Strategic Ambiguity in Indian Outer Space Policy

Following a moratorium that was approved by the UN First Committee on Disarmament and International Security at the beginning of November, a resolution sponsored by the United States that sought to prohibit direct-ascent anti-satellite tests (DA-ASATs) was unanimously approved on December 9 by the UN General Assembly. Anti-satellite weapons (ASATs), also known as medium- or long-range missiles launched from Earth and capable of destroying satellites in space, are the subject of the moratorium. The resolution is said to have two goals: stopping an aggressive arms race in space and stopping debris from getting into Earth’s orbits. 155 states voted in favor of the resolution, which is not legally binding; nine nations voted against it, including China and Russia, which strongly lobbied against it. India was one of just nine countries that abstained.

India’s abstention from the ASAT missile test moratorium is not as straightforward as a neutral vote because it is a major player in space. It is indicative of India’s national space strategy, a policy of strategic ambiguity that goes unspoken.

In addition to the United States, Russia, and China, India is one of only four nations that has ever conducted DA-ASAT missile tests. India has enough leeway to address its own national security concerns and maintain its strategic autonomy in outer space affairs by only partially aligning with the U.S.-Artemis bloc.

The space program of India is governed by a variety of national laws and international agreements, but the country does not have an official national space policy that outlines its civil and military objectives in outer space. India has long maintained in its diplomatic communications that it wants to use space technology to benefit Earth and that space should be used peacefully. The Indian space program, in contrast to those of the United States, China, and Russia, is based on a civil organization rather than a military one, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), which continues to be the focal point of India’s space activities.

However, the Indian space landscape has been altered in recent times by two significant developments. First, in 2020, Skyroot and Pixxel became private players in India’s space industry. Second, India successfully completed its first direct-ascent ASAT test in 2019 and has begun to recognize the military significance of space. It also established the Defense Space Research Organization (DSRO), which supports the DSA and develops civilian space technologies for military use, and the Indian Defense Space Agency (DSA), which is equivalent to the U.S. Space Force.

On the international stage, India’s space diplomacy also reflects its historic position of strategic autonomy in its foreign policy. The U.S. Artemis Accords, multilateral agreements between the United States and other nations to establish frameworks for civil exploration and use of the Moon, Mars, and beyond, have not been signed by India, one of the few countries with a robust space program. However, India works with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) and other bilateral instruments, including with the United States, to collaborate on a variety of civil and military space activities, allowing it to maintain its space security priorities. India thus maintains “partial alignment” with the bloc, cooperating on specific tasks.

ASAT capabilities and space security have become increasingly important to India due to its asymmetric capabilities compared to China, both in space and on Earth. This is in response to India’s concerns about its national security. Chinese investment in technology, such as “informationized war” capabilities, has increased in tandem with India’s strategic focus on space security. China’s pursuit of the same is being fueled by the United States’ ongoing modernization and expansion of its own space capabilities. India is drawn into the space-based great power competition as a result of the security “trilemma.”

Following the 2007 Chinese ASAT test, India developed its defensive anti-satellite technologies in apparent response to perceived threats. On March 27, 2019, India successfully demonstrated its DA-ASAT capabilities by hitting an orbiting microsatellite with a ballistic missile defense interceptor. India was working to ensure space security and safeguard its satellites, and Prime Minister Modi reiterated that the test did not violate any international agreements. The test’s name, “Mission Shakti,” which means “power,” suggests that it was intended to show that an attack on Indian satellites could result in a “quid pro quo” response and to discourage aggression from adversaries like China.

India’s commitment to using the DA-ASAT must be credible, or at least be perceived as credible, in order for it to be a persuasive deterrent. India maintains strategic and political ambiguity on the issue by voting against the resolution that would have prohibited DA-ASAT tests. This gives India the ability to use such tests as a deterrent to achieve its national security objectives. India is not the only nation to recognize ASAT weapons’ ability to deter. Republicans in Congress expressed concerns that the United States’ pledge against DA-ASAT tests did nothing to deter adversaries and could have the opposite effect when Vice President Kamala Harris first made the announcement.

Policy Recommendations Because of the value that outer space provides to Earth, including GPS, satellite imagery, communication, and the potential exploration and mining of the moon and other celestial bodies, it is and will continue to be a crucial military domain. For years, the U.S.-Artemis and Russia-China blocs have been at odds in international efforts to demilitarize outer space. A rule-based international order is strongly in India’s interest because the civil and military space budgets and capabilities of space powers like the United States and China dwarf India’s. Space warfare could be avoided by addressing the underlying perceptions of space threat through the development of international instruments. India may be able to maintain its position of utilizing space technology for Earth’s benefit and preserving the domain for peaceful purposes with the assistance of this.

Because it specifically prohibits one method of testing for a single type of ASAT weapon, the moratorium does little to stop the slippery slope of space weaponization, despite the fact that it may initially appear to be a step in that direction. Intentional fly-bys can still be used to test DA-ASAT weapons in orbit, and there are numerous other kinetic and non-kinetic ways to destroy or disable enemy satellites. However, the moratorium on DA-ASAT weapons assists in preventing the production of hazardous space debris, despite the fact that the ban does not restrict the development and deployment of offensive space capabilities. India should participate in building this norm, so abstaining from the moratorium is still compatible with adhering to the principle that DA-ASAT tests that generate dangerous space debris should not be conducted. A significant amount of debris is inevitably produced when a satellite is destroyed, affecting not only the actor’s own spacecraft but also satellites from other countries.

Reticence and India’s strategy of using strategic ambiguity should not be confused. It should seize the opportunity to debate the effectiveness of the ASAT moratorium rather than letting its abstention slip into the background.

India is one of only four nations to have tested an ASAT weapon, which gives it visibility and negotiating leverage. As a first step, India may be able to leverage its strategic ambiguity to bring outer space powers to the negotiating table to promote transparency and measures that build confidence rather than direct arms control. This could include concentrating on dual issues like the generation of space debris by ASAT tests and commercial megasatellites, registering military and non-military satellites, and attributability of actions in space. Other examples of dual issues include technology transfers and space traffic management. India ought to make a commitment to enacting international space laws to stop unilateral norm-setting and reckless behavior in space.

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