By Barun Das Gupta
When the Prime Minister told the nation in a special broadcast on March 27 that India had been able to develop an anti-satellite (A-SAT) missile which had shot down a low earth-orbiting satellite (one of India’s own), the country was in election mode and many thought it was an election gimmick. Few realized that it was not a one-off exercise but the first step in a well-thought-out plan to defend India from space attacks which had become a distinct and dangerous possibility with China developing a wide range of anti-satellite weapons – both kinetic and electro-magnetic.
But the recent official announcement that the Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) of the army, navy and air force was going to conduct a two-day drill (named IndSpaceEx) for defending attacks from space on July 25 and 26, makes it clear that India is preparing for space war or rather for defence against attacks from space. This has become necessary in view of China’s growing strength in space defence and counter-space capability. It poses an imminent threat to India.
China has already developed a wide range of both kinetic and co-orbital killer satellites and laser and electro-magnetic pulse weapons. These weapons can disable the entire electronic communication system of the country being targeted. They can also damage aircraft, besides jamming India’s communication satellites in the midst of a war. They can interfere in our early-warning system. Usually, gamma ray emission following a nuclear explosion causes ionization of air and disrupted electronic communication systems. Star war can achieve the same objective without a nuclear explosion.
Space war is a combat that takes place not on the Earth but in outer space, e.g. ground to space war by attacking satellites or in outer space by satellites attacking and destroying enemy satellites. The Outer Space Treaty that was signed on January 27, 1967, prohibits the placing of nuclear weapons in space or in moon or in any celestial body. But it does not prohibit non-nuclear weapons being used from outer space.
While China is preparing for an offensive space war, India’s is purely defensive. It wants to protect itself adequately against a surprise space attack from an enemy country. The July drill was meant to identify the nature of challenges and how to deal with them if a war extends into the outer space. At present the US has an unchallenged supremacy in the field of space war, but China is fast emerging as a rival to the US. Once it can do so, other countries can be easily targeted. This is what is of prime concern to India,
China last week issued its first defence White Paper in four years, spelling out its policy on developing space weapons. The White Paper recognized that outer space is a “critical domain” in international strategic competition. The US press reported China admitted it was developing necessary “technologies and capabilities” for safeguarding its satellites and maintaining the “ability to safely enter, exit and openly use space.”
As far as India’s strategic security is concerned, there is little to take comfort from the fact that China is not placing nuclear weapons in outer space. China has shown scant regard for international law. Its intransigent stand on South China Sea is an example. It refused to abide by the decision of the Permanent court of Arbitration which did not recognize Chinese sovereignty over the whole of the Sea. China refused to take part in the proceedings of the PCA.
India took the first step to entering the arena of space wars quite late in the day when it successfully shot down one of its own satellites earlier this year. China did this twelve years ago on January 11, 2007 when it shot down a weather satellite at an altitude of 865 kms. The killer missile was a kinetic vehicle travelling at the speed of eight kms per second.
China is far ahead of us and we have to more than double-march to make up for the time lag, There is one difference, though, China’s is an offensive space war programme, primarily aiming at attaining par with the United States which it considers to be the biggest threat to its security. India is, however, concerned with developing a defensive capability to neutralize any attack from outer space.
In a space war any communication satellite can be hit, even the satellites that make the Global Positioning System or GPS may be hit, satellites through which financial transactions are carried out or which keep a twenty-four hour watch on a hostile country from space can be made dysfunctional. In times of war, communication links between army commands can be effectively snapped, throwing into disarray the coordinated movement of troops in different theatres. All these are within the range of possibility. India has just started to toddle in this terra incognita. It has to stand up and start running. That will take time but eventually we should be able to develop the capacity to protect ourselves from space attacks.