India just launched an anti-satellite weapon – Canada should speak up

On Wednesday India announced that it successfully tested an anti-satellite weapon, destroying one of its own satellites with a missile, and that it has thereby joined the elite club of China, Russia and the U.S. who have demonstrated this capability over recent decades. This is concerning for many reasons, and Canada has an opportunity and a responsibility to take a lead in condemning this test. Not because we would consider India to pose a direct threat to Canadian satellites, but because the test represents an explicit arms race in space, which creates enormous risks for all of us.

India has claimed that the satellite was destroyed at a low enough altitude that any debris created will burn up upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. But there is no way to control space debris, and as has happened with Chinese and U.S. anti-satellite tests in the past, some of it may be sent up into higher orbits, creating a serious hazard for commercial and government satellites servicing nearly every country in the world.

There is so much activity in outer space today that we have a problem of space traffic management. Remember the film “Gravity”? For all its Hollywood flaws, it highlights the actual problem of space debris. The International Space Station has suffered serious damage at least once from a piece of debris no larger than a few centimetres, orbiting at  a velocity that renders something as small as a paint fleck into a flying bullet. If our satellites are impacted by space debris, or deliberately targeted by a cyber attack or a kinetic weapon like India and others have demonstrated, so much of our 21st century existence would be affected. Think of losing GPS and thereby losing all shipping, road and air traffic navigation, and having to ground all commercial flights for a day or more. Think of losing telecommunications, critical medical data, or of closing the international financial market even temporarily. Think of the military losing their ability to navigate, communicate, or know where their own troops are in remote areas – let alone those of an enemy.

If Canada does not publicly condemn this test, our silence may mean we accept it, and that is a dangerous signal to send. When China infamously destroyed a defunct Fengyun satellite in 2007, creating hundreds of thousands of pieces of space debris, the international silence was deafening. The point was that Russia, the U.S. and others wanted to keep open the possibility of undertaking similar tests themselves. But the risks posed by an arms race in space means that this silence must no longer remain the status quo.

This week the UN Group of Government Experts has been meeting in Geneva to discuss the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space, in which representatives from Canada are taking part. India has claimed that nothing about this test is in breach of international law. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty only prohibits the placement of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction in orbit around the Earth, it says nothing about the use of more “conventional” weapons. But even if it is not clearly illegal, it is certainly clearly irresponsible. The fact that the world’s experts are highlighting these issues right now means the timing is rich for Canada to make an international statement against India’s test.

Canada has stated repeatedly that it wishes to take a lead in developing international norms for space. In the 2018 policy document “Strong, Secure, Engaged”, the Department of National Defence stated that deterring irresponsible behaviour is a priority and that it wants to work together with other government departments and other nations in developing international norms. This month Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Navdeep Singh Bains announced Canada’s New Space Strategy, which repeats that commitment, though it pays most of its attention to why space matters to Canadians in our everyday lives. Our dependency on space means we have a direct interest in fulfilling this promise, but we also have an international responsibility, as Canada is seen as a credible, stable and progressive player on the international stage, and others look to us to temper the current rhetoric of our southern neighbours.

Inevitably, some will say that India’s test provides support for President Trump’s new Space Force. Sadly, the rhetoric that Trump is using is escalatory, calling for U.S. dominance in space and denoting space as a warfighting domain. Conversely, Canada’s role can be a deterrent one, employing international diplomacy to ensure the long-term sustainability of an environment we have become so dependent upon and will only use more in the near future.