India thinks space power status requires offensive military space capabilities – and may be right

Mar 28, 2019

Linking space power with offensive capabilities reflects wider trends in global strategic affairs

On 27 March, India performed a test of its new direct-ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) missile, destroying one of its own satellites. The test likely used a derivative of the Prithvi Defence Vehicle (PDV) missile interceptor developed for India’s two-layer ballistic missile defence programme. The PDV had previously been tested successfully on 23 September 2018, but that particular mission involved engaging a target at only 50km out in space (roughly 150km from Earth’s surface). The ASAT test on 27 March seems to have taken place at around 300km, which demonstrates a doubling of the weapon’s effective range. 

More interesting – and consequential – than the technical details of this test are the motivations behind it, along with its strategic implications. Taking place less than a month after the armed clash with Pakistan over Kashmir, and with Indian general elections coming up, this demonstration of military-technological prowess is clearly designed, first and foremost, to serve Prime Minister Modi’s domestic political purposes. This in itself is a new departure in space affairs, linking major advances in strategic space capabilities to party-political interests at home. Traditionally, such milestones, even during the Cold War, were reached as part of national, bi-partisan space endeavours. 

Domestic politics aside, the test is highly significant in strategic terms. It indicates the maturation of a purely offensive Indian military space technology designed to counterbalance (and deter) Chinese space power. One the one hand, as Brahma Chellaney of New Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research commented to the Nikkei Asia Review,  “without building deterrence by demonstrating an ASAT capability, India risked encouraging an adversary like China to go after Indian space capabilities early in a conflict,” meaning that “to ‘defend’ its satellites, India has to deter China’s use of its direct ascent missiles and laser weapons.”

On the other hand, India also needs to respond to the space component of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which is encroaching on New Delhi’s perceived sphere of interest. When it comes to the BRI, the world’s attention focuses on the great physical infrastructure projects (highways, ports, railways) that China finances and builds across Asia – which often double as debt traps that increase Beijing’s regional influence. But BRI connectivity also comes in the form of Chinese space services being offered to host nations to boost their digital infrastructure, whether it is ground-based or satellite-based augmentation of Beidou GNSS signals or directly helping countries like Sri Lanka or Pakistan to launch their own communication satellites. 

India strives to counter this expansion of Chinese space influence in its back yard through its own version of space-driven foreign development assistance. In January, New Delhi announced that it will build five large ground stations amore than 500 small terminals in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Nepal and Bhutan to improve and expand satellite coverage. With space capabilities already playing such a significant part in the Asian geopolitical contest stirred up by China’s BRI, it is not surprising to see India wishing to assert its own space power and strenghten its status in this domain.

This moment has been over a decade in the making. New Dehli started to prioritise R&D efforts in this domain after the 2007 Chinese ASAT test (which caused an even greater political sensation – and far more damage in terms of debris). In 2010, Indian scientists declared they had the “technology blocks to create an anti-satellite weapon”, although at that time the official attitude from India’s defence space establishment was that such a weapon was not “required”. But India was always going to make a public demonstration of this capability, if only just to keep pace with China. 

Announcing the successful test to the world, Narendra Modi declared that India has become a “space superpower”. Semantic purists might take issue with the word choice, but more important is the implication that offensive military capability gives the measure of a nation’s space power. This is hardnosed, in contrast with the widespread entrepreneurial enthusiasm and popular excitement about “NewSpace” today. But is it unwarranted?

Even before this test there was no denying India’s status as first-tier space power. The country boasts indigenous capabilities in all key areas of space from launchers to earth observation and communication satellites, has sent missions to Mars, and it even boasts its own regional navigation satellite system. This ASAT test is a technical feat which, albeit derived from a missile defence programme, crowns an impressive record of Indian achievement in space.

Linking space power status with offensive counterspace capabilities, aggressive as it may sound, is unfortunately in sync with the wider trends in global strategic affairs, including the space domain. The American debate on the “Space Force” is just one symptom of this. Space cannot be insulated from geopolitical and geoeconomic competition. On the contrary: it is increasingly entwined with it, and the ways in which countries wield space power in pursuit of their terrestrial objectives continue to evolve. 

It is therefore likely that the strategic interplay between these forms of power will only become more fundamental to international affairs, and that leading space powers will be at an increasing advantage in the decades ahead. India has bet that this requires major offensive space capabilities. The odds are in its favour.

Policy Exchange will be launching a new Space Policy Unit next month

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