Surveillance wars in space

This artist’s impression released by the European Space Agency shows the debris field in low-Earth orbit, which extends to 2,000 km above the Earth’s surface.   | Photo Credit: AFP

The dust and furore kicked up by India’s Anti-Satellite Missile (ASAT) test on March 27 is yet to settle. Critics have not stopped worrying about the potential harm that floating debris may cause to other satellites around that band in the sky. Years after Russia, the U.S., and China (referred to here as the Big Three) made a mark in this area, India too has shown that it can hit back at enemies attacking from space.

Military experts say that possessing the highly difficult capability to conduct such a test is important and essential for ensuring national security in space. Mission Shakti, as it is called, has earned India a place in an exclusive club of ‘space defenders’. However, a peek into counterspace, the world where such dangerous space activities are practised covertly by the Big Three, shows that while Mission Shakti is a giant leap for India, it is only a small step in that world. The new measure of space supremacy lurks in counterspace now, and not so much in planetary excursions and astronauts’ outings. This is why the Big Three have been relentlessly pursuing for decades activities that enable them to rule space militarily, for offence or defence purposes.

Playground for confidential activities

According to academic reports, policymakers and those tracking the military space, for several years now, the space between 600 km and 36,000 km above the earth has been the playground for such secret activities. Most people have no idea about what is happening up there.


Around the time Mission Shakti took place, the Center for Strategic and International Studies based in Washington, D.C. and the Secure World Foundation came out with reports detailing counterspace capabilities that different countries have today and their sense of threat to space assets. The reports document that satellites have been launched to sidle up to other satellites in the same orbit. Satellites with robotic arms or handles have touched or nudged their siblings in orbit. Mother (or nesting) spacecraft have gone up to ‘deliver’ baby spy satellites in orbit. Satellites have sneaked up to high perches to see, overhear and sense all that happens in space and on the ground. The intent of being in counterspace is thus surveillance and espionage. In times of war, the intent could even be to capture or disable a rival’s space assets in orbit.

Some say that the U.S. and Russia have always had some counterspace capabilities in their over 60-year-old space race. But this century, they have reportedly developed deadly armouries that can be either unleashed into or from space.

Surveillance wars in space

Loud concerns have been raised over rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO) in space. The actor countries neither acknowledge nor discuss such activities and give them other names. In an RPO event, one country sends a satellite that clandestinely sits next to one of its own (or another country’s) orbiting satellites. The motive could be to inspect and assess the target’s nature, eavesdrop on it, or even subvert its functions. The fear is that in extreme cases, the target may even be ‘abducted’ or taken control of. Fortunately India is not there — for now.

Loitering in orbit

Satellites of each of the Big Three has been caught loitering in orbit at different times, and the victims have cried foul. In September 2018, French Defence Minister Florence Parly was reported to have charged that Russian satellite Luch-Olymp was lurking too close to — and spying on — a Franco-Italian military communications satellite, Athena-Fidus, in 2017, that is, the previous year.

The U.S. has reportedly had its share of RPOs and other acts. In the foreword to the CSIS report, U.S. policymaker Jim Cooper says, “Every nation’s satellites face increasing threats... The risk of a space Pearl Harbor is growing every day.” He cautions that today countries depend so much on their satellites that “cripple our satellites and you cripple us”.

Countries are also honing non-kinetic, electronics and cyber-based methods to prevent satellites of other countries from spying on their regions. Cyber attacks can destroy, steal or distort other satellites or ground stations. The attacker gains control of the space asset.

“No one will declare that they are pursuing these kind of technologies but all are doing it, all have to do it, specially major players,” says Dinesh Kumar Yadvendra, distinguished fellow at the Centre for Joint Warfare Studies, a Delhi-based think tank of the Ministry of Defence. In times of war no one is spared, and a country must be ready with its counter-security tactics, he says.

What could India’s people in military space have up their sleeve? It is most unlikely that they will tell us.


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Printable version | Oct 24, 2021 2:21:57 PM |

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