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Significance of the changing space security landscape for India

India s ASAT test, for instance, was an effort to establish credible space deterrence. (PTI File photo)

By Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Asian space landscape is changing. China s recent launch of a rocket from a ship, India s anti-satellite (ASAT) test and the establishment of a tri-service Defence Space Agency (DSA) are quite significant. But even accounting for this, India s plans appears to be quite dramatic. Last week, India announced that it will be conducting a table-top war game called the IndSpaceEx with all the stakeholders including its scientific establishment and the military.

The war game, according to reports, is meant to give a better understanding of the new and emerging space security challenges in outer space which will aid India in developing appropriate capabilities to protect its interests. India has been concerned about the worsening space security scenario for a while now. The first successful Chinese ASAT test in January 2007, an inherently destabilising act, and with the growing sophistication of the Chinese military space capabilities are serious concerns.

India s framing of its policy since 2007, whether by the scientific, military and even the political establishment, has been ambiguous. Even as there are concerns around space militarisation and the increasing trends towards weaponisation of space, India has come to appreciate the need for a more nuanced approach to space security in recent years. This recognition pushed India to conduct the ASAT test in March. Subsequently, India has taken the final steps to establish the DSA.

This new approach has not been easy for India. India has always maintained that outer space should be used for peaceful purposes alone. But the changing nature of warfare, with the increasing integration of outer space into conventional military operations, has proved to be a critical impetus for India to change its tack. Traditionally, the use of space assets for passive military applications such as surveillance and intelligence has been considered acceptable but given the networked nature of warfare, there is an increasing reliance on space for Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR). Given this growing dependence on space for such functions, there are similarly growing vulnerabilities, with some states developing assets to interfere with, disrupt or damage space assets. In this context, while ASATs are destabilising, the development of counter-space capabilities including cyber and electronic warfare means to target space assets are worrisome. Also, terrestrial geopolitics is beginning to have an important bearing on how outer space affairs are conducted. A domain that remained relatively peaceful for decades is seeing greater competition and there are signs of a budding arms race in outer space, which India cannot afford to ignore????.

After sitting on the margins for long, India has now begun to respond to these new realities in space security. India s ASAT test, for instance, was an effort to establish credible space deterrence. But states have still not adopted deterrence within the space domain and there is time to prevent it from happening. The three other states that have demonstrated ASAT capabilities have not operationalised them yet. This offers states an opportunity to change course before it s too late.

Nevertheless, as Ashley Tellis has argued, it was evident that the Indian ASAT test was aimed at China, which also means that it is likely to accelerate the pace of competition between the two and India needs to prepare for the long haul. India will need to improve its institutional architecture in order to have better coordination among the Department of Space, Ministry of Defence and the military. The first step in this regard was the creation of the Integrated Space Cell within the Integrated Defence Headquarters a decade ago but the establishment of the DSA is more welcome. Additionally, the government will be putting in place a Defence Space Research Organisation (DSRO), akin to the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). The DSRO is meant to be doing the research and development in terms of the capability requirement on the space security side, whereas the DSA will be responsible for the policy and strategy affecting the space security dynamics. Another important step for the government to do is to declare a space policy in the open domain. This cannot be a sector-specific, like the SATCOM policy, but it has to be an all-encompassing one, issued possibly by the Prime Minister s Office.

While these internal steps are much needed, India should play an active role and grab the opportunity to shape the global rules of the road for two reasons. One, this will strengthen India s global governance credentials in the outer space domain. As a spacefaring state with growing reliance on outer space for a number of different functions, it makes both economic and strategic sense. Two, with India taking the lead, it can ensure that the rules that get formulated are comprehensive and inclusive to include the interests of India and other developing states. India championing the case of other developing states interests will also have multitude indirect benefits.

The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head, Nuclear and Space Policy Initiative, Observer Research Foundation