India targets China’s satellites
By Peter J Brown
Jan 22, 2010
The goals for India’s anti-ballistic missile (ABM) and ballistic missile defense (BMD) programs may be shifting to accommodate an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon more quickly than previously planned, and this could radically alter the agenda of US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who is currently in the middle of a three-day visit to India.
“Memories in New Delhi run deep about how India’s relative tardiness in developing strategic offensive systems [nuclear weapons] redounded in its relegation on ‘judgment day’ [when the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was signed in 1968] to the formal category of non-nuclear weapons state,” said Sourabh Gupta, senior research associate at Samuels International Associates in Washington, DC.
“With its early support of the former US president George W Bush’s ballistic missile defense program and its current drive to develop anti-ballistic missile/anti-satellite capability, New Delhi is determined not to make the same mistake twice,” added Gupta. “If and when globally negotiated restraints are placed on such strategic defensive systems or technologies – perhaps restraints of some sort of ASAT testing/hit-to-kill technologies – India will already have crossed the technical threshold in that regard, and acknowledgement of such status [will be] grand-fathered into any such future agreement.”
After watching China’s moves since the highly controversial satellite shootdown which China undertook in January 2007, India has now openly declared its desire to match China.
“There is no reason to be surprised. India is anxious to be seen as not lagging behind China – ergo – if China has an ASAT program, India can do it, too. That’s all there is to it.” said Uzi Rubin, a defense consultant and former head of Israel’s missile defense organization.
China was not specifically mentioned by V K Saraswat, director general of India’s Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO), when he announced at the 97th Indian Science Congress earlier this month that India had begun to develop an anti-satellite capability. He declared that India is “working to ensure space security and protect our satellites. At the same time, we are also working on how to deny the enemy access to its space assets.”
There is no doubt as to the identity of the “enemy” in question.
“The Indians are engaged in a major active missile defense program which, because of the technological affinity between missile defense and ASAT, could eventually grow up to the latter,” said Rubin. “India, like all countries with their own space assets, is aware that ASAT is a double-edged sword and that if they embark on a program, they will legitimize the Chinese program and endanger their own national satellites.”
As for Saraswat’s statement – “India is putting together building blocks of technology that could be used to neutralize enemy satellites” – Rubin almost downplays it entirely.
“His is quite a tepid statement, I wouldn’t make much of it,” said Rubin.
On the other hand, Subrata Ghoshroy, research associate in the Working Group in the Science, Technology, and Global Security Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has met senior former India Space Research Organization (ISRO) officials who were eager to let it be known that India has the capacity to respond.
“There are growing ties between ISRO and the Indian Ministry of Defense and the two are beginning to feed off each other,” said Ghoshroy.
What Saraswat did was, in effect, to inject a powerful destabilizing element into the South Asian strategic equation at a time when the US is determined to do everything in its power to bolster regional stability.
When US Defense Secretary Robert Gates planned his trip to India this week, the last thing Gates probably expected to contend with was the possibility that New Delhi might be accelerating its timetable for the development of an ASAT weapon. Writing in the Times of India in advance of his visit, Gates made no mention whatsoever of space, anti-missile activities or ASAT weapons in particular, although there are certainly space-related items on the agenda.
What Gates avoided entirely was any mention of the US acting as a solid partner and supporter of India’s ASAT program. While that might well be the case, it could be argued that in the interest of regional stability, the US might at least be rethinking how it will proceed in these matters in light of mounting concerns over the situation in Pakistan where China obviously enjoys significant leverage.
China’s decision this month to proceed with a well-publicized test of its midcourse missile interceptor technology – just a few days after Pradeep Kumar, India’s Defense Secretary, departed from Beijing – certainly has sent a strong message, while doing the US a favor in terms of providing the US with a timely excuse for allowing India to go ahead with its plans.
However, the US cannot have it both ways in the end. Courting India as a favored client for major arms purchases one moment, and as a strategic hedge against China, and then trying to promote regional stability the next moment is not a very coherent way to make meaningful progress in South Asia. The dilemma for the US is considerable.
Saraswat was quite careful in his choice of words, and went out of his way this time to assure any interested parties, including Gates, that no actual ASAT tests were now planned by India.
Saraswat has good reason to be very careful about his choice of words. A day after the US Navy cruiser USS Lake Erie shot down an errant US spy satellite in February 2008, for example, former Indian president APJ Abdul Kalam – one of the key players in India’s nuclear and missile programs – told reporters at a DRDO-sponsored International Conference on Avionics Systems in Hyderabad that India has, “the ability to intercept and destroy any spatial object or debris in a radius of 200 kilometers. We will definitely do that if it endangers Indian territory”.
Saraswat, on the other hand, was less specific at the time. And while seeming to agree with Kalam’s statement, he did not do so with absolute certainty.
“It is just a matter of time before we could place the necessary wherewithal to meet such requirements,” Saraswat said. “We can predict and can always tackle such challenges.”
India’s position at the time of the China’s ASAT test in January 2007 is hard to ignore. Pranab Mukherjee, India’s external affairs minister, appealed for a more reasoned and less destabilizing approach by all nations as their military activities in space intensified.
“The security and safety of assets in outer space is of crucial importance,” said Mukherjee. “We call upon all states to redouble efforts to strengthen the international legal regime for peaceful uses of outer space. Recent developments show that we are treading a thin line between current defense-related uses of space and its actual weaponization.”
