By Aritra Banerjee
India is on the cusp of a momentous occasion – celebrating 100 years of independence from British rule. As the nation prepares to commemorate this landmark year after celebrating Azadi Ka Amrit Mohotsov with India@75, it is worth reflecting on the tumultuous and transformative journey that led to this significant milestone and what the future holds.
The first 25 years post-independence were rife with challenges for India. It was often derided as the land of “snake charmers,” and its international standing was insignificant, to say the least. However, a turning point emerged unexpectedly, proving to be a defining moment in India’s history.
The 1971 elections in Pakistan yielded surprising results as the Awami League, led by Sheikh Mujib, won a majority. The Punjabi leadership in Pakistan refused to accept the verdict, leading to a brutal assault by the Pakistan military in erstwhile East Pakistan. The result was a massive refugee influx in India, prompting then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to take decisive action. The Indian Armed Forces obliterated Pakistan’s military offensive in the west, annexing East Pakistan and changing the course of history and the subcontinent with the creation of a new nation, Bangladesh.
Fast forward to the present day, and the global landscape has changed exponentially. The break-up of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was perhaps the most unexpected event in the last 50 years, leading to the emergence of the United States of America (USA) as an uncontested superpower following a bipolar world after the end of the second world war. However, China’s multi-dimensional growth during the same period, particularly its economy, has challenged the numero uno position of the USA and the change of a unipolar world order.
The ongoing Russia-Ukraine war has also highlighted the need for a formidable deterrent. Ukraine surrendered its nukes after the break-up of the Soviet Union, leading to military blackmail by Russia. India faced a similar problem, but the foresight demonstrated by Indira Gandhi as the then Prime Minister gave the green signal to Indian nuclear scientists to go “nuclear.” While this decision was met with international condemnation and sanctions, it also led to the birth of a “Nuclear Pakistan.”
As India is closer to celebrating its 100th year of independence, it’s worth acknowledging the challenges and triumphs that have shaped its journey. India has come a long way from being a nation seen as insignificant to emerging as a major player on the global stage. As the nation looks to the future, it will undoubtedly face new challenges, but the spirit of resilience and determination that has brought it this far will certainly guide its path forward.
India’s emergence as a nuclear power under the leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee has ensured that both China and Pakistan have not attempted any major military misadventure in the past half-century. While location-centric conflicts have occurred with both nations, a full-scale military campaign is off the table due to the concept of ‘Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).’ However, as control of space becomes the next frontier of establishing supremacy, nuclear deterrence may not survive in the coming decades.
Space: The Next Frontier
Three main capabilities are required to establish supremacy in space: a reliable launch vehicle, satellite fabrication technology, and satellite neutralisation capability. While India’s Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has placed New Delhi on par with Beijing and Washington for the most part, India, however needs to match both nations regarding the capability of launch vehicles, particularly in terms of tonnage and frequency of launch. Furthermore, some observers of India’s defence sector believe the country has lost the conventional weapon development race and is unlikely to produce any ‘big ticket’ platforms.
As China may demonstrate the weaponisation of its space station soon, the entire constellation of satellites of all nations will become vulnerable. According to strategic affairs analyst and author Group Captain TP Shrivastava (r), “a country having a formidable Anti-satellite weapon capability (ASATWC) can and will blackmail the ‘have nots’ as has been the case with nukes. The US announcement of observing a moratorium on the deployment and future development of ASATWC is viewed as a case of repetitive US profligacy.”
The need for anti-satellite weapons capability in 2022 and beyond must be addressed, as the nation cannot imagine surviving without satellite communication. With China having a co-orbital companion in the form of a Hubble class Xuntian space telescope, co-orbital capability can easily be transformed into a weapon-carrying platform when needed. India must focus on investing in reseatchR&D in the coming decades to establish itself as a formidable space power and ensure its security in the future.
In a significant move, Vice President of the USA, Kamala Harris, announced on April 18, 2022, that the country would stop testing ASAT weapons to contain space debris. The development comes as China, India, Russia, and the USA have demonstrated their Direct Attack-Anti satellite (DA-ASAT) capability in recent years.
