China has developed an arsenal of counterspace weapons, which is likely to be a threat to Indian assets in space in the event of confrontration on Earth. Rahul Krishna and Radhika Chhabra propose a model for Indian deterrence in space based on the theory of deterrence through denial. The model is based on mitigating the strategic gains for China and increasing the cost of an attack on India’s space assets, thus greatly increasing the threshold for such an attack to occur.

In June 2018, President Trump advocated for the creation of a sixth branch of the U.S. military, a “space force” to re-establish “American dominance in space.” This statement came in light of a February 2018 Worldwide Threat Assessment conducted by the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, which underscored the growing threat that Russian and Chinese counterspace endeavors pose to infrastructure in space. China has been developing and testing a variety of counterspace weapons over the past decade and a half. Even before the controversial Chinese Anti-Satellite (ASAT) test in 2007, Chinese scientists working at the Changchun Institute of Optics, Fine Mechanics and Physics—with deep running affiliations to the Chinese space program—reportedly conducted a successful satellite blinding test on a Chinese satellite in low orbit.

This capability was also triumphantly demonstrated by Beijing, blinding a U.S. satellite using a ground-based laser in 2006. Subsequently, through its DN-2 test in 2013, China has expanded its threat far beyond being able to target Lower Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites, displaying an ability to target satellites in “nearly Geosynchronous orbit” with a direct ascent ASAT weapon. Despite the range of capabilities that China possesses, it has successfully managed to keep its space weaponization program under a veil of secrecy, with little information in the public domain other than on the few significant tests conducted. Tests such as the one in 2007 have caught India, as well as the rest of the world, by surprise. This has made it hard for India to conduct a full threat evaluation from China in space, and formulate a coherent policy response.

Gauging India’s idea of deterrence in space

The 2007 Chinese ASAT test highlighted the reality of the threat to India’s space assets. However, India’s response was measured. Officials asserted the need to secure Indian space assets while continuing to call for the use of space for peaceful purposes. The call for the development of an ASAT capability for India came a few years later, indicating that the response was a considered one, and not a knee jerk reaction to the 2007 test. India’s Air Chief Marshal at the time, P.V. Naik, appealed for the development of an ASAT capability to counter regional threats. This was echoed by other members of India’s top brass, with a source claiming that the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO), India’s primary defense research body, would complete the development of an ASAT capability by 2014. The chief of the DRDO at the time, Dr. V.K. Saraswat, claimed that India already possessed the building blocks for such a capability. He asserted that India’s ballistic missile defense (BMD), the Prithvi Air Defence vehicle, along with India’s Agni-V ballistic missile could be used with minor modifications to form a hard-kill ASAT weapon. The BMD to ASAT route is a proven one. The United States conducted a successful ASAT test with its Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system in 2008, bringing down a defunct satellite in LEO.

India has contemplated conducting an ASAT test for some time. With India’s research in directed energy weapons still in its rudimentary stages, a physical, hard-kill test is the only possibility in the near future. Despite calls for such a test to deter China in space, Dr. Saraswat declared that India will not conduct a physical test so as to avoid creating harmful space debris. Analysts have argued that conducting a physical test may actually be harmful to India’s efforts to deter China in space. It might be prudent for India to keep China in the dark on the progress of India’s ASAT capabilities, while making New Delhi’s intentions to develop one apparent, as Dr. Saraswat and other senior officials have done.

China has taken note of India’s capabilities. Chinese state-run mouthpieces have taken a defensive and wary approach to India’s advances on the ballistic missile front, signaling that New Delhi’s approach may prove to be a more effective deterrent to Beijing than an actual weapons test, which also has the possibility of failing and tipping India’s hand. With the present situation in mind, the Indian administration will have to get inventive with ways to mitigate the threat of Chinese ASAT aggression in space.