The same theme surfaced in a speech last year about the Indo-US Civil Nuclear Agreement given by Shyam Saran, special envoy to the prime minister on climate change, at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC last March, when Saran briefly mentioned ASAT weapons.
“India is one of a handful of countries with significant space capabilities. We have a large number of communications and resource survey satellites currently in orbit. Although this does not fall strictly within the nuclear domain, the need to ensure the peaceful uses of outer space, is important for nuclear stability and international security,” said Saran.
“We welcome [US President Barack Obama's] intention to join multilateral efforts to prevent military conflict in space and to negotiate an agreement to prohibit the testing of anti-satellite weapons. This is an area of convergence on which we would be happy to work together with the US and contribute to a multilateral agreement.”
In early 2010, India’s objectives are very clear.
“From a political/diplomatic angle, the guiding principle of India’s missile defense/ASAT policy is not much different from China’s – ie, maintain a basic political commitment to the non-weaponization of space, or, at minimum, the non-deployment of space-based offensive capabilities in global disarmament talks while assiduously cultivating the domestic technical capability to use space-based resources for strategic missile defense purposes,” said Gupta.
At this point, nobody believes that some sort of magic firewall separates ongoing work on ABM and ASAT systems in a growing number of countries around the world.
“As for the linkage between BMD and ASAT, the linkage is very obvious – many Low Earth Orbit satellites orbit no higher than the ceiling of large BMD interceptors (like the US-built SM3, which was used by the US to shoot down a satellite in February, 2008) which are designed to take out very fast targets with km/sec closing speeds. Some modifications are necessary of course to take into account the greater closing speeds, but nothing drastic,” said Rubin.
Saraswat knew this all too well back in 2008 when he admitted that India’s efforts to deploy a missile defense system had been given a substantial boost by radar technology for tracking and fire control which the DRDO developed jointly with Israel and France. (See China can’t stop India’s missile system, Asia Times Online, Jan 16, 2009.)
“Israel is playing a major role in the ABM program. One can read from the open literature that they are helping India upgrade the Green Pine radar to act as the so-called Long-Range Tracking Radar (LRTR) that India has deployed and used during its ABM system tests,” said Ghoshroy. “The Israelis are also reportedly providing UAV-type [unmanned aerial vehicles] platforms for forward-deployment of radars. I would not be surprised if BMC3 [battle management, command, control, and communications] expertise for the ABM system is also shared with India.”
Rubin disagrees with this assessment.
“As for the question of an Israeli-Indian link in missile defense, I’m not aware of such a link since the US banned the sale of [the] Arrow [missile interceptor],” said Rubin. “If the US lifts the ban then [US defense contractors] Lockheed Martin and Raytheon will see to it that Israel is squeezed out. Anyway, the Indians have embarked on their own program.”
According to Gupta, Israel’s primary role is two-fold: sale of off-the-shelf defensive platforms at the present time to cover gaps in India’s defense preparedness, such as the “Phalcon” phased array radar system slowly giving way to joint research and development projects in the future, such as the short-range naval anti-missile system.
“Other point radar and anti-missile defenses currently in the pipeline include aerostat (blimp/balloon-based) radars to provide coverage in sparse border areas as well as a medium-range anti-aircraft system,’ said Gupta. “India’s government sector defense research and development unit has a particularly poor track record in developing air-defense systems. Given Israel’s immense defense-industrial sophistication in radars and avionics, the relationship between the two parties is likely to remain more in the supplier-purchaser mode rather than the joint collaborator mode.”
For India, Israel is all about access to cutting-edge platforms and technologies without the unpleasant compromises to India’s much cherished strategic autonomy that similar systems from the US entail.
“Though Israel with US co-development assistance has made immense strides in its strategic anti-missile capabilities, the Israeli-Indian anti-missile defense conversation has mostly concentrated on plugging gaps in the area of point defenses. Theater and strategic defenses particularly have been a lesser focus,” said Gupta. “Also, the conversation has mostly been a bilateral one, and not a [trilateral] one, except [when] US technologies are embedded within Israeli systems.”
More than anything else, the US is trying to open doors, not close them, as far as defense sales to India are concerned. However, India has enjoyed a long-term and relatively stable relationship with the Russians, and while that relationship has been a bit rocky of late, India may see the Russians as more reliable – and perhaps more affordable – than others standing in line.
“The Russians will come in much cheaper than the US and possibly, also the Israeli systems. For example, the Russian ABM system S-300-PMU2 is much less expensive and better performing than the US’s PAC-3 or THAAD systems,” said Ghoshroy.
According to Gupta, while India is increasingly open to distributing its near-term procurement needs according to the quality of the bids, India remains reticent to the extreme in broadening its procurement of strategically salient items beyond its trusted Russian sales partner.
“This calculation will change only slowly even as US defense suppliers slowly build up a relationship of trust starting with sales of platforms and moving gradually perhaps thereafter towards co-licensing/development with its Indian private defense sector partners,” said Gupta.
What India really wants is for its ASAT-related technology to evolve quite quickly because India senses that China’s lead is steadily increasing.
“India’s anti-missile system is still embryonic. They do not yet have an infrared sensor that will be absolutely necessary for tracking and final homing,” said Ghoshroy. “The Chinese obviously got that technology since they were able to track and hit their satellite.”
Peter J Brown is a satellite journalist from the US state of Maine.