China was the first to conduct a test in January 2007, followed by India in March 2019, and Russia in November 2021, when it successfully destroyed a satellite in low Earth orbit (LEO) about 500 km from earth. The US conducted its test in February 2008, claiming to destroy a ‘rogue’ satellite containing toxic fuels. However, the test was primarily carried out to validate the SM-3 interceptor.
While India has not formally announced its space doctrine, ISRO published its first-ever assessment of space situational awareness (SSA) capability and its critical application in 2021. The agency highlighted the need to track space debris and emphasised the development of offensive capability in space, the ability to neutralise adversary satellites in LEO, the development of the ‘soft kill’ capability of adversary satellites, and the development of a weaponised orbital platform.
Unlike India’s nuclear doctrine, which is still influenced by western thoughts of no first use, analysts believe the country’s space doctrine must not be constrained by the USA’s hypocrisy of restraining further DA-ASAT destructive testing of satellites. As the world increasingly relies on satellite communication, developing formidable Anti-satellite weapon capability (ASATWC) is critical to ensure national security and deter potential threats.
In an increasingly competitive geopolitical environment, space has become critical for countries to secure national interests. With the world powers grappling with the threat posed by space debris to existing space stations and functional satellites, the United Nations has taken a proactive stance by forming an open-ended group to discuss ‘space security.’ This development is expected to lead to multilateral, legally binding measures similar to the Nuclear non-proliferation Treaty (NPT).
India, which is not a signatory to NPT, must adopt a proactive stance on the management, control, and utilisation of space for peaceful purposes and the ban on testing/developing Anti-Satellite Weapons. It must avoid making the same mistake as it did in developing nuclear weapons.
China exploded its first nuclear device in 1964, and India took ten more years, primarily because of what has been described as political infirmity. However, India of 2022 is different, having demonstrated its stand of maintaining and practising unilateral pro-active neutrality regarding the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict. The concept of ‘soft power’ as an instrument of control and deterrence has already proved to be a non-starter in the 21st century.
The ineffectiveness of financial and trade sanctions in the short term is of no consequence, as is quite evident from the effect of sanctions imposed on Russia by the West. In this scenario, the advent of satellite warfare is knocking at the doors. Fortunately, India is extremely well placed to be among the front runners in this race, unlike the conventional weapons race, which India lost over a few decades.
ISRO is already planning a possible mission to Venus, manned and unmanned Gaganyan, another attempt at a soft landing on the moon, developing a heavier-load launch vehicle, etc. These developments would also enhance India’s Intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability. The concept of the unmanned space station, which can be weaponised as and when required, is an ideal answer to International Space Station (ISS) and Tiangong. Possible weaponry could include DA-ASAT as well as a laser weapon.
India’s National Security Imperatives & Space
India’s national security imperatives have a different dimension altogether because India is not part of any military alliance, at least as yet. The future of QUAD is, at best uncertain. Several space domain analysts opined that India must adopt a highly proactive stance of developing DA-ASAT weapons and formidable and reliable satellite launch and fabrication capability to beat China at its own game. Without Nuclear and DA-ASAT weapons capability, India will not achieve a leadership role in international affairs.
Several observers of India’s space sector believe that “the self-proclaimed military strategists of India” would do well to move over from the ‘CDS and theatre command’ conundrum to looking beyond 25 years from now and advise those in power to make a choice. The recent events have demonstrated that the biggest ‘rogue nations’ globally are P-5 nations, and all P-5 nations continue to abuse the privilege of veto to suit their needs. India’s quest for a seat in UNSC has become irrelevant.
As France and Germany are unlikely to continue to live with the unwritten hegemony of the US, the world will likely witness a global realignment of the military alliance NATO after the Russia-Ukraine war ends. The energy security of European Union (EU) nations will govern their relations with Russia in the long term.
In this scenario, India’s strategic imperatives must be geared towards developing an offensive capability in space, neutralising adversary satellites in LEO, and development of ‘soft kill’ capability of adversary satellites. As mentioned, unlike India’s nuclear doctrine, which is still coloured by western thoughts of no first use, India’s space doctrine must not be constrained by the American hypocrisy of further restraining DA-ASAT destructive satellite testing.