India's ABM test: proven ASAT capability or a paper tiger?

Discussion in 'Defence & Strategic Issues' started by SHASH2K2, Mar 12, 2011.

  1. SHASH2K2

    SHASH2K2 New Member

    May 10, 2010
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    Bihar, BanGalore , India

    The DC Space Examiner reported on March 6, 2011 that India performed a test of the interceptor missile portion of its ballistic missile defense system. The test, the sixth of the test series, was reportedly a success and a validation of the technology to be integrated into India's defense system. The interceptor is purportedly the final component to be tested.

    As a byline, V.K. Saraswat, Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) Director-General, stated this latest success demonstrated India's capability to effectively neutralize satellites belonging to an adversary.[1] While not the primary purpose of the test of India's ABM program, Sarawat's statement reflects India's interest in anti-satellite (ASAT) technology, and it has reportedly put together the necessary components to acquire such a capability . The question is even with the necessary technology to acquire an ASAT capability, does that mean they have a proven capability?

    ABMs and ASATs

    The history of India's ASAT capability dove-tails with the development of its ABM program. Unlike the ABM capability sought by India, its endeavor towards an ASAT capability is fairly new. India's indigenously built ABM system has been in development for several decades and only began to bear fruit in November 2006 when an intercept was performed outside the atmosphere. India followed up this success with others in an effort to bring its ABM capability to operational status sometime in 2012.[2]

    There are two phases in India's ABM program. Phase 1, which the March 6, 2011 test was a part, is to develop a capability to intercept missiles with a range of 2,000km (approximately 1,243 miles) coming from an altitude of 150km (93 miles).[3] Phase 2 of the program is intended to develop a capability to intercept missiles with a ranges up to 5,000km (3,106 miles), which could give India the capability to intercept intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).[4]

    Chinese ASAT test and seeds of India's ASAT development

    The Chinese government surprised the international community with the intentional destruction of its weather satellite Fengyun 1C on January 11, 2007 with what appeared to be a purposed ASAT. The test was performed without warning to the international community and likely constituted a technical violation of China's obligations under the Outer Space Treaty. Aside from the international criticism, China suffered no sanctions for the test and the resulting debris cloud.

    The United States took particular notice of the test as it represented the demonstration of a direct threat against its robust outer space systems, which it has become increasingly reliant upon. What didn't garner immediate attention was India's concern that China's ASAT test represented a similar threat to its growing investment in outer space systems. It wasn't until 2009 that India started making public gestures that it was interested in finding a way to secure it space assets.[5]

    Any doubts about India's intentions were cleared up when V.K. Saraswat publically acknowledged that India was developing and bringing together the basic technologies that were already part of India's ABM program to create a system that could be used against satellites belonging to an adversary.[6] The decision to adapt India's existing ABM technologies to the ASAT role was doubtless encouraged by the ancillary capability demonstrated by the United States when it adaptated its ABM system to de-orbit USA-193.

    Dedicated weapon or capability?

    It is unclear whether India's purported ASAT capacity is intended to be a dedicated weapons program or a simply a capability.

    To illustrate, China's ASAT test in 2007 was likely the result of dedicated weapons program. The test against Fengyun 1C in 2007 not only demonstrated an anti-satellite capability but also a weapons program dedicated towards the creation of that capability.

    Critics argue that the United States demonstrated an ongoing ASAT program when it used assets from it ballistic missile defense program to de-orbit USA-193; however, the United States does not have an active program dedicated to develop and deploy ASATs. What the United States did demonstrate is that it has an ancillary capability to its ABM program that can de-orbit a satellite.

    The distinction is important because in the case of China the test was the result of an active effort to develop and deploy a dedicated weapon system. In the case of the United States, a viable capability ancillary to missile defense was demonstrated, but the means used were not the result of a dedicated ASAT program.

    India's public statements about the purported ASAT system seems to fit neither of these categories but rather they straddle the fence. On one hand, public statements made by India's officials indicate that their goal is to protect its space assets and deny the use of space to an adversary.[7]

    In the same vein India's ASAT capacity is described as strictly a deterrent and not meant to be used.[8] The statements made give the impression that India intends to field a dedicated ASAT along with the deployment of its ABM system, but at the same time it considers the ASAT role as an ancillary capability that it does not intend to use.

    It is perhaps this ambiguity and uncertainty where India's ABM program ends and its ASAT program begins that India is relying upon to make China wary of interfering with its outer space assets.

    Proven capability or semantics?

    Whether India's ASAT system is "proven" as postured by officials is a matter of semantics and given the geopolitical realities that India exists within it may be all that it can rely upon. The only way for India to prove that it has an ASAT capability is for the system to de-orbit or otherwise destroy a target satellite. This is unlikely to happen for several reasons.

    An opportunity such as the one presented to the United States with USA-193 is unlikely to present itself. India would have to utilize one of its own satellites in a stable orbit as a target. Presuming India would fulfill its obligations under the Outer Space Treaty and consult with the international community before such a test, it is unlikely that it would be sanctioned because of the large amount of debris that it would produce not to mention the resulting hazard in the outer space environment. Such a test would also certainly be considered an aggressive military action and would be inconsistent with India's stance that it aligns itself with the precept of the peaceful uses of outer space.

    An attempt to perform such a test unilaterally without consulting the international community could result in serious international repercussions and could even affect its burgeoning relations with the United States. Although China avoided serious international repercussions from its ASAT test in 2007, it is unlikely that India would enjoy similar immunity and could find itself at the center of a serious political and diplomatic tempest.

    An ASAT test could also inadvertently spark an international crisis with China. A satellite interception using the current technology would likely have to strike an object near or above India, and given the geographic proximity of China an interception could stray over the orbital proximity that country. The Chinese government may consider such an interception as a hostile action. Even more so debris from such an interception could contaminate the orbital parameters occupied by Chinese satellites.

    There is also the risk that a test could fail. A failure would be difficult to hide and could wipe out any vestiges of ambiguity that India may be relying upon to provide a deterrent to China. Thus, instead of having an effective deterrent over the uncertainty of whether India has a capability or not, a failure would provide China with a level of certainty that India does not have an effective ASAT capability.


    The question of whether India has a proven anti-satellite capability will likely never be answered until that capability is tested. International and geographical concerns make such a test unlikley at best.

    Until a situation arises where India feels that it needs to employ its purported capability, India's ASAT capability will likely remain a paper tiger for the intelligence community to ponder and for China to consider.

    Continue reading on India's ABM test: proven ASAT capability or a paper tiger? - National Space Policy |
  3. pmaitra

    pmaitra Moderator Moderator

    Mar 10, 2009
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    EST, USA

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