Monday, February 18, 2013

Asteroids, Meteors and Planetary Defence... a short essay on the recent events and how we need to strengthen planetary defence as an important agenda in national space policies, code of conduct....

Here's a short essay on the recent events and how the least probable events could prove most consequential if adequate attention is not paid...

The dramatic events of February 15, both the meteor hit in Chelyabinsk region in Russia and Asteroid 2012 DA 14's close miss, bring home the reality of the threat to human life from asteroids and meteors. Earlier, people had been fairly dismissive of such incidents, taking shelter in the argument of low probability. Even as these may be extremely low probability events, it should be noted that such incidents could have high-consequence. The recent fly-by of asteroid 2012 DA14 (object of this size hit the earth roughly once in a millennia) and the meteor strike over Russia (the second major meteor strike in Siberia in the last 100 years) that injured hundreds of people show that, improbable as they might be, such events do happen.

In fact, it is not that such events have not happened before, just that our space situational awareness has been quite poor that we didn't even know when we had a near miss. The prestigious international astronaut society, the Association of Space Explorers (ASE) has been engaging the United Nations on a possible regime to deal with such threats, and they have stated in their report to the UN that as new telescopes come online, in a little over a decade, we are likely to be tracking as many as 1 million near-Earth asteroids (NEAs), of which 10,000 may have some probability of impacting Earth in the next 100 years, and 50 to 100 will appear threatening enough to require active monitoring and/or deflection.

India is an established space power and one that is interested in shaping emerging regimes such as the International Space Code of Conduct. But there is skepticism as to how serious India is about this issue and how far India will push itself in pursuing this at regional and global forums. Does India, for instance, consider the movement of so-called Near Earth Objects part of its Space Situational Awareness needs?

This is an issue that has been debated and explored by scholars. Peter Garretson, a US Air Force officer and a former visiting fellow at the Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) recently wrote an article and gave an interview where he discussed the threat of asteroids. He suggested that the U.S. and India should consider jointly tackling such problems, just as they are jointly pursuing such ambitious global public good like Space-based Solar Power and Space Debris Mitigation. These are some of "the big ideas" that could take U.S.-India strategic partnership to new levels, and promote first-steps like sharing of Space Situational Awareness data. Of course, these ideas are still to fructify. However, given the multiple challenges, these are issues that India has to pursue with greater enthusiasm. While India may not currently have sufficient technical capabilities, collaborating with like-minded countries is a good way to get over such deficiencies. These ideas, as discussed by several analysts in the US-India context, should be pursued. After the conclusion of the US-India nuclear deal, this relationship is thirsty for such big ideas to push it beyond the rhetoric.

Active participation in Planetary Defense makes strong sense for India as well. India is one of only four great powers (India, US, Russia, China) that are both nuclear-capable and truly space-faring (having independent launch capabilities), the two pre-requisites to being able to deflect large asteroids, according to NASA. India has always seen its space program as serving the common man and the developmental mission of India. Now with the EU-proposed Space Code of Conduct gaining momentum, India is making active efforts to sit at the high table and shape these emerging rules. It is also making efforts to expand cooperation with other major space-faring powers, such as the US. While space exploration for the sake of exploration is exciting, the requirements for a planetary defense system, particularly in the backdrop of the challenges, are significant drivers of high technology cooperation. This should drive both India and the US to develop and share space-situational awareness, and such capabilities are a ticket to the high-table as well. Abilities that lead to protection from asteroid strikes also advance our abilities to use asteroids as resources, as the recent announcements of Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources Incorporated illustrate. A future International Space Code of Conduct and future space governance regime must include and facilitate capabilities that protect the planet and encourage space resource development.

Whether or not India's larger diplomatic organizations comprehend the importance of such on-going rule making, at least ISRO has not been totally absent. India's first-ever participation was to send an ISRO representative to the 2009 IAA Planetary Defense Conference in Grenada, Spain. Such participation should be continued and accelerated. This year, the Planetary Defense Conference will be on 15-19 April in Flagstaff, Arizona, USA. India should contemplate representation at these forums - with not just ISRO, but the MoD and MEA as well.

Even if small asteroids like 2012 DA14 were to hit a metropolis, it would have produced the equivalent destructive effects of a hydrogen bomb. Prior to the events of February 15, the Indian public and its policy makers likely could just not comprehend such a distant, seemingly un-real threat. Perhaps, after the 2012 DA 14 and the Russian meteor strike episodes, this will not be the case.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

North Korea's nuclear test: Regional dynamics

Here's a short essay on the recent North Korean nuclear test... looking at regional reactions, most specifically at the Japanese options.

