Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Beyond ASATs: India’s Future Might To Deter Adversaries In Space

By Vaibhav Agrawal

Four years ago, a remarkable feat was achieved by India’s Ballistic Missile Defence Programme, as an interceptor missile soared skyward from Abdul Kalam Island, leaving a trail of fiery orange plumes in its wake. In a matter of moments, the missile reached its target – a live Indian satellite named Microsat-R, orbiting 300 kilometres above the Earth’s surface.

The kinetic impact of the collision shattered the satellite, marking India’s first successful anti-satellite (A-SAT) test and securing its position as the third country in the world to demonstrate this advanced capability. The majestic vertical ascent of the missile, followed by the destruction of the satellite, was a testament to India’s prowess in the field of advanced missile technology.

In a nationally televised address, Prime Minister Narendra Modi proudly announced India’s successful A-SAT test, hinting that the country’s new capability would serve as a deterrent against any potential threat to its space-based assets. The message was clear – India’s test was primarily aimed at deterring China, as Pakistan lacks the necessary capability to pose a threat to India’s satellites or develop such technology.

It was not lost on observers that China had conducted a similar test back in 2007, destroying a weather satellite at an altitude of over 850 kilometres. With this achievement, India has joined an elite group of nations capable of defending their space-based assets and maintaining strategic superiority in this critical domain.

The A-SAT test, which was carried out at an altitude comparable to that used by the US and Japan for their imagery intelligence satellites, has been met with criticism due to the substantial amount of debris it generated. The impact created approximately 35,000 fragments larger than one centimetre, a significant proportion of which, including several as large as four inches, will continue to orbit the Earth at high velocities for several decades.

Despite the concerns raised about the potential risks posed by the debris, it is evident that India’s primary objective was to deter its adversaries, particularly the one capable of destroying its satellites in orbit. The test has demonstrated India’s ability to safeguard its interests and assert its strategic dominance in the region, positioning it as a significant player in the global space race.

True Position Of China

China has been actively developing non-kinetic counter-space weapons that can neutralize or disable enemy space-based assets, without creating debris. These sophisticated weapons include directed energy weapons (DEWs), which use a focused beam of energy to disrupt, degrade or destroy targets. They come in various forms such as low- and high-energy lasers and high-power microwave (HPM) systems, and can cause damage ranging from temporary to permanent.

The US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) has noted China’s significant progress in deploying DEWs, which can temporarily dazzle or permanently blind critical electro-optical or infrared sensors on satellites. Additionally, high-powered lasers can cause damage to other satellite components, including the solar arrays.

China’s non-kinetic counter-space capabilities also include space-, air-, and ground-based radio frequency jammers, co-orbital anti-satellite devices, and offensive cyberspace capabilities. These advanced technologies pose a significant threat to the security and stability of space-based assets and further increase the importance of protecting them from potential adversaries.

High-power microwave (HPM) weapons are particularly effective in air or space, where they can disrupt a satellite’s electronics and corrupt its stored data. These weapons can also inflict permanent damage to a satellite’s electrical circuits and processors when used at high power levels.

China has been actively testing and demonstrating these capabilities. In 2006, a year prior to its kinetic interceptor-based A-SAT test, China employed high-power lasers to blind US satellites flying over its territory. It is highly probable that China has developed even more advanced Directed Energy Weapons (DEWs) that are capable of targeting satellites with greater precision.

These sophisticated non-kinetic counter-space capabilities pose a significant threat to the security and stability of space-based assets. As the world becomes more reliant on space-based systems, protecting these assets from potential adversaries has become a top priority for countries around the globe.

China’s space capabilities have been growing rapidly, with the country expected to field a ground-based laser weapon by 2020 capable of targeting low-orbit space-based sensors. By the late 2020s, China is projected to deploy “higher-power systems” capable of targeting non-optical satellites as well, according to the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA).

China has also made significant strides in deploying satellite jamming systems, having acquired ground-based satellite jammers from Ukraine in the late 1990s. The PLA regularly employs jamming and anti-jamming capabilities during exercises, targeting communication, radar systems, and Global Positioning System satellites. The DIA reports that China is now developing jammers to disrupt synthetic-aperture radar on military reconnaissance platforms.

As China’s space capabilities continue to expand, it raises concerns among other nations about the security and stability of space-based assets. The potential for deliberate or unintentional interference with satellites highlights the need for international cooperation and dialogue to ensure the peaceful use of outer space for all.

Next-Gen Space Technologies

In addition to directed energy weapons and satellite jammers, China has been developing co-orbital systems with robotic arms, which are often referred to as ‘space stalkers’. These systems can manipulate or damage a satellite in orbit or alter its trajectory without producing debris.

The first indication of China’s development of co-orbital anti-satellite systems emerged in 2010 when the Chinese satellite Shijian-12 conducted a series of proximity manoeuvres to rendezvous with an older Chinese satellite SJ-6F.

In 2016, China launched the Aolong-1 or Roaming Dragon satellite, equipped with a robotic arm, which Chinese scientists claimed was a space-junk collector.
With the use of non-kinetic weapons that have reversible effects and are difficult to attribute, China is unlikely to resort to a debris-generating interceptor missile as the first line of attack on India’s space assets. Moreover, since the deployment of a kinetic interceptor would provide India with a justification to respond using a similar weapon, China may choose not to take that path.

How India Needs To Pace Up

If China were to attack India’s satellites using ‘clean’ weapons, India would not have any similar options to respond. The only option available to India would be to use a debris-generating kinetic interceptor.

However, China has a much larger fleet of military satellites compared to India, so to significantly impact China’s capabilities, India would have to destroy a relatively larger number of Chinese space assets. This would result in more debris being generated.

The question arises whether India would be willing to create a ring of rubble around the Earth by destroying a large number of Chinese satellites using an A-SAT interceptor in response to an attack on its space assets, especially when China did not choose to do so. India’s tested kinetic anti-satellite (A-SAT) weapon offers only a limited deterrent capability to New Delhi.

While it could deter Beijing from using kinetic weapons against India’s space-based assets, it would not be effective against China’s ‘clean’ A-SAT weapons that do not generate debris in space.

Need For KEW Tests

India should invest in a comprehensive set of kinetic energy weapons (KEWs) and directed energy weapons (DEWs), as well as cyber and electronic weapons, including co-orbital KEWs. These additional capabilities are crucial for India, particularly in light of the long-term defence challenges posed by China.

As India’s space assets are essential for potential military campaigns on land, sea, or air against China, the ongoing boundary crisis only increases the urgency of India’s space weapons program.

While India has previously focused on using space assets for reconnaissance, navigation, and communication, China’s ASAT test raises concerns about the need for India to develop counter-space capabilities.

To address these concerns at regional and global levels, India should consider pursuing disarmament and arms control measures, alongside investment in additional KEW capabilities. By doing so, India can deter China from using kinetic weapons against India’s space-based assets while maintaining a peaceful and stable space environment.

It would be premature for India to pursue the arms control and disarmament route in response to China’s extensive development of space and counterspace capabilities. The current and evolving space weapons program of China demands a sustained response from India.

Closing the development of space and counterspace capabilities would imply a surrender that is completely unwarranted, particularly in light of Beijing’s recent and ongoing aggression, which India is bearing the brunt of. By opting for arms control and disarmament, India risks giving Beijing the impression of weakness, further emboldening it to subject India to more aggression, not just terrestrially but also in space.

Therefore, India must continue to invest in reinforcing its space and counterspace capabilities, especially given China’s aggressive posture and the need to safeguard its national security interests.


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