When China demonstrated its antisatellite weapon capability in 2007, it spurred international concern and criticism over the potential militarization of outer space.
The muted response to a similar Indian test on March 27 shows that great-power capabilities in this field have so advanced that such an event is no longer a surprise. Indeed, the technology has developed to such an extent that defense planners must deal with the looming specter of wars in space.
The linkages between antisatellite, or ASAT, weapon technologies and ballistic missile defense systems, which can shoot down incoming missiles, underscore how innovations favor both offense and defense. Space wars are no longer just Hollywood fiction.
India’s ASAT test is a reminder that the Asia-Pacific region is the hub of the growing space-war capabilities. The United States and Russia field extensive missile defense systems and boast a diverse range of ground-launched and directed-energy ASAT capabilities. China’s ASAT weaponry is becoming more sophisticated, even as it aggressively seeks theater ballistic missile defenses.
Japan and South Korea are working with the U.S. separately to create missile defense systems. Although aimed at thwarting regional threats, these systems are interoperable with American missile defenses. Australia, for its part, participates in trilateral missile-defense consultations with the U.S. and Japan.
Space-based assets are critical not just for communications but also for imagery, navigation, weather forecasting, surveillance, interception, missile guidance and the delivery of precision munitions. Taking out such assets can blind an enemy.
India’s successful “kill” of one of its own satellites with a missile — confirmed by the U.S. Air Force Space Command — has made it the fourth power, after the United States, Russia and China, to shoot down an object in space. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, facing a tight reelection race, made a rare televised address to announce India’s entry into this exclusive club of nuclear-armed countries that can destroy a moving target in space.
India’s technological leap is being seen internationally as a counter to China’s growing ASAT capabilities, which include ground-based direct ascent missiles and lasers, which can blind or disable satellites.
The international development of ASAT capabilities mirrors the nuclear-weapons proliferation chain. Like nuclear weapons, the U.S. was the first to develop satellite-kill technologies, followed by the former Soviet Union. China, as in nuclear weapons, stepped into this realm much later, only to provoke India to follow suit.
The Indian test was clearly a warning shot across China’s bow, although Modi claimed that it was not aimed against any country.
India finds itself boxed in by the deepening China-Pakistan strategic nexus. China has transferred, according to international evidence, technologies for weapons of mass destruction to Pakistan to help tie down India south of the Himalayas. Beijing currently is seeking to shield Pakistan even from international pressure to root out transnational terrorist groups that operate from its territory.
The Indian ASAT demonstration holds strategic implications also for Pakistan, which values nuclear weapons as an antidote to its conventional military inferiority and thus maintains a nuclear first-use doctrine against stronger India. By shielding it from retaliation, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons enable its nurturing of armed jihadists as a force multiplier in its low-intensity proxy war by terror against India.
An ASAT capability, by potentially arming India with the means to shoot down incoming missiles, could erode Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent. After all, an ASAT capability serves as a building block of a ballistic missile defense system.
However, China remains at the center of Indian security concerns. Without developing ASAT weaponry to help underpin deterrence, India risked encouraging China to go after Indian space-based assets early in a conflict.
In today’s world, one side can impose its demands not necessarily by employing force but by building capabilities that can mount a coercive threat.
China’s ASAT capabilities arguably hold the greatest significance for India, which has no security arrangements with another power and thus is on its own. Japan, South Korea and Australia, by contrast, are ensconced under the U.S. security umbrella. The U.S. and Russia, armed to their teeth, can cripple China’s space-based assets if it dared to strike any of their satellites.
India thus had stood out for its lack of a deterrent against China’s ASAT prowess. Against this background, India’s successful “kill” of a satellite is an important milestone in its quest to plug the vulnerability of its space assets.
To be sure, a space war scenario can arise only in a conflict. But preventing war demands systems of deterrence. And the only counter to ASAT weaponry is a capability to pay back in kind.
The rivalry between the demographic titans, China and India, has ominously moved into space.
India, by placing a low-cost spacecraft in orbit around Mars in 2014, won Asia’s race to the Red Planet. And in 2017, India set a world record by launching 104 satellites into orbit with a single rocket. This beat the previous record of 37 satellites that Russia established in 2014.
China, for its part, has sent six crews into space and launched two space labs into the Earth’s orbit. In 2013, it became the third country, after the U.S. and Russia, to land a rover on the moon. And last December, it landed another probe and a rover on the far side of the moon — the first time this had ever been done. Its first mission to Mars is scheduled for next year.
But it is the extension of the China-India space race to the military realm that underscores the Asian specter of space wars. India’s feat in shooting down a satellite orbiting at 30,000 kilometers an hour highlights its determination to catch up with China’s advances.
According to the Pentagon, China, like Russia, has demonstrated offensive space capabilities through “experimental” satellites able to conduct on-orbit activities. China has used a ground-based laser to “paint,” or illuminate, an American satellite, as if to demonstrate a nascent capability to blind targeted satellites.
India’s ASAT test, like the 2007 Chinese satellite “kill” and the 2008 U.S. strike against a malfunctioning satellite, underscores how the environmental degradation haunting our planet is being extended to outer space. The Indian test, according to the U.S., created 270 pieces of debris in space — a number that will likely grow as the fragments decay. But since the remnants are from a low-earth-orbit satellite, many of the pieces are expected to fall onto the Earth within weeks.
The test highlights the international imperative to prevent the weaponization of outer space, including by strengthening the legal framework. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, aimed at establishing basic international space law, does not prohibit the stationing of weapons in space or ASAT tests.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” which won the Bernard Schwartz Award.