NASA’s Orbital Debris Mitigation Strategy Against India’s National Security Interests

India is about to sign the nearly two-decade-old U.S. Government Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices (ODMSP) or Orbital Debris  Mitigation Strategy which attempts to address the threat posed by space junk to a growing, more diverse space economy as well as science and technology development. However, experts believe the space junk agreement maybe against India’s National Security interests.

Orbital Debris Mitigation Strategy
NASA’s Orbital Debris Mitigation Strategy against India’s National Security interests

Space Junk Problem

According to NASA, space junk is a serious problem, and the figures (below) are daunting. To-date there are

  1. some 500,000 pieces of space debris between 1 and 10 cm,
  2. more than 21,000 pieces larger than 10 cm, and
  3. more than 100 million pieces below 1 cm.

Moreover, most orbital debris is within 2,000 km of the Earth’s surface, and the biggest concentrations of debris are found at 750-800 km. Only 7% of space junk is functional, and all debris is hurtling at speeds reaching 28,163 km/h (17,500 mph), putting in peril thousands of low and high orbiting satellites that are critical to the modern world. Satellites map, spot natural resources, collect weather and agriculture-related information, transmit all manner of data, and facilitate global telecommunications, not to mention their military uses (surveillance, target tracking, and weapon guidance over long distances).

There have so far been over 5,000 satellite launches, with decrepit satellites long past their use-by date orbiting uselessly and adding to the debris. “Atmospheric drag” naturally pulls the junk, like decommissioned low earth orbit satellites, into the earth’s atmosphere and burns them up on re-entry but this takes time and cannot be relied on to clear the debris fast. Other means have to be used to achieve this aim. Such as boosting the old geosynchronous satellites into higher “space graveyard” orbits in the 36,000 km belt above the earth.

Space debris problem needs addressing by all countries. So, why does an agreement on space junk that the Narendra Modi government is eager to sign with the United States dangerous for India’s national security interest?

Orbital Debris Mitigation Strategy

Let’s consider the “Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices” executive order that President Trump signed in 2018, which was updated this year. It is the likely template for the accord that the Indian government is about to sign with the US.

Trump’s order has 5 objectives.

Objective 1

Orbital Debris Mitigation Strategy Objective 1
Orbital Debris Mitigation Strategy Objective 1

The first one is to control debris larger than 5mm released “during normal operations” over 25 years — with normal nowhere defined — and require spacecraft/upper stages to be designed such as to “minimize”, preferably, “eliminate”, such release.

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Objective 2

Orbital Debris Mitigation Strategy Objective 2
Orbital Debris Mitigation Strategy Objective 2

The 2nd objective to reduce debris from”accidental explosions” and mandates engineering and probability assessment methods to judge a spacecraft’s propensity for such explosions,which figure will have to be less than 1 in 1000. Moreover, energy sources within spacecraft would have to be depleted, and propellant burns and compressed gas releases designed to avoid collision and consequent explosion.

Objective 3

Orbital Debris Mitigation Strategy Objective 3
Orbital Debris Mitigation Strategy Objective 3

The 3rd goal is to select safe flight profiles and operational configuration to prevent these from adding to the debris. The spacecraft will, in the event, have to be designed to ensure the probability of collision with debris 10 cms and larger to be no more than 1 in 1000, and that it can survive hits by microastroids and 1 cm sized debris without hurting its post-mission disposal prospects.

Objective 4

Orbital Debris Mitigation Strategy Objective 4
Orbital Debris Mitigation Strategy Objective 4

The 4th objective is to mitigate post-mission disposal of satellites/space structures by, in the main, enabling direct re-entry, atmospheric drag enhancement measures, maneuvering to different orbits, and by direct retrieval within 5 years of mission completion, with these disposal measures attaining 0.9 level probability.

Objective 5

The 5th objective is regarding “constellations” of 100 or more tiny spacecraft, with each needing to have a high disposal rate (of 0.99). Further, small LEO satellites and cubesats will have to be engineered for a lifetime of 25 years.

Some of these concerns are being taken up by the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS) but the bulk of the problems and solutions are as the US has stated them. If it was an entirely UN initiative, there’d be some merit in joining the talks. But what negotiation exactly have ISRO’s Space Situational Awareness & Management Centre (SSAMC) and MEA conducted outside of, and within the, 2+2 context, with the counterpart US agencies before the Modi government decided to sign this agreement?

Against India’s National Security Interests

As far as one can make out, there may have been an exchange of notes and some perfunctory discussion, but no real interaction between technical experts of the two countries. This would mean that India has accepted the US standards in toto. The question to then ask is whether ISRO has the advanced technological and design competence to develop upper stages/spacecraft which meet American performance criteria? And if ISRO can’t meet them, America will, presumably, wield its favourite stick to beat India with — sanctions!

