Space Race Disturbing Strategic Balance, Stability in South Asia

July 10, 2023

IN THE PAST, ONLY THE UNITED STATES and the Soviet Union were involved in space exploration. But now, over 90 countries are involved in space-based activities. About 35 countries out of these have their own space research institutions and 13 countries and one international organization, the European Space Agency, have the ability to launch their own spacecraft.

There are about 60 countries that own satellites. These countries use satellites for a variety of purposes, including security, economics, infrastructure, and services. There are currently about 5,500 satellites orbiting Earth. These satellites are used for a variety of purposes, including telecommunications, navigation, positioning, early warning, earth observation and meteorology.

The US Science & Technology Policy Institute predicts that about 1/3 of the new satellites launched from 2018 to 2026 will be used for military and civilian purposes. The remaining 2/3 of the satellites will be used for commercial purposes.

India, a space-faring nation that is competing with China and Russia, considers China to be its strategic competitor and rival and is offering its space programme as an alternative economical option for developing countries. India is developing military satellites to enhance its Command, Control, Communications, Computers (C4) and Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities. India’s rapid progress in developing military-related assets in outer space—including anti-satellite weapons, ballistic missile defence systems and C4ISR capabilities—is perceived particularly by China and Pakistan as a major emerging threat for the South Asian region.

India has become a space-faring power because it can develop its own space launch vehicles. It has developed two types of space launch vehicles: the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV). These launch vehicles can meet both India’s national needs and the demands of the global market. The Indian space programme has gone through four phases—initiation, experimental, operational and expansion.

The Indian space programme began in 1969 with the establishment of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). In 1972, the Department of Space (DoS) was established to oversee the Indian space programme. India has also established a strong space industrial set-up, which allows India to involve commercial businesses in space activities. This commercialization process began in the early-1990s with the incorporation of a government-controlled commercial company, Antrix Corporation Limited.

The space environment is becoming more congested and competitive. This is because countries are aware of the strategic advantage of space capabilities and the importance of a balance of power in space. This has led to a ‘counter-space race’ that is heading towards space weaponization. One of the most important aspects of this space race is the development of anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons. ASAT weapons have been tested by China, the US and India.

Currently, private companies are also entering space activities as commercialization is a continuing process. China’s development of an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon has prompted India to develop its own ASAT weapon, officials have hinted. India has even conducted successful tests of an ASAT weapon. The country’s missile development programme could also be used to develop an ASAT weapon.

The difference in the size and capabilities of the Pakistani and Indian space programmes means that Pakistan is likely to feel compelled to develop its own ASAT weapon, too. This could lead to a space race in South Asia, with China also involved. India’s Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) Agni-V could be used as a base or jump-start for its ASAT programme.

The Indian ASAT test has reignited discussions about the need for internationally acceptable space norms and codes of conduct to avoid an unstoppable weaponization race. The US has called for a global treaty against weapons that create debris in space. The threat of space debris from ASAT tests was highlighted in October 2022 when the International Space Station had to carry out evasive manoeuvres to avoid debris from a Russian ASAT test.

But India portrays its space programme as being ‘peaceful’ and ‘for civilian purposes’. However, there is evidence that India is secretly developing space weapons. The country has not released an official space policy document. This could be because it wants to keep its intentions ambiguous. But some Indian officials, such as the Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister, have hinted that India is developing space weapons. He had said in 2010, “If the Indian government desires, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) can produce the desired capability of fighting a space war.”

In 2012, the same Scientific Adviser said that India had successfully developed anti-satellite (ASAT) capability, which was demonstrated in 2019. ICBMs, BMD systems and Space Launch Vehicles (SLVs) can all be used as ASAT weapons systems. India’s quest for BMD, which is directly linked to ASAT weapons, could lead to an arms race in space.

The space race and the potential militarization of space are affecting the strategic balance and stability in South Asia. These innovative technologies could have a significant impact on strategic stability and space power competition in the region. It is important to analyse the evolving space environment and security dynamics in South Asia.

In conclusion, the technological asymmetries and China, Pakistan and India’s quest for power are likely to create strategic instability, which could ultimately lead to an unnecessary space race through investments in space technology and weaponization in the region. This could also create space diplomacy and a particular space block that could threaten the interests of the region and the global peaceful use of space.



By Girish Linganna
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