On March 27, 2019, India sprung an unwelcome surprise on the international community. Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced in a nationally televised address that India had successfully conducted an anti-satellite (ASAT) test earlier that day. A ballistic missile defense interceptor, the Prithvi Delivery Vehicle Mark-II (PDV MK-II), developed by India’s Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO), struck and destroyed an Indian Microsat-R satellite in a flight that lasted just over half a minute.
This ASAT test, dubbed Mission Shakti by the Indian government, was carefully planned. The target satellite was launched into a sun-synchronous orbit at a deliberately low altitude of 282 kilometers on January 24, 2019, a few weeks before the test. The spacecraft was relatively small in comparison to other Indian communication satellites, with a surface area of some two square meters, and its intercept occurred on the PDV MK-II’s downward trajectory at a closing velocity of 9.8 kilometers per second. All these elements taken together clearly suggest that the Indian government consciously intended to limit the orbital life of the debris created by the hit-to-kill intercept.
Unlike the Chinese ASAT test in 2007, which occurred at an altitude of 865 kilometers and produced a debris field of some 3,000 objects that will linger in space for decades, the Indian demonstration appears to have produced some 400 fragments (of which about 270 are being tracked) that will decay in weeks or perhaps a few months. Although there appear to be a few pieces of debris that were propelled into altitudes as high as 1,000 kilometers, most space analysts are agreed that the Indian test, however undesirable, did not compare with the Chinese test in terms of the damage done to the space environment.
This is relieving news, but the Indian ASAT test nevertheless troubled many in the international community because of the legitimate fear that it would strengthen the momentum toward more debris-causing tests by other states in the future. As one analyst pointed out, the argument that “generating debris under, say 300km, is OK” is obviously dangerous, because there is no way of knowing a priori where all the fragments produced by a kinetic collision in low earth orbit will actually end up. That India is joining only a short list of countries—China, the United States, and Russia—that have demonstrated the capability to conduct ASAT tests is also no consolation, because the number of countries able to undertake such intercepts is much larger and any further testing of this kind could make space a highly inhospitable environment for many different kinds of commercial and civilian endeavors.
The Indian government was aware of these risks in no small measure because the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has huge stakes in the peaceful uses of outer space. For many decades, ISRO’s activities concentrated solely on utilizing space to advance India’s economic development and, to that end, it developed end-to-end capabilities that have permitted it to produce indigenously everything from launchers to spacecraft. ISRO today is one of the six largest space agencies in the world: it operates a diverse fleet of satellites, has developed reliable launch vehicles, pursues impressive endeavors in space science and exploration, and has pioneered the utilization of space to deliver significant developmental benefits—in areas ranging from distance education to telemedicine—to the Indian population as a whole.
The Chinese ASAT test in 2007, thus, came as a rude shock to both India’s civilian space custodians and its military planners. It suddenly reminded them that their diverse space assets were now at risk, hostage to the dangers emanating from their most formidable regional threat—a country with which they had fought a major war and lost, with which they have an ongoing territorial dispute of significant proportions, and which represents the most dangerous hazard to both Indian security and ambitions in Asia. As Krishnaswamy Kasturirangan, ISRO’s chairman from 1994 to 2003, summarized New Delhi’s concerns succinctly in September 2009, “India has spent a huge sum to develop its capabilities and place assets in space. Hence, it becomes necessary to protect them from adversaries. There is a need to look at means of securing these.”
Coping With the Real Threat in Space—China
Since the successful 2007 Chinese intercept of its FY-1C satellite, therefore, India quietly began to contemplate developing its own ASAT demonstrator program principally with the intention of signaling to Beijing that it too possessed the capability to hold Chinese space assets at risk—should Indian satellites ever become victim to a Chinese attack in the future. The Mission Shakti test was meant to underscore precisely this point. It was precipitated entirely by the Chinese demonstration of its ASAT capabilities over a decade ago. At various points since, Indian defense technologists have debated the merits of developing comparable systems and preserving them as a force-in-being versus actually revealing them definitively through a live intercept. The latter option, however, finally won out under Modi. The decision to demonstrate India’s ASAT system appears to have been made about two years before the actual test. It led to a first attempt on February 12, 2019, which failed, and was followed by a second try on March 27, which caught the world’s attention.