Such space debris agreement may well require India to share the engineering parameters of its spacecraft as well as their mission profiles (“operational configuration”, etc. — 2nd and 3rd objectives) with Washington. That would make ISRO products and missions an open book and preemptively close off even informal cooperation with DRDO to produce heavy lift ICBMs with larger payload carrying capacity of single weapons and MIRV-ed warheads.

The more troubling aspect is why sign a bilateral agreement that limits what India can and cannot do in space, when over 50 odd countries have satellites and will not be bound by any of its strictures? India can choose to be responsible on its own account and take care to design spaceware that does not exacerbate the space debris problem, even adhering to the US norms. There was simply no need for this accord.

Compare China’s pattern of international behaviour. It never signs any bilateral or multilateral agreement until almost all other nations have signed it, and then uses its reluctance to sign as diplomatic leverage to get what it wants. India is invariably the first to get on the wagon and gets screwed in terms of the lost freedom of action and space for diplomatic maneuver. But trust Delhi to never learn from the past and to keep repeating the same mistakes.

US wants to get paid for Tracking Debris

Lt. Gen. David Thompson, vice commander of Air Force Space Command, testified on March 27, 2019, in front of the Senate Armed Services Committe’s strategic forces subcommittee. The issue of space debris was raised at the hearing by the subcommittee’s ranking member Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) who asked Thompson about the risk that Mission Shakti might pose to U.S. and allied satellites.

Lt. Gen. David Thompson, vice commander of Air Force Space Command testifying in front of the Senate Armed Services Committe's strategic forces subcommittee.
Lt. Gen. David Thompson, vice commander of Air Force Space Command testifying in front of the Senate Armed Services Committe’s strategic forces subcommittee.

Destroying a satellite intentionally and creating debris is wrong. Some people like to test anti-satellite capabilities intentionally and create orbital debris fields that we today are still dealing with. And those same countries come to us for space situational awareness because of the debris field they themselves created. The space situational awareness provided by the U.S. military is paid by the American taxpayer and offered to the world for free. So the entire world needs to step up and say, If you’re going to do this, you’re going to pay a consequence.There is a need for better space situational awareness and debris tracking. The problem could get worse if more countries start testing anti-satellite weapons. Debris ends up being there for a long time. If we wreck space, we’re not getting it back.

Operation Olympic Defender

In response to India’s anti-satellite ASAT missile codename Mission Shakti the US has launched what is dubbed as Operation Olympic Defender. At the Space Symposium the head of United States Strategic Command Gen. John Hyten called for Space Rules in response to India’s ASAT test sharing for the first time American Space War plans, known as Operation Olympic Defender, with a small number of allies. It is believed these allies referred to by Hyten are members of the Five Eyes.

Five Eyes aka Project Echelon

The Five Eyes is an intelligence umbrella based on the foundations laid by the spies of East India Company. It emerged from an informal agreement related to the 1941 Atlantic Charter initially between United States and United Kingdom. The secret treaty was renewed with the passage of the 1943 BRUSA Agreement. In the following years it was extended to encompass Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Much of the sharing of information is performed via the ultra-sensitive STONEGHOST network, which contains “the western world’s most closely guarded secrets.” Later this operation was extended to Project Echelon. India is the number one target of Five Eyes.

Five Eyes aka Project Echelon
Five Eyes aka Project Echelon

It is under Five Eyes umbrella that US National Security Agency spies on India’s missile systems through signals intelligence program RAINFALL in Australia that successfully geo-located signals of Indian Nuclear Weapons storage facility and targeted it through two NSA stations INDRA and LEMONWOOD in Thailand.

Under Five Eyes the NSA also operates the so called SCS sites (Special Collection Service). The NSA has installed a super spy software named APPARITION in one of its SCS sites in New Delhi. The APPARITION program pinpoints the locations of people accessing the Internet across sensitive locations – that include our political, military and scientific institution.

Bharat Karnad with comments from GreatGameIndia. Karnad is a Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. He was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group.

Did you know the Chinese have tested their nuclear weapon in multiple battle-scenarios, including 47 tests using air-drop, parachuting, missile-mated, tower-based and atmospheric, in addition to the mere underground testing done by India? That this underground nuclear weapon testing at such low yield is pathetically inadequate for our National Security. We may be able to launch a ballistic missile, but has the nuclear-weapon warhead been tested in missile-mated configuration or in air-dropped configuration? Read more about India’s Nuclear Weapons capabilities in our exclusive book India in Cognitive Dissonance.

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