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A few hundred kilometres above the earth, an orbiting object receives a signal from a ground transmitting station; gently, the satellite powers up its systems and conducts a series of short thrusts that put it on course to its target. Drifting into the proximity, at almost five km per second, it emits a short yet powerful electromagnetic pulse. Far below, the Indian Navy cannot seem to get through to its nuclear submarines, the bearers of its vital nuclear second-strike capability. This may sound like a scenario from a John McTiernan blockbuster but it is very much within the realm of the possible. For years now, China has been developing its capabilities to wage war in space and of late, its string of successes merit series concern from India and its neighbours.

The militarisation of space started decades ago. Beginning in June 1959, the United States began to launch the Corona series of reconnaissance satellites that were tasked with gathering information on the Soviet military, their economy, electronic intelligence, and even early detection of missile launches. A total of 144 satellites were put into low earth orbit (LEO) until May 1972. The United States had halting success with anti-satellite (ASAT) weaponry but efforts were discontinued by the US Congress as the Cold War was winding down. However, in February 2008, the United States used a Standard Missile 3, designed primarily as an anti-ballistic missile, to destroy one of its military reconnaissance satellites.

On the other side of the Cold War, the Soviet Union developed and deployed an anti-satellite weapons system as early as November 1963, the Istrebitel Sputnikov (IS). The weapon was a single-launch kamikaze satellite carrying a 300 kg fragmenting warhead that would be put into LEO by a launch vehicle and then manoeuvre itself towards its target. The radius of the shrapnel from the warhead was no more than two kilometres and the satellite itself carried only enough fuel for 300 seconds of operation. The Soviet Union had little success with anti-satellite missiles but experimented with military space stations, lasers, and other means of intercepting, jamming, and destroying enemy satellites in case of war. The Soviet Union’s successor state, Russia, has recently restarted this project after a lull since the end of the Cold War and secretly launched a satellite in December 2013 that is capable of approaching other satellites, studying them, and intercepting, jamming, or destroying them if necessary. This is similar to the US Prowler satellite launched in 1990 or the ANGELS (Automated Navigation and Guidance Experiment for Local Space) programme announced in 2014.

SatellitesChina’s first forays into space had begun in 1956 with a programme whose primary task was to detect and counter American and later Soviet ballistic missile threats. Its formative years were spent developing a credible nuclear deterrent and received much assistance from Moscow until the Sino-Soviet split ended all cooperation in mid-1960. A presence in space was envisioned only in July 1967 and China’s first successful satellite was launched in April 1970. However, space evinced little interest from a China that was still recovering from the Cultural Revolution and new projects were taken up sparingly. Improving on previously tried and tested systems, China was able to offer a commercial launch facility in 1985 that would put several European and Asian satellites into orbit. Interest in space was on the rise again in Beijing in the late 1980s and a full-fledged ministry for aerospace was established in 1988. The first Gulf War two years later served as a Sputnik moment for Beijing and the state-owned aviation industry concern was made responsible for extraterrestrial endeavours as well. The number of annual Chinese space launches currently exceeds that of the United States and it is believed that China presently operates some 132 satellites in space, second to only the United States.

China shocked observers by bringing down one of their Fengyun class meteorological satellites with an ASAT variant of their Dong Feng 21 missile in January 2007. A further test was carried out in January 2010 with the same missile, the SC-19. Beijing conducted two more tests, one in May 2013 and another in July 2014, under the guise of a scientific mission. In these, a new type of missile was tested, the Dong Neng 2. China has already tested placing a parasitic microsatellite in orbit in 2008 when a BX-1 passed within 25 kms of the International Space Station – a collision could have been catastrophic.

These developments might not have been particularly worrying during the Cold War as few countries had come to depend heavily on satellites. However, the extent of integration of space-based assets in prosecuting Operation Desert Storm in January 1990 marked a new era in war-fighting. The use of global positioning to locate troops, reconnaissance satellites for image data of terrain and enemy troops, communications satellites to connect various services and theatres of battle, and Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites to detect early the launch of Scud missiles made the conflict the first space war; by Operation Enduring Freedom in October 2001, satellites had become even more integral to the military – now, they guided smart bombs onto their targets, provided video links to headquarters, and were the interface between unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and their operators. In 2015, the ability to cripple or even deny an opponent the use of space assets is a severe threat that can very well decide the fate of an engagement.

Beijing has observed these developments closely and has come to the conclusion that “whoever controls space [the universe] can control the earth,” a quotation the Chinese military attributes to US president John F Kennedy. In fact, much of Chinese thinking on space warfare is directly influenced by the United States. Chinese security journals regularly cite US literature on strategy, tactics, and technology development in space and some of their more influential thinkers even borrow Western terminology. Presently, there is an unstated acceptance in the Chinese Politburo and the PLA of the United States’ unassailable technological and material superiority in space. As a result, China has opted for an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy that would eliminate or hinder US C5ISR capabilities (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Combat Systems, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) against China in case of conflict. China would conduct nodal warfare, breaking the United States’ information chain at critical moments to undermine support given to conventional forces and weaken their dominance.

