Is weaponising a space a legitimate option for any state? The outer space treaty (OST) emphasises that ‘peaceful usages’ of space is important. But, at the same time, there is no common understanding on what should constitute a space weapon. Damage to satellite in space could be carried out by firing a missile from the ground to the space, by using a space-based weapon or by using ground and/or space-based jammers. Presently, only a theoretical possibility exists in regard to putting weapons in space to engage a ground-based target. On the other hand, various treaties and norms do exist in the space arena, which could be interpreted to conclude that space weaponisation is incorrect. However, mostly the selective and inferred interpretations of law would have limitations. Hence, there is no direct answer to the question regarding the legitimacy of space weaponisaton.
Also, it is argued that if the USA, the sole superpower in space and even otherwise, escalates the process of militarisation and weaponisation of space, then other states would try to follow them. This would lead to a destabilising effect on global community . In contrast, five decades since the launching of the first
satellite barring few cases of ASAT demonstration, no actual ASAT attack has ever happened. This is a good omen, but absence of any attack on the adversaries’ satellite infrastructure till date does not guaranty that it would not happen in future. Understanding such realities, few Asian states have probably started making investments in the ASAT technologies. The aim could to be to develop and test them to demonstrate the capabilities. However, there appears to be much ambiguity in regard to the ASAT policies of various Asian states (same is true globally too). None of the Asian states are found taking clear positions of this issue. It appears that every state is waiting for others to make the first ‘move’!
Contradicting its own stated goal of a ‘peaceful rise’ on January 11, 2007, China carried out an ASAT test by destroying its own ageing weather satellite (Y-1C) by using a kinetic kill vehicle (KKV) technology. This act involved mounting a metal piece on the top of the missile KT-2 which destroyed its target simply by colliding with it. Beijing demonstrated the dramatic technological advances made by China through this test. It conducted this test on a spacecraft flying as fast as an intercontinental ballistic missile, re-entering the atmosphere. The satellite’s destruction was carried out by a unitary hit-to-kill payload—a technique far superior than what was used by the erstwhile Soviet Union. Since this satellite intercept occurred along the ascent trajectory of the offensive missiles’ flight, it could be concluded that the overall guidance and control systems as well as the KKV’s own sensors were so accurate that the Chinese engineers never took the option of exploiting the booster’s descent trajectory to give the kill vehicle more time, both to observe the target satellite and to manoeuvre as necessary . During this test, China destroyed a 750-kg satellite orbiting at an altitude of 850 km. This in turn has created significant amount of debris in space almost to the tune of 300,000 big and small pieces of debris.
Apart from the ASAT weapons, China’s counter-space efforts also include satellite jamming technologies. China has probably made substantial investments in the field of ground-based lasers to destroy/damage satellites. In fact, China has pursued a variety of space warfare programmes particularly over the last decade. China has also invested in direct-attack and directed-energy weapons . As per the Pentagon’s 1998 report to the Congress, ‘China already may possess the capability to damage, under specific conditions, optical sensors on satellites that are very vulnerable to damage by lasers’, and that ‘given China’s current interest in laser technology, it is reasonable to assume that Beijing would develop a weapon that could destroy satellites in the future’.24 In 2006, US government officials had accused China of using lasers against their reconnaissance satellites on a number of occasions . According to one Pentagon report a year before, ‘PLA is building lasers to destroy satellites and already has beam weapons capable of damaging sensors on space based reconnaissance and intelligence systems. Consequently, China could blind the US intelligence and military space equipment systems vital for deploying US military forces in current and future warfare’.
For the last couple of years, the Chinese interests in developing and testing various methodologies for carrying out antisatellite operations are being debated. There are reports that China has completed ground tests of an advanced antisatellite weapon called ‘parasitic satellite’. It is likely to be deployed on an experimental basis and enters the phase of space test in the near future. These satellite systems are probably already ground tested. This ASAT system can be used against various types of satellites such as communication satellites, navigational satellites and early warning satellites in different orbits. The cost of building this satellite system is 0.1-1% of typical satellite . References to Parasite satellite are also found in 2003 and 2004 annual reports on the military power of China of the department of defence. Few scholars are of the opinion that even though China is working on small satellites, the idea of a Parasite satellite may not be true [7, p. 217]. Probably, arguments negating the likely ASAT potential of China were mostly made before the 2007 tests.
Theoretically, apart from China, India is another country in the region capable of developing and demonstrating ASAT capability. It is planning to build up its ‘potential’ for delivering an antisatellite weapon (ASAT). It appears that India has both technological wherewithal and political determination to undertake such test. At the same time, it has the maturity to understand the geopolitical implications for such testing and hence it likely to undertake the test only after undertaking a detailed cost benefits analysis.
India’s premier Defence Research and Development Organizations (DRDO) Director General VK Saraswat has claimed that ‘India is putting together building blocks of technology that could be used to neutralize enemy satellites’, while speaking to media on the sidelines of the 97th Indian Science Congress. This announcement has significant strategic significance and could have wider global ramifications in regard to India’s strategic calculus. Hence, it is vital to view this ‘statement of intent’ in a correct perspective. India’s any probable ASAT programme could emerge as a part of its ballistic missile development programme. This indicates that ISRO, the India’s only space agency, would not have any mandate for such a programme. ISRO is expected to continue to perform various civilian and commercial mandates, and ASAT policies could be decided by other agencies.
Geo-strategically, India could be viewed caught in an unusual situation. Its adversaries (which are also its neighbours) are nuclear weapon states out of which
one is a communist state with a burning ambition to become a global superpower, and the other is a failing democracy where the safety of nuclear weapons is always a suspect. This indicates that India’s basic interest would lay with the development of ballistic missile defence (BMD) architecture. ASAT technology could emerge as an offshoot of such development. In regard to ASAT testing, India has not taken any official position yet.
