Rafale: A national tragedy or just plain stupidity?
In other countries, it would have been a badge of shame for the Government, Bureaucracy, Defense Industry and the citizenry as a whole. In India, it has become an ugly no-holds-barred slugfest like none other. Endless discussions, numerous debates and multitudes of expert opinions have pervaded the national discourse on just one topic these days. Apparently, the topic on which everyone in India and apparently a few abroad, have become an expert is Dassault Rafale. Every moment, new facts, truths, half-truths, and blunt lies are being tossed about in the Print, Television & Social Media and apparently, some so-called experts have started a smear campaign to malign the name of the Prime Minister, labeling him as a chor (thief) and much more. What is the whole issue about? Pick any hundred shouting at the very top of their voices and ask them about the issue. Not one would be able to go beyond the generality and much-used catchphrases like Scam, Ambani-Adani, Modi, France. Most, if not all, detractors of the defense deal have a half-baked understanding of the fighter aircraft in general and would be unable to differentiate between an interceptor and an air-superiority fighter in any literature. Conversely, the supporters of the deal, in their standard fashion, have built walls of ignorance so high that it puts even Mount Everest to shame. While most (though not all) of the questions of the detractors are logical and valid, tagging every detractor as an Urban Naxal while ignoring his line of questioning won’t work. It’s time for the supporters and detractors of the deal to gain a meaningful insight into the entire deal and then form an opinion on the issue.
The entire fiasco has its roots way back in 2001 when the Indian Air force had projected a requirement for 126 (seven squadrons of 18 aircrafts each) aircraft. The strength of the IAF was starting to fall. It has last acquired an aircraft (Mirage-2000) in the 1980s and the acquisition of the Sukhois (-30MKI) was starting to gain steam. The initial requirements were for a 20-ton class fighter aircraft with medium role capability which would fill the multi-role niche between the heavy-hitter Sukhoi Su-30MKI (an air superiority fighter) and the MiG-21/Tejas (a smaller multi-role interdictor). Apparently impressed by the Mirage 2000s bomb lugging capability at high altitudes during the Kargil War, the IAF was keen to acquire the Mirages and had quietly made up its mind to acquire the same until the French Aerospace industry and Rafale, in particular, threw a spanner in their works. However, the French aerospace industry was winding down Mirage 2000 production due to lack of orders and preparing for the manufacture of the Rafale aircraft. Apparently, the French Air Force needed it Rafales faster (point to be noted- the Rafale is the next iteration of the Mirage-2000 fighter and the current mainstay fighter of the French Air Force). The Mirage production line was shutting down and the French could only keep it open if India gave a firm order. But we are Indians, have we ever committed to anything without first bargaining and comparing the hell out of it?
Hence, Requests for Information (RFI) were issued in 2004. In the formative years of the tendering, aircraft in the running were: Mirage 2000-5 Mk.2 (Dassault, France), F-16C/D (Lockheed Martin, USA), MiG-29OVT (Mikoyan, Russia), and JAS 39 Gripen (Saab, Sweden). Preliminary estimates pegged the costs in the neighborhood of INR 55,000 crore (US$8.6 billion), making it India’s single largest defense deal. However, the 20-ton MTOW (maximum take-off weight) limit requirement was later removed and this limit was revised to 24-tons. Given the protracted nature of the tendering and the past governmental acquisition timelines, Dassault replaced the Mirage 2000-5 with the Rafale and the MiG Company placed MiG-35 in instead of the prototype MiG-29OVT. The Eurofighter consortium entered the Typhoon into the competition. Not wanting to be outdone, the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet also joined the tendering. Given the vagueness of the clauses, all aircraft, single engine or double and both light and heavy became a part of the fray.
As per one defense analyst, this deal meant that The Indian Air force was comparing every four-wheel vehicle from a Maruti 800 and a tractor when it just needed a jeep.
