by Kartik Bommakanti

The Russian Anti-Satellite (ASAT) test of July 15, 2020 which was a non-destructive test ASAT once again underlined the importance of Kinetic Energy Weapons (KEWs). The Russian test, which was co-orbital weapon involving a satellite. Co-orbital weapons systems have a long history in Russia’s space weapons development programme. Indeed, their development goes back to the early 1960s. According to a statement issued by the United States Space Command (USSC) an object was released from the Russian in-orbit spacecraft Cosmos 2453 clearly establishing the fact that the Moscow had carried out a co-orbital ASAT test. Regardless of the Americans protestations about the Russian test, there are important underlying implications for India particularly in the context of Chinas’ growing space and counterspace capabilities as well as the repercussions that are likely to ensue if New Delhi were to pursue a weak response to Chinese space military power.

India will need a whole set of additional KEW tests. This author made the case for sea-launched and air launched KEWs in an extensive analysis. However, it was focused mostly on earth to space KEW systems and Directed Energy Weapons (DEWs). Confining India to the acquisition of KEWS and Directed Energy Weapons (DEWs) or cyber and electronic weapons can be expanded to include co-orbital KEWs. The Russian test also illustrates why co-orbital KEWs are also critical. Investment in additional KEW capabilities assumes considerable importance especially for India because of the long-term defence related challenges presented by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The ongoing boundary crisis should only lend greater urgency to India’s space weapons programme, simply because space assets in India’s inventory are vital to the prosecution of a potential military campaign whether on land, sea or air against the People’s Republic China (PRC). The PRC is known to have developed the accoutrements necessary to conduct co-orbital test. For instance, in 2008 the Chinese BX-1 microsatellite while orbiting in close proximity to its mother satellite, executed a manoeuvre within 45 kilometres of the International Space Station (ISS). While BX-1 did not definitively establish a PRC co-orbital ASAT capability, it did indicate the PRC’s latent capability to conduct co-orbital kinetic tests and mount attacks against a potential adversary’ space assets.

India must avoid what one leading Indian space analyst prior to India’s March 2019 KEW test observed: “To date, India’s interests in space have been restricted to using space assets for reconnaissance, navigation and communication. However, China’s ASAT test could influence India’s policies in the field of counter-space capabilities. To address the concerns raised at the regional and global level about this Chinese bravado, the best option for India could be to follow the disarmament and arms control route.”

The statement is a non-sequitur, while India has conducted only but one direct ascent KEW test, it has not matched China in developing and executing non-destructive earth to space KEW tests, let alone fully match Chinese KEW, DEW, electronic and cyber weapon capabilities to target space assets. Pursuing the arms control and disarmament route by India will be premature in response to the PRC’s extensive development of space and counterspace capabilities. Reinforcing this point is that the PRC’s current and evolving space weapons programme deserve a sustained response. Bringing closure to the development of space and counterspace capabilities would imply surrender that is completely unwarranted in light of Beijing’s recent and ongoing aggressiveness, which India is evidently bearing the brunt. Very likely Beijing will be emboldened even more in deducing that India’s skittish response to its space weapons programme should be treated as weakness and India subjected to further aggression, not just terrestrially, but equally in space.

The External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar stated there is an imperative for India and China to achieve some “equilibrium”, although he never fully elaborated what exactly it would look like. However, if equilibrium or more precisely a stable balance of power is to be achieved in the Indo-Pacific, military power is crucial. Space military power has grown in importance from reconnaissance, navigation and communications to space weapons and will be crucial to generating an equilibrium. Ignoring the eventual deployment of weapons in space would be foolhardy for a state such as India when pitted against the PRC. Consequently, space military power is a key constituent element in India’s capacity to contribute to the Asian balance of power. Thus, investing in a direct ascent and co-orbital KEWs as well as DEWS and cyber and electronic weapons geared for destroying or disabling spacecraft is crucial. If India were to deprive itself of offensive space weapons to take Chinese or other enemy spacecraft, New Delhi would be putting itself at a considerable disadvantage by leaving it at the mercy of a wide variety of Chinese counterspace capabilities and measures against its Imagery Intelligence (IMINT), Communications (COMMINT), Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) and Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellites. Indeed, it is perplexing to see arguments that call for India to restrain itself, strive for disarmament and arms control when China makes no significant effort to do so beyond rhetorical commitments.

The Russian co-orbital test has underlined the importance of space borne weapons despite entreaties for the non-weaponization of space. The Modi government must see the emerging space military competition as an opportunity to bolster India’s counterspace capabilities. It will help cement India as a major space military power and prevent Chinese hegemony over the Indo-Pacific. Chinese hegemony on the other hand will become a certainty, if New Delhi lapses into self-doubt and remains unduly restrained in the testing, integration and deployment of space weapons.