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India’s ASAT Test: Joining the Arms Race in Outer Space?

A. Vinod Kumar was Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • March 28, 2019

    When the US Missile Defence Agency (MDA) undertook an interception of a dysfunctional satellite in low-earth orbit in February 2008, the agency used the ballistic missile defence (BMD) interceptor, the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3), fired from a Aegis-class destroyer deployed in the Pacific Ocean to successfully complete that mission.1 A year before China had undertaken its first ever Anti-Satellite (ASAT) test in January 2007 using the KS/SC-19, which Western observers claimed was a reconfigured DF 21-C or DF-25, the same platform that supposedly doubled up as the Chinese mid-course interceptor for its first BMD test in January 2010.2 The first Indian demonstration of ASAT capability on 27 March 2019 also used a long-range BMD interceptor that is currently being developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).

    Besides the use of BMD platforms for ASAT applications, what is the common thread in the ASAT tests by these powers competing in the space frontier? All of them, by word or deed or a combination of both, have been ardent advocates of mitigating arms race in space, and yet have contributed in considerable measure towards the militarization of outer space.3

    Though the US has largely been averse to negotiations on treaties to prohibit the weaponisation of space, there has been general consensus (since the post-Strategic Defense Initiative days) among successive US administrations until recently against steps that could trigger an arms race in outer space.4 While the current Trump Administration has been hyper about the need to harness the space frontier for military applications as also ‘space basing’ of missile interceptors, the Pentagon has no platforms that could shoot down missiles from space.5 All the while, it has to be noted that Washington did not claim the SM-3 interception in 2008 as an ASAT test, but only described it as a real-time satellite interception by a BMD system. The caution can be attributed to the US criticism of the Chinese ASAT test in the previous year as a provocative step towards space weaponisation. Equally amusing could be the fact that both Russia and China had censured the US for risking their space assets through the SM-3 test–all of which demonstrate the oddities of great power behaviour when it comes to the space domain.

    China and India too have been vociferous votaries of legal instruments against the weaponisation of, or arms race in, outer space. Besides partnering with Russia on the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) and demanding a treaty banning weapons in outer space, Beijing had been profoundly critical of the US BMD programme by terming it as an effort to militarise the space frontier.6 China’s eventual decision to conduct both ASAT and BMD tests is evidence of the fact that great powers cannot abstain from technological races where their rivals have a clear edge or can swing the strategic balance. The Indian ASAT test has to be seen in this context, and follows a techno-strategic trajectory that might not be linear to the Chinese course of action but certainly illustrates the prevalence of a security dilemma and the urge to come up with technological ripostes to its arch rival.

    The ASAT-BMD Overlap

    With an altitude range of close to 200 km, the SM-3 could intercept missiles both within the Earth’s atmosphere (endo-atmosphere) and beyond (exo-atmosphere). Yet, it was intriguing that for the 2008 interception the MDA preferred the SM-3 over the Ground-based Mid-course Defence (GMD) system, which was the flagship BMD for outer space interception, though at that point struggling with development failures. The intention then was seemingly to signal that the interception was driven by a safety contingency (of a ‘cold’ satellite falling to Earth with toxic debris likely to hit population centres) and that a system that could destroy the vehicle just before atmospheric re-entry could be used to ensure that space assets in low-earth orbit are not affected.

    Interestingly, the Chinese ASAT test, even if only a demonstration of capability, also targeted a falling weather satellite, though Beijing did not bother to espouse any ‘civilian’ applications except for stating that the test was not targeted against any country. That the same platform (an IRBM or MRBM) was used to undertake an exo-atmospheric BMD interception underlines the overlap of BMD and ASAT missions, on the one hand, and strategic forces, on the other.

    On similar lines, the Indian test of March 27 is also a decisive demonstration of capability, albeit with ambiguous intent. The bigger significance of the test, however, lies in its latent indication that India has attained the capability for exo-atmospheric interception of long-range missiles in their mid-course. Though targeting algorithms for ASAT and ballistic missile interception in outer space might be markedly different, the FAQ put out by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) on March 27 confirmed that the ASAT test was done using the long-range interceptor of the BMD programme, christened as the AD (PDV 1 & 2).7 While the anticipated DRDO statement could provide greater clarity on this aspect, this demonstration of exo-atmospheric interception is a major milestone for the BMD programme. Having worked on two endo-atmospheric systems – Advanced Air Defence (AAD) and Prithvi Air Defence (PAD) –for more than a decade, the DRDO has been struggling on the long-range system for exo-atmospheric interception, reportedly hampered by the absence of a long-range tracking radar.8 While the Israeli Green Pine radar with a range of 600 km was the mainstay for earlier systems, the DRDO and the Indian Air Force have been working on extending its range beyond 1000 km in order to guide the PDVs towards precision interception using Agni platforms.

    Consequently, the first PDV test of April 2014 could not achieve interception at a range of 120 km, although the DRDO claimed that the mission was successful (in terms of inertial guidance and target seeking).9 While the second PDV test in February 2017 was reported as a success, the DRDO has been cautious in hastening a tight test schedule for the PDV, or in declaring early successes, as was done in the case of PAD and AAD.10 The March 27 test, even if for an ASAT, thus indicates a breakthrough for the DRDO. This is also indication that an actual mid-course BMD test using the PDV might soon be in the offing, which, if successful, could be the more significant accomplishment than the ASAT test.

    What India’s ASAT intends to achieve?

    Notwithstanding the sense of ‘national accomplishment’ associated with the announcement, the FAQ issued by the MEA points to a lack of clarity and the role of exogenous factors driving the ASAT test. The MEA document states that the test was done “to verify … the capability to safeguard our space assets.” This is a problematic contention. An ASAT in itself is not a defensive system that could ‘safeguard’ any space asset. Instead, it is an offensive system that could solely be used for retribution in response to an attack on India’s space assets. In that sense, the capability can only be used as a deterrent against a potential rival (China seems to be the only threat), a fact, which, though, has not found mention in any statements.11

    The FAQ also justifies the test citing India’s Mangalyaan and Gaganyaan programmes, its legacy of 102 spacecraft missions and criticality of the space programme, none of which, though, constitute a rationale for an ASAT capability. There are many space-faring nations (and communities like the European consortium) with far greater numbers of assets in space, but none is considering the need to defend them using ASAT systems. Undoubtedly, competing with China seems to be the only driver for this test. However, considering that China is far ahead in strategic technologies, including Hypersonic Glide Vehicles (HGV), Directed-Energy weapons and MaRVs (manoeuvrable re-entry vehicles), it would be unwise for India to seek to match China on a competing scale. As a developing nation with scare resources for defence technological development, India cannot afford to divert massive resources on fictitious and hypothetical scenarios like space wars. Greater emphasis should, instead, be on addressing formidable gaps in India’s air-delivery platforms, air defence and propelling the mid-course interception capability towards fruition.

    Finally, there is the question of the moral high ground, which the hyper-realists dominating Indian policy debates may pooh-pooh. The FAQ itself lists India’s lofty commitment to global efforts in mitigating arms race and weaponisation of outer space. As a supposed party to major international treaties relating to outer space, and having committed to ongoing initiatives like PAROS and No First Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, there is no moral basis to go against this grain and initiate actions that amount to a weapons race in outer space. What is the realpolitik being pursued when India plans to play a future role in drafting a legal instrument to prevent arms race in this domain, as the FAQ claims, after substantially contributing to the same race (as only the fourth country to develop this capability)? This is a game the Cold War era great powers played and which India has hitherto desisted from. No convincing reasons can be seen to change that historic course!

    Views expressed are of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.