The Indian government had initially planned to buy the first 18 aircraft directly from the manufacturer. The remaining fighters will be built under license with a transfer of technology (ToT) by HAL. After an intensive and detailed technical evaluation by the IAF, in 2011, the competition has reduced the bidders to two fighters — Eurofighter Typhoon and Dassault Rafale. On 31 January 2012, it was announced that Dassault Rafale won the competition due to its lower life-cycle cost. The deal has been reported to cost US$28–30 billion in 2014. However, the French refused to provide any guarantees for the 108 aircraft that would be manufactured by HAL. The deal went back to the chopping block and the fleet strength of the IAF continued to deplete at alarming rates. A report commissioned under the erstwhile UPA slammed the HAL’s practices and there were some serious differences between HAL and Dassault on the various fronts.
In light of this, on April 10, 2015, Prime Minister Modi declared: ‘Keeping in mind the critical operational necessity of fighter aircraft in India, I have discussed with the president (of France) the purchase of 36 Rafale fighters in ‘fly-away condition’ at the earliest through an inter-governmental agreement.’ However, the Congress party alleges that the Modi government, in buying 36 Rafales for €7.8 billion ($9.2 billion or Rs 58,000 crore/Rs 50 billion), paid more than what Dassault had quoted in the MMRCA tender but a full breakdown of figures is essential as the total cost of a fighter contract includes — besides the cost of the aircraft — costs related to technology transfer, spare parts, weapons and missiles, added-on equipment and maintenance costs. Moreover, the same aircraft Rafale has also be bought by the Governments of Egypt and Qatar.
A closer look at the costs shows that the contracted price averages out to €91.7 million (Rs 686 crore/Rs 6.86 billion) per Rafale which includes the purchase of 28 single-seat fighters, for €91.07 million (Rs 681 crore/Rs 6.81 billion) each; and eight twin-seat fighters, each priced at €94 million (Rs 703 crore/Rs 7.03 billion). That puts the cost of each of the 36 fighters at €91.7 million (Rs 686 crore) — totaling up to €3.3 billion.
Besides this, the IAF will pay €1.7 billion for ‘India-specific enhancements’, €700 million for weaponry such as Meteor and SCALP missiles, €1.8 billion for spare parts and engines, and €350 million for ‘performance-based logistics’, to ensure that at least 75 percent of the Rafale fleet remains operationally available (our Sukhoi serviceability is an abysmal 50%). We are paying extra for the India specific enhancements that were earlier not the part of the generic aircraft selected via the MMRCA process. Also, while such a direct comparison is not right, prima facie the IAF is paying more or less the same as the EAF and the QAF. The Egyptian air force has paid €5.2 billion for 24 fighters and is reportedly considering buying 12 more, a ‘fully loaded cost’ of €217 million per Rafale. Similarly, the Qatar air force has paid out €6.3 billion for a similar number of aircraft, with a ‘fully loaded cost’ of €262 million per fighter.
The opposition Congress is arguing that by reducing the buy from 126 aircraft for which a sum of (520-700 crores per aircraft, varying in every speech) to just 36 aircraft (700-1600 crores), the present dispensation is causing a scam of epic propositions. There are also serious concerns about the offer being made to Reliance instead of HAL to partner with the deal. While concerns about the apparent lack of Reliance’s experience in making aircraft is genuine, this is no excuse to mock and needlessly criticize a perfectly valid deal. One Congress legislator had even claimed that he would make a better plane than Reliance and mockingly flew a paper plane in the august presence of elected public representatives. Wish making fighter jets was only that simple. However, they seem to forget that Reliance is not going to manufacture any aircraft. It is just a part of an Indian Consortium which will be benefitted by offsets as part of the deal. Why Reliance? Yes, this is a question that needs to be asked and should be answered. The choice was primarily dictated by Dassault’s need to gain a foothold in Indian Markets and tap the rich moolah in the pockets of Indian Industrialists. Given the tie-up between Tata ASL and Lockheed Martin & Pilatus, Honeywell and HAL, Adani and Elbit Systems of Israel and Mahindra taking a heavy plunge in the aviation industry with its acquisition of Gipps Aerospace, Dassault was wary of being caught napping and needed a partner that would be accommodative for them and assertive for others. Reliance Group fit the bill perfectly and while many have been accusing the govt. for crony capitalism, the Dassault-Reliance tie-up is one of survival.
