Will India’s recent entry into space weaponisation trigger an arms race with China?

Will India’s recent entry into space weaponisation trigger an arms race with China?

The current Modi administration remained silent on the issue of space weaponisation for the majority of their first term in power. However, on 27th March 2019, India conducted its first successful ASAT [Anti-Satellite] test. The test, dubbed Mission Shakti, was conducted on an active satellite in the LEO which was shot down by a hard kinetic-kill missile. Several components of the test were taken from India’s ballistic missile defence programme which has long been touted as the surest way to develop an effective ASAT capability for India.

It was later revealed that the satellite that was shot down was launched two months prior specifically for the test. It was also revealed that ISRO and DRDO had developed all components and were planning for the test since 2016. The DRDO claimed that the ASAT weapon had been developed to be able to reach targets up to 1,000 kilometres in space but was tested at a much lower distance to minimise debris fallout from the test.

With the confirmation of an ASAT capability, it is likely that India will indoctrinate their use in the form of a space doctrine.
Analysts had argued that with a space arms race inevitable, India should pursue the hedging strategy of other nations in the development of ASAT weapons, and make a declaration of this pursuit to ensure that any potential adversaries are deterred from planning to attack India’s space assets.

Another argument, made by several experts, likened the situation before India’s ASAT test to the state of nuclear weapons before the establishment of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). They argue that if a similar treaty is established for space weapons – one defining haves and have-nots – India would be at a serious disadvantage if a test is not conducted, and would face repercussions similar to those after the NPT came into force.

Even though there has been a call for denuclearisation of the five NPT nuclear-weapon states, they have been slow to implement these measures, leading to fears this would be the case for space weapons as well. With the confirmation of an ASAT capability, India is in a position to push for recognition as a space weapon possessing state if any such treaty were to be formed. However, such a treaty for space does not seem to be in the pipeline. The United States is expected to oppose any legally binding treaty on the subject, and there are currently very few “haves” in terms of ASAT capabilities.

Other schools of thought are more pragmatic. Experts question the realistic threat to India’s space infrastructure from China’s capabilities and policies.

While China has conducted successful ASAT tests, it still advocates prevention of an arms race in outer space at various international forums, such as the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space or COPUOS and the Conference on Disarmament (CD), along with Russia.

The ASAT tests, which have elicited grave concern from the United States, might have been a bargaining chip to bring America to the table for a legally binding treaty on the prevention of arms in space. There has still been no evidence of China having a space situational-awareness network capable of tracking satellites other than its own.

As long as this is the case, the threat to Indian satellites does not seem imminent, and China’s policy on the topic also supports this assessment. India has supported various treaties on de-weaponising space and it remains to be seen what its stance will be in these discussions post the test being conducted.

Space weaponisation cannot be removed from the larger context of building a stronger set of measures to govern the space commons. While some Indian academics wanted to see the country possess space weapons for a variety of reasons, the impact of the test on India’s negotiations on the Code of Conduct (CoC) for spacefaring nations may be irrevocable. Over the past decade, India has emerged as a capable and responsible spacefaring nation, allowing it to become an important stakeholder in the debate about the future of space conduct.

Considering India’s growing need for space assets for commercial, as well as military, purposes, several believe that the declaration of an ASAT capability is a step back for India in its pursuit to be a thought leader for negotiations on a Code of Conduct for weaponisation in space.

While China has made its ASAT capabilities clear, Pakistan and other regional powers have yet to do so.
Pakistan’s space programme lags behind India’s, and the former is currently focussed on establishing a competent civilian space programme. Though most experts feel Pakistan is still a long way from building any form of ASAT capabilities, others argue that while it is not as capable in space as India or China, having missile technology makes the development of an ASAT weapon possible.

Even though Pakistan possesses ballistic-missile technology, it does not have the pre-requisites of either an accomplished system or an able space infrastructure. That said,the test conducted by India of an ASAT weapon might change the dynamics of the regional status quo.

As was seen in the cases of nuclear weaponisation and ballistic-missile capabilities, Pakistan was largely prompted to develop an arsenal of its own by a perceived threat from India’s capabilities. Similarly, with the declaration of an ASAT weapon, India might inadvertently have triggered a regional arms race in space, which would raise the stakes for all nations involved.

