India has long opposed the militarisation of space. If China keeps ignoring Delhi’s calls on the issue the risk of a military confrontation in space could significantly increase and India would be compelled to address this issue

On March 27, 2019, India sprung an unwelcome surprise on the international community. Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced in a nationally televised address that India had successfully conducted an anti-satellite (ASAT) test earlier that day. A ballistic missile defence interceptor, the Prithvi Delivery Vehicle Mark-II (PDV MK-II), developed by India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), struck and destroyed an Indian Microsat-R satellite in a flight that lasted just over half a minute. India used a kinetic-kill ASAT, said Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard–Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

India has had a publicly admitted BMD program for over a decade and a half now. India's testing of its ASAT capabilities was developed through missile defence technology, she added. With slight modification to missile defence capabilities, weapons can also target satellites. And most countries with ASAT capabilities have followed this route, especially because this is "politically acceptable," while other ASATs haven't been acceptable.

This piece first appeared on IDN in April 2017

ISRO in April 2016 placed its final commercial navigation satellite IRNSS-1G into orbit, the system is called NAVIC (NAVigation with Indian Constellation). Currently, the system involves 7 satellites in orbit, and 2 in the ground as orbital reserves to meet any technical exigencies. NAVIC will provide accurate real-time positioning and timing services over India and the region extending to 1,500 kilometres around the nation. However, proving ISRO's technical prowess Swiss scientists have tested NAVIC data access accuracy nearly 5,000 km away.

NAVIC will provide two levels of service, the standard positioning service will be open for civilian use, and a restricted or encrypted service for military use in the case of any hostile situation(s).

The current situation in space is that no satellite is protected, no matter at what orbits they are. In the event of a military conflict, communication satellites would be the first to be taken down, modern satellites are almost devoid of any opportunity to protect themselves from interceptor missiles.

The stark reality which cannot be ruled out is that in the future space might be militarised which would pose a defining threat to the entire world. It was reported that the Pentagon is ramping up efforts to build a space war headquarters, in order to protect US satellites from hypothetical attacks by Russia and China.

China has already joined the game, with its first anti-satellite missile test in 2007. According to some reports, Beijing conducted its latest anti-satellite missile test in 2013, when it launched its new ASAT (anti-satellite) missile, the Dong Neng-2 or DN-2. Further, China is working to develop space combat systems. If the process is not stopped "space wars may be possible" and Indian satellites will be vulnerable to Chinese attacks even during peacetime. In a life-and-death scenario, space will provide the advantage.

In this context, China is developing a relatively simple and cheap space launch vehicle based on its ICBM technologies and medium-range ballistic missiles, which, in all likelihood could be launched from mobile launchers.

Anti-satellite weaponry is a new reality and a possibility which one should consider when planning a possible military operation. China would allegedly be able to threaten any Indian satellite in any orbit by 2025, which is why it was necessary for Delhi to be able to use force to uphold its related interests something that prompted Indian policymakers to embark on a program to equip satellites with advanced electronic warfare systems as a counter measure in the future.

As the offensive choice, the possible model that India can adopt is a ground-based, high earth-orbit, direct-ascent weapons system derived from a road-mobile ballistic missile quite similar to what the Chinese has adopted. The need of the hour is to augment India's ASAT weapons capabilities. Following China’s 2007 ASAT weapons test, the then COAS of the Indian Army, General Deepak Kapoor, was quoted in a Times of India report saying that China’s space program was expanding at an “exponentially rapid” pace in both offensive and defensive capabilities, and that space was becoming the “ultimate military high ground” to dominate in the wars of the future.

A breakthrough emerged in 2012 when V.K. Saraswat, then the Chief of DRDO, announced that India has all the building blocks in place to integrate an anti-satellite weapon to neutralise hostile satellites in a low earth and polar orbits. In an interview, Saraswat suggested that India’s anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defence program could be utilised as an ASAT weapon, along with its Agni series of missiles. This was corroborated by DRDO, which said that the Indian Ballistic Missile Defence Program can incorporate anti-satellite weapon capabilities.

However, everything is not hunky-dory with India's ASAT ambitions. Questioning India’s “purported” capabilities, defence experts have pointed out that without conducting a single test and demonstrating its ASAT capability explicitly, India will only be seen as a “paper tiger” by the arms control and intelligence community. Using India's ABM program as an abutment to an ASAT program would be seen only as an ancillary capability. But should such ancillary capability be taken as an evidence of full ASAT capability?

Despite what sceptics (read experts) may say, ASAT capabilities require a number of technologies related to space-based sensors, synthetic aperture radars, electronics, a sound navigation system, guidance and control, and global positioning systems. A number of different types of sensors, including infrared sensors, optical sensors, electronic-optical sensors, and magnetic sensors are vital to monitor, detect, and help in sensing the events. Significantly, India has developed indigenous components which could fulfil a full-fledged ASAT program.

However, in the wake of such an imminent and substantive threat, it was rather perplexing that India does not have an active program to develop an ASAT or an ancillary capability to an anti-satellite threat. Possessing such a system would have veritable deterrence value as far as China is concerned, then safely leaving out Pakistan which is not even a minor player in matters relating to space technology. Therefore, India will have no particular concern with regard to the development and deployment of ASAT weapons as a strategic offensive measure by Pakistan in the near future since most of their missiles and its related subsystems are clandestinely imported from outside. Since ASAT technology is such an exclusive premise that even China, Pakistan's "all-weather friend" will hesitate to share it.

Harsh Vasani of the Diplomat wrote in June 2016, that "a new treaty banning space weaponisation could inhibit India from demonstrating its ability in the future. After the 2007 test conducted by China, there has been renewed talk of a restrictive treaty banning space-weaponisation. Much like the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that forced restrictions on the non-nuclear weapons states of the time (including India), a new restrictive regime on space-weaponisation could foreclose India’s options, giving the United States, China, and Russia ASAT-weapons-state status a la NPT, while keeping India out of the club. This could again lead to discrimination against India in case it decides to conduct a test to display its existing ability. It would also put New Delhi at a serious disadvantage, as it would then only be able to negotiate on such a new treaty as an “outsider” rather than an “insider” with ASAT weapons capability. If India shies away from demonstrating its ASAT weapons capability before a restrictive treaty is enforced, it will be repeating a historic mistake."

So far, an anti-satellite weapon has remained fabulously expensive, and the number of the relevant launch vehicles is limited. The side which has a more powerful rocket and space industry and which will be able to put its vehicles into orbit faster than its enemy will have an advantage in a possible future armed conflict and thankfully India falls into this exclusive category.

India's successful 'Mission Shakti' anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon test showed that India has developed the technological capability to destroy enemy nuclear-tipped missiles launched from as far away as 5,500 kilometres or more, at high altitudes outside the atmosphere, say experts.

Mankind will have to decide whether to militarise space or not but this is a singular proposition that all the major powers would not toe the mark. (with inputs from Agencies)

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