Tuesday, May 28, 2013

China’s Evolving ASAT Capabilities: Implications for India

Brig (retd) Vinod Anand, Senior Fellow, VIF

China has carried out a ground-launched anti-satellite missile test on May 13 which according to reports was disguised as space exploration rocket firing. China’s National Space Science Center claimed that a sounding rocket was used in a high-altitude scientific exploration test. The missile fired from Xichang Space Launch center has been identified as Dong Ning-2 ASAT missile. However, in this case apparently there was no target to be engaged like the disused Chinese weather satellite in low-earth orbit in the first Chinese ASAT test of January 2007, the debris of which is still causing problems. It was the very same Xichang Space Launch center from where ASAT test of 2007 was carried out. Apparently, the existence of this new ASAT missile was discovered sometime in October last year. The Chinese spokesman, however, did not directly confirm or deny the conduct of such a test.

The DN-2 is a high-earth orbit attack missile which is part of PLA’s plans to build asymmetric warfare capabilities that could be used against the US and regional competitors. According to some reports China possesses an arsenal of at least a dozen ASAT missiles. Such a counter space capability which is being viewed seriously by the US would also pose a threat India’s communication and soon to be placed Global Positioning Satellites besides a wide variety of critical civilian infrastructure that is dependent on communication and navigation satellites. Possibilities of ‘Unrestricted Warfare’ scenarios outlined by two senior colonels of PLA in their book published in 1999 cannot be ruled out.

Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has plans to launch first of a series of seven satellites of Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) starting from June 2013; the system will provide positioning timing and navigation facilities. All the satellites are expected to be in place by 2015. The satellites will provide facilities to both authorized civilian and military users with inbuilt secrecy devices.

In addition, a dedicated military communications satellite GSAT-7/INSAT-4F is expected to be launched in August and GSAT-7A for use of the Indian Air Force is scheduled to be launched next year. Further, CARTOSAT-3 series of satellites that will give image resolution of .25 meters will replace the earlier ones have their slots for launch between 2016 and 2018. Further, Indian space programme is also very ambitious with plans to launch a variety of satellites in the coming years for collecting data, intelligence and for carrying out detection, reconnaissance and surveillance activities. All such space assets would be vulnerable to an adversary’s ASAT capabilities.

Therefore, the moot point is how can India protect its increasing number of assets in the space? India’s rising ballistic missile warfare capabilities including its ballistic missile defence would be of no use without concomitant support from a variety of space based assets. Thus, a deterrence capability in space becomes a necessary condition for our long range precision strike of a strategic nature. In addition the entire structure of C4ISR is largely dependent on space-based assets. It can be easily surmised that we need an ASAT capability.

Last year in April after the successful test of Agni V, DRDO Chief VK Sraswat claimed that "Today, we have developed all the building blocks for an anti-satellite (ASAT) capability". In fact, China’s ASAT test of 2007 had given impetus for undertaking such a project as India’s space infrastructure (worth over 12 billion US dollars) had become vulnerable. Agni V's launch in addition to substantively strengthening our strategic deterrence has spin off benefits as the ASAT weapon would largely be based on Agni V's propulsion system with the AD-2 interceptor missile becoming the kill-vehicle that is being developed as part of India’s ballistic missile defence system. As the military satellites operate in Low Earth Orbit (up to 2000 km) such a capability would deter any adversary that seeks to neutralise our satellites. According to DRDO projections the development of an ASAT capability is expected to be completed by end 2014. DRDO says that there are no plans to carry out an actual test; only simulation tests to verify the effectiveness of the ASAT weapon system are likely to be carried out.

However, the question remains whether a demonstrated ASAT capability would be more credible and effective as a deterrent than an untested capability based merely on claims. After all deterrence is a mind game or a psychological process and a demonstrated capability followed by articulation of doctrine or even in some cases in the absence of a doctrine would have more telling effect on adversary’s mind. It was only after Pokharan nuclear tests of May 1998 that India was taken seriously as a nuclear weapon power. Thus conducting a physical ASAT weapon test rather than a simulated one would pay much more dividends in a world which according to realist theory of international relations remains largely anarchical.

Another development which needs to be kept in mind is that plans are afoot to impose restrictive regimes in the space like the ones which were imposed in the case of nuclear weapons and missile controls. Such regimes have been largely favourable to the existing players in the respective fields and especially the P-5. While China’s conducted ASAT test in January 2007 the US seems to have reacted to this by conducting its own ground launched ASAT test in 2008 against an unused satellite. Both the US and Russia have carried out a variety of ASAT weapons tests earlier commencing from 1950’s onwards but of late such efforts were at low key. There have been indications that the US and some other powers were moving towards instituting a framework that would restrict the use of such kind of weapon systems against space based assets.

Currently, a proposed ‘Prevention of An Arms Race in Outer Space’ (PAROS) Treaty is under discussion in the Conference on Disarmament of the UN. For the time being there appears to be a deadlock in the negotiations. In 2008 China and Russia had put forward a draft of the PAROS treaty which was shot down by the US as an attempt by both the countries to gain military advantage. Russia-China proposals did not include restrictions on ground based ASAT weapons. A PAROS treaty is expected to be in consonance with the spirit of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which aims to preserve space for peaceful uses by prohibiting the use of space weapons, the development of space-weapon technology, and technology related to “missile defense.” Having already gained military advantage it would be natural for the ‘haves’ to deny the same to ‘have-nots’ like India.

Another parallel UN initiative on the issue is the Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on Transparency and Confidence-building Measures (TCBMs) in Outer Space Activities which was formed in 2011. Its origins lie in UN General Assembly Resolution 63/68 which was sponsored by major space-faring nations, such as Russia and China. Though the US declared its support for the process, it abstained from voting on the resolution, objecting to its mention of the Chinese-Russian draft Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Object (PPWT). The objectives of the initiative are to improve international cooperation and reduce the risks of misunderstanding and miscommunication in outer space activities and ensure strategic stability in the space domain. The GGE naturally consists of P-5 powers and ten other members; India is not represented in this forum. There is also another UN initiative of formulating an ‘International Space Code of Conduct’ which is based on a draft put forward by the EU in Conference on Disarmament. Though the efforts are to move towards a consensus on peace and security in the outer space domain the mutual suspicions and distrust remain.

From Indian perspective it needs to be seen is whether any such space regime would prevent it from exercising its strategic options. So far India’s experience has not been very happy with most of such international regimes/treaties which are unequal and have been engineered in a manner so that benefit generally goes to the P-5 nations.

Therefore, before a strategic restraint regime places a bar on ASAT tests it is imperative for India to conduct such a test to demonstrate its capabilities in this sphere. Such a counter space capability is required to defend our space assets and deter any adversary. Of course, there is a need to take care to ensure that debris fallout from an ASAT test is either very little or negligible to assuage international concerns on this aspect. If space debris is to be avoided altogether then ASAT missile could be fired with an inbuilt offset to the designated target which would result in a near miss but validate the resulting test data. According to some experts this is possibly what has been done by China when it fired space exploration rocket on May 13.

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