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PSLV launch
An Indian PSLV rocket lifts off last month, carrying a remote sensing satellite. India’s attitudes towards space have shifted in recent years, with developments that could have repercussions for space security. (credit: ISRO)

India and space security

Takeaways from “Space, Science, and Security: The Role of Regional Expert Discussions,” held in New Delhi, India, from January 19–21, 2011

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India’s space program has very strong civil roots: it began as a means to assist India in its development and has mainly focused on improving the everyday lives of its citizens. More recently, India has made a dramatic shift in the tone of its space efforts. Lately, the country has adopted a more militarized attitude, as exemplified by statements made by Indian governmental officials and by increased efforts by India to create an indigenous ballistic missile defense program. India’s space efforts very well could affect the long-term sustainability of space and merits further attention.

India has apparently started thinking long and hard about the ramifications of China’s January 2007 ASAT test.

In an effort to learn more about the primary forces behind India’s increasingly militarized space program, the Secure World Foundation cooperated with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) on a conference titled, “Space, Science, and Security: The Role of Regional Expert Discussions.” During the event, Indian and non-Indian experts examined the subject and gave their perspectives on how India’s space program could affect the regional security dynamic. This conference expanded to add two additional local sponsors: the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).

In a sense, SWF’s aim was to understand what we in the US policy community do not yet know about India’s space program, as our knowledge is truly lacking. We also hoped to open dialogue with the Indian security community about its space program, which would help them become aware of the potential consequences of these changes, and ascertain if they are ready to accept those consequences. The conference elicited fairly wide-ranging discussions with viewpoints given by experts from the Indian military, science, and academic communities, as well as American, Australian, Japanese, Chinese, and Israeli experts. (For more information, please visit the conference web site.)


Officially, India does not have an anti-satellite (ASAT) program; its space program, operated by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), is solely civilian in nature. However, there are other ways to develop the capabilities for a more militaristic space program, and missile defense is one of them.

For example, hit-to-kill missile defense requires developing a ballistic missile that can range high enough to intercept a target either high within the Earth’s atmosphere or outside of it. Both missile defense and ASATs require the capability to quickly and accurately detect and track objects in space. Where they largely differ is in their types of targets: missile defense is aimed at objects moving on a parabolic flight path, while ASATs are intended for objects in orbit. That is a big difference, to be sure, as the two targets follow different types of trajectories and travel at different speeds, and each has its own technical challenges. However, the capacity needed for either program is similar enough that a missile defense program could very reasonably be used as a technology demonstrator program for an ASAT capability. The United States proved this in February 2008, when it used a modified interceptor of its ship-based Aegis missile defense program to destroy a satellite close to atmospheric re-entry, USA 193.

India has been working on its own missile defense system, and has held six test intercept attempts since November 2006 (four of which were reported to be successful).1 The most recent test was March 6, 2011, when a modified Prithi target missile was intercepted by an Advanced Air Defense (AAD) missile at an altitude of about 16 kilometers.

Most Indians believe that of course India needs to have an ASAT program: no question about it in their minds, as they see it as a deterrent to attacks on their space assets.

One could argue that a missile defense capacity may be simply that: presumably not all missile defense programs are intended to provide a dual-use ASAT capability. Nevertheless, India’s missile defense efforts must also be put in the context of statements by Indian officials, which indicate a strong interest in developing an ASAT capability. V. K. Saraswat, scientific advisor to India’s defense minister, said in January 2010, “India is putting together building blocks of technology that could be used to neutralize enemy satellites,” although he conceded that “these are deterrence technologies and quite certainly many of these technologies will not be used.”2 In February 2010, Saraswat followed this up with the statement, “India will validate the anti-satellite capability on the ground through simulation,” and further clarified that “there is no program to do a direct hit to the satellite.”3 More recently, in February of this year, Saraswat claimed, “Our country does not have a policy to attack anybody in space. We don’t believe in it. But as part of the Ballistic Missile Defense Program, we have all the technology elements required to integrate a system through which we can defend our satellites or take care of future requirements.” He went on to say, “India doesn’t have a formal anti-satellite weapon policy of attacking satellites in space, but is well geared in case of any eventuality.”4 Finally, Saraswat has said, “Space security involved a gamut of capabilities including the protection of satellites, communication and navigation systems and denying the enemy the use of his own space systems. These technologies would be developed as part of the country's totally indigenous Ballistic Missile Defence Programme.”5

India has also apparently started thinking long and hard about the ramifications of China’s January 2007 ASAT test. Dr. K. Kasturirangan, former head of ISRO, said in September 2009, “China’s ASAT capabilities displayed a few years ago was to show to the world that they too can do it. That China can do what it wants to do and demonstrate that it can do even more… to supersede the best of the world, that is the US.”6 He also stated, “Obviously we start worrying. We cannot overlook this aspect,” and warned that “India has spent a huge sum to develop its capabilities and place assets in space.”7 Air Chief Marshal P.V. Naik said in February 2010, “Our satellites are vulnerable to ASAT weapon systems because our neighborhood possesses one.”8

Conference takeaways

Indian speakers and participants at the January conference in New Delhi raised several common themes. First, most believe that of course India needs to have an ASAT program: no question about it in their minds, as they see it as a deterrent to attacks on their space assets. They also see an ASAT program as something that they need because they live “in a dangerous neighborhood,” i.e., the Chinese have it, so they cannot afford not to develop it. Raised several times was the idea that because India has so much invested in space, it cannot afford to lose its space assets, so it must be able to win “the preparatory phase” if there was to be some sort of war with China (as in an ASAT shooting match that would happen prior to a more conventional conflict on the ground). Interestingly enough, even though every speaker talked about the need to keep up with the Chinese, everyone there (except for the Americans) felt that there was no such thing as an Asian space race. Yet keeping up with the Chinese implies a competition, which is the very essence of a race. It is not the same as the Cold War race to the Moon, certainly, but there is an effort to achieve or maintain parity. The Indians also seem to be very suspicious about China’s efforts in the UN Conference on Disarmament (CD), where Beijing and Moscow have been actively promoting their space arms control treaty, the PPWT (Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects).