Many have also lamented that private industries are being promoted at the cost of public institutions. Well, only HAL can be blamed for this mess. Not only has HAL chronically underperformed over the years and hamstrung the IAF’s expansion plans (read Sukhoi SU-30MKI) by its ineptitude, it is also overcharging the Indian Tax-payer for basic jets like the domestic Tejas. Recent estimates show that the much-hyped Tejas (named by our former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee during his regime) is still facing teething troubles even after 2 decades in testing & production and the costs have ballooned exponentially over the years. It is being reported that each Tejas will cost between 460-480 crores per platform which is significantly higher than other fighters for its niche (read JF-17, FC-1) and certainly not making sense in any way. It’s an irony that people accusing the present dispensation of allowing private players to siphon taxpayers’ money are either unaware or simply don’t care that the public sector undertaking is just as expensive (if not more) with the added downside of inefficiency and lethargy. It must also be pointed out that HAL Dhruvs (a light helicopter) manufactured by the PSU have had serious doubts raised about their capability and a South American nation has mothballed all its Dhruvs after a significant no. of them crashed within a short span of time. It is only logical that any foreign manufacturer would be hesitant to partner with HAL. If there is indeed something wrong in this deal, it is the sorry state of affairs at HAL and the government must take immediate steps to resolve it.
On an ending note, defense procurements in India and around the globe have always been shrouded in mist and with good reason. Given the stringent security clauses, unique modifications and country-specific costing, it is near impossible to compare figures across the board, unlike the Big Mac Index. While everyone has the right to an opinion, it should be exercised with caution and should never be misused. The fleet strength of the IAF is rapidly depleting and the Rafales are needed. The opposition is being hypocritical by painting its inability to close a deal in a decade (remember, Saint Antony of the “You can’t be accused of corruption if you do nothing” fame) as a done deal and conveniently forgetting the facts and reports, it had itself prepared. The Government, on the other hand, is doing a poor job by its high on rhetoric and low on facts media reporting. The deal is tough and not easily understandable for all because it is meant to be that way. Having a simple analogy to substitute for this deal is hilarious and plainly, uncalled for. Something must be left to the experts and not brought down to the floor. We are, after all, buying a Mach 2 capable fighter plane, not the bhaziya-tamatar of everyday use. While common sense should prevail on this issue of national importance and the cacophony should subside, it is highly unlikely in the coming days and the slugfest will continue. Meanwhile, the only casualty in this conflict will be the Indian Air Force and its brave pilots, who continue to fly old and unsafe planes for the foreseeable future to come.
Indian Conventional and Strategic Arms Buildup: Implications for Pakistan
South Asia’s regional dynamic is both flamboyant and intricate. Various empires have formed, prospered, and perished over the millennia, as innumerable conflicts and struggles for control of resources spread over the globe. However, 2021 was a year of fierce weapons competition between South Asia’s nuclear neighbors, India and Pakistan, who carried out 26 missile tests. India launched 16 ballistic and cruise missiles while Pakistan tested 10 missiles with nearly identical capabilities.
As a response to the perceived inability of the Indian Armed Forces (IAF) to adequately respond to the Pakistani insurgencies, and after the failure of the Indian forces to quickly react and mobilize their forces in 2001, the Indian Army and the defense policymakers realized the lack of modernized and consistent army doctrine. This resulted in the announcement by the Indian Army in 2004 of a new limited war doctrine known as the Cold Start Doctrine (CSD).
Importance of Air Base
The importance of air superiority can be witnessed by looking at the six days of the Arab-Israeli War, in which the Israeli forces pre-empted an attack from the bases of Jordan, Syria, Egypt, and Iraq, and struck the air force before the fight even began. The outcome of the war was determined during its first hours. By destroying the opposing air fleet, Israeli forces gained air superiority, and thus the Arab forces were helpless in their efforts, which eventually resulted in a humiliating defeat for the Arabs.
