Parley | Is India’s anti-satellite test a game-changer?

On April 1, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) successfully launched a PSLV C45 rocket with a payload of 29 satellites. Days before this, on March 27, in an operation called ‘Mission Shakti’, the Defence Research & Development Organisation demonstrated India’s ability in offensive defence capability, using a missile to destroy a satellite in Low Earth Orbit. In a discussion moderated by V. Sudarshan, D. Raghunandan and Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan look at India’s options and its role in the global governance of outer space. Excerpts:

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan: The anti-satellite (ASAT) test has been in the making for more than a decade actually. Ever since the first Chinese anti-satellite test in January 2007, there has been concern over India’s own space assets and what kind of damage and destruction could happen should China decide to shoot down or temporarily disable one of our own satellites. That was the first time we recognised the importance of preserving outer space in a big way. A second important factor is that we did not want to repeat the experience of what happened in the nuclear domain. We don’t want a Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons or NPT-like mechanism to come about in the space domain that would actually lead to a ban on India’s future ASAT tests.


Raghunandan, how does knocking out a satellite in Low Earth Orbit actually promote deterrence?

D. Raghunandan: My own feeling is the U.S., Russia and China have come to realise the somewhat limited nature of deterrence offered by anti-satellite weapons. None of them has developed large inventories of ASAT missiles or targeted a whole range of satellites of adversary nations. One must understand that all these nations have a few hundreds of satellites up in space which are used for military or dual purposes.

How many satellites are you going to target and is knocking out one satellite going to really be a deterrent? Is it good to continue with killer missiles or are there other ways to disable adversary satellites? So I have my doubts about the deterrent capabilities of ASAT missiles, particularly as you may have noticed that all nations are extremely cagey about blowing up satellites in orbit because of the debris created. And if you have multiple such things going on, then you are obviously going to create multiple sets of problems. If the conflict between nations were to reach a stage where you are knocking out each other’s satellites, then I think it would have already reached nuclear weapon threshold and then we are in a different ballgame entirely.

Rajeshwari, is the deterrence in space as complex as Raghunandan says it is?

R.P.R.: It is. And I would start with the fact that, so far, the established space players who have demonstrated the ASAT capability have not adopted deterrence as part of their space policy. So we are still in a good space right now where states have not made space a part of their deterrence policy. So that is an encouraging sign and that must be continued.

D.R.: I agree.

R.P.R.: As Raghu mentioned, there are other technologies available. Increasingly, the electronic and cyber warfare capabilities, any number of technologies that can be used through cyber through lasers to create temporary disruptions, and disabling somebody else’s satellite and communications services to creating more permanent damage. So there are many ways of addressing this issue.

Raghunandan, in terms of evolution of our space military posture, how integrated are we in our capabilities?

D.R.: Fortunately, ASAT capabilities have not fully been weaponised by all the countries. And, therefore, I think it affords a good opportunity to move forwards towards demilitarisation of outer space. The second aspect is that while India has articulated a doctrine with regard to nuclear weapons, which includes a declaration of no-first-use and so on, we do not as yet have a strategic doctrine with regard to the weaponisation in space. I think it would be good if India develops a doctrine for weaponisation in space as well as an integrated security doctrine which brings together nuclear, space and other advanced technologies so that you do have an integrated posture. The third point is that there is an added complication with regard to ASAT weaponry. That is, not all countries have their own dedicated military satellites which a third country can knock out and therefore disable that country’s network-centric platforms and weapons systems. Many countries use third-party satellites. Many countries use dual purpose satellites. So it is not at all clear, for example, if India shoots down ‘x’ number of satellites belonging to a country, we have disabled that country’s military communications. And this applies to any country.

Where are we in terms of disparities between us and China? What are we up against?

D.R.: India has barely begun development of ASAT missiles. China has been at this for more than a decade. They are believed to have worked on missiles targeting high latitude satellites at 36,000 km above the earth whereas we have only conducted the test at the Low Earth Orbit. China has also been doing considerable work experimenting with laser-based weaponry and cyber weaponry which are likely to prove to be more effective than a whole battery of missiles targeting satellites. We are way behind.