There was a clear distinction in global reaction to the ASAT tests conducted by China and the United States in 2007 and 2008, respectively.

While the Chinese test was met with sharp criticism, the US test received a far milder reaction. This might have been largely due to how these tests were conducted: although both destroyed obsolete satellites, the narrative built around these tests was very different.

China conducted its without explicit announcement or notification, even to US officials, who had repeatedly asked for greater openness on such issues. This came on the back of two tests, conducted in 2005 and 2006, that were not reported by China but were detected by the United States.

Not only was China criticised sharply on account of the space debris created by the test endangering other satellites in similar orbits, it did not admit to it until long after, drawing further attention to its covert nature.

The United States on the other hand, notified countries of its intent to hit the obsolete earth-imaging satellite, thereby fulfilling its notification obligations under the Outer SpaceTreaty. It claimed that the test was not being conducted for military purposes, but that it was shooting down a satellite it feared was in an unstable orbit, which would cause problem on re-entry and release a toxic cloud of gas on account of its hydrazine fuel tank.

Even though there were questions as to whether re-entry of the satellite was even a threat, the narrative was strong enough to ensure that the United States avoided harsh criticism. In addition to the narrative, the United States shot down the satellite with its missile-defence system, while China did it with a dedicated ASAT weapon. This left the United States with room to deny having any intentions of testing its system, making it seem like an ancillary capability that was chosen merely to fulfil the aim of neutralising the threat of the satellite, rather than testing a dedicated ASAT weapon.

The manner in which these tests were conducted clearly defined the response most countries had to them, making China’s attempts to prevent weaponisation of space questionable. India’s ASAT weapon was developed under relative secrecy and the test carried out with little by way of notification other than an aircraft safety advisory before the test was conducted.

Unlike the US, India made no attempt to justify its test as anything other than an overt display of India’s space weaponry capabilities.

The test drew mixed reactions from different quarters across the globe. A number of space-faring countries criticised the test for creating debris in the LEO which may endanger other satellites.

Even though New Delhi attempted to allay these fears by claiming that the debris would eventually burn up when re-entering the atmosphere, several experts claim that the debris continue to orbit and are a source of concern to other satellites in orbit. The one significant diplomatic victory for India came through Washington’s reaction to the ASAT test, which was restrained in its criticism of the test, limiting concerns to the debris fallout of the test.

The US reaction was markedly different from their reactions to the Chinese ASAT test as well as to past Indian nuclear tests, indicative of the close strategic relationship that India and the US share which extends to space as well. The reaction from Washington was echoed by similar reactions from India’s allies, which too were mild in their criticism of the test and chose to not highlight the impact of the test on a global space arms race.

The statements by India’s allies suggest that the Indian administration carefully managed the public relations fallout of the test, ensuring that allies are kept in the loop on developments and limiting strong condemnation to regional rivals such as Pakistan and China.

Even though India has developed and tested a hard-kill weapon, policy and doctrine questions over the use and further development of offensive space capabilities remain. In a complex environment, it is important that India continues to consider developing soft-kill or blinding techniques. These weapons can prove equally effective in giving India ASAT capabilities, while being discrete.

The most significant advantage of a soft-kill weapon is the ease with which a test can be conducted. While hard-kill weapons are a sure way of projecting power, soft-kill, jamming, or dazzling weapons are the route to take in circumstances where capabilities need to be tested without making an announcement.

A report by scientists working for China’s top laser-research institute admitted that China had been looking at developing ASAT laser weapons and conducted a test in 2005 that blinded a Chinese satellite. The test was not public knowledge until the report was published in 2013; this displays the ease with which a secret weapons test can be conducted for soft-kill and blinding ASAT weapons.

Presently, India is far behind China in developing such weapons, and some time away from having the capability to conduct a direct-energy ASAT test in space. Still, India should not ignore these weapons as a part of the national strategy. It should be mindful of Chinese attempts to develop direct-energy ASAT weapons because India does not have definitive knowledge on how close China is to creating an effective weapon.

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