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Regional space security concerns may force India to reassess military space policy, say experts

05 February 2011

Regional space security concerns may force India to reassess military space policy, say experts

In the backdrop of emerging security threats in the region, and with the advancement of space technology, India may be forced to reevaluate its traditional policy against the militarisation of the space by deciding to add “space security” to its definition of strength and thus ensuring the protection of its assets in space.

These aspects were highlighted at the conference “Space Science and Security: The Role of Regional Expert Discussion,” organised by Observer Research Foundation in collaboration with SIPRI (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute), SWF (Secure World Foundation) and JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University) in New Delhi on 19-21, January 2011.

Delivering the keynote address, former Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal S. Krishnaswamy stressed on how space exploration has given us humans a sense of the vastness of the universe and commended the achievements of the Indian space programme. Advocating a Gandhian philosophy to plug the loopholes in the Outer Space Treaty to prevent weaponisation of space, the Air Marshal highlighted the need for a strong policing force in the UN. He warned that the consequences of letting preponderance manifest itself in space could have disastrous consequences for several actors and suggested a stronger legal framework to ensure space fairing nations are engaged with each other in non-threatening ways.

India’s Space Programme

The workshop highlighted the evolution of the Indian space programme and its humble beginning during early 1960s. Prof. Vikram Sarabhai and Dr. Satish Dhawan, who were the stalwarts of the Indian space programme, directed the programme which has been civilian in nature focused on the application of space technology, as a tool for socio-economic development of the country. The basic aim was to use space technology in vital areas of development such as communications, meteorology, and natural resource management. Most importantly, unlike historical precedents of the U.S and erstwhile Soviet Union, the Indian Space programme was not borne out of any military programme but entirely with a focus of establishing satellite launch capabilities for civilian uses.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is the main organization responsible for India’s civilian space programme having various operating divisions all over the country, dealing with space systems, propulsion, communications, telemetry and tracking, research, launches, and other facets of the space programme. India’s success in the arena of remote sensing satellites were said to be creditable. Its remote sensing satellites were said to be among the best in the world, having achieved resolution less than one meter. Indian plans to develop its own regional navigational constellation were also mentioned.

Military Space Programme

There was discussion on how India viewed space in its overall security equation. Various papers examined the importance of space for the Indian armed forces. It was highlighted that although, as of date, India had only civilian space programme, satellite technology, being inherently dual-use in nature, had applicability for military purposes as well. It was said that given the context, an academic analysis to understand the present and future of Indian military space programme became challenging.

India has already established a “Space Cell” under the command of the Integrated Defence Services (IDS) Headquarters. This is a single triservice window for interaction in space by all agencies, including external ones. It also acts as a single organization for integration among the armed forces, the Department of Space, and the ISRO.

Indian armed forces’ dependence on space is an undisputed fact. However, no specific information in this regard is available to quantify it precisely. Indian analysts are of the opinion that presently this use is limited to areas like communication and navigation, but in future, the dependence is likely to increase for surveillance and even for counter-space capabilities. Since no specific document in respect of national security strategy is available, it is difficult to recognise exactly the views of the state on the issue of relevance of space technologies for the military.

The Indian Army, Air Force and the Navy have been openly expressing their interest in acquiring dedicated satellites for the last couple of years. Indian Navy is poised to become the first service amongst Indian armed forces to get a dedicated satellite to facilitate their communication and network centric warfare requirements. Threats posed by the neighbouring countries were also discussed.

ASAT and India’s Interest

There was an in-depth discussion on the Anti Satellite (ASAT) weapons technology. ASAT weapons are developed to defend against the enemy military satellite, by making it inactive or by destroying it for strategic military purposes, or even for deterrence purposes. Until today, the ASAT system has been the forte of USA, Russia and China. The recent Chinese ASAT test in January 2007 appears to have internationally reignited the interest in ASAT weapons and brought a renewed focus on space security.

The Chinese test could have created pressures for an Indian ASAT system. India reacted to the ASAT test by saying that it could lead to potential collaboration between the DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation) and the ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) to deal with the new threat in India’s neighbourhood.

