The utility of space as a medium for war has grown exponentially since the days of the Cold War Space Race. The military potential of satellites is manifold: communications, navigation, early-warning systems, reconnaissance, and signal intelligence. Any state that manages to get the upper hand in this frontier can be expected to dominate the outcome of any war. A state with command over space-based assets can jam enemy satellites or destroy them, and stop the enemy from communicating with troops or accessing vital information about troop movements or incoming missiles. It is in this context that the events in India’s neighborhood have caused anxiety and have led to calls for a new space policy aimed at countering the growing might of China’s space military program.
Threats From China’s Anti-Satellite (ASAT) Program
According to some reports, Beijing conducted its latest anti-satellite missile test in 2013, when it launched its new ASAT (anti-satellite) missile, the Dong Neng-2 or DN-2. A U.S. defense official familiar with military intelligence, speaking on the condition of anonymity, described the DN-2 as a “ground-based, high earth-orbit attack missile.” Further, a report by the Secure World Foundation stated that “while there is no conclusive proof, the available evidence strongly suggests that China’s May 2013 launch was the test of the rocket component of a new direct ascent ASAT weapons system derived from a road-mobile ballistic missile.”
This was not the first time Beijing tested its ASAT program. A more prominent test occurred in January 2007, when the Chinese military launched a KT-1 rocket that successfully destroyed a redundant Chinese Feng Yun 1-C weather satellite in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), approximately 800 kilometers above the Earth. The test left behind approximately 2,500 to 3,000 pieces of dangerous debris in LEO, where reconnaissance and weather satellites and manned space missions are vulnerable to space debris. In May 2013, a Russian satellite was struck and destroyed, reportedly by one such piece of debris.
Hazardous space debris aside, the test also confirmed China’s capability to attack and destroy enemy satellites in the event of war, sabotaging the enemy’s military operations.
Such developments have not gone unnoticed in New Delhi’s defense establishment. Security experts and scholars have called for a rethink of India’s space policy, augmenting India’s ASAT weapons capability. Following China’s 2007 ASAT weapons test, the then-chief of army staff of the Indian Army, General Deepak Kapoor, was quoted in a Times of India report saying that China’s space program was expanding at an “exponentially rapid” pace in both offensive and defensive capabilities, and that space was becoming the “ultimate military high ground” to dominate in the wars of the future. Then-Integrated Defense Staff Chief Lt. General H S Lidder was also quoted as saying, “with time, we will get sucked into the military race to protect space assets and inevitably there will be a military contest in space. In a life-and-death scenario, space will provide the advantage.”
A breakthrough emerged in 2012 when V.K. Saraswat, then the chief of the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO), India’s premier defense R&D organization, announced that India has all the building blocks in place to integrate an anti-satellite weapon to neutralize hostile satellites in low earth and polar orbits. In an interview, Saraswat suggested that India’s anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defense program could be utilized as an ASAT weapon, along with its Agni series of missiles. This was corroborated by DRDO, which said that the Indian Ballistic Missile Defense Program can incorporate anti-satellite weapon development.
It should also be remembered that with the recent successes of its Mars mission and the geosynchronous satellite launch vehicle (GSLV-D5), the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) now has the capability to launch satellites weighing in excess of two tons, an important prerequisite for the deployment of any weapons system. And while existing space treaties prohibit placing weapons of mass destruction in space, they do not explicitly prohibit the placing of other types of weapons. For DRDO then, the next goal would likely be to develop orbital weapons, which could remain in space for as long as required while orbiting Earth or the Moon.
Does India Really Have an ASAT Weapons Capability?
While the statements by V.K. Saraswat created ripples all over, at home his statements were dismissed by certain scholars as an exaggeration. Questioning India’s “purported” capabilities, scholars like Michael Listner and Victoria Samson have pointed out that without conducting a test and demonstrating its ASAT capability explicitly, India will only be seen as a “paper tiger” by the arms control and intelligence community. Listner pointed out that the acknowledgement by Saraswat about India developing and bringing together the basic technologies to create a system that could be used against enemy satellites, and the decision to adapt India’s ABM technology for an ASAT role was “doubtless encouraged by the ancillary capability demonstrated by the United States when it adapted its ABM system to deorbit USA 193 in 2008.” But should such ancillary capability be taken as a evidence of full ASAT capability?
Expressing perplexity over contradictory statements from Indian officials, and their refusal to clear the air about India’s ASAT program, Listner states that public statements about India’s purported ASAT capability seem to “fit neither an active program to develop an ASAT or an ancillary capability to ballistic missile defense.”
