Weapons in the final frontier
There are three ways of looking at it: China tested a new way to clean up orbital slots occupied by defunct satellites; it now has a way to take out space-based assets belonging to other countries; or, that it just created a whole lot of hazardous orbital junk up there. But let there be no mistake—it has also started this century’s arms race. Star wars, ladies and gentlemen, has received a new lease of life.
What China did is not tremendously difficult to do. Both the United States and the Soviet Union have tested anti-satellite (ASAT) missiles, but the post-cold war world has held back from testing space-related weapons. That unspoken taboo is now broken.
Where is India in all this? At least three air chiefs have publicly talked about the establishment of an Aerospace Command. Although the government has not approved its formation, the Indian air force has started “work on conceptualising (space-based) weapons systems and its operational command system”. And then there are accounts of DURGA or Directionally Unrestricted Ray-Gun Array, and KALI or Kinetic Attack Loitering Interceptor. Whether or not these projects exist outside the anyone’s imagination is not known. But the folks at DRDO have a way with acronyms. (Actually, these weapons may belong to the family of advanced weapons known to professionals as Vertically Aligned Polar Omnidirectional Uniform Radioactive Weapon And Re-entry Equipment.)
For now, the United States has reacted with reproach at the Chinese for having defected first in this prisoner’s dilemma game. But the Chinese may have settled the domestic debate in the United States weapons programmes in space. They may have settled it in India too.