Such intent has been evident from the public statements of several highly placed government sources, particularly within the military and scientific bureaucracies. It has been also noted that these technologies would be developed as part of the indigenous Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) programme. Given India’s capabilities and current technology, the building blocks for ’Hit to Kill’ ASAT systems do exist as they had been developed and proven under various missile programmes, especially in ABM programme. Only incremental effort is needed in guidance technology to achieve zero miss distance at high altitude and at high speeds.

Discussants felt that since India’s space assets were formidable with modest estimates putting their value to be in excess of $ 25 billion, there was a need to safeguard them, indicating that India should also develop ASAT capability which would work like a nuclear deterrent in space. In this context, ASATs were considered particularly valuable.

The issue of ASAT test and space debris also generated considerable debate. Space debris includes everything from spent rocket stages to fragments from the breakup of satellite and rocket stages. As they are at very high speed, even relatively small mass can damage or destroy satellites in a collision. The main sources of orbital debris are routine space activity and accidental break up of satellites, among others.

There are currently no international restriction on the testing and use of ASATs. For instance, the Chinese ASAT destroyed an old weather satellite creating enormous amount of space debris. Similarly, the earlier US ASAT tests had created enormous debris, though these were at lower altitudes where atmosphere helped “burn up” the debris fragments.

International Cooperation and conflict

Based on the size, scope and maturity of its programmes, India is one of the six global space players. The other five are the United States, Russia, China, Japan and Europe. All are connected in complex relationships that are sometimes competitive, sometimes cooperative. Eight countries in the region, from the Middle East to Eastern Asia, have active space programmes. Israel, India, China and Japan have both satellite building and launching capabilities.

On a multilateral platform, India has played an active role in the deliberations of the technical and legal sub-committees of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UN-COPUOS), Inter-Agency Debris Coordination Committee (IADC), Asian Association for Remote Sensing (AARS) and other international bodies. India has active collaboration with the NASA, ESA and Russian space agencies and to a lesser extent with some others.

Prospects for cooperation between India and the US in the space domain were said to be huge given the technical expertise in India. The potential for collaboration is real after India and the US signed the Technology Safeguards Agreement (TSA) in July 2009. However, there are still hurdles in the form of Commercial Space Launch Agreement (CSLA) which is yet to be signed by India.

As such, the Asian region has established and emerging space players and scope exists for enlarged cooperation. Beijing has been the driving force since 1992 for an Asia Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO). Seven countries have been the members so far: Bangladesh, China, Iran, Mongolia, Pakistan, Peru, and Thailand. Subsequently, in 1993, another group was formed – the Asia-Pacific Regional Space Agency Forum (APRSAF) – with 31 countries as participants, including India, China, Pakistan, the United States, Russia and Canada.

On the conflict front, techno-nationalism was said to be a major factor as national power is perceived to be enhanced through space-based technological achievement. It was also seen to acquire a prestige tag with actual and significant strategic value — political, economic and military. With both China and India taking pride in the independent development of much of their indigenous space efforts, a conflict potential was inherent.

Delivering the valedictory address, Congress Member of Parliament Manish Tewari asked the international community to create a global space coordinating agency that allows and defines parameters for deployment and regulation of satellites.

Mr. Tewari said “We must agree to a just allocation of orbital space amongst the existing players with more than a fair share available for emerging developing countries from Africa and Asia. The proceedings of this space conference highlight the urgency with which the polity and the research community needed to study the area of space security”, he said, adding that harnessing the resources and opportunities that space has to offer will certainly generate new complexities in international relations.

“We must learn from the follies of the Industrial Age where we left too little for the poor and the weak regions and countries. We can not usurp their right to orbital real estate and we must not allow Space squatting either. Rules must be framed and rights must be secured. Obligations must be charted”, the national spokesperson of the ruling Congress Party said.

Introducing a sense of urgency for creating an international regime for space’s regulated and well directed exploration and its use, Mr. Tewari said “The one more waits, the more crowded it gets up there and the potential for conflict rises”.

He stressed that for policymakers and scientists in India, space offers a new frontier of co-operation and suggested more similar conferences so as to facilitate informed discourse in various policymaking circles.

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