Indian participants commented often that they cannot let themselves be left out of an international regime like India was with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT): they believe (probably rightfully so) that if India had tested a nuclear weapon prior to the NPT, the country would have been grandfathered in as an official nuclear weapon state. As it was, there was quite a lot of resentment from the Indian participants that their country was being held accountable to a treaty that it had never signed. Along those lines, the Indian participants seemed interested in developing an ASAT before the international community decides (whether formally or informally) to ban them.

The discussion of space and security is still tied to terms used to discuss nuclear weapons, at least within Indian policy circles. So when one talks about “responsible space behavior,” the Indians look at it from a proliferation perspective: their take is that since no one is proliferating space technology unduly, no one is acting irresponsibly. Alternatively, they raised the idea several times that, outside of the Chinese ASAT test, no one has acted irresponsibly in space since the Cold War ASAT tests held by the United States and the then-Soviet Union. This logic brings home the need for the international community to develop some sort of accepted definition of what responsible space behavior is, and why it helps space powers like India to be part of that discussion.

Several Indian participants likened an ASAT program to a nuclear weapons program: you develop it without testing it, but you have it on hand just in case the international security environment changed and you needed it. But when asked what particular scenarios merited the use of an ASAT, no one had an answer. Also, very telling was a statement by a former foreign secretary, Kinwal Sibal, who said that “India perceives itself as a victim of geopolitics rather than an actor who provokes negative reaction.” This attitude surfaced several times over the course of the conference and was used to explain why their ASAT program should not be of concern to others.

As for the United States, there was curiosity expressed by conference participants about how sincere the United States is about the international cooperation pushed for in its National Space Policy. They are looking for concrete examples that the United States is serious about reaching out to other space powers. Several participants, Indian and otherwise, said that they felt that the United States was in a decline and that would affect India’s security calculus.

At the January conference, several participants said that they had found it was easier to get information from the Chinese about their space program than from the Indians about theirs.

The draft Code of Conduct (CoC) for Space Activities being circulated by the European Union was only discussed in passing. Yet, several times it was mentioned by Indian participants that the Indians believe that the CoC is being promoted by the West at the expense of countries like India. They are not convinced of how it can help them, but they left the impression that they would be open to discussions about it. From participants coming outside of India and the United States, it seemed that as long as India remains a democracy and an ally, there is little concern about India developing an ASAT.

Overall, the entire group expressed interest in cooperation on a variety of space governance issues such as space situational awareness, space debris mitigation, and deciding what constitutes responsible space behavior. India has been very strongly engaged in the UN Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), so that might be an avenue for enhancing international cooperation on selected space issues.

The closing speaker, Manish Tewari, an MP and the spokesperson for the ruling Congress party, highlighted the importance of cooperation in space (whether through a global space coordinating agency or bilaterally with China). Since the conference, he officially submitted questions to his prime minister about India’s plans for its military space program. He received in February a response that included a lot of information about the space debris created by China’s 2007 ASAT test, but not many specifics on India’s program. This is not surprising. At the January conference, several participants said that they had found it was easier to get information from the Chinese about their space program than from the Indians about theirs. It seems transparency is a difficult issue for the Indians.

India’s increasing presence in outer space means that it will benefit greatly from participating in discussions on how best to ensure that it can be used over the long-term. Responsible space behavior helps all who rely on information from space assets; furthermore, it is in everyone’s interests to cooperate in space, as actions (both positive and negative) by one country affect all. As we at SWF believe, the long-term sustainable use of space can be best achieved through international cooperative efforts and by bringing into the discussion all major space-faring nations.


  1. Rout, Hemant Kumar, “2010 a mixed bag for Indian defence research,” The Times of India, Dec. 30, 2010.
  2. Thiruvananthapuram, Sagar Kulkarni, “India readying weapon to destroy enemy satellites: Saraswat,” Press Trust of India, Jan. 3, 2010
  3. “India has anti-satellite capability: Saraswat,” Press Trust of India, Feb. 10, 2010
  4. “India has technology to defend satellites: top defense scientist,” Xinhua General News Service, Feb. 12, 2011
  5. S. Paneerselvam and P. Soma, “Anti-satellite Weapons (ASAT): A Status Review and Perception for an Indian ASAT,” presentation given at “Space, Science, and Security: The Role of Regional Discussion,” New Delhi, India, Jan. 19–21, 2011
  6. “Ex-ISRO chief calls China's A-SAT a cause for worry,” Press Trust of India, Sept. 14, 2009
  7. Ibid.
  8. Bharath Gopalaswamy and Harsh Pant, “Does India need anti-satellite capability?” Rediff News, Feb. 9, 2010