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
"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
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
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
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
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
"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,
"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
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
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
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.