While some observers have speculated that the Indian ASAT test was determined by Modi’s domestic political imperatives in an election year, the sequence highlighted above does not comfortably corroborate this hypothesis. Yet, the decision to develop India’s kinetic energy ASAT weapon was fundamentally consistent with Modi’s larger project of strengthening India’s military capabilities in order to prepare for long-term competition with China. Modi is not merely cognizant of this reality; it has actually driven his larger strategy of external balancing to include his extraordinary outreach to both Japan and the United States. Consequently, the demonstration of India’s ASAT system was not directed at any state other than China: India has good relations with all other space powers and has no strategic reason to target any of their space assets. Only China fits the bill of being New Delhi’s adversary while possessing the capability and the intention to threaten India’s space program.
Even though Modi went to great lengths to avoid identifying India’s real target—his public address emphasized instead that India was the world’s fourth nation with sophisticated counterspace capabilities and that these competencies were entirely indigenous—that China was the intended audience of the Indian demonstration was perhaps New Delhi’s worst kept secret. As Kanwal Sibal, a former Indian foreign secretary plainly declared, “While we have rightly said that our test was not directed against any country, in reality just as we developed nuclear weapon capability to principally deter China, the ASAT capability also redresses the India-China strategic balance.”
This strategic objective meant that India’s ASAT test had to be a kinetic, debris-producing intercept. New Delhi, despite misgivings about motivating others to follow India’s example, judged its national security interests to be paramount. Consequently, it concluded that any other modality, such as a rendezvous and proximity operation or a flight through some specified three-dimensional coordinates in space, would lack either the credibility or the palpability communicated by a hit-to-kill intercept—and the importance of these objectives for deterring China overrode all competing fears about adding to space debris.
India’s ASAT test also undoubtedly validated several emerging Indian ballistic missile defense technologies, including the imaging infrared sensor in the PDV MK-II’s kill vehicle and its divert and attitude control system, but the larger gains sought were strategic. India wanted to demonstrate to China that it could hold at risk Beijing’s space assets if required in a crisis; it saw an advantage in undertaking such a demonstration at a time when a friendly U.S. administration that was unlikely to be overly critical of India occupied the White House; and it sought to convey credible proof of Indian capabilities before any international efforts to ban kinetic, debris-producing ASAT tests were consummated.
The Limits of the Indian Deterrent
On all these counts, the Indian ASAT test arguably achieved its political objectives successfully. However, a larger question remains: whatever the level of deterrence conveyed, will the Mission Shakti intercept suffice to neutralize China’s evolving threat to the Indian space program? Many Indian commentators seem to think so. But the answer to this question is unsettlingly clear: no.
India’s ASAT test was perhaps necessary, but it will not suffice to protect India’s space assets during any major conflict with China. In large part, this is because Beijing, having learned from the international opprobrium earned by its January 2007 ASAT test, is unlikely to use kinetic debris-producing attacks on its competitors’ space systems in the future except under conditions of supreme necessity. In fact, Chinese counterspace strategy since 2007 has clearly shifted in the direction of emphasizing nondestructive means of space denial whenever possible. The available evidence suggests that China is currently pursuing several different alternatives, all of which singly or in combination would deeply threaten India’s ability to use space for civilian or military purposes in crises or in wartime.
Table 1 matches current and evolving Chinese counterspace capabilities against India’s operational space systems to depict the potential risks to the latter, utilizing publicly available information about China’s space denial programs. The table is by no means a detailed assessment of Indian space vulnerabilities. Such an analysis would require carefully correlating actual Chinese counterspace systems; their locations, capabilities, effectiveness; and the optimality of various offensive uses, to every Indian space platform, taking into account the number of systems that are operational, their orbital paths and operating altitudes, their technical characteristics, their design hardness and resiliency to attack, and the character of their links to ground control nodes and to wider national networks. Whether such analysis—which requires meticulous intelligence information about various Chinese counterspace capabilities as well as thorough technical knowledge of each Indian space system—has been completed in New Delhi is unclear, but it is urgent and ought to be initiated either unilaterally or in partnership with friendly powers, such as the United States, as a matter of necessity.
Hard Pills to Swallow
In any event, Indian policymakers have to come to terms with three inescapable realities when ensuring space security.