Indian Air-Bases: A Strategic Threat
In the contemporary era, military forces are going for weapon systems that require absolutely no time at all when it comes to striking a target. In that regard, the air force comes first for the obvious reason that its threshold is low as compared to a ballistic missile strike. Indian force deployment and employment are very close to Pakistan’s borders, from Siachen to the Rann of Kutch. In India’s most recent attack on Balakot, which took place in 2019, the air force was utilized. This clearly shows the Indian resolve to use the air force in any future blatant aggression like the one in February 2019.
The Indian air force deployment is tailor-made for Pakistan. If one analyzes the airbases/airstrips positioning and range from the Pakistani-Indo international border, the Line of Control (LOC), and the working boundary, it is quite obvious that the positioning shows the aggressive posture of the Indian Air Force. When deployed at those bases, the aircraft are the finest in the Indian military, both in terms of their quality and serviceability. When it comes to the up-gradation of the base’s facilities, this is the top priority list that is visible to everyone. In May 2021, the bases in Pakistan got priority.
The bases are positioned in such a strategy to cover every city in Pakistan, as it has no strategic depth. Pakistan’s major cities, like Karachi, Lahore, Multan, Faisalabad, Hyderabad, Bahawalpur, Rahim Yar Khan, Sialkot, and even the capital, Islamabad, are within the Indian Air Force’s reach. The same goes for the areas in Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan.
Future Threat Scenario
Now the question arises what will happen in the future in light of past historical data? The answer to this is both simple and complex. It is simple in the context that the IAF will target Pakistan with its pre-defined strategy of naked aggression against peaceful neighbors, while the Indian Army is following a pro-active offense posture; the complex part is where, when, and how.
The IAF will utilize the war scenario created by the Indian government and Indian media after a staged terrorist attack on a civilian or military target, for which they will put full blame on the Pakistani state and security apparatus. They will try to raise the temperature to the point where the Indian civil establishment shows the world community that now enough is enough and our people are demanding a counter-strike. At that time, the Indian establishment will use its media to put blame on Pakistan and create a war-like scenario while raising tensions.
In light of that, the IAF, under the orders of the Indian government, along with the Indian army, will start attacking the Pakistani bases in the early moments of the war because if the IAF does not target PAF bases, then there will be grave consequences for the Indian army, and the Pakistani army also has additional fire support bases. The above-mentioned rationale will be the main cause of the IAF attacking the PAF infrastructure, thus undermining the national security of Pakistan. The Indian army, with the IAF, will aspire to rapid, shallow penetration of Pakistani territory, without crossing the nuclear threshold of Pakistan. The Indian military will go for a quick and short battle that will surprise Pakistan because that is the only possible strategy in their minds when talking about limited war scenarios or showing off war.
The IAF is a major threat to the national security of Pakistan in the wake of its alignment with the Indian military’s CSD. The operational exercises conducted in the past and the recent strikes at Balakot exhibit the growing role of the IAF in the Indian military offensive strategy against Pakistan. Vast parts of Pakistan are within the combat radius of the IAF’s operational fighters because of Pakistan’s lack of strategic depth.
The IAF will try to use this as an advantage to support the pro-active and offensive strategy of the Indian Armed Forces to harm Pakistan, as that would be their prime objective because of their hegemonic designs. In order to protect itself from India’s flagrant military aggression, Pakistan should take some protective measures.
In the wake of the growing IAF threat, the PAF and Pakistani government should take the following measures on an urgent basis:
- Build some new airstrips along the border with India, to balance the threat by not allowing an IAF advantage in any sector. Moreover, the building of airstrips requires less money; thus this step will not put a strain on Pakistan’s economy;
- Buy more advanced surveillance radars to detect early IAF movement.
- Purchase advanced surface-to-air missiles to create a defensive barrier;
- Go for indigenizing the modern, state-of-the-art 5th generation fighter aircraft, as buying from foreign suppliers is very expensive.
- Ask the international community to put pressure on both sides to sign confidence-building measures that will lead to peace and stability.
