21st December – Mission Shakti

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address on March 27, 2019 began with the declaration that India had “established itself as a global space power.” This statement was premised on the notion that an anti-satellite (ASAT) test was “necessary” to demonstrate India’s status as a space-faring nation.

What is ASAT technology?

The ASAT technology is purely offensive in nature. It uses “kinetic kill” technology, which employs the kinetic energy of the projectile to strike a target at high speeds and is solely intended to disrupt the functions of another space object (such as a satellite), or worse, destroy it entirely.

A legal sanctity –

  • The Outer Space Treaty, to which India and most nations are party, stipulates that outer space and celestial bodies must be used “exclusively for peaceful purposes,” and prohibits testing of weapons and conduct of military manoeuvres.
  • The meaning of “peaceful purposes” here has been debated. Some interpret it as an outright ban on any form of military activity (thereby associating “peaceful” with “non-military”), while others interpret it as only excluding those military acts which are aggressive or contravene international law (equating “peaceful” with “non-aggressive”).
  • ASAT weapons are not expressly included within the purview of the Outer Space Treaty (Article IV). This bans states from “placing in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction, installing such weapons on celestial bodies, or stationing such weapons in outer space in any other manner.” This provision would not apply to ASAT weapons, since they only travel through outer space and are not fixed in a particular position. Additionally, they are not nuclear weapons, or weapons of mass destruction.

How it violates international law?

  • Article III of the Treaty obliges states to explore and use outer space “in accordance with international law and it prohibits states from the threat or use of force unless acting in self-defence. Given that there was no imminent threat to justify self-defence, and that Mission Shakti was directed against India’s own space object, the ASAT test would hardly constitute a legitimate use of force under international law.
  • If legality of the ASAT itself is considered insufficient to demonstrate the errors of India’s actions, the consequences of the ASAT test arguably violated Article IX, which restricts activities that cause “potentially harmful interference with the activities of other states.

The debris issue –

India was fully aware that the test would generate debris, and under Articles VI and VII, is responsible for the conduct of these fragments and liable for any damage caused. A separate treaty titled the Liability Convention, to which India is also a party, applies in two possible scenarios: either the space debris from Mission Shakti causes damage to an aircraft in flight or to the Earth’s surface, or it damages another state’s satellite.

The standard of liability differs in two scenarios.

  1. The first imposes “absolute liability,” which means there is no need for the affected state to prove damage.
  2. The second enforces “fault-based liability,” in which the affected state would have to prove India was responsible for any damage. Neither of these two cases absolves India of liability, as Mission Shakti was an intentional launch.

Conclusion –

If we consider India’s act as genuinely intended to avoid conflict in space, rather than encourage it, then fervent commitments to stabilise international security are needed, beginning with enhanced transparency and confidence-building measures. A step further would be a concrete commitment to binding measures that prevent an arms race in space alongside other nations.

SourceThe Hindu Business Line

QUESTIONDiscuss the international legal obligations surrounding India’s ‘Mission Shakti’.

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