Former Indian president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam's contention that India has the capability to intercept objects in space and destroy them within a radius of 200 km has ignited a strategic dilemma. The issue has gained significance after the US successfully shot down one of its own collapsing satellites at a height of 233 km. The fear that India will be left lagging in one more global arms race and pay a heavy ex-post price looms on the minds of the country's strategic elites.
Although Washington described its operation Feb 20 as a life-saving strike to prevent a rogue satellite from crashing on to earth, the hush-hush manner in which the entire event took place set the cat among the pigeons. Since the hazards of the malfunctioning satellite's fall may not have been as catastrophic as portrayed in the media, doubts have arisen about the official American justification for launching the satellite-killing missile.
It makes sound diplomatic sense to couch a provocative military action in humanitarian garb by whipping up public anxiety about a loose cannon that could randomly take lives. Most analysts believe that the affair was a barely disguised demonstration of US military preparedness in an emerging 'new Cold War' with China and Russia.
China's critical reaction to the American "kinetic warhead" smacks of rank opportunism and holier-than-thou prickliness. After all, it was Beijing that fired the first salvo in this category of space weaponization through a direct kinetic hit on one of its satellites in January 2007 at a height of over 800 km. Washington's show of missile prowess is a tit-for-tat response to Beijing's much-hailed muscle flexing as a new great power in space.
Russia's own ability to perform a similar satellite-killing exhibition is well proven right from the 1970s, thanks to its decades of research and development in military avionics. Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent condemnation of the US government for plunging the world into a new arms race was accompanied by a stern admission that "we are forced to retaliate, to take corresponding decisions".
One can only expect that Russian scientists will now further sharpen their own technology to match and outdo the Americans and the Chinese in this arena. Washington's sharp rejection of a joint Beijing-Moscow proposal for an international treaty banning weapons in space has left no doubters in the Kremlin that unilateral arming is necessary in the absence of international agreement.
Yet, from a reading of history, one cannot be absolutely sure that some treaty to limit and verify weaponization in space will not eventually be negotiated. Herein lies India's quandary. New Delhi has bad memories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which designated all states possessing nuclear weapons as of 1968 as legitimate holders and consigned the rest of the world to 'non-nuclear weapon state' status.
Indian diplomats have often rued the lost window of opportunity in the early 1960s before the NPT came into effect. Had India tested 'Pokhran-I' before the NPT entered into force, it would have saved itself the constant opprobrium of being a recalcitrant that deserved to be sanctioned or barred from the benefits of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). The cul de sac that India has presently gotten into with regard to the Hyde Act and the civil nuclear deal with the US would be inconceivable had the governments of Lal Bahadur Shastri or Indira Gandhi tested a nuclear device before 1968.
The analogy of the NPT is all the more relevant to whether India should conduct its own satellite-killer test because that treaty came about after the big players - the US, the Soviet Union and Britain - had already attained a degree of sophistication in nuclear weapons. France and China ratified the NPT in 1992 after they too had reached satisfactory testing levels, and just in time before the treaty became permanent in 1995. Satellite killers are registering technological advances in height and accuracy in all major power centers and a day might come when a treaty will anoint the early movers as 'kinetic weapon states' and bar latecomers like India to the doghouse of non-weapon states.
Abdul Kalam's categorical statement that India has the missile know-how for interception in space was confirmed by V.K. Saraswat, the Chief Controller of Missiles and Strategic Systems (CC-MSS). He remarked: "It is just a matter of time before we could place the necessary wherewithal to meet such requirements." The question is "how much time?" Time is of essence in a discriminatory world order where there is a distinct first-entrant advantage.
The guardians of the so-called "international community" have repeatedly set the precedent of proliferation of deadly arms in every conceivable sphere of the known world - land, water, air and outer space. Their special talent lies in developing new ways of threatening rivals and safeguarding themselves, and then preventing the same technologies from horizontally spreading through treaties that shut the door. These treaties become the nucleus of regimes that generate rules sanctioning violators who dream of reordering world power constellations. The rules are applicable to all except the rule-makers themselves, who sit pretty as the judge, jury and executioners.
Does India want to be hauled into the dock of this hypocritical "international community" again? If the consensus answer is 'no', New Delhi has no option but to stay abreast in the domain of satellite-killers. The Damocles sword of time is hanging over its neck.