Chinese military ambitions are focused on achieving tactical parity with the United States. To this end, the country’s primary focus in counter-satellite warfare has been on space object surveillance and identification, direct ascent and co-orbital ASAT programmes, laser and microwave weapons systems, electronic warfare, and cyber weapons. The PLA’s understanding of US military doctrine, based on US actions as well as policy documents such as the United States Space Command’s Vision for 2020 and Joint Vision 2020, is that a space war is inevitable; through the command of space, the United States has the ability to perform surgical strikes and obviate the necessity for the greater use of force. This ability may be enough of a deterrent to an opponent to submit without fighting. Yet the cost of deploying space assets and their limited scale means that these forces cannot be employed at will. Even rich nations like the United States will be strained to maintain even a thin layer of space-based assets. Instead of challenging the United States in toto, Beijing will seek to gain footholds in a few, well-chosen areas that have decisive implications for security and operations. Thus, full engagement is avoided because, as one Chinese analyst wrote, “to break one finger is more effective than hurting all fingers.”

Satellite centric warfareAccording to Chinese military strategists, in contrast to the past, modern wars have become increasingly short and are often decided by just one intense campaign. Thus, winning the campaign may well mean winning the war. There might not be time, or China may lack the capability, to destroy all the enemy’s strategic assets as it might have had to in previous wars. In fact, there is no need to do so anymore if offensive focus can be spearheaded, even temporarily, against vital targets that integrate and support the enemy’s overall operations system. In other words, the PLA will strive to paralyse its opponent first and then conduct an operation of annihilation later to encourage a rapid political conclusion to hostilities. The appeal of this strategy against a technologically and operationally superior foe is obvious; as a Xinhua article recently stated, “For countries that can never win a war with the United States by using the method of tanks and planes, attacking the US space system may be an irresistible and most tempting choice.” Once most of the technological force multipliers are eliminated, China will have the upper hand in terms of sheer numbers.

This is unfortunate for India, who has to contend with a hostile power on its border that is constantly expanding its military capabilities. China’s undeclared Cold War with the United States pulls it into an unacknowledged arms race whose ripple effects its neighbours have to bear. India will also have to contend with the possibility that China will share at least some of its space assets with Pakistan. Beijing may easily provide Rawalpindi with intelligence on Indian troop movements, deployment, and signals intercepts in addition to what Pakistan might have managed on its own. The use of Chinese A2/AD against India on its western border will degrade Delhi’s conventional superiority against Islamabad and bleed the Indian treasury more to mitigate the situation. Such a scenario is highly plausible given the reckless sharing of nuclear and missile technology by Beijing with Islamabad in the past.

The good news is that destroying space assets is not a particularly difficult task – satellites are relatively easy to detect and since their orbits are clearly defined, much easier to shoot down than ballistic missiles. Indian defence planners will also be glad that their efforts in the new domain of space need not start from the ground up – India has already developed several technologies on its own for other weapons systems that may be modified and applied to defence purposes. Much like in the nuclear field, the difference between a space asset for civilian use and for military purposes is marginal and apparent only towards the end of the production cycle.

India’s Agni III and Agni V missiles, for example, amply indicate the potential to engage targets at high altitudes. The recent space missions to the Moon and to Mars also demonstrate a fair ability to track objects through space and to communicate with them. India’s family of satellites is not unimpressive and it has already launched several dual-use civilian and military satellites. India’s first remote-sensing satellite was launched in 1988, the IRS-1A, with a resolution of 36 metres; the IRS-1C, seven years later, achieved a resolution of under six metres. In 2001, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) launched the first satellite that had clear military applications as well: the Earth Observation Technology Experiment Satellite, with a resolution of one metre and weighing slightly over 1,100 kgs, was put in orbit from Sriharikota by the workhorse of the Indian space programme, a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. In 2008, Cartosat-2A was launched with even better resolution than the EOTES, and Cartosat-2B was put in orbit in 2010. The same year, ISRO also sent up the Oceansat-2, purposed for weather tracking and identification of fishing zones. However, it is also available to the Indian Navy for bathymetry and anti-submarine warfare. In the aftermath of the terrorist attack on Bombay, India acquired a radar-imaging satellite, the RISAT-2 from Israel. It was India’s first such platform and was equipped with the X-Band Synthetic Aperture Radar, allowing it to monitor its assigned area regardless of time of day or weather. ISRO had planned to launch Cartosat-3 by the end of 2014 but it has now been pushed back to September 2017; the satellite will have a resolution of 25 centimetres and provide the highest resolution earth photographs of any commercial satellite.