The need for a new framework for New Delhi

Deterrence can broadly be divided into two categories: deterrence through punishment and through denial. The latter can involve the use of second-strike capabilities to punish aggression in any domain. However, dependence on this form alone is unfeasible for India, given the imbalance in capabilities with China. According to Glenn Snyder, deterrence through denial occurs through the “capability to deny the other party any gains from the move which is to be deterred.” In an attack by an adversary on India’s space-based infrastructure, deterring through denial would require New Delhi to ensure a reduction in the strategic cost of damage incurred by India. The difference between the two countries’ military-oriented capabilities in space has also led to a significant disparity in the degree to which their respective conventional militaries rely on space-based assets. Assuming that any form of aggression in space would come as a consequence of confrontation on Earth, India needs to work towards mitigating the strategic cost of damages to its military in the event of an ASAT attack by China, thus drastically minimizing the gains for China and deterring them through denial.

The United States National Space Security Strategy (NSSS) sets out elements of a model that could be used by India to augment a strategy of deterrence through denial. Among various other forms of deterrence, the NSSS advocates for deterrence through entanglement, which could possibly be a sustainable solution for India. To employ deterrence through entanglement, India should create shared space capabilities with various regional and global allies. Assuming again that aggression in space would be a result of terrestrial confrontation, shared capabilities would raise the stakes of engagement by any aggressor against such space assets as the aggressor would inflict damage on a state not party to the conflict. While countries are reluctant to share military infrastructure, even in space, it might be a mutually beneficial proposition for regional allies that are looking to counterbalance Chinese power in Asia. Additionally, India is one of the more advanced spacefaring nations in the region and such a model could be tempting for nations whose space programs are still nascent.

Deterrence through denial could also be reinforced through creating redundancy. With redundant satellites or capacity in space, which would serve as back-up or reserve in the event of an attack on certain infrastructure, redundancy would reduce the strategic cost of damages incurred by India in the event of an attack, thus dissuading the aggressor from the move. Positioning, Navigation and Timing (PNT) services is an area where interoperability is being discussed, such as with the European-owned Galileo and United States’ Global Positioning System which, if implemented, will lead to the creation of redundancy, and is likely motivated by the critical functions a PNT system serves for any country’s military. Remote sensing is another area where interoperability is feasible, due to the low technological barriers and the essentiality of the function, especially among countries with common interests in South and South East Asia.

A large portion of space assets that India uses for military purposes are dual-use in nature: in addition to military applications, they are also being used for several civilian and commercial applications. In doing so, India may have unwittingly improved the scope of a deterrence through denial approach. Most state aggressors are reluctant to target civilian infrastructure in any military confrontation, and non-state actors are unlikely to pose much of a threat to space-based assets in the near future. Space infrastructure is also critical to the functioning of a country’s economy and communications and ASAT attacks are highly attributable due to the select few countries that possess the capability. For these reasons, it is unlikely that any state party would attack or damage infrastructure which serves critical civilian and commercial functions. India’s dual-use infrastructure could therefore lead an aggressor to hesitate and thus reduce the number of plausible targets in the event of a terrestrial military confrontation.

Constructing a coherent approach

In his paper on dissuasion by denial, Davis argues that such an approach is unlikely to work without the deterring country possessing a limited weapons capability as a fail-safe. Davis claims that while deterrence through denial would reduce an aggressor’s motivation, the low cost of attack on the aggressor may lead to a failure in deterrence. It is debatable whether the cost of using an ASAT weapon in an attack is high and would depend largely on the nature of weapon used. With the wide range of capabilities that China possesses, and is likely to possess in the future, estimating such costs accurately may not be possible, thus making deterrence through denial fragile.

The development of an ancillary capability, as has been signaled by India, may be the final piece of the jigsaw to make such an approach stable and sustainable. India would need to deter using an amalgamation of denial and punishment, with denial reducing the strategic cost of damages incurred by India in the event of an attack, and the threat of India’s limited weapons capability being enough to significantly raise the stakes for China with its high military reliance on space-based infrastructure. Additionally, this model serves the objective of continuing to use space for development and nation-building, which has been India’s policy in the past. It reduces the financial and technological burden of maintaining deterrence only through punishment.

Rahul Krishna is a research intern with Atlantic Council, a think tank based in Washington D.C., and an undergraduate student of Engineering at Delhi Technological University.

Radhika Chhabra is a graduate of Political Science from the University of Delhi and a former intern with the Ministry of External Affairs of India.