By Adarsh Vijay
Space deterrence as a concept is of recent origin in the South Asian security onomasticon. The ascending trajectory of Chinese military-presence in the near-earth space distorted the bipolar space-military equations which were postulated by the United States and Russia since cold war. Given the conflictual template of relations which sustains between China and India, the former’s actions in outer space bear a source of dilemma for New Delhi from a military point of view. What does Beijing militarily want to achieve in outer space? What are the risks would India face from these Chinese endeavours? How should India respond to it?
China’s Military Space Profile
Beijing’s space-security endeavours predominantly constitute a response to the mounting US military approaches in outer space, which the former views as a leverage that the latter might rely upon in case of a hypothetical Taiwan crisis. Most importantly, Beijing focuses on militarization of outer space as a part of enhancing its Anti-Access and Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities. Despite the fact that the military version of its space doctrine continues to be in the nascence, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is clear on their twin slogans – “space dominance”and “information dominance” - in order to achieve space control. Furthermore, the Chinese strategic forecast in terms of “local wars under informationized conditions” continues to guide their strategic ambitions in the “zero-gravity”. Furthermore, the PLA Encyclopaedia (2002) acknowledges outer space as a crucial component in any future armed conflict. The Science of Second Artillery Operations (2003), a classified work of the General Command of the PLA, also reveals the patterns of Chinese military intentions in outer space. Military Astronautics, a PLA publication, authored by Major General Chang Xianqi, outlines three components with regard to the Chinese military footprint in outer space. They are 1) Active and Passive Defense 2) Unification of all Aspects and 3) Establishment of Space Dominance. The PLA acknowledges them as its “guiding concept for the space operations”. Adding to it, the acquisitive, doctrinal and operational framework of the Chinese military space operations find their sanctity in this three-layered premise. Some PLA circles also believe that space battlefield and informationized battlefield would be inevitable platforms in any future armed conflict. A set of declassified documents are also indicative of the extension of strategic nuclear forces into the outer space in pursuit of enhanced counter-offensive capabilities. Nevertheless, the implications of the Chinese military profile in space are far beyond the strategic-construct with respect to Washington in a possible war.
Is the Dragon Really Scary?
India’s apprehensions about the Chinese actions in the outer space began to unfold since the first Direct-Ascent Anti-Satellite Technology (DA-ASAT) test by Beijing on 11 January 2007. The demonstration of SC-19, which was later rechristened as Dong Ning-1, incapacitatedFengyun-1C, an obsolete satellite, at an altitude of 800kms in the Sun Synchronous Orbit (SSO), where an Indian IRS constellation has been active. The inability of New Delhi to be timely informed of this development revealed India’s lag in the Space Situational Awareness (SSA). China also went ahead with two tests namely – Dong Ning-2 and Dong Ning-3 – in 2013 and 2015 respectively, which flamed a dilemma among the Indian strategic establishment. India’s outer space programme has invariably adhered to the application of dual-use technology which prescribes a formula for diverting space assets, both orbital and terrain based platforms, towards civilian and military purposes. The Government of India (GoI) hardly reserved a room for a military-space doctrine which sanctioned the national means for militarization and weaponization of outer space. Nonetheless, the continuing Chinese military endeavours in the near-earth space has been a stimuli for New Delhi, which in turn provided an impetus calling for a change at the operational, theoretical and doctrinal frameworks of its orientation towards space.
Space Warfare: Is it possible?
The Chinese ASAT capability, which finds its applications at the “kinetic” and “non-kinetic” variants undoubtedly render an asymmetric edge over India in a hypothetical crisis, for instance, a war over the ongoing border dispute between the two countries. Beijing’s attempt in terms of neutralizing Indian satellites in a war scenario would bear manifold implications in the latter’s politico-socio-economic spectra. India’s preparedness in a bid to thwart any such threat remains unknown. However, some comments from the government circles reveal that New Delhi has the capacity and technology to develop ASAT capacity. In the words of Dr. V. K. Saraswat, the former chief of Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO), the successful test of Agni III makes the propulsion of a kill vehicle to the orbit possible.