To develop indigenous BMD capability, India proposes to develop two systems: Prithvi Air Defence Exercise (PADE) and Advanced Air Defence System (AAD) by 2015. This entire project has begun few years back. The first interception test was successfully conducted during November 2006 at a 50-km range. India proposes to develop a two intercept mode system to hit a target at both exoatmospheric and endo-atmospheric levels . DRDO is building an advanced version of its interceptor missile with a range of 120-140 km. All such technological developments could allow India to develop its own ASAT capability. Engaging any satellite at the height 250 km or even less is advantageous to avoid creation of debris. If India wants to demonstrate any capability, then it should avoid creation of any debris, and their progress in BMD technology development arena could allow them that option.
In Asia, apart from India, China and Japan are also investing in missile interception technology. In the case of China which has already demonstrated ASAT capability, a reverse (in contrast to India) inference could be drawn. China’s ASAT indicative of direct-ascent or ‘direct-kill’ capability signifies that China has developed most of the technologies needed to bring together a modern anti-ballistic missile defence . Japan’s interests in BMD are known, but their entire BMD architecture is in collaboration with the USA. Hypothetically, developing ASAT should not be problematic for them. Israel has also achieved success in interception technologies, and they have also made some of these technologies commercially available. This state also have technological base available to undertake ASAT. Pakistan has a successful missile programme but would have to make additional effort to develop ASAT capability. They could expect some help from China if they decide to do so. Not much of information is available in regard to these states about their interests in satellite jamming technologies. It appears that in the region, China would remain in the forefront in this field.
Satellites have emerged as a main focus of military activities for the last two decades, particularly post 1991 Gulf War. Since then various other military campaigns have demonstrated to the world the relevance of space technology in modern-day conflict and their capability to provide direct support for ground, air and water/underwater operations. Space technologies have brought in the transformation in warfare which is ultimately leading towards the revolution in warfare, particularly
for the defence forces in developing countries. By the beginning of the twenty – first century, the nature of the battlefield has undergone a transformation. Space is being recognised as the fourth dimension of warfare. Robotic equipments are slowly becoming the inessential part of the modern-day battlefield, and they also would operate in space. Fully automated warfare may be technologically feasible in the next 20 years, and space technology would play an extremely significant role in this.
Realising the importance of militarisation of space, few Asian states have started making specific investments into military-specific satellite technologies. The significant investments are being made by China, Japan and India. Particularly, these three states have developed high-resolution imaging satellites. Israel also has made investments into this field. All these states have launched satellites, offering them imagery with sub metre resolution (70-80 cm, in certain cases, approximately 1 m). Such imageries are also available commercially (with certain restrictions). Since various Asian states are not having direct accessibility for such information, they would depend on commercially available inputs, and India, China and Japan could offer such services to their friends and could also engage in imagery diplomacy. Communication is another arena where investments form military points of view are being made. India is planning for dedicated satellite services for their armed forces. Space technology is expected to help India, China and Israel to enhance the efficiency of their nuclear setup too.
Satellite navigation is one area where China is making rapid progress and has already declared their Biduo system operational regionally during Dec 2011. India is expected to take few more years before their indigenous navigational system becomes operational. Till that time, their dependence on GPS and GLONASS is expected to continue. For the armed forces of other states like South Korea, Malaysia, etc., GPS continues to remain the best option. Amongst the major spacefaring nations in the region, Japan’s military space programme displays transparency. India has few dual-use systems and has already announced their plans in regard to military satellites. China is unlikely to get out of its ambiguity cover. The need of the hour is for these states to become proactive towards the formulation of a space regime.
There are major concerns about space weaponisation leading to arms race in space. Asia has a very critical role to play in this regard. Already, China has vitiated the atmosphere by undertaking the ASAT in 2007. This has put India in an extremely precarious situation. Till date much before China, only the USA and Russia had demonstrated their ASAT capabilities. Owing to its BMD compulsions, the USA is not seen interested in developing any global space regime banning weaponisation of space. Also, the efforts made by China and Russia by jointly submitting to the Conference on Disarmament (CD) the draft Treaty on February 12, 2008 on Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space (PPWT) are found inadequate. This draft suffers from various lacunas, and the intentions of China and Russia in regard to space weaponisation remain doubtful. Various opinions are being expressed in regard to the EU’s space code of conduct. All these happenings indicate that many states in the world have at least started debating space security issues which is a positive change, and Asian states should not miss this opportunity to put their points of view across.
It is important for powers like India to learn from the past experiences of NPT. This treaty regime canvassed as one of the most successful UN regime is actually one of the most unfair UN document on arms control and disarmament. It allows five states in the world to keep their nuclear weapons stockpile while depriving others. It is important for India to learn lessons from this to decide their ASAT policy. For other smaller Asian powers, it is also important to remain connected with these issues and need to have a stake in the system for obvious resigns.
It is important to note that vulnerabilities do not necessarily result into threats. Currently, there are very few states having technological capabilities in ASAT arena. Most importantly, the ‘deterrence’ potential of space weapons is yet to be clearly established by the scientific, political and academic community. Hence, states are not looking at the space weaponisation as an immediate policy option. In Asia too, the process of militarisation of space is far more rapid than the weaponisation. Simultaneously, the armed forces from various Asian states lobbying for satellite technologies need to realise that, although the space technologies assisting the modern state-of-art military hardware has capabilities to neutralise the threats in a significantly reduced amount of time, there also exists a danger that such technologies have potential to escalate the conflict.