Isn’t there an inherent contradiction between our position on no weaponisation of space that we have adopted and a steady accrual of military assets in space that we are also doing at the same time?

D.R.: There is, in the sense that these two impulses are contrary. But I think that the real question to be asked is whether India’s statement about weaponisation in space, wanting to dial back weaponisation, is more for public consumption than for actual pursuit of de-weaponisation in space. If India is serious about wanting to de-weaponise space, then India should take active measures in the conference on disarmament along with other countries like Russia or China which have already initiated some proposals there. All of these have been completely stonewalled by the U.S., which disagrees with even the term ‘weaponisation of space’ and has resisted attempts to look for de-weaponisation of space, claiming that any moves in that direction denies the U.S. the ability for self-defence. But if India is serious, India should declare no-first-use of the ASAT weaponry as we have done for the nuclear [weapons], and adopt a strong domestic doctrine on weaponisation of space just as we have a declared doctrine for nuclear weapons.

We are launching a lot of satellites for other countries. How much do you think our military programmes are being cross-subsidised by these launches?

D.R.: I doubt it is very much. The major reason why India is popular as a launch destination is because of its lower costs. The incomes also will be correspondingly not very high. The second aspect is that all satellites we have launched have been Low Earth satellites. The real money in international launches lies in the communication satellites, the heavier satellites at 36,000 km above the earth. That’s where the money is for telephony, television and the rest. We haven’t yet broken into that league in terms of satellite launching.

Rajeshwari, can you give us an overview of what we are up against in terms of their militarisation in terms of space?

R.P.R.: China has shown it has much greater space competitiveness. For the longest time, India was just doing four to five launches per year; on the other hand, the Chinese were doing this on an average of 20 a year. That has a certain consequence not just for the overall competitiveness in terms of the launch market... but when you look at the global commercial space market that is available (and that you don’t want to lose it completely) and if you are not able to increase competitiveness, that’s a serious problem. Second, there is another important component which is about how much of the growing requirements of the military are from the security sector within India that ISRO will be able to provide.

There is a capacity gap. Even as China talks the language of peaceful uses of outer space, the reality has been that there is a flourishing military programme under the PLA leadership. The Chinese are also setting up a space station some time in the 2022-2024 time frame when the International Space Station is possibly winding down. This also leads to concerns as to how space activity in the future might shape [up].

Is there is a contradiction between the impulse towards disarmament and the impulse towards militarisation?

R.P.R.: Again I would emphasise that our deterrence capability is not a war-fighting capability. We are still looking at a non-weaponisation of space. On militarisation I want to refer to a point that Raghu mentioned. Raghu said we need to prevent space militarisation. I like the idea of preventing space militarisation but I think there is a big difference between space militarisation and space weaponisation. And I think these two concepts are used in a very interchangeable manner. Space militarisation is something that has happened from the 1990s.

In the first Gulf War, for instance, you actually saw technology playing a major role in warfare. Since then, most militaries around the world have come to recognise and acknowledge the possible use of space assets for military operations. What they call intelligence gathering, surveillance, reconnaissance, military communications, drone programmes. We cannot go back on all these developments. But what we are trying to prevent today is the early trend towards weaponisation. We don’t want to weaponise outer space. For that again we do not have to put weapons in outer space.

ASAT capabilities are the best example. That is warfare, that is weaponisation and that is something we are trying to see — if that can be stopped, that process can be halted. But again, we have been going back and forth, there are different understandings of what a space weapon is. How do you define these terms? There are major differences of opinion.

Now that India has demonstrated this capability, India needs to play an even more active role in the global governance of outer space. But I have a slightly different opinion when it comes to who we partner with if India feels that we alone cannot go out into the global domain and create new rules of the road. We can certainly partner with like-minded countries.


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Printable version | Nov 28, 2020 8:52:09 PM |

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