By virtue of the emerging hybrid constructs of warfare, likelihoods of a space war cannot be ignored. If so, the most important challenges that India and China would face in a space war would be the survivability and credibility of space weapons. Orbital assets, satellites for instance, are more prone to attack as it offers an offensive edge for an adversary state over terrain-based space assets. Thus, the Indian space security concerns are predominantly satellite-centric. It is due to the least options available for a state to ensure security and maintenance of the orbital assets. Comparative advantage in terms of assurances of defence and maintenance of the ground-facilities might guide the two states to capitalize heavily on the same.
An ASAT-capable India can help tilt the asymmetrical edge in its favour against the kinetic and non-kinetic capabilities enjoyed by China in the space-battlefield. The larger constellation of Chinese satellites as compared to India reveals the higher orbital dependency of the former over the latter. This gives New Delhi an opportunity to incur higher collateral damage on Beijing’s orbital assets either in a pre-emptive or retaliatory strike.
The Road Ahead
The Chinese military actions in outer space cannot be legally challenged. Paragraph one of Article IV of the Outer Space Treaty (OST) or the 1967 Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space including the Moon and other Celestial Bodies prohibits the use of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) in outer space. At the same time, it is silent on any form of ban with respect to conventional weapons.
China’s ASAT endeavour has become a wake-up call for the Indian defence realm. It would tantamount to an error to label the Beijing’s changing military makeover in the outer space as an outcome of the absence of space arms-control treaties. The Chinese inferiority in the conventional front for countering a US threat has been the rationale behind this emerging offensive posture. India’s prospects of attaining an “ASAT power” status are challenged by a number of factors. Firstly, the commitment of the GoI towards the Prevention of Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS).Secondly, New Delhi is also apprehensive of the space debris crisis that an ASAT test could aggravate. Besides, it’s also part of the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC). Thirdly, it can be an insult to the national morale in terms of tampering the credibility of India’s peaceful space track record and non-aggressive military posture. Despite these limiting factors, the regional strategic landscape which is being altered rapidly, necessitates an Indian ASAT test without delay. If New Delhi doesn’t wish to be discriminated again on similar lines like it faced as a non-NPT power, a moratorium for instance, it must choose to demonstrate the ASAT test at the earliest. Such a treaty mechanism would lead to further classification of states as “ASAT states” and “Non-ASAT states” which would derail the Indian efforts in achieving the same. Hence, it is advisable to demonstrate at least a low-altitude test in order to get catapulted into this elite club.
The PLA has already reconceptualised the idea of warfare as a clash between operational systems, not armies. It shows their reconfigured hybrid military orientation which discards the conventional contours of battlefield. Therefore, a realist calling would push India to take immediate steps up to avert the emanating Chinese military threats in the near-earth space. Some reports indicate that an Integrated Space Cell has been established under the aegis of the Indian Air Force and a military-space doctrine is under process. As a structural add-on, it shall be worthwhile to constitute an aerospace command on the model of the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) of the United States Air Force. An enhanced focus on Network Centric Warfare (NCW) also finds a place in the pre-requisites for having a strong national security complex, given the inter-relationship between the space security and cyber security architectures. The Technology and Capability Roadmap, a 2010 report by the Indian Ministry of Defence (MoD), is indicative of government’s intentions of ASAT with its “electronic” and “physical” variants. The document also provides defensive options like Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) for the security of orbital assets. On the other hand, New Delhi always adhered to a proscriptive policy in terms of space weapons particularly in the United Nations Conference on Disarmament. Thus, the Indian stance appears to be perplexing. It is yet to see how the Chinese and Indian military endeavours can redefine the patterns of state behaviour in the outer space in the long run.
Adarsh Vijay is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Madras Christian College, Chennai, India.