Fortunately, the final frontier has yet to become a battlefield. On present trends, however, the next two decades will witness a global arms race in space, culminating in a sophisticated weapons system being placed in orbit. The United States and Russia (formerly the Soviet Union) have been active in this sphere since the early 1960s, when the Soviets first tested the “hunter killer” low orbit satellite system. The U.S. responded with a series of advanced strategic missile projects and some more promising ground launched initiatives. Since then, however, both the U.S. and Russia have constrained their space military programs, seeking to discourage weaponization. Still, both countries have made it clear they will start again, should a line be crossed.
In 2007, China sparked global concern when it successfully tested its first ASAT (anti-satellite) missile, destroying one of its obsolete weather satellites at an altitude of 865 km. In 2006, the U.S. government released a report claiming that China had tagged some U.S. observation satellites with a high-power laser system. Although no major damage was done to the satellites, it later emerged that the laser was not directed at the optical lenses, which could have rendered the satellites useless. In 2008, when the Shenzhou-07 was in orbit, the taikonauts on the mission released a BX-1 micro satellite. The BX-1 flew within the 1000-mile secure radius of the International Space Station (the ISS is programmed to change trajectory and orbit should this happen). Although no harm was done, this demonstrated China’s ability to deploy micro satellites with ASAT capabilities.
China has long lobbied against the weaponization of outer space. The sudden change in its space policy can be viewed as an attempt at deterrence, as well as a hedging of its bets. According to Theresa Hitchens, director of the Center for Defense Information, a private group in Washington that tracks military programs, “For several years, the Russians and Chinese have been trying to push a treaty to ban space weapons. The concept of exhibiting a hard-power capability to bring somebody to the negotiating table is a classic cold war technique.” In 2006, the Bush Administration authorized a policy, noting that the United States would “preserve its rights, capabilities, and freedom of action in space” and “dissuade or deter others from either impeding those rights or developing capabilities intended to do so.” It declared the United States would “deny, if necessary, adversaries the use of space capabilities hostile to U.S. national interests.”
Apart from the global ramifications, these developments have sent alarm bells ringing in India. An opponent of the weaponizing of space, India has made impressive developments with its Agni–V Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile, joining an elite club of countries that possess this technology. Recently, the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) announced that it can harness the technology to manufacture anti-satellite weaponry. This, along with the Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO) success with indigenous launch vehicles, equips the Indian space program with the technological capability to undertake space weaponization activities. From the mid 1970s to 2005, the Indian space program suffered due to the imposition of a sanctions regime in response to its nuclear policies, which left it struggling with little outside technical assistance. India was welcomed back to the mainstream only after a deal with the U.S. was signed in 2005. Eventually, in 2011, the U.S. administration moved certain strategic companies, including those from the ISRO, off the so-called Entity List, in an effort to drive hi-tech trade and forge closer strategic ties with India.
ISRO has already established a reputation for reliability when it comes to launching smaller satellites using its smaller Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). Its workhorse launch vehicle has put more than 35 satellites of various countries, weighing between one kg and 712 kg, into orbit, not to mention more than a dozen Indian satellites. With the recent success of the geosynchronous satellite launch vehicle (GSLV-D5), the ISRO is ready to take on satellites weighing in excess of two tons, an important prerequisite to the deployment of any weapons system. Existing space treaties prohibit placing weapons of mass destruction in space, but not other types of weapons. Therefore, the next logical step for the DRDO is to develop orbital weapons, which could remain in space for as long as required while orbiting Earth or the Moon.
The line between militarization and weaponization is blurred. Militarization is the build up to a state of conflict and broadly encompasses any activity that furthers this objective. Weaponization, by contrast, means actively developing or deploying a weapon. According to many experts, militarization of space first occurred in 1957 when Sputnik 1 was put into orbit by the Soviet Union. Since then, many auxiliary technology satellites have been launched (such as telecommunications, relief mapping and orbital imaging), directly or indirectly assisting warfare efforts on terra firma and over water. Today, militaries all over the world rely heavily on satellites for command and control, communication, monitoring, early warning, and navigation with the Global Positioning System (GPS). While the term “peaceful purposes” hardly applies to such activities, military applications such as using satellites to direct bombing raids or to orchestrate a “prompt global strike” capability are gradually encroaching on the space environment and have raised serious concerns.
So space warfare can be studied on the basis of a utility criterion in three ways: auxiliary systems, which can assist in warfare on other terrains; defensive systems, which are required to protect these space assets; and weaponized systems – which are purely offensive in nature.
In 2012, the then DRDO chief V.K. Saraswat emphasized a defensive strategy for India in the space domain. Sticking to the principle of “no weaponizing,” Saraswat projected the view that space security entails the creation of “a gamut of capabilities,” including the protection of satellites, communications and navigation systems and denying the enemy the use of their own “space systems.”
The domestic Indian missile defense shield is designed to protect key parts of Indian territory from ballistic missiles originating from China and Pakistan. Priority has to be given to the kill vehicle. Going forward, said Saraswat, “What is needed is technology to track the movement of enemy satellites, for instance, before making a kinetic kill. We are trying to build a credible deterrence capability.” At the same time Saraswat made it clear that this anti satellite device “will not be tried out in real life conditions unless there are exigencies.” The comment echoes India’s resolve to stick to a defensive program only.
Countries have long grappled with the issue of space junk left behind by their activities. The 2007 Chinese ASAT test filled the Lower Earth Orbit (LEO) with an estimated 2500 pieces of dangerous debris. In May 2013, a Russian satellite was stuck and destroyed by one such piece. Thus, systems to protect against debris also need to be developed for LEO satellites. India, now a major spacefaring nation, has in orbit a substantial number of satellites for communications, meteorology, earth observation and scientific research. It is also developing its own indigenous Indian Regional Navigational Satellite System (IRNSS) to reduce is reliance on the GPS used by the U.S. and the Russian GLONASS
India recently launched its first dedicated defense satellite, GSAT-7 for the Indian Navy. This is seen as the start of a long line of defense application oriented satellites that the Integrated Space Cell (ISC, initiated in 2008) may want to put into orbit. Already an “eye-in-the-sky” system for the Air Force is being considered. The Integrated Space Cell is currently operated jointly by the three service arms, the DRDO, and the ISRO, making it more of a central information network system than an offensive one. The CARTOSAT-2A, a dedicated satellite of the Indian Armed Forces, will also fall under the jurisdiction of this nodal agency. Although a fledgling agency at the moment, the ISC may be the stepping stone to a fully fledged Indian Military Space Command in the near future.
For India, the issue is China’s reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities, which are essentially satellite-based systems. In battle, the army in possession of the higher ground has a natural advantage over its adversary; right now this higher ground is space.
Amit R. Saksena is a postgraduate scholar at the Jindal School of International Affairs. The views expressed in this article are his own.