India's most powerful rocket GSLV MK-III rocket on the launch pad

India has entered an elite space club with Mission Shakti, a timely development considering that space is not just the ‘final frontier’, but is also fast emerging as the ‘fourth arena’ for warfare after land, sea and air. With Prime Minister Narendra Modi announcing on March 27 last that a long-range missile had been used to destroy an Indian satellite 300 km up at low earth orbit, the External Affairs Ministry justified the test as necessary for ‘credible deterrence’ against any attack on the country’s space assets.

US space agency NASA made its displeasure plain that the test created 400 pieces of orbital debris of which 60 large pieces were being tracked, with as many as 24 pieces considered to be posing threat to the International Space Station (ISS). This was contested by Indian authorities —that the debris would fall down into the atmosphere within 45 days and be burnt up, and anyway it was far below the space station to cause damage.

While NASA was reportedly mulling suspension of cooperation with ISRO in human space flights and other space science programmes, the Trump administration has stepped in to assure that strategic partnership with India remains strong, which includes pursuit of ‘shared interests in space’. Back in 1985, the US had carried out such an anti-satellite missile test, followed by China two decades later in 2007. So along with US, Russia and China, India now has the capability to shoot down from the ground any incoming object in space, which could include intercontinental ballistic missiles that move up to orbit before coming down to hit their targets. Mission Shakti helps build upon anti-missile shield capabilities India began acquiring in 2011 — that year, an advanced air defence (AAD) missile was successfully launched and blasted near an incoming Prithvi missile mimicking an ‘enemy’ short-range ballistic missile.

Now that a space weapons race is opening up fast, much will depend on national partnerships to offset destructive competition. So India’s thrust for greater partnership with Russia in space and a space defence alliance with Japan are in the right direction.

The US, after sacrificing the lead gained in the Sixties against then Cold War adversary Soviet Union in the race to the Moon, has announced it is rejoining the race by putting astronauts back in the Moon for a lunar colony by 2024. It is ironic that after successive US administrations cut back on NASA budgets for decades, Vice President Mike Pence recently had to spell out the urgent need to take on China and Russia in their determined push to be top space-faring nations. In this context, Pence pointed to China’s robotic landing on the dark side of the moon in January this year, even as he bemoaned NASA’s dependence on Russian Soyuz rockets to link up with the space station after grounding its reusable space shuttles in 2011. China is racing to explore Mars with a lander in 2020 and complete its Earth-orbiting space station by 2022.

Russian space agency ROSCOSMOS is already forging ahead with a 1.4-billion Euro project to build its first civilian spaceport. With China and Russia transforming space into ‘a war-fighting domain’ using anti-satellite weapons, airborne lasers, evasive hypersonic missiles and jammers, Pence has called upon US Congress to set up a ‘Space Force’. It speaks volumes that private aerospace entity Space X, founded by Elon Musk, seems to represent American space enterprise more with its powerful Falcon rockets and Dragon spacecrafts, aiming to colonise Mars and launch inter-planetary spaceflights in the near future.

An Israeli Moon lander, already launched by a Falcon rocket, is scheduled to make a lunar touchdown midway this month. With the space economy estimated to be at least 1 trillion dollars within 20 years, no wonder private groups are eyeing a slice of the pie. The latest is Amazon, having announced a plan to provide global internet service by launching over 3,200 satellites into low Earth orbit.

There are both commercial and military benefits in staking strong claims on the Moon and lower Earth orbits. The Rs 800 crore Chandrayaan-2 rescheduled to May this year will be a feather in ISRO’s cap as the craft will land on the unexplored lunar south pole. Space programmes also help to create dual-use technologies with military applications. In the absence of an international pact against conventional weapons in space (unlike a ban on weapons of mass destruction), the urgency for a comprehensive national space defence policy and command structure has never been greater.