First, and perhaps most disconcerting, is that China’s counterspace capabilities are wide-ranging, highly diverse, and span the entire intersection of lethality and reversibility. They include the capacity to mount sophisticated cyber attacks directed at ground stations with the intent of either corrupting or hijacking the telemetry, tracking, and command systems used to control various spacecraft on orbit. They also involve huge investments in developing ground-, air-, and space-based radio frequency jammers that target the uplinks, downlinks, and crosslinks involved in either the control of space systems or the transmission of data arising from various space system activities. Jamming and spoofing are particularly attractive because they can be employed against every kind of space platform deployed by India (and others) in line of sight of China—thus denying Beijing’s adversaries critical data and effective control over the spacecraft essential to the successful conduct of military operations—while being physically nondestructive and, at least in principle, reversible.
Furthermore, China has made remarkable advances in its ability to conduct kinetic attacks on its competitors’ space systems but without causing the debris associated with strikes executed by direct ascent interceptors or co-orbital attack satellites. This is not to say that China will forego these instruments, which destroy their targets through physical collision, if they are truly required. Direct ascent interceptors in particular are especially dangerous because of their ability to rapidly hold Indian (and other) satellites in all orbits at risk. Consequently, Beijing continues to produce and deploy these weapons, such as the SC-19 and its successor the DN-3, in order to be able to threaten high-value space platforms owned by the United States and other rivals such as Japan and India.
However, because the lethal employment of any direct ascent interceptors or co-orbital attack satellites inevitably produces space debris, Beijing has concentrated on developing both ground-based directed energy weapons, mainly low- and high-energy lasers, as well as space-based high power microwave systems as more usable alternatives. Low-energy lasers can dazzle or damage electro-optical or infrared sensors and would be particularly effective against India’s earth observation and scientific research spacecraft, most of which are located in low earth orbits. Ground-based high-energy lasers and space-based high-power microwave weapons on the other hand could, when successfully deployed, permanently destroy the electronic circuitry of various kinds of satellites without creating the unwanted debris usually associated with a physical collision. While such lasers would likely be most effective against satellites in low earth orbits, space-based high-power microwave weapons could target all kinds of space systems even in higher orbits.
Even more ambitiously, China is pursuing the development of co-orbital “service” satellites that are designed not to collide with their targets but to either manipulate their trajectory or physically damage them through interference by mechanical means such as robotic arms, thereby rendering the spacecraft inutile to its possessors (but again without causing any debris). India’s earth observation, electronic intelligence gathering, and scientific research spacecraft would be most susceptible to these co-orbital threats. Finally, China retains an impressive capability to target India’s master control facilities (and other nodes in its telemetry, tracking, and control network) through both space-based jamming and precision air and missile attacks, while also possessing the capacity to indiscriminately destroy India’s (and others’) space platforms through high-altitude nuclear explosions. Because the latter would put at risk both Chinese and adversary spacecraft simultaneously, it is unlikely that such operations would ever be preferred by Beijing when it has so many other less risky alternatives available.
Second, the evolving Chinese counterspace threats, although at varying levels of maturity, are far from being either notional or long term; rather, some present a clear and present danger to India already. Indian policymakers, military leaders, and civilian space managers are indeed fearful of these dangers: they have been episodically reminded in recent years that the Chinese military has targeted various components of India’s space architecture either to test the efficacy of its intrusions or to lay the foundations for subverting India’s space capabilities in a crisis. Indian security managers have privately complained that these probes have occurred in peacetime—when Sino-Indian relations are ostensibly normal—leading to the expectation that Chinese offensive operations are certain to mutate into significant efforts at space denial during a future bilateral crisis or conflict. In fact, such Chinese counterspace activity against India could even materialize in other contingencies, for example, during an Indian clash with Pakistan, if China chooses to support Islamabad by seeking to constrain India’s space advantages in such a conflict. That the most likely Chinese interventions in this context would be covert, transient, and likely reversible implies that the incentives to undertake such nonattributable counterspace actions will be all the greater.
What makes the Chinese counterspace threat formidable in the final analysis where India is concerned is that Beijing will continue to develop such capabilities relentlessly because its principal adversary remains not the relatively weaker India but rather the much more powerful United States. The ambition to neutralize U.S. space, nuclear, and conventional military superiority is what drives China toward the development of various “asymmetric” counterspace technologies. The hope of targeting U.S. operational dependencies—which Chinese strategists believe reside in Washington’s inordinate reliance on space for its conventional military success—drives Beijing toward the acquisition of ever more recondite instruments capable of defeating U.S. space assets. Once these are deployed, however, they can be trained with even greater effectiveness against more vulnerable space powers such as India. This places New Delhi in a highly disadvantageous position in that it has to cope with the growing sophistication of the Chinese counterspace threat that, although aimed primarily at the United States, nonetheless threatens India and compels its attention despite its overall resource and technological limitations.
