Are Pakistan’s Nukes Secure?
Since Pakistan acquired the nuclear capability in May 1998 by denoting six nuclear devices in response to India’s five nuclear tests, Western media has been the most ardent critics of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal due to domestic instability in Pakistan. Also, Abdul Qadir Khan’s illicit nuclear proliferation episode has added fuel to the fire because of which Western media and authors started doubting Pakistani scientists and engineers. The two retired Pakistani scientists meeting with Osama Bin Laden in Kandahar is the best evidence provided by the Western authors in this regard. The most controversial discourses by Western scholars often described Pakistan’s nuclear weapon as the ‘Islamic Bomb’ as a threat to Middle East. For instance, Al. J Venters’ Allah’s Bomb: The Islamic Quest for Nuclear Weapons, Steve Weissman and Herbert Krosney’s Pakistan’s Islamic Bomb: Nuclear Threat to Israel and the Middle East, aBBC documentary on the same title was telecasted in 1980, and the biography titled Dr. A. Q. Khan and the Islamic Bomb of Dr. A. Q. Khan, written by Pakistani journalist Zahid Malik.
The impetus to accuse Pakistan’s nuclear weapon as the Islamic bomb to Western media was provided by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s historic speech on the Islamic bomb. Later, Zia ul Haq also claimed that Pakistan would be the first Muslim nuclear state. Israel was the first state which was worried about the Islamic bomb as it was assumed that Pakistan might provide a nuclear security to Muslim states. There is no strong evidence to prove this hypothesis. However, Pakistani Jamaat-e-Islami senator Khurshid Ahmad is in favour of providing extended deterrence to Muslim states.
Another interesting episode in the history of Pakistan’s nuclear development was the threat posed by extremists or terrorists that might seize the nuclear assets in Pakistan. Terrorists attacked the nuclear weapons facilities including a nuclear missile storage facility in Sargodha, a nuclear air base at Kamra, and a Taliban suicide attack on entry point to one of the armament factories at the Wah Cantonment in Pakistan.
Nuclear expert, Shaun Gregory’s study entitled ‘Terrorists Tactics in Pakistan Threaten Nuclear Weapons Safety’ cannot be ignored in this regard. He argued that Pakistan nuclear sites are located near the borders where Taliban and Al-Qaida are dominated. The security personals with access to the nuclear weapons cycle might be willing to collude with terrorists. Also, the terrorists might get hold of fissile material and nukes in Pakistan. Surprisingly, Gregory argued that the ISI exists with strong anti-West sentiments and there is possibility of connection between security forces and Islamists in Pakistan. Additionally, Philip Bobbit’s study Terror and Consent states that Pakistan army might decide to transfer nukes to terrorists.
The western and few Pakistani analysts’ observation on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons safety and security resulted into the debates within Pakistan, the main mission was how to secure the nuclear warheads from terrorists. Also, Seymour Hersh’s puzzling report increased the anxieties to Pakistan. Hersh argued that at least two occasions the US Special Forces have prepared plans to take control of Pakistani nuclear assets in case they fall into the wrong hands. Pakistani military has already in their minds the pre-emptive strike threat to Pakistan’s nuclear facilities from India and Israel, the Hersh’s report has alerted Pakistan about the possible US attack.
Hersh’s report has not seriously taken by Pakistan, however, safety of nukes is now the paramount responsibility of Nuclear Command Authority (NCA)and Strategic Plans Division (SPD)of Pakistan. The new discourses on Pakistan nuclear programme, for instance, Feroz Hussan Khan’s Eating Grass and Naeem Salik’s Learning to Live with the Bomb provided detailed study of Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine, command and control structure. In Hans Born, Bates Gill, and Heiner Hanggi’s edited book Governing the Bomb, Zafar Iqbal Cheema argued that due to the Export Control Act of 2004, there is no possibility of any illegal nuclear exports from Pakistan. Also, with the help of United States, best practices related to protecting fixed installations, convoys transportation, sensitive nuclear materials, material production control &accounting, export and border controls, and personal reliability programme has been shared with Pakistan by the US. The US is confident about the safety of nuclear assets in Pakistan. The former US President Barack Obama to the US military officials have vehemently supported the nuclear control and command structure of Pakistan. Similarly, former British politician David Miliband and French military official Erard Corbin de Mangoux have praised Pakistan’s nuclear control and command structure. Also, some Indian nuclear strategists have openly acknowledged Pakistan’s NCA, SPD, and nuclear control and command system, for instance, Bharat Karnad and M. K. Narayanan.
