they need a geostationary orbit from where they can relay signals. A real proof of concept missile would have had to reach that altitude. However, what has been achieved is not without strategic significance. Maybe we can’t attack comsats, but India would now probably be included in discussions on the militarisation of space. At least, there was enough for the prime minister to give his first (and only?) interview coinciding with the launch of the BJP’s election campaign. It was given to Arnab Goswami, of course, and therefore doesn’t really count. Meanwhile, the Election Commission has begun to investigate whether the writ of its Model Code of Conduct extends to low earth orbit.

And finally, on a different note, there’s this tiny clip from Australia’s 9News floating around, which could serve as a compelling lesson in propriety for the military commanders of more than one nation. It shows the top defence brass Down Under standing by at a military event, serving as a backdrop for their minister, Christopher Pyne. There is a bit of uneasiness as he begins to field purely political questions, and then defence forces chief Angus Campbell taps his minister on the shoulder and gently explains that officers shouldn’t be on stage while such things are discussed. And all of them troop off. Many an officer in other nations, who has had to stand by as window dressing while the political command makes political points, must have watched this video clip wistfully.