China-India: The Threat From Anti-Satellite Lethality

Hindustan Times, February 6, 2007

China’s anti-satellite weapon test should spur India to plug gaps in its defences

It’s not only rocket science


Three issues stand out on China’s January 11 anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon test. First, such is Beijing’s ingrained opacity that it did not own up to the test until diplomatic pressure intensified. Two, a lot of unsafe space debris likely to last years has been left in low orbit by China’s conversion of a rocket to kill one of its aging satellites. And three, the test sets a treacherous precedent by marking the first ASAT kill by any power in more than two decades.

            Whatever its motivation, the test will have lasting global impact like no other military event in recent years. While China’s message, in line with its growing geopolitical ambitions, may have been directed at America, it is its immediate neighbours that are likely to be more rattled by its precision in timing a high-speed rocket carrying a ‘kinetic’ weapon to kill a circling satellite. Although the rocket probably was the KT-1, similar to India’s PSLV, it is the overall sophistication displayed that brings down wishful thinking about averting militarization of space.

To India, the test is not just a reminder of the glaring gaps in its defences but also a wakeup call to start addressing them. That India has lagged behind its minimal-deterrent requirements is conspicuous. But instead of accelerating its space-launch and missile programmes, New Delhi has allowed the asymmetry to widen to a point where China has now laid bare India’s battlefield vulnerability.

Indeed, of all the major countries, the Chinese ASAT lethality arguably holds the greatest import for India The only counter to ASAT weapons is a capability to pay back in kind. The US and Russia, armed to their teeth, can cripple China’s communications and expose its ground assets if it dared strike their space assets. Japan, also concerned over the test, is ensconced under a US security umbrella.

India, by contrast, stands out for a binary lack of deterrent capabilities: it neither has the missile reach for a counter-offensive in the Chinese heartland nor seeks ASAT power to deter the destruction of its space assets. Fighting a 21st-century war with one’s key space assets disabled will be worse than facing an adversary with one hand tied behind. Such assets are critical not just for communications but also for imagery, navigation, interception, missile guidance and delivery of precision munitions.

To be sure, an ASAT scenario can arise only in a conflict situation. But deterrence is required precisely to avert war. India’s commitment was to building a “credible minimal deterrent”. Before long, the ‘credible’ element fell by the wayside. Now, as underscored by India’s increasing vulnerability against China, even the ‘minimal’ part is slipping.

To sustain peace with China, India needs to be able to defend peace. Can it be forgotten that India was caught napping in 1962 because the invasion was totally unexpected? Or that in 1986-87 war clouds emerged out of a clear blue sky on the Sino-Indian horizon? The key lesson of 1962 was that what matters is adversarial capability, not intent, which can change suddenly.

In today’s world, one side can impose its demands not necessarily by employing force but by building such asymmetric capabilities that a credible threat constricts the other side’s room for manoeuvre and ability to withstand pressure. Yet, curiously, the more India has fallen behind minimum deterrence, the more it has sheltered behind calcinatory and delusional rhetoric.

It is not lack of resources but a reluctance to get its priorities right that has left India far short of meeting its minimal-deterrent needs. The way India squanders resources is unspeakable. Embarrassed neither by its emergence as the world’s largest arms importer nor by its continued lack of priority to building an armament-production base at home, India intends to spend at least $20 billion over the next five years to import weapons. Such imports ostensibly will seek to equip India for the next conventional war, when what it faces increasingly are unconventional threats, the latest being ASATs.

Rather than prepare to fight war, shouldn’t India give greater priority to preventing aggression? A full-fledged war remains remote 35 years after the last one India fought. Preventing war demands systems of deterrence. Such systems have to be developed indigenously because no power will sell them. But as they come with no kickbacks, incentives to speedily develop them have been weak. India can easily cut its proposed arms imports by half and invest the savings to build deterrence.

Take another egregious case: India plans to spend $3.4 billion to land a man on the moon by 2020, with its first lunar orbiter scheduled for 2008, first unmanned lunar landing for 2010 and first manned space flight for 2014. Such an ambitious mission can be a priority for a country like China that has met its basic national-security needs and amassed $1 trillion in the world’s largest foreign-exchange hoard. But for India this is an extravagance when it still cannot launch its own telecommunications satellites. Shouldn’t India’s interests on planet earth and its outer space take precedence over a lunar dream?

If it truly aspires to be a great power, India has to meet the first test of greatness — the capacity to defend oneself independently. It is past time it calibrated its priorities to fix defence-related weaknesses. Before it can think of developing a counter-capability to shield itself from an ASAT menace, it will have to deal with two obtrusive mismatches that hobble its deterrence promise.

The first mismatch is between its satellite and launch capabilities. Greater operational capability necessitates large satellites. While India has first-rate satellite-manufacturing expertise, it still needs a foreign commercial launcher like EADS’s Ariane 5 to place its INSAT-4 series satellites in geostationary orbit. Even when the vaunted GSLV becomes operational with indigenous cryogenic technology, its 2,000-kilogram payload limit will fall short of what India’s needs even today.

The second mismatch is in the military realm — between the technical sophistication to build nuclear warheads and the extent to which they can be delivered reliably by missiles. Nearly a decade after it went overtly nuclear and almost a quarter-century after the missile programme launch, India still lacks the full reach against China. The thermonuclear warhead India tested with a controlled yield still awaits a delivery vehicle of the right payload range.

Why should a country with one-sixth of humanity to defend still seek incremental progress in the intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) field rather than aim to technologically leapfrog to an intercontinental ballistic missile? Without ICBM capability, India can be neither in the global league nor able to deter ASAT threats. If it were to marshal unwavering political will, India could, with its latent capabilities, build an ICBM in a crash programme with half the lunar-project budget and well before an Indian spacecraft lands an astronaut on the moon.

Just as several Indian companies are emerging as global players in their own right, the Indian state will be a behemoth on the world stage if it remedied its vulnerability problem. It has a lot to learn from China on how to take care of its security. Indeed it owes a thank-you to Beijing for delivering another reminder of its shortcomings. The ASAT test, at a minimum, ought to help clear the policy cobwebs arising from India’s defence indolence.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s