The audacious AUKUS submarine deal and Asia’s changing security landscape
In this exhaustive analysis, I try to spell out the impact and potential consequences of the recently-brokered submarine deal between the U.S., the U.K., and Australia on Asia’s changing security landscape.
All advanced navies of the world possess lethal submarines, powered by either diesel-electric or nuclear propulsion. These underwater warships are the most potent asset at the disposal of a naval force for maritime power projection, sea denial and sea control. Lying silently under water, they are capable of sinking surface ships, including large aircraft carriers, with torpedoes or ballistic missiles. Ever since WW-II, submarines have made its name as one of the most crucial components of maritime strategy and naval warfare. Australia and the U.K. are two key maritime nations of the world, which happen to be security allies of the United States, a country that owns and operates the largest fleet of nuclear-powered submarines in the world. Being nuclear-powered not necessarily mean being armed with nuclear warheads.
The 2021-formed AUKUS (Australia, U.S., U.K.) “enhanced trilateral security partnership” has taken cooperation between the three Anglophone countries to the next level. U.S. President Joe Biden hosted the prime ministers of the United Kingdom and Australia – PM Rishi Sunak and PM Anthony Albanese – in the Californian port city of San Diego on 13 March 2023, where they jointly announced a detailed four-phased plan to equip Australia (a non-nuclear-weapon state) with “conventionally armed, nuclear-powered” submarines (codenamed SSN) at least by the next decade along with strengthening cooperation in other areas such as critical and emerging technologies.
The plan would cost Canberra’s exchequer up to a whopping A$ 368 bn. (US$ 245 bn.) in total by 2055, according to reports. The detailed plan, spanning a time frame of three decades, was announced after an eighteen-month-long consultation period following the creation of AUKUS in mid-September 2021. Australian PM Anthony Albanese called the deal “the single biggest leap” in Australia’s defence capabilities in the nation’s history. If the plan goes ahead smoothly as planned, Australia will become the seventh country in the world to add nuclear-powered submarines to its navy. As the deal turns out to be a race against time, the biggest challenge is to ensure deterrence capabilities for Australia at the present, as the full benefits of the deal would take years to materialise.
AUKUS leaders believe that the deal would “strengthen deterrence and bolster stability in the Indo-Pacific and beyond for decades to come”, apparently keeping in mind the exponential growth of China’s naval power in the recent past. China has built 12 nuclear-powered submarines in the last two decades, including ballistic missile submarines (codenamed SSBNs) and is continuing its ambitious ship-building spree in all fronts. As per the AUKUS plan, the first phase of the deal is set to begin as early as this year, with U.S. and British SSNs increasing their port visits in Australia along with joint embedded training of naval personnel, which will be followed by a rotational deployment of U.S. and British SSNs in the island continent.
In the remaining two phases of the deal, Washington will deliver a flotilla of three to five advanced Virginia-class nuclear-powered submarines to Australia by the early 2030s, upon Congressional approval, and eventually a new “SSN-AUKUS class” of nuclear-powered submarines (SSN) will be developed in the decade that follows, for future commissioning in both British and Australian navies. With the use of nuclear energy involved, the Indo-Pacific region is abuzz with fears and concerns of an escalating arms race, even though AUKUS promises “the highest nuclear non-proliferation standard”.
Current owners of nuclear-powered submarines
As of now, only the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (U.S., Russia, China, U.K., France) and India have active nuclear-powered attack-capable submarines in their naval fleet (see the image below). More than half of the 130 active nuclear-powered submarines in the world are operated by the U.S. Navy (67), followed by Russia (31), China (12), U.K. (10), France (9) and India (1). The rise of China’s offensive military capabilities and its naval power in particular, since the 1990s, is the single largest factor that has convinced Canberra to join hands with Washington and London to bolster its own capabilities, through AUKUS, by making use of “next-generation” British hull design and “cutting-edge” American technology.
