China last year termed space a “critical domain in the international strategic competition”, having deemed “security of space” as a cornerstone of the strategic protection of its national development. This should have alarmed India-indeed, the global community-since it signals that China implicitly considers space as another battlefield, notwithstanding the country’s posturing of being against the weaponization of extra-terrestrial realms. If it didn’t, the US department of defense’s (DoD’s) recent annual report submitted to the US Congress should serve as a wake-up call. The report notes that the People’s Liberation Army (China’s armed forces) “continues to acquire and develop a range of space and counter-space capabilities and related technology”.
The report, analyzing the published work of PLA academics on counter space technologies, says that China sees the ability to use space-based systems and “deny the same to adversaries” as crucial to modern warfare. The country has been acquiring and developing indigenously kinetic-kill missiles and vehicles (launched from either ground or orbit to destroy a target with sheer kinetic energy) and orbiting space robots. It has drastically expanded space surveillance to monitor objects in space and launch counter space operations-nearly half of the 120 (in May 2018) recon and remote sensing satellite-fleet were owned and operated by the PLA. These could be used for, among other things, tracking and targeting an adversary’s forces.
In addition, the PLA is developing satellite-jammers and directed-energy weapons that could have exoatmospheric use. China is also reported to be working on real-time surveillance, recon, and warning system, and has been bolstering its capacity in this regard, including through the Beidou navigation satellite system. The PLA, the DoD notes, could be looking at integrating terrestrial and space military operations.
Just 20 years back, the DoD had said that China’s “nominal space capabilities were based on outdated technologies for the day”. Now, when the DoD acknowledges that China could surpass the US’s capabilities on certain fronts, India must confront an altered geopolitical and strategic reality. It has to keep up with the march of militarisation of space-not just by China but also other space powers-if it is to defend its space capabilities.
Of course, the larger goal should be towards de-weaponizing space, and India must be a leader on global efforts to achieve the same, but it also has to get pragmatic. Last year’s anti-satellite (ASAT) missile testing in the low-Earth orbit was a demonstration of its willingness, even though it came 12 years after China did this and decades after the US. There is a lot of catching up that has to be done. For instance, while against China’s 120-satellite remote sensing and recon capacity, India has 19 such satellites. This has to do, perhaps, with the fact that China spends nearly $11 billion on its space interests, while India spends just $1.5 billion, that too for largely civilian purposes.
Against such a backdrop, opening up space to the private sector, as the government did recently, is a step forward. With the pandemic, the spending capacity of both the government and the private sector could get seriously affected. The government has to bear in mind that it was China’s impressive economic growth that helped it grow its space muscles. Unless it pulls all stops to revive and accelerate growth, it will be difficult to take on China when the war goes leagues beyond Galwan.