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India is developing a missile defense system that government officials suggest could also be used as an anti-satellite weapon. (credit: DRDO)

India’s ABM test: a validated ASAT capability or a paper tiger?


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The March 7 edition of The Hindu reported that India performed a test of the interceptor missile portion of its ballistic missile defense system on March 6, 2011. The test, the sixth of the series, was reportedly a success and a validation of the technology to be integrated into India’s defense system.1

The question remains that, even with the necessary technology to acquire an ASAT capacity, does India now have a proven capability?

The target missile, a modified Prithvi, was launched at 9:32 a.m. from Launch Complex III of the Integrated Test Range at Chandipur, Orissa. The modified Prithvi mimicked the trajectory of a ballistic missile with a 600-kilometer (324-nautical-mile) range. Radars at different locations tracked the modified Prithvi, determined its trajectory, and passed the information in real time to Mission Control Centre (MCC) to launch the interceptor. The interceptor used a directional warhead to maneuver the interceptor to the modified Prithvi before exploding. As part the announcement, V.K. Saraswat, Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) Director-General, stated this latest success demonstrated India’s capability to effectively neutralize satellites belonging to an adversary.2

While not the primary purpose of the test of India’s ABM program, Sarawat’s statement reflects India’s interest in anti-satellite (ASAT) technology, and it has reportedly put together the necessary components to acquire such a capacity (see “India’s missile defense/anti-satellite nexus”, The Space Review, May 10, 2010). The question remains that, even with the necessary technology to acquire an ASAT capacity, does India now have a proven capability?

ABMs and ASATs

The history of India’s quest for an ASAT capability dovetails with the development of its ABM program. Unlike the ABM capability sought by India, its endeavor towards an ASAT capability is fairly new. India’s indigenously built ABM system has been in development for several decades and only began to bear fruit in November 2006 when an intercept was performed outside the atmosphere. India followed up this success with others in an effort to deploy an operational ABM capability sometime in 2012.

According to Sarawat, there are two phases in India’s ABM program. Phase 1, which the March 6, 2011 test was a part, will develop a capability to intercept missiles with a range of 2,000 kilometers (1,080 nautical miles) coming from an altitude of 150 kilometers (81 nautical miles). The next test planned later this year is supposed to validate this capability3. Phase 2 of the program is intended to develop a capability to intercept missiles with a range up to 5,000 kilometers (2,700 nautical miles), which theoretically would give India the capability to intercept intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

Chinese ASAT test and seeds of India’s ASAT interest

The Chinese government surprised the international community with the intentional destruction of its weather satellite Fengyun 1C on January 11, 2007, using its SC-19 ballistic missile to carry a kinetic kill vehicle4. The test was the first successful test of China’s ASAT, and it was performed without warning to the international community and likely constituted a technical violation of China’s obligations under the Outer Space Treaty5. Aside from international criticism, China suffered no sanctions for the test and the resulting debris cloud.

The United States took particular notice that the test represented the demonstration of a potential threat against its robust outer space systems, which it has become increasingly reliant upon. What didn’t garner immediate attention was India’s concern that China’s ASAT test represented a similar threat to its growing investment in outer space systems. It wasn’t until 2009 that India started making public gestures that it was interested in finding a way to secure it space assets.

India’s public statements about its purported ASAT capability seem to fit neither an active program to develop an ASAT or an ancillary capability to ballistic missile defense.

If there were any doubts about India’s intentions they were cleared when Saraswat publically acknowledged that India was developing and bringing together the basic technologies to create a system that could be used against satellites belonging to an adversary. Saraswat made a similar statement after the March 6 test6. The decision to adapt India’s existing ABM technologies to the ASAT role was doubtless encouraged by the ancillary capability demonstrated by the United States when it adapted its ABM system to deorbit USA 193 in 2008.

Dedicated weapon or capability?

It is unclear whether India’s purported ASAT capacity is intended to be a dedicated weapons program or a simply a capability ancillary to missile defense. To illustrate, the test against Fengyun 1C in 2007 not only that demonstrated that China had the capability to deorbit a satellite, but that it also had a weapons program dedicated towards the creation of that capability.

