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Does India need anti-satellite capability?

February 09, 2010 14:43 IST

In the short to medium term India's scarce resources would be better served by focusing on reducing the disparity with China in space. Developing ASAT capability is something that can wait, write Bharath Gopalaswamy and Harsh V Pant.

Expressing concerns about China's growing defence capabilities, particularly its anti-satellite weapon system, a few days back Air Chief Marshal P V Naik sought the development of India's own missile system that can destroy enemy satellites.

"Our satellites are vulnerable to ASAT weapon systems because our neighbourhood possesses one," Naik said while delivering the Air Chief Marshal L M Katre memorial lecture. He underlined the need for India to develop ASAT technology and referred to it as "one of our challenges of future war capability."

Indian communication, weather and remote-sensing satellites are clearly more vulnerable today than they have ever been in the past and their vulnerability has enormous implications for a whole range of areas affecting the day-to-day life of ordinary Indians. Over the past 20 years, the use of outer space has changed dramatically. From the dawn of the space age to the Cold War era, Russia and the United States were the world's only space powers.

Today, more than 41 countries own or operate satellites, about a dozen of them can launch satellites on their own and many more are aspiring for that capability. At the same time, more and more states are using space for military purposes -- from communications to mapping to intelligence gathering as well as weapons targeting. Going a step further, it should also be pointed out that even the Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008 were orchestrated using space technologies.

To put this in perspective, it is worthwhile to look at the economic dimensions of satellites. In 2007, the space industry revenue was estimated to at $123 billion, and the revenue from the GPS equipment alone was calculated to be at $56 billion. The number of US jobs supported by the space industry was around 729,000 while the US satellite radio subscribers were approximately 13.65 million.

Going by these sheer numbers, it is no wonder that space occupies a significant part of our lives.  In light of this background, it is not surprising that significant developments have occurred in the recent past: firstly, the Chinese ABM test recently, secondly, the Chinese ASAT test in 2007, thirdly the USA-193 tests in 2008 and finally the Indian shift in policy to seek ASAT capabilities.

Earlier this month, China announced that it had conducted a missile defense test that consisted of a ground-based mid-course missile interception technology within its territory. China added that the test has achieved the expected objective and went on to clarify that the test was defensive in nature, not targeted at any country.

It is interesting to note that China is migrating its anti-satellite research into the missile defense arena, India is doing the opposite. In both cases, however, the technology is fundamentally the same: the development of kinetic energy interceptors -- so called 'hit-to-kill' technologies that use a bullet to hit a bullet.

As far back as January 2007, China had successfully tested a direct-ascent hit-to-kill interceptor against one of its old weather satellites. That test appears to have increased the amount of debris (size greater than 1 centimeter) in Low Earth Orbit by 15 to 20 percent, becoming the worst debris-producing event on record. The satellite was orbiting at about 850 kilometers, so the resulting debris is concentrated in a region of space that's heavily used by satellites and already crowded with debris. How did this test change the risk to satellites? Before the Chinese test, the chance that any given satellite near the altitude of the FY-1C would be hit by debris larger than 1 cm -- large enough to cause severe damage -- was approaching 1 percent over the satellite's lifetime, generally 5 to 10 years. Since debris from the Chinese test is concentrated near this altitude band, the threat will nearly double for the next 5 to 10 years.

A year later, the US military destroyed a defunct and out-of-control spy satellite USA 193 with a specially designed SM-3 ballistic missile with pin-point accuracy. The US described this event as an effort to get rid of the huge amount of toxic hydrazine fuel of the satellite from contaminating the earth causing unexpected health hazard to humans. However, it would be really naïve to not acknowledge both the feat that the US military was able to accomplish and the political impact of the test, which was more than the technological achievement.

The US had tested a similar ASAT weapon in 1985 against a satellite in an even higher orbit by firing an interceptor from an F-15 fighter aircraft. 

With this strike, the US once again demonstrated its technical ability to field anti-satellite weapons. The Pentagon had denied that the test had anything to do with ASAT weapons primarily because the altitude of interception was too low for any orbiting satellite. The SM-3 interceptor, which is part of the AEGIS missile defence system, has been used for the first time to shoot down a satellite.

This intercept was made by engaging the target, which was moving at 17,000 miles per hour. It proved that the US have become very good at hitting objects at extremely high velocities when it matters the most and that too with extreme pin-point accuracy.

Both these tests demonstrated that the hit to kill technology was a threat to LEO satellites. Currently, India has 12 satellites in LEO out of which, RISAT-1 is probably an attractive target. RISAT-1 is an experimental satellite, which has the capability to operate in all weather conditions. Internationally, RISAT-1 is believed to be dedicated for military applications.

On the other hand, China has 31 satellites in the LEO orbit, out of which 12 of them are dedicated for military purposes. A space war (mutual shooting down of satellites) between China and India will be devastating. India's lack of redundancy in satellite capabilities will compromise its capability to retaliate. The effects in terms of debris will pose enormous risk to not only Indian and Chinese satellites but also to all the other satellites in orbit.

In light of these issues, important policy questions arise for the Indian defence establishment: why focus on developing ASAT technology for a war that India can't win in the near future and everybody loses? The debris issue which has received far less attention than it warrants needs to be better understood. Threats to Indian space assets are clearly growing especially in light of China making moves in that direction.

In the short to medium term India's scarce resources would be better served by focusing on reducing the disparity with China in space. While shielding on satellites can help protect against small particles, most satellites do not carry such shielding. Moreover, shielding is not effective against debris larger than about one centimeter in size. In particular, it is doubtful if any of active Indian satellites carry such shielding.

Greater space cooperation with the West, especially the US, will help India in balancing China's growing weight in space. If Indian satellites are in danger from China, then so are American assets in space. The US has far greater stakes in ensuring that China does not become too powerful in space. A greater redundancy in space capabilities will also help. Developing ASAT capability however is something that can wait.

Bharath Gopalaswamy is with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Sweden and Harsh Pant teaches at King's College London.

Bharath Gopalaswamy and Harsh V Pant