In January 2007 China successfully tested an anti-satellite missile system. That test, although primarily meant as a warning shot across America’s bow, also helped concentrate New Delhi’s mind to begin fashioning policy responses to the militarization of space. The former head of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), Dr. Kasturirangan, typified India’s response when he noted: “obviously we start worrying…India has spent a huge sum to develop its capabilities and place assets in space…there is a need to look at means to securing these.”1 The scientific advisor to the Indian defense minister also warned that China’s test could possibly lead ISRO and the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) to collaborate in developing satellite kill technologies.2 The debate was subsequently joined in by the chief of India’s air force Air Chief Marshal Naik who made a forceful case for building anti-satellite weapons on the grounds that, “Our satellites are vulnerable to anti-satellite weapon systems because our neighborhood possesses one.”3 These and other statements do not imply that India has an instituted anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) program. But they strongly suggest that Indian government agencies have begun exploratory efforts aimed at possibly instituting one.
During the past three decades, the stakeholders in India’s space program have been primarily civilian. Remote sensing, weather forecasting, telecommunications, and broadcasting consumed the bulk of ISRO’s attention.4 But starting in the last decade, the Indian military’s space footprint has begun to expand. Among India’s 23 active satellites, 10 fly in geostationary earth orbits (GEO) and 13 in low earth orbits (LEO).5 Among the latter, at least three satellites, the Cartosat 2A, the RISAT 2, and a technology experimental satellite, are speculated to have military applications.6 Both the Indian Air Force and the Indian Navy have plans to acquire dedicated satellites for communications and net-centric operations. Plans are also afoot to build a constellation of satellites for navigation purposes.7 The Indian military’s embrace of the information-hungry revolution in military affairs will thus heighten dependence and also its vulnerability to potential disruption of space-based assets. It is therefore no surprise that Air Chief Marshal Naik refers to ASAT weapons as “one of our challenges of future war capability.”8
There are two ways in which one could defend against threats to space assets: non-destructive and destructive. In non-destructive methods, “jamming” and “spoofing” are used to interfere with a satellite’s systems. Electro-optical countermeasures such as “dazzling” optical sensors are also available.9 However, for such countermeasures to work, detailed knowledge of the targeted satellite is usually necessary. Among destructive methods are the Kinetic Energy-Anti-Satellite Weapon (KE-ASAT) and the co-orbital ASAT. Kinetic energy kill vehicles are lifted into space by rockets and destroy satellites by physically ramming into them.10 Co-orbital ASAT systems on the other hand are orbited into space like any other satellite, but are put through a series of maneuvers to collide with and destroy a designated satellite.11 Thus far, there are few indications that India is invested in non-destructive countermeasures. The evidence so far suggests that India is keeping its option on the KE-ASAT open. India has also indicated some interest in building a ground-based laser program although not much is known about the program in the public domain.12 Just recently, in March of 2011, DRDO tested a short-range ballistic missile interceptor, a radio frequency seeker, and a fiber-optic gyroscope, as parts of its ongoing anti-ballistic intercept program.13 These systems could also in theory serve as components of an operational KE-ASAT capability in the future.
The Indian approach to developing ASAT weapon technologies is measured and exploratory. It follows the now institutionalized methodology of developing dual-use technologies that have civilian and military spin-offs; or tacking military programs onto already instituted ones. The Indian approach also emphasizes the significance of ‘technology demonstration’ over the proving of operational military systems. Technology demonstration is less provocative externally, allows long lead times for technologies to mature, and is sensitive to the difficulties of building consensus within the Indian political system. This was the path for example that India took in developing nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, and ballistic missile systems. To be sure, India has now elected in favor of operational nuclear and missile capabilities. However, for at least a decade, nuclear weapons were part of a hedge strategy. Similarly, chemical weapons were developed but never incorporated into the military’s operational planning. Based on statements from ISRO and DRDO representatives, it appears that any program to validate technologies for a KE-ASAT program would also fit into the genre of a hedge and demonstrate strategy.14
The merits of a hedge and demonstrate strategy apart, there are pressures to test and validate key technologies for political reasons. Many Indian strategic analysts analogize from India’s harsh experience under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to urge the testing and validation of operational systems. They fear the possibility of an NPT-analogous space regime that might once again draw an artificial dividing line between ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’.15 Indian military leaders, perhaps wary of the DRDO’s past failures in making good on its promises to develop working systems as well as the operational demands of having capabilities on the ground, also favor operational validation over technology demonstration.16 The technologists and scientists from DRDO and ISRO however are less keen on a program of operational testing for two reasons. First, they believe that since many KE-ASAT technologies overlap with the ballistic missile defense system currently under development, especially in the areas of radar tracking and target acquisition, a separate test program would be of little practical value. But more significant, they are concerned that a full operational test would add to the problem of space debris, which now poses a serious threat to all space assets in the LEO. China’s ASAT test for example increased space debris (debris of diameter greater than 1 cm) in LEO by 15-20 percent, an experience that DRDO and ISRO are keen to avoid.17
The ASAT debate once again attests to the status quo bias in Indian national security decision-making. It shows that Indian institutions respond to threats. But they do not necessarily anticipate them. Indian political leaders for example have still not publicly endorsed statements from ISRO, DRDO and the military. The Indian military’s wish list for an operational ASAT capability is also unlikely to be met for three reasons. First, it is not apparent that China poses an immediate operational threat to Indian space assets. Second, civilian agencies such as ISRO and DRDO have historically enjoyed far greater influence than the military in shaping strategic research and development choices. And finally, Indian political leaders are likely to find a hedge and demonstrate strategy less controversial and more economically viable. Thus an Indian ASAT program will more likely constitute a shadow capability in the short-term.