India’s space security policy, part 2: getting space security right
by Pranav R. Satyanath
|Yet, India’s space security is far from set in stone. The much-awaited new space policy is nowhere in sight as of this writing.|
The question of “what next for space security?” comes at a crucial juncture for India. In February, the Indian Air Force (IAF) released its new doctrine where it envisions transforming itself into an Aerospace Force and taking greater responsibilities in the space domain.
This development is not surprising. Since the DA-ASAT test in 2019, the Indian government has taken several steps to enhance its space capabilities. Soon after the 2019 test, the Union government set up the Defence Space Agency (DSA) and the Defence Space Research Organisation (DSRO) to enhance the scale of military space operations. In 2020, the government opened the space sector to private industries, signaling Indian policymakers’ willingness to embrace the new space age, where space technologies play a crucial role in achieving national developmental goals.
Yet, India’s space security is far from set in stone. The much-awaited new space policy is nowhere in sight as of this writing. Meanwhile, the role of the DSA remains a mystery three years after its creation. Amidst these developments, scholars and policy analysts have begun to deliberate the path India must take to shape its space security policy. This essay aims to add an alternate view to the ongoing deliberations and clarify some key aspects of space security.
Should India test and deploy anti-satellite weapons to deter its adversaries in outer space? The Indian space policy community remains divided on how best to enhance the country’s space security. One end of the community advocates for advancing norms and principles through unilateral declarations and multilateral efforts. Those who call for the advancement of norms argue that ASATs, particularly debris-generating DA-ASATs, are harmful to the sustainability of the space environment and, thus, detrimental to the security of all nations.
At the other end of the camp are scholars and analysts who call for India to resume ASAT testing and deploy a triad of terrestrial ASAT capabilities. Proponents of this view argue that India must stay clear of non-binding declarations such as an ASAT test ban that could hinder the country’s ability to advance its capabilities to deter aggression by adversaries in outer space. Indeed, the critics of non-binding measures and unilateral declarations are right to point out that the reliance on norms-based approaches offers limited benefits to enhance a country’s security in outer space. At the same time, those who call for the resumption of ASAT testing in tandem often overemphasize the deterrence and warfighting value of terrestrial kinetic ASAT capabilities.
|The extensive testing and deployment of DA-ASATs might be far more expensive and ineffective than some analysts believe.|
Our understanding of deterrence in space is derived predominantly from the literature on nuclear weapons. Some terminologies from nuclear deterrence, such as punishment and denial strategies, offer insights into how countries can mix and match their counterspace capabilities based on their deterrence requirements in space. Other concepts can prove far more problematic. For example, the lexicon of the Triad is most often associated with the survivability of nuclear weapons during a conflict. Nuclear powers resort to basing their nuclear weapons in silos, submarines, and on rail and road-mobile vehicles to reduce vulnerability from an adversary’s counterforce strike and increase the overall flexibility of their own nuclear arsenals.
The concept of the Triad, however, falls apart when applied to terrestrial counterspace capabilities for two fundamental reasons. First, space deterrence and space warfare are primarily concerned with targeting satellites and ground-based space assets rather than targeting terrestrial ASATs of adversaries. Hence, countries must worry less about the vulnerability of their counterspace capabilities on Earth and be more concerned about the vulnerability of their precious satellites in Earth’s orbit. In such a case, the basing of DA-ASATs matters very little as they may rarely be in danger of being direct targets.
Second, the extensive testing and deployment of DA-ASATs might be far more expensive and ineffective than some analysts believe. Outer space has traditionally been conducive to offensive operations due to the inherent vulnerability of satellites. However, small satellites and new deployment patterns are increasing the costs of offensive operations and reducing the utility of kinetic-kill weapons in space. Passive defense mechanisms such as disaggregated and proliferated satellite constellations make it costly for an aggressor to target a large number of satellites and disrupt space operations. Furthermore, kinetic attacks against satellites in space could end up harming one’s space operations, as the space debris created by such attacks has the potential to hinder one’s own ability to operate in space. Therefore, developing and deploying a triad of DA-ASATs will do little to enhance India’s deterrence capabilities in space.
In this context, what options do India’s defense planners and policymakers have to increase their country’s space security? Since space capabilities today are primarily concerned with supporting combat operations on Earth, India’s chief concern must be to substantially increase the number of satellites in operation and improve the ground segment to handle the operation of these satellites at scale. Currently, India operates just over 60 satellites, used for both civilian and military purposes. India also conducts fewer than ten space launches each year, reducing its overall capacity to place more satellites into orbit. By comparison, China—India’s immediate neighbor and competitor—conducted more than 60 space launches in 2022.
Increasing operational capacity in space for a rising power like India is essential for two reasons. First, having a small satellite fleet not only reduces the country’s flexibility to use its space assets to their fullest potential. A more extensive satellite fleet will allow India’s space agencies to separate the civilian functions of a satellite from military ones and reduce the risk of harming the day-to-day civilian functions of satellites during times of conflict. Second, a small satellite fleet could incentivize adversaries to target satellites that are essential to the country’s national security. Introducing redundancies and rapid launch capabilities could mitigate the risk of betting all stakes into a small satellite fleet.
|India’s policymakers must view risk reduction measures as tools for enhancing security, where legally binding agreements and confidence-building measures serve as levers to mitigate the risks in outer space and help preserve the freedom to use outer space as permitted by international law.|
However, this is not to say that India should abandon the development of DA-ASATs completely. Rather, the arguments presented above highlight the limited utility of such capabilities. Overinvesting in DA-ASATs could lead India to neglect the development of advanced cyber and co-orbital capabilities, which could yield far greater benefits than DA-ASATs. At the same time, viewing space deterrence only through the lens of punishment could also undermine the role that satellites play as force multipliers in armed conflict.
As mentioned at the beginning of this essay, the Indian Air Force has laid down its views to project India’s power in space. More specifically, the doctrine states the following in the context of future developments:
“Space exploitation requires formulation of a National Space Strategy. This would require focused civil-military interaction with the role of each being specified by the government under the umbrella of relevance, flexibility and reliance. Our established civilian space programme already provides us with an excellent start for civil-military fusion towards developing Space control capabilities.”
The new air force doctrine rightly recognizes the need to view space strategy beyond deterrence and warfighting. A balanced national context must also integrate the nation’s policy on international space governance. In this regard, India’s policymakers must view risk reduction measures as tools for enhancing security, where legally binding agreements and confidence-building measures serve as levers to mitigate the risks in outer space and help preserve the freedom to use outer space as permitted by international law.
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