India’s vulnerability bared

by Brahma Chellaney

NEW DELHI — Whatever may have been China’s motivation, its Jan. 11 anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon test is bound to have lasting global impact like no other military event in recent years.

Three issues stand out on the surprise test: Beijing’s ingrained opacity, which prevented it from owning up to the test for almost two weeks; a lot of unsafe space debris to last decades in low orbit as a result of the destruction of one of China’s aging weather satellites; and the setting of a treacherous precedent (it was the first ASAT kill by any power in more than two decades).

While China’s message, in line with its growing geopolitical ambitions, may have been directed at America, its immediate neighbors like Japan and India are likely to be more rattled by its precision in timing a high-speed rocket carrying a “kinetic” weapon to kill a circling satellite. Although the rocket probably was the KT-1, similar to India’s PSLV, the demonstrated sophistication invokes wishful thinking about averting militarization of space.

Instead of accelerating its space-launch and missile programs, New Delhi has allowed the asymmetry to widen to a point where China has now laid bare India’s battlefield vulnerability.

Indeed, the Chinese ASAT lethality arguably holds the greatest import for India. The only counter to ASAT weapons is a capability to pay back in kind. The United States and Russia can cripple China’s communications and expose its ground assets if their space assets were struck. Japan, also concerned over the test, is fortunate to be ensconced under the U.S. security umbrella. India, by contrast, neither has the missile reach for a counter-offensive in the Chinese heartland nor seeks ASAT power to deter the destruction of its space assets.

Fighting a 21st-century war with one’s key space assets disabled will be worse than facing an adversary with one hand tied. Such assets are critical not just for communications but also for imagery, navigation, interception, missile guidance and delivery of precision munitions.

To sustain peace with China, India needs to be able to defend peace. Can it be forgotten that India was caught napping in 1962 because the full-scale Chinese invasion lasting 32 days was totally unexpected? Or that, in 1986-87, war clouds emerged out of a clear blue sky on the Sino-Indian horizon? The key lesson is that what matters is adversarial capability, not intent, which can change suddenly.

In today’s world, one side can impose its demands not necessarily by employing force but by building such asymmetrical capabilities that a credible threat constricts the other side’s room for maneuver and ability to withstand pressure. Yet, curiously, the more India has fallen behind minimum deterrence, the more it has sheltered behind the delusional rhetoric of cooperation with China.

It is not lack of resources but a reluctance to get its priorities right that has left India far short of meeting its minimal-deterrent needs. The way India squanders resources is unspeakable. Embarrassed neither by its emergence as the world’s largest arms importer nor by its continued lack of priority to building an armament-production base at home, India has unveiled plans to spend at least $20 billion over the next five years to import weapons. Such imports ostensibly will seek to equip India for the next war, when what it faces increasingly are unconventional threats ranging from trans-border terrorism to ASATs.

Rather than prepare to fight war, India ought to give greater priority to preventing aggression. A full-fledged war in southern Asia remains remote 35 years after the last one. Preventing war demands systems of deterrence. India can easily cut its proposed arms imports by half and invest the savings to build deterrence.

Take another egregious case: India plans to spend $3.4 billion to land a man on the moon by 2020, with its first lunar orbiter scheduled for 2008 and first manned space flight for 2014. Such an ambitious mission can be a priority for a country like China that has met its basic national-security needs and amassed $1 trillion in the world’s largest foreign-exchange hoard. But for India this is an extravagance when it still cannot launch its own telecommunications satellites. Surely, India’s interests on planet Earth and its outer space take precedence over a lunar dream.

Before it can think of developing a counter-capability to shield itself from an ASAT menace, it will have to deal with two obtrusive mismatches that hobble its deterrence promise. The first mismatch is between its satellite and launch capabilities. Greater operational capability necessitates large satellites. While India has first-rate satellite-manufacturing expertise, it still needs a foreign commercial launcher like the Ariane 5 of the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company to place its INSAT-4 series satellites in geostationary orbit.

The second mismatch is in the military realm — between the technical sophistication to build nuclear warheads and the extent to which they can be delivered reliably by missiles. Nearly a decade after it went overtly nuclear and almost a quarter-century after the missile program launch, India still lacks the full reach against China. The thermonuclear warhead India tested with a controlled yield in 1998 still awaits a delivery vehicle of the right payload range.

Why should a country with one-sixth of humanity to defend still seek incremental progress in the intermediate-range ballistic missile field rather than aim to technologically leapfrog to an intercontinental ballistic missile? Without ICBM capability, India can be neither in the global league nor able to deter ASAT threats.

As several Indian companies emerge as global players in their own right, the Indian state would be a behemoth on the world stage if it remedied its vulnerability problem. Indeed, India owes a thank-you to Beijing for delivering another reminder of its shortcomings.

Internationally, the ASAT test is likely to discredit China’s claim about its peaceful rise. In fact, the test may prove counterproductive by buttressing perceptions of a China threat.