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DRDO policy gaffes attract international flak

June 22, 2010 01:54 IST

New Delhi's moral and ethical protestations that India's space programme is entirely peaceful are facing embarrassing questioning after the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) — apparently oblivious of the policy implications of its statements — publicly announced a roadmap for its ambitious military space programme.

Last month, the DRDO published its "Technology Perspective and Capability Roadmap", or TPCR, which declared that the "development of ASAT (anti-satellite weaponry) for electronic or physical destruction of satellites in both LEO (low earth orbit) and geo-synchronous orbit" can be expected to be completed by 2015.

Now, in a web article demanding that the US should rein in India's "defiant military space programme", Matthew Hooey of the Military Space Transparency Project (MSTP) — a US-based NGO that tracks the weaponisation of space — has pointed out that the DRDO's statement "blatantly contradicts statements by Indian political leaders that deny any intent by their nation to pursue space weapons".

The MSTP report asks why India is being allowed to adopt double standards. In January 2007, after China had launched a kinetic kill vehicle (KKV) to smash into its own aging Fengyun (FY-1C) satellite, then foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee had protested, "the security and safety of assets in outer space is of crucial importance for global economic and social development. We call upon all States to redouble efforts to strengthen the international legal regime for the peaceful use of outer space."

India's prime minister had criticised China's test as forthrightly. The MSTP report points out that, at a joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin on January 27, 2007, Manmohan Singh had declared: "Our position is similar in that we are not in favour of the weaponisation of outer space."

Matthew Hooey scathingly describes this contradiction: "While top Indian military officials (i.e. DRDO) set ambitious milestones for destructive military space systems, Indian political leaders make contradictory claims about the nation's peaceful intentions for outer space".

This is not the first time that the DRDO has openly repudiated New Delhi's official line. Hooey points to a report entitled "Military Dimensions in the Future of the Indian Presence in Space", published in 2000 by V Siddhartha, an officer on the personal staff of the DRDO chief, which indicated that India could deploy a directed energy weapon in space by 2010, and also a system called the KALI (kinetic attack loitering interceptor).

Like so many DRDO programmes, the KALI's development time frame has turned out to be wildly optimistic. But the MSTP report alleges that the Siddhartha's report "is testament to, at the very least, a clear intention within the Indian military of deploying not only a space-based laser but also an ASAT system."

Equating the DRDO's defiance of international norms with that of North Korea and Iran, Hooey's article declares that the setting of "target dates for the development of anti-satellite systems by any nation should be considered shocking particularly given the scrutiny that was paid to nations such as China and the US when they each demonstrated a direct-ascent ability to strike satellites in space."

The Outer Space Treaty, which entered into force on October 10, 1967 and has been ratified by about 100 countries, including India, bans the placement of weapons of mass destruction in space.

The Space Preservation Treaty, which seeks to extend this ban to all weapons, has found no support from any major country. Only the city of Berkeley, California, has signed this treaty, and a tiny portion of the University of California has been declared a "space-based weapons-free zone".

An ASAT treaty — which would ban the development of ground-based weapons that could shoot down satellites in space — is even more improbable. Technologically capable countries, including India, pay lip service to the peaceful use of outer space, while going ahead with developing ASAT weapons. But such activities are masked, not flaunted, as the DRDO has done. In 2002, the provocatively named US Space Command was quietly merged with the US Strategic Command.

Ajai Shukla in New Delhi
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