The test, conducted in defiance of regional and global concerns, has been criticised by the UN, US, Japan and South Korea. The test has clearly upped the ante in the neighbourhood with Japan and South Korea raising the military alert levels to be prepared for any eventuality. The test raises a lot of questions: How does this affect the regional threat matrix? How would countries like Japan and South Korea respond? The timing of the test, on the day of President Obama's State of the Union address, is curious, especially in the backdrop of the North Korean state media agency statement pointing to the US as one of the reasons why they have conducted the test.

North Korea conducted a nuclear test for the third time on February 12, sparking criticism from the region and beyond. According to Asahi Shimbun, the state media agency, Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) stated that the test was conducted in a safe manner and this is aimed at coping with "outrageous" US hostility that "violently" undermines the North Korea's peaceful, sovereign rights to launch satellites. The agency went on to say that the test was packed with more explosive power and a "miniaturized" and "lighter" nuclear bomb. If these reports are true, Pyongyang has progressed in mastering the complex and complicated technology involved making the nuclear warhead small enough to fit into its missiles. The missile tests last December exhibited the increased range of new North Korean missiles, raising concerns in the region and beyond. The nuclear test also raised the suspicion about whether North Korea has made the switch from plutonium to uranium for its nuclear weapons. Japanese news media point out that North Korea has abundant deposits of uranium, and it is far simpler to enrich uranium in centrifuges than to reprocess plutonium.

Second, what is the rationale from the North Korean point of view? The new leadership in Pyongyang under Kim Jong Un could be trying to assert power and buy credibility through these tests. The power transition in Pyongyang has not exactly been smooth and there is believed to be infighting among multiple power centers. This test may be a reflection of the fact that King Jong Un is not in control of the affairs in Pyongyang.

Third, since North Korea has tested twice before, how significant is this in international political terms? Is North Korea testing again signify that the region did not respond in sufficiently serious ways to the first two Pyongyang tests? Japan, for instance, had contemplated serious responses, including possibly pre-emptive strikes as well as revisiting Tokyo's own nuclear options in each of the past crises. However, Tokyo has not done anything as yet, for a variety of reasons. These options could seriously impact the US-Japan security alliance. In addition, Japanese public opinion on nuclear weapons has remained uncertain. While a few right-wing politicians have called for exercising these options, the public continues to be wary of nuclear weapons. On the other hand, Fukushima notwithstanding, this is changing. The very fact that there is an open debate in Japan today along these lines says a lot about the future prospects of nuclear weapons in Japan. In Japan, those who have favoured these options have found justifications, tracing debates way back to 1956 when Prime Minister Hatoyama stated, "It is not an objective of the Constitution to oblige us to sit and wait to perish."

Japan has possibly looked at these options for two reasons. One, the continuing concerns about the non-proliferation regime and its effectiveness in tackling issues such as North Korea and Iran. Japan has reasons to believe that North Korea's nuclear and missile-related issues cannot be sorted out through international arms control agreements. While the North Korean threat is progressing, Japan is not certain about the effectiveness of international agreements to curb the North Korean threat.

Circumstances may be different today with an Abe administration, a more hardline government, in control in Japan. However, is Tokyo in a better position as far as its response options are concerned? Amendment to the Japanese Constitution and changing Article 9 is often talked about. This will be a significant boost to strengthen Japan's military options. Nevertheless, it is too early to say with certainty how Japan will respond to the changing threat dynamics.

The advancements that Pyongyang has made in terms of miniaturization of the device may be significant particularly in the backdrop of long-range delivery vehicles. With Pyongyang having tested the longer-range missiles in recent months, threat to even the United States has increased, which is reflected in Obama's reactions to the test. The Obama administration, unlike its milder response following the missile test, sounded much more alarmed. Secretary Panetta, for instance, has said, "We just saw what North Korea has done in these last few weeks, a missile test and now a nuclear test. They represent a serious threat to the United States of America, and we've got to be prepared to deal with that." This brings the question about the US response. Beyond the rhetoric, how differently will the US respond? Does the Obama Administration see the nuclear non-proliferation regime as an appropriate vehicle to bring on the pressure on Pyongyang?

The test also raises questions about the relevance of the six-party talks. So far, it appears that the talks have not fructified. The talks stalled in 2009 when North Korea decided to pull out following a failed satellite launch. This brings out into the open also the Chinese role in the six party talks. Beijing has remained the sole friend and benefactor to North Korea, extending the crucial economic, political and moral support. While there has been criticism that China has not been proactive in condemning Pyongyang's aggressive actions, the other side of the story may be as to how much of a leeway does China really have on North Korea to stop such posturing. There have been reasons to believe that China may have reached a point of frustration, as some of the WikiLeaks reports suggested.

In conclusion, while all the major players understand the challenges, they find themselves uniquely constrained in responding to North Korea.