However, some experts like Scott Sagan is still worried due to operational control of nuclear arsenals in the hands of military in Pakistan.Hassan Abbas’s book Pakistan’s Nuclear Bombclearly displayed that Abdul Qadir Khan’s illicit nuclear episode was supported by politicians and military in Pakistan. Also, Hussain Haqqani in his piece Reimaging Pakistan argued that there is a nexus between the politicians, Islamists and army in Pakistan. The followers of Maududi’s version of Islam (Jamaat-e-Islamia) which talks about the political revolution are within the military, scientists, judiciary, academic, and media in Pakistan. Also, Haqqani argued that although Pakistan possesses nuclear weapons, it is still scared of India.
There is a possibility that that radical Islamist type personals might join the security forces particularly who are trained for security of nuclear installations in Pakistan. Also, there might be sympathisers of Islamists within the nuclear establishments. One employee dealing with nuclear installations was caught for distributing the religious pamphlets among his colleagues in Pakistan. Naeem Salik argues that Pakistan has developed a mechanism to identify an extremist person. However, it is difficult to figure out who is extremist and who is not. The facial expressions can hardly help Pakistani officials dealing with nuclear control and command system to identify an extremist person. The great source of alarm is that there is possibility that the officials dealing with recruiting the persons for security installations might be themselves the followers of extremism. Also, the sympathiser of terrorists can easily join the security forces for nuclear installations in Pakistan.
Undoubtedly, Pakistan managed to satisfy some Western nuclear strategists and politicians regarding the nuke security with the help of its NCA, SPD and control and command structure. Also, Pakistan had actively participated in many nuclear summits (Washington DC in 2010 and Seoul in 2012) to gain experience and knowledge to secure its nuclear assets from falling into wrong hands. Additionally, Pakistan has supported the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism. Interesting, according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s Nuclear Materials Security Index of 2014, Pakistan has won the seat in updating nuclear security regulations, to implement best practices and has overtaken India. However, Scott Sagan, Shaun Gregory, Philip Bobbit, Bruce Riedel, David Sanger, Joby Warrick, and Seymour Hersh are worried about the nuke security in Pakistan.
I am also worried due to the domestic instability and the religious-political-army nexus in Pakistan. The Islamists might prefer religion (violent Jihad) than army security during the crisis situations in Pakistan. For some Muslims, violent Jihad is part of their faith to fight against the enemies of Islam. Since Pakistan military has killed terrorists in Pakistan, in response, terrorists started attacking the military units and schools in Pakistan. Also, Ahmadiyya Muslims were forcibly declared non-Muslims in 1974, since then, the persecuted minority community have been seen as anti-Pakistan and anti-Islam. Ahmadi scientists and engineers who were busy in helping the nuclear development of Pakistan were forcibly removed during the Zia rule on the baseless charge of threat to Pakistan’s security. Astonishingly, Pakistan did not acknowledge the Nobel laureate, Dr. Abdul Salam’s role in nuclear development of Pakistan. Also, Islamists forced Pakistani government to remove the renowned economist, Dr. Atif Mian’s name in the Economic Advisory Council due to his Ahmadiyya faith. The minority community is also struggling to save their lives and property in Pakistan because for some Muslims it is part of Jihad/Islam to kill the blasphemers.
Recently, Pakistan’s supreme court has acquitted Asia Bibi (a Christian) after accepting her 2015 appeal against her sentence. She was arrested on the blasphemy charges. The supreme court’s verdict regarding Asia Bibi has resulted into protests supported by Islamists in Pakistan. The Dawn newspaper reported that ‘the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan called for ‘mutiny’ against the army’s top brass and the assassination of the top court’s justices.’ In response, Director General of Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR), Major General Ghafoor advised the religious-political parties to refrain from dragging army into the matter and legal actions would be taken in case of any violation. Also, prime minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan warned the protestors to refrain from clashing with the state. As expected, the weak Pakistani government was forced to accept the demand of agitators to put Asia Bibi on exit control list. Also, Asia Bibi’s lawyer Saiful Mulook left Pakistan due to threats to his life by Islamists. The killings in Pakistan is not difficult as in other states. Politician Salmaan Taseer was killed in 2011 by his body guard due to Taseer’s personal views on blasphemy laws in Pakistan.
The Islamists are powerful and there is a strong evidence that they enjoy a popular support from the public as well as a minor support from the civil and military officials in Pakistan. Former military official, Feroz Hassan Khan has admitted the power of Islamists and their threat to Pakistan’s nukes. Pakistani government can secure nukes from extremists as long as there is a peace between military and Jihadi organizations. Hussain Haqqani’s book Reimagining Pakistan have narrated about the new Jihad so-called ‘Ghazwa-e-Hind’ (Battle of India) that inspired the Jihadi groups in Pakistan to lunch the terrorist attacks across the border. The Jihadists also want the implementation of Sharia in Pakistan and to retaliate the deaths of famous Jihadists at the hands of