However, in 2011, Bharath Gopalaswamy, who was then a researcher in the Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Program at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, claimed that India’s scientific community is open to an ASAT test, if it was done with caution. Rajeswari Rajagopalan, senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi based think tank, said that “India might do an ASAT test in the next five to 10 years.” While these statements are illuminating as to the going-ons in India’s academic and scientific circles, actually testing India’s purported ASAT capacity is easier said than done. As pointed out by Arvind Kumar, professor of Geopolitics and International Relations at Manipal University, ASAT capabilities require a number of technologies related to space-based sensors, synthetic aperture radars, electronics, a sound navigation system, guidance and control, and global positioning systems. A number of different types of sensors, including infrared sensors, optical sensors, electronic-optical sensors, and magnetic sensors are vital to monitor, detect, and help in sensing the events. Whether India has the ability to acquire or build these technologies is doubtful.
The Case for ASAT Weapons Demonstration
The questions raised over India’s ASAT weapons capacity are doubtless important. Even if New Delhi does have an anti-satellite weapons capability, it will only be acknowledged if it comes out in the open with a successful test. But such a demonstration will come with its own costs. What would be the consequences if New Delhi decided to demonstrate its purported ASAT capability?
It should be remembered that along with causing grave insecurity, and possibly a space-weaponization race in the region, such a test will also lead to the creation of hazardous space debris, which could doubtless elicit international opprobrium, and possibly even sanctions. Burgeoning relations with the United States — which even led to the signing of the 2005 India-US Civil Nuclear Agreement and made India the first country with nuclear weapons which is not a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), but still allowed to carry out nuclear commerce with a nuclear weapons state — could end in jeopardy if India unilaterally tests ASAT weapons.
Further, at a time when India is looking at the indigenization of its defense industry to cut the costs of importing weapons (India is the world’s largest arms importer) and hoping to garner international investments in its defense and manufacturing industry, such a move could stall such developments as investors would see the tests as a sign of aggression and defiance of international norms. Additionally, for India to establish its defense-industrial base, it needs the transfer of technology from technologically advanced nations. If New Delhi decides to go ahead with ASAT tests, it will possibly be looking at sanctions, not tech transfers.
It would also also be incongruous with India’s own conduct if New Delhi decides to test ASAT weapons. India is a member of the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC), and has contributed significantly to crafting that organization’s mitigation guidelines. A successful test of an ASAT weapon by India and the resulting debris would seriously erode its credibility in this arena. Security analysts and scholars advocating the demonstration of ASAT weapons should not be under any impression that New Delhi will be treated to the same measured response from the international community as Beijing was after 2007.
However, a new treaty banning space weaponization could inhibit India from demonstrating its ability in the future. After the 2007 test conducted by China, there has been renewed talk of a restrictive treaty banning space-weaponization. Much like the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that forced restrictions on the non-nuclear weapons states of the time (including India), a new restrictive regime on space-weaponization could foreclose India’s options, giving the United States, China, and Russia ASAT-weapons-state status a la NPT, while keeping India out of the club. This could again lead to discrimination against India in case it decides to conduct a test to display its existing ability. It would also put New Delhi at a serious disadvantage, as it would then only be able to negotiate on such a new treaty as an “outsider” rather than an “insider” with ASAT weapons capability. If India shies away from demonstrating its ASAT weapons capability before a restrictive treaty is enforced, it will be repeating a historic mistake.
For policymakers in New Delhi the situation is tricky. There are both pros and cons for demonstrating India’s ASAT weapons capability. In this scenario, it is important to look for a middle ground where India can test its ASAT weapons without creating any hazardous atmosphere in outer space due to debris. One possibility would be to test anti-satellite weapons at a low altitude, where the resulting debris would enter the Earth’s atmosphere and burn up without causing any damage. At a lower altitude, the atmospheric drag results in orbital decay that reduces the altitude of space debris. It eventually enters Earth’s atmosphere and usually burns up on re-entry.
Yet another way to demonstrate ASAT capability without causing debris would be to do a fly-by test, where the ground-based direct ascent missile will fly by the targeted satellite without destroying it. Lastly, New Delhi could also test its ability to sabotage satellites by jamming satellites using space-based lasers. This method falls under the category of “soft-kill” methods and does not create debris.
Whether a fly-by test or jamming a satellite, both would require technological superiority to conduct the test and also to satisfactorily gauge the results. Whether DRDO and ISRO have such technological capability is not known.
Harsh Vasani is a Postgraduate Research Scholar at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal University.