Third, the asymmetry in Chinese and Indian counterspace capabilities—the former possesses a wider variety of lethal and nonlethal counterspace weapons—makes the effective Indian deterrence of Chinese space denial activities highly onerous. This discomfiting fact appears to have been widely missed in much of the enthusiastic Indian commentary about its successful ASAT test. Thus, for example, one writer argued, “Once an [Indian] ASAT weapon system is operationalized, India’s military will have the power to blind the enemy’s reconnaissance satellite coverage, delivering a knockout punch before the guns open up on the ground. A coordinated attack on the adversary’s space assets would hamper his ability to launch missiles or detect the launch of Indian strategic missiles. Without being able to communicate effectively with its military forces, the adversary would have no choice but to back off.”
This notion, that India’s ASAT demonstration neutralizes China’s counterspace capabilities and thereby simply restores effective space deterrence, overlooks the reality that India’s kinetic ASAT system has its greatest strategic utility mainly in one extreme contingency: warding off destructive Chinese physical attacks on its own satellites executed by either direct ascent or co-orbital attack weapons. Threatening debris-causing kinetic attacks on Chinese space assets may be plausible in one other instance: punishing the orbital deformation of, or physical damage to, critical Indian spacecraft by Chinese co-orbital service satellites. Yet, even in this instance, the threat of inflicting punishment through a debris-creating event, when the precipitating attack produced no comparable effect, is likely not to be viewed as credible by China and hence not particularly conducive to successful deterrence. When the range of Chinese counterspace capabilities illustrated in table 1 is examined, therefore, it becomes obvious that India’s kinetic ASAT system has important but limited value: it can deter kinetic strikes on India’s space systems, but this is the least likely eventuality because Beijing is already investing heavily in suppressing India’s (and others’) space systems through less destructive but comparably effective alternative instruments.
Forging a Path Forward
What India accordingly needs more than ever is effective antidotes to Chinese counterspace capabilities that are not debris-causing. Only such capabilities will enable New Delhi to credibly deter Beijing’s space denial programs below the levels of ultimate physical violence directed at various space systems—the gray zone in which more counterspace activities are likely to materialize in the future, given the growing international antipathy to any actions that make space unusable for human endeavors. In this context, the best deterrent for New Delhi is to improve its capacity to use space despite the inevitable Chinese interference. There will always be a need for some offensive capabilities. India has recognized this reality and as such has begun to develop embryonic counterspace systems of the sort exemplified by its ASAT interceptor. It has also begun to plan more actively for military space operations, for now focusing mainly on ways to preserve India’s freedom to use space for both developmental and strategic reasons without undue interference by others.
Realizing this ambition, however, requires accomplishing much more, especially in regard to increasing the resiliency of India’s space architecture writ large, building the capacity to reconstitute Indian space capabilities in case of successful Chinese attack, and consciously planning for defensive operations to reduce the effectiveness of hostile Chinese operations against India’s space systems. Achieving these aims will require additional physical investments, including those necessary to develop effective space situational awareness and operationally responsive emergency space launch capabilities together with various spare payloads. India must also think more deeply about its space deterrence strategy along with its associated requirement, space doctrine. Equally essential are new institutions that will integrate military activities with the larger civilian space infrastructure at the level of both planning and operations in real time. Finally, India must enhance its commitment to global cooperation, including, as the Indian Ministry of External Affairs’ backgrounder on the ASAT test phrased it, contributing to “international efforts to reinforce the safety and security of space-based assets.”
However it was packaged, the Indian ASAT test was in actuality a shot across the bow to China. As such, it will only exacerbate the rivalry with Beijing, even if only silently. India, therefore, must brace itself for a long-term space competition. If it fails to do so, it will have to contend with the worst of both worlds: heightened threats from China in the face of increasing Indian vulnerability. And that would be an unenviable position for New Delhi as it seeks to play a larger role on the global stage.
The author wishes to thank Bharath Gopalaswamy, Jamie Hintson, and Arthur C. Tellis for their close reading and very helpful comments.