None of these are exclusively military satellites, of which India has very few. Even the constellation of seven Indian Regional Navigational Satellite (IRNSS) GPS satellites is meant to be available to civilians as well as the military. Part of the reason is the expense of becoming a space-faring nation. ISRO subsidises the development of its space infrastructure by selling services – launches, imagery, applications – commercially. Data from Indian satellites is routinely used around the world and benefit many causes. According to one estimate from 2004, India’s IRS satellites have earned more than four times the amount which has been invested on them through commerce as well as their contributions to urban planning, disaster management, and water resources management. However, this sort of jugaad economics cannot continue for much longer. “In space we have to be at par,” explains former ISRO chairman UR Rao. “We cannot say that we would make products which cost less but can get part of the job done. You just cannot bargain with space and have to have the best technology.” The GSAT-7 was India’s first exclusively military satellite, meant for communication with and between Indian naval vessels, was launched only in August 2013; another dedicated military satellite for electronic intelligence, the Communication-Centric Intelligence Satellite (CCI-Sat), is scheduled for 2020.

Not all satellites are the same. Other than shielding and the limited ability to manoeuvre in space, satellites are also defined by the orbits they trace. Satellites in LEO are easier to target than those further away in Medium Earth, High Earth, or Geosynchronous Orbits. GSO satellites are, as the name suggests, stationed above a particular point on earth at an altitude of 36,000 kms. Their coverage of the earth’s surface is greater but they are less flexible in their orbits or manoeuvrability. This trajectory is usually reserved for communications satellites as their fixed location obviates the need for expensive and bulky tracking equipment on the ground. At the other end are LEO satellites. These cover far less of the earth’s surface at a time but are faster, more manoeuvrable, and have greater proximity to the earth, all of which makes them ideal for imaging missions. The lower orbit also means that a greater number of such satellites are required to cover the same area constantly as a satellite in higher orbit. LEO satellites are more vulnerable to ASAT missiles than are GSO satellites but they are also usually cheaper and less valuable strategically than the latter. A country spreads its space assets in a multitude of orbits depending on mission profile, budget, and strategy.

One important step India can take is to give its disparate space efforts some focus. A dedicated Aerospace Command, to serve more as a nodal agency between the services than an independent wing of the Indian military, will be better able to judge and accommodate the needs of the services without unnecessary and expensive replication of capabilities. Furthermore, it would be a politically wise decision to separate ISRO from military missions; the organisation only recently was removed from under US sanctions and its involvement in Indian space warfare missions would only make it a target again. The dual use of space technologies a well established fact, it serves India’s needs to have one of its space centres beyond international reproach.

India also needs to significantly upgrade its space infrastructure. The country has just one space launch facility at Sriharikota that struggles to handle much more than six to eight launches per year when several more are required if the deficiencies in space are to be overcome in a timely manner. Additionally, ISRO has been struggling with the development of an indigenous cryogenic engine and the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) for years. The PSLV has managed to handle the workload, especially with additional boosters strapped on, but India needs a reliable rocket that can put payloads in excess of even 15 or 18 tonnes into LEO.

Beyond infrastructure, India needs to consider what countermeasures it can provide its satellites. Even though satellites are easy targets, the more advanced varieties can withstand some amount of interference with its sensors and communications. Shielding is perhaps the simplest countermeasure, but this makes satellites heavier. Another method is to build in some amount of manoeuvrability so that it can escape from a predatory co-orbital anti-satellite device. This will require fuel to be carried and stored onboard which will also make the satellite heavier and will eventually run out. Yet another option is to build in redundancy – if a certain mission requires a constellation of nine satellites, a dozen might be tasked; the additional three satellites, together with the ability to launch replacements quickly if needed, might perhaps be a cheaper option than a handful of very expensive and very valuable satellites.

The military must also consider what kind of anti-satellite measures it wishes to develop to disrupt the enemy’s C5ISR. Given the work done in developing India’s ballistic missile defence and intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities, a kinetic kill vehicle – industry parlance for an ASAT missile – might seem the easiest option. However, the Chinese test in 2007 created over 2,500 fragments in space that now interfere with the satellites of all nations. In fact, one of these fragments crashed into a Russian satellite in May 2013 and destroyed it. Cleaner kills would be through the development of microwave, EMP, or laser weapons systems. Depending upon their nature, intensity, and exposure, the effects could be temporary or permanent, giving India far more flexibility in its response to incidents.

There is little reason to panic just yet but space warfare is something that deserves more scholarly attention in India. A fair portion of India’s space budget goes unused each year despite the need for aggressive expansion of infrastructure, facilities, and manpower. Though it is difficult to compare space budgets internationally due to the dual use nature of the technology, India needs to invest significantly more into the industry. Luckily for India, this is not a guns vs. butter argument because the potential for overlap between civilian and military needs is enormous. While the initial elements of robust space defence exists in India, strategic vision is needed to shape it into a potent programme. As the Good Book tells us, where there is no vision, the people perish (Míshlê 29:18).

This article first appeared in the June 2015 print edition of Swarajya.