Countries with active nuclear powered submarines (via Statista)
The AUKUS deal smartly gets away with a loophole in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1968, which allows for the transfer of fissionable material and nuclear technology from a nuclear-weapon state (NWS) to a non-NWS if it is used for non-explosive military use like naval propulsion. Such a transfer is also exempted from inspections and monitoring by the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), an organisation that stands for the peaceful use of nuclear energy and the promotion of nuclear safety. The IAEA Director General said that he had received “separate communications” on the matter from the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Australia, as well as from the U.K. and the U.S.
Of all the countries that have reacted to the highly ambitious AUKUS project, the responses of China and Russia stands out, as they are in direct strategic competition with the de facto leader of AUKUS – the United States. While the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson remarked that the U.S. and its AUKUS allies are “walking further and further down the path of error and danger for their own geopolitical self-interest”, Russian foreign minister commented, “the Anglo-Saxon world, with the creation of structures like AUKUS and with the advancement of NATO military infrastructures into Asia, is making a serious bet on many years of confrontation in Asia”.
While Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong cities Canberra’s bid for “strategic equilibrium” in the region as the underlying factor that led to the AUKUS pact, opinions on the submarine deal, which comes at a humongous cost, are not uniform across Australia’s political spectrum. Former Prime Minister Paul Keating thinks Canberra is compromising on a proper national defence strategy to help maintain U.S. “strategic hegemony” in Asia and has also stated that the submarine deal would be ineffective in the event of a war. Indonesia, Malaysia and New Zealand have also shared their concerns about the risk of nuclear proliferation in the region.
As per the Bangkok Treaty of 1995, Southeast Asia is a nuclear-weapon-free zone (NWFZ). Moreover, almost all of the ASEAN member-states have deep economic linkages with China, even though they rely on the U.S. for “security and stability” in Asia. Even though some of them have disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea, like the Philippines and Vietnam, they prefer to avoid unnecessary “provocations” and try to balance their ties with the U.S. and China, amid intensifying regional rivalry between the two big powers. Australian defence and foreign ministries are expected to embark on a diplomatic charm offensive to assuage all concerns of Southeast Asian countries lying in China’s periphery.
Eyeing for balance of power
AUKUS was announced just one year after a Pentagon report claimed that China has built the world’s largest naval fleet in sheer numerical terms, even though the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) relies mostly on smaller classes of ships, while the U.S. naval strength is further multiplied by its allied navies. One of the most-overlooked events of March 2023 was the annual session of China’s ceremonial national legislature, the National People’s Congress (NPC), which handed over China’s Presidency to the hyper-nationalistic and revanchist leader Xi Jinping for an unprecedented third time in a row.
The newly-appointed Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang, formerly China’s Ambassador to the United States, held a press conference on the sidelines of the NPC, during which he made a significant remark that throws light on the deteriorating state of U.S.-China relations. He accused the U.S. of harbouring a “Cold War mentality” and said, “… the United States claims that it seeks to out-compete China but does not seek conflict. Yet in reality, it’s so-called competition means to contain and suppress China in all respects and get the two countries locked in a zero-sum game … If the United States does not hit the brake but continues to speed down the wrong path, no amount of guardrails can prevent derailing, and there will surely be conflict and confrontation … Containment and suppression will not make America great, and it will not stop the rejuvenation of China …”
Washington’s shooting of a suspected Chinese “spy balloon” that flew over American airspace earlier this year is the latest example of this downward spiral in U.S.-China ties. The Indo-Pacific, as a geostrategic concept and a broader maritime region, came into being as China began to flex its military muscles throughout its immediate and extended neighbourhood, where U.S. and its allies have a robust military presence.
Being part of the U.S.-led alliance system, including the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing network and the recent AUKUS pact, Canberra has become a lynchpin of Washington’s evolving Indo-Pacific strategy to counter growing Chinese assertiveness and stated offensive intentions vis-à-vis Taiwan, the South and East China Seas, and also the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with India. Australia is also due to the host the third in-person Quad leaders’ summit later this year.
As the “threat perception” of China in the West continues to rise day by day, the extent to which an AUKUS-centered deterrence is possible in Asia remains to be seen in the years to come.
