India's interests across its disputed frontier with China serves two purposes: deterrence and space warfighting.


Satellite capture of Beijing

Courtesy: NASA

This is the tenth part in the series The China Chronicles.

Read the first nine parts here.

Most Indian analyses address the importance of the country’s space programme for military purposes, yet fail to establish what exactly should constitute a space military strategy for India vis-à-vis China. Do Indian space military capabilities serve as instruments of coercion and war fighting? It also remains unexplained why and how available and potential Indian space military power should be disciplined to meet objectives likely to be in dispute.

Space deterrence is feasible; so is space warfighting as an extensive analysis in this occasional paper shows. To the extent that India’s space strategy vis-à-vis China, if it has any, requires Indian strategic managers and policymakers to clearly delineate whether they see space as a medium for conducting terrestrial military operations or a domain for conducting military operations. This would mean developing and deploying militarily applicable technological capacities and assets for the conduct of defensive and offensive, space based military operations or counter-space missions against a potential Chinese space military offensive on Indian space-based assets in the event of a land war.

At one level, space as a medium and as a domain for the conduct of military operations are interrelated — corresponding roughly with the tensions between deterrence and war fighting. Interests determine objectives. An Indian space military strategy, and the capabilities that will be a part of it, should be directed towards those goals. India’s interests across its disputed frontier with China give it a ready and immediate rationale for space military capabilities vis-à-vis its neighbour. It serves two purposes: deterrence that will prevent China from using its space military capabilities against India, and space warfighting in the event deterrence fails. By definition, ‘strategy’ is the relationship between means and ends to the extent it is based on available — or how potentially available — military power ought to be employed to serve specific goals.

India’s interests across its disputed frontier with China give it a ready and immediate rationale for space military capabilities vis-à-vis its neighbour.

Therefore, means and ends matter in that even a pure territorial defence requires that India build space military capabilities as the space medium will play an active part in a Sino-Indian land war. In any territorial contest, the political and military objectives are the same. The space medium will inevitably play an important role in a boundary war. Space military capabilities, at least in certain forms, can be conventionalised and, therefore, Indian decision makers ought to invest in these military instruments, precisely because they are more usable and could potentially be used by China in a land war against India if deterrence failed.

Relative vs. absolute capabilities

As Henry Kissinger accurately put it: “Power has no absolute measurement; it is always relative.” India faces a massive if not an absolute asymmetry in space military technological capabilities, yet its latent space capacity borne out of decades of investments can help redress some of the present imbalance in space military capabilities between the two countries. Therefore, any assessment about the scope of India’s space military posture ought to consider the distinction between absolute and relative capabilities. Most force planning for any range of contingencies is predicated generally on relative capabilities. India cannot match China pound for pound on every dimension of space military power, simply because it faces a relative gap in resources (and not latent space technologies or existing missile technologies) vis-a-vis Beijing. S. Chandrashekhar captured this dilemma well:

“India may have to make some hard choices on the trade-offs between the efforts required to put a man in space and the associated benefits in building a robust, space-based network-centric war-deterring capability. Doing both simultaneously may not be possible, given the resources that are currently available in the country.”

Therefore, absolute security and defence against a Chinese space attack is unattainable. However, the opportunity costs for the non-pursuit of a space military strategy are equally high due to the nature of conflicting territorial interests between India and China. Therefore, the worst is possible and preparing a limited retaliatory capability is the most critical requirement. India need not destroy all of China’s space assets in the event of war, but only a fraction of its space assets in order to force it to cease armed hostilities. This will help India deny China exclusive access to space and the opportunity to use the space medium as a force multiplier for territorial gains in ground-based operations. Notwithstanding the demands on resources, the most critical area of investment focus ought to be in developing non-kinetic means of attack and counter-attack. These non-kinetic means in addition to the effective employment of Indian space assets are the minimum requirements. Two recommendations are in order from which Indian policymakers and strategic managers can choose individually or combine. None of the options listed can avoid trade-offs whether politically or financially and if India’s territorial interests have to be protected choices are unavoidable in regards to space weapons. The first two options listed below will be highly compatible with a space-denial strategy. None of the measures proposed here are watertight prescriptions. New Delhi can pursue following passive and active measures for now.

Firstly, space-based operations are heavily dependent on land-based infrastructure. India’s retaliatory capabilities can be directed towards targeting the ground segments of China’s extensive space surveillance network. For this India needs long-range land attack cruise missile forces that can strike deep and accurately at the ground nodes of China’s space segment. This option does not require that India target Chinese space-based infrastructure. The advantage of this option is that land attack cruise missile have low radar signature and are hard to intercept. The downside to this option is that India’s current land attack cruise missile capability lacks range and will necessitate investment.

The second option involves passive measures that several experts have already identified. These include building redundancy by launching numerous satellites into space. However, India will need to increase launch rates. As of now, Chinese launch rates dwarf India. Numerically, China’s satellites are greater than India. In addition, India will need to build more dual-use satellites. Numerous dual-purpose satellites will allow India, in the event China destroys Indian satellites kinetically or non-kinetically following the outbreak of a land war and during the course of a land war, to migrate to other satellites. This measure can be accompanied by cyberspace warfare capabilities that target the electrical grid of the ground stations of China’s space-based infrastructure.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).


1 Comment on "The dragon challenge: The necessity for an Indian space deterrent posture"

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Ram Lanka

Great article. One thing India must avoid is getting into the trap of putting a man into the space. It is more for optics and offers dubious ROI in comparison with many other projects India can undertake, particularly in the face of resource constraints. China is constantly sneering India on this front and we should just ignore these and get going.


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