When the United States planned to de-orbit the crippled USA 193, critics argued that the United States was planning on testing an ASAT7. The United States did not have a specific program dedicated to develop and deploy an ASAT; however, it did demonstrate that it had an ancillary capability to its ABM program that could be used in the ASAT role.

The distinction between China’s ASAT test and the de-orbit of USA 193 is important because China’s test was the result of an active effort to develop and deploy a dedicated weapon system, which was designed to deny an adversary the use of its space assets. Conversely, the United States demonstrated it had an ASAT capability ancillary to missile defense that was used to de-orbit a crippled satellite before it could cause harm.

India’s public statements about its purported ASAT capability seem to fit neither an active program to develop an ASAT or an ancillary capability to ballistic missile defense. On one hand, public statements made by India’s officials indicate that their goal is to protect its space assets and deny the use of space to an adversary.

In the same vein India’s officials claim their ASAT ambitions are strictly a deterrent and not meant to be used and that “India’s policy is that it will not weaponise space, and we are committed to the peaceful uses of outer space.”8 The conflicting statements give the impression that India intends to deploy dedicated ASAT capability along with the deployment of its ABM system, but at the same time considers the ASAT role an ancillary capability that it does not intend to use.

It is perhaps this ambiguity and uncertainty where India’s ABM program ends and its ASAT ambitions begin that India is relying upon to make China wary of interfering with its outer space assets.

Proven capability or semantics?

Whether India’s ASAT is “proven” as postured by India’s officials is a matter of semantics and given the geopolitical realities that India exists within it may be all that it can rely upon.

On March 9, 2011, the Secure World Foundation held a panel discussion concerning the militarization of India’s space program. Victoria Samson, the Director of the Washington office of the Secure World Foundation noted, “A missile defense program can very easily be used as a technology demonstrator program for an ASAT capability.”9

As noted above, the United States demonstrated this when it modified components of its ABM system to intercept and de-orbit the crippled USA 193. The effort was successful on its first attempt, but the plan for the intercept did allow for multiple attempts if necessary.

India has publically acknowledged that it brought together the basic technologies needed to create an ASAT capability; however, integrating the necessary technologies may give India an ASAT capacity, but does not necessarily give India a proven ASAT capability. The only way for India to demonstrate that it has a proven ASAT capability is to perform a test on a target satellite.

Addressing the audience at the Secure World Foundation panel discussion, Bharath Gopalaswamy stated that the scientific and military community of India was open to a test, if it is performed with careful consideration of where and how it was performed and that such a test might occur within the next 5 to 10 years.10

The uncertainty of India’s ASAT capability works to its benefit, and that uncertainty can be a powerful tool for deterrence.

A prospect such as the one presented with USA 193 may not manifest itself for India to test its ASAT, unless it intentionally places a satellite in orbit in order to manufacture a situation similar to the one that the United States faced with USA 193. Otherwise, India would have to utilize one of its own existing satellites already in stable orbit. When questioned about which satellite India would likely choose for a test, Gopalaswamy identified India’s RITSAT-2, which orbits at an altitude of 551 kilometers (298 nautical miles), as a likely candidate.11

Even if India fulfills its obligations under the Article IX of the Outer Space Treaty, it is questionable whether such a test would be looked upon favorably. The altitude of the satellite is such that its destruction could produce a debris field, which could linger in orbit for a considerable time and represent a hazard to other spacecraft.12 Furthermore, the test of an ASAT could be considered an aggressive military action and would be inconsistent with India’s stance that it aligns itself with the Outer Space Treaty’s precept of the peaceful use of outer space.13

An attempt to perform such a test unilaterally without consulting the international community could result in serious international repercussions and could even affect its burgeoning relations with the United States in terms of space cooperation.14 Although China avoided serious international repercussions from its ASAT test in 2007, it is unlikely that India would enjoy similar immunity and could find itself at the center of a serious political and diplomatic tempest, a fact that India’s officials are likely aware of.15

India would also have to consider what a unilateral test could do to its credibility in the international circle with relation to orbital debris mitigation. India is a member of the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC), and it contributed significantly to crafting that organizations mitigation guidelines. A successful test of an ASAT by India and the resulting debris field could seriously erode it credibility in that arena.