Anti-Satellite Weapons: Risks and Regulations
Today, outer space is characterised as an increasingly congested, contested, and competitive domain. This is because of an unprecedented increase in satellites and actors operating them. 13 countries now possess the capability to launch satellites compared to only two in the late 50s. In 1959, there were only two man-made objects in outer space but as of 30th April, 2022, Union of Concerned Scientists’ database included 5,465 active satellites. The number stood at 3,372 on 31 December 2020 – indicating an increase of 62%.
The growing dependence over space-based assets for day-to-day activities, like communication, navigation, and weather forecasts etc. indicates that the numbers are likely to grow exponentially. The environment that these satellites face is not benign by any standard. The biggest threat emerges in the form of space debris which are any human-made objects in orbit around the Earth that no longer serve any useful purpose. 60 years of human activities in outer space have generated over 29,000 human-made objects of larger than 10cm, while even a 1cm object can collide with a satellite to cause damage comparable to a hand grenade. While some of the debris generation is inevitable, Destructive Anti Satellite Weapons (DA-ASATs) testing has been a leading source of debris creation – something that can be prevented.
DA-ASATs, part of the counterspace capabilities which help a state in establishing space superiority while denying the same to its adversary, are essentially missiles which either directly hit a satellite in outer space or destroy it through proximity detonations. Use of this capability generates debris in outer space and threatens sustainable utilisation of outer space for peaceful endeavours. Other non-kinetic counterspace capabilities include physical non-kinetic capabilities like lasers and High Power Microwaves (HPMs) that damage on board circuitry of satellites, electronic counterspace capabilities which affect the satellites’ communications channels and cyber capabilities which target the data.
In November 2022, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) passed a non-binding resolution banning testing of DA-ASATs. The resolution was supported by an overwhelming majority of 154 states. The resolution was tabled by the United States (US) that had already announced a unilateral moratorium on such testing in April of that year. While the earliest demonstrations of such a capability date back to early Cold War, only four states have demonstrated this capability so far – the US, Russia, China, and India. While Russia and China voted against the resolution, India abstained from voting but expressed its preference for a legally binding treaty over self-declared moratoriums. Russia and China, on the other hand, objected to the resolution’s shortcomings over development of such a capability and lack of disarmament when it comes to states that already possess this capability. The two have also pointed out how the issue of non-kinetic ASATs was left out.
While the effort to mitigate debris-generation through banning the testing of DA-ASATs is praiseworthy, leaving out the continued possession, production, and development of DA-ASATs and more advanced non-kinetic capabilities is worrisome. In a way, the emerging trend of unilateral moratoriums and UNGA resolution is akin to establishing DA-ASAT ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ as was the case of nuclear non-proliferation regime. A taboo on testing of these technologies is likely to emerge, making it difficult for other states to enter this club. Such an outcome would be desirable if the intent was to avoid an arms race in outer space and move towards disarmament of existing capabilities. However, that does not seem to be the case.
France, for instance, joined the US in announcing a moratorium on testing of DA-ASATs – in a way surrendering its option to demonstrate this capability. However, in 2019, French Defence Minister had publicised a French plan to develop anti-satellite laser weapons stating that, ‘If our [French] satellites are threatened, we intend to blind those of our adversaries.’ Lasers and other non-kinetic means present a different set of challenges for space security. Possession of such capabilities is difficult to verify, it is difficult to establish attribution once such weapons have been employed, and their non-destructive nature lowers the threshold of use. In case of electronic and counterspace capabilities, the barriers to entry are lower and the risks of proliferation are higher. If other states with significant stakes in outer space emulate the French approach, it is only going to increase the likelihood of warfighting in outer space.
The emerging taboo on non-testing of DA-ASATs is not shared by three of the four states which have demonstrated this capability so far. Notwithstanding the American divergences with Russia and China, there is merit in the position that the latter have taken. The next step, therefore, needs to be disarmament of existing DA-ASAT capabilities and a ban on their development. Alongside, the issue of non-kinetic counterspace capabilities also needs to be addressed. Without a comprehensive approach towards space security and addressing the concerns of all stakeholders, there is no way to ensure that contestation in outer space will not escalate to undesirable levels.
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