There is also a possibility that an ASAT test could inadvertently spark an international crisis with China. The resulting debris from an ASAT test could contaminate a large orbital area and potentially create a hazard to Chinese satellites. Regardless of the debris produced by an ASAT test, China might consider such a test as a provocative action.

India also has to consider the possibility that a test could fail, and such a failure might not go unnoticed. Even though India may have the technology to produce an ASAT capacity it does not guarantee that it will work the first time out. The deorbit of USA 193 performed by the United States was planned with multiple attempts to take down the satellite to ensure the satellite was safely deorbited. The stakes of an ASAT test for India are far greater.

The uncertainty of India’s ASAT capability works to its benefit, and that uncertainty can be a powerful tool for deterrence. India could effectively squander that uncertainty if it decides to perform a test of its ASAT and it does not perform as touted first time out. A failure would not only be a blow to the technical and scientific community of India, but it could also affect India’s national security as it would provide China a level of certainty that India does not have an effective ASAT capability.

It is uncertainty surrounding India’s ASAT ambitions that may be its best weapon to protect its space assets, and it may be what India is ultimately seeking. The combined statements of Saraswat after the March 6th test concerning India’s “proven” ASAT capability and the statements made by Bharath Gopalaswamy at the Secure World Foundation panel discussion touting a test of India’s ASAT capacity in five to ten years may be orchestrated posturing from within India’s government designed to stoke the flames of uncertainty with China as the intended audience.

Conclusion

The question of whether India has a proven ASAT will not be answered until India performs a full-up test. Technical realities, international politics, and geographical concerns make such a test chancy.

Unless a situation arises where India feels that it needs to employ its ASAT, India’s best weapon of choice is uncertainty, and if uncertainty is India’s strategy then its ASAT capability will likely remain a paper tiger for the arms control community and the intelligence community to ponder and for its neighbor China to consider.

Footnotes

  1. T. S. Subramanian and Y. Mallikarjun, “Capability to neutralise enemy satellites proved”, The Hindu, March 6, 2011.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. According to the Washington Times, China used its ASAT as part of ballistic missile test. Details of the test are still shrouded in secrecy. See Bill Gertz, “ASAT missile defense”, Washington Times, March 9, 2010.
  5. Even though China asserts that its test did not violate international law it was arguably in technical violation of Article IX of the Outer Space Treaty when it failed to consult with other members of the potential harm the test could cause. Additionally, the test itself was likely a technical violation of Article IV, specifically because China was arguably testing a weapon in outer space and the test was not for peaceful purposes.
  6. Subramanian and Mallikarjun, 2011.
  7. The Russian Federation accused the United States of using the planned de-orbiting of USA 193 as a cover for the test of an ASAT. Specifically, the Russian defense ministry charged that the U.S. was using the hydrazine worries as a cover for a test of an ASAT. The Russian defense ministry noted that extraordinary measures had never before been needed to deal with spacecraft that had fallen to Earth. See “US spy satellite plan ‘a cover’”, BBC News, February 17, 2008.
  8. Subramanian and Mallikarjun, 2011.
  9. Keith Stein, “Group believes India will perform anti-satellite test”, Examiner.com, March 9, 2011.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Twitter, DC Space Examiner’s coverage of Secure World Foundation’s panel discussion, “India’s Military Space Efforts and Regional Security Considerations.”
  12. In comparison, Fengyun 1C occupied an orbit of 850 kilometers (459 nautical miles). When the United States made it consultations regarding its planned intercept of USA 193 to the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) under Article IX of the Outer Space Treaty, it reported the planned intercept of USA 193 was to be 250 kilometers (135 nautical miles) in a worst case scenario; the actual intercept was altitude was 247 kilometers (133 nautical-miles.)
  13. Outer Space Treaty, Article IV, para. 2.
  14. India and the United States laid the ground-work for a possible initiative for cooperation in space cooperation during President Obama’s visit to the region in 2011. See Jessica Glover and Joseph S. Nye, Jr., “For India-U.S. Cooperation, Space is the Next Frontier”, Center for a New American Security, November 11, 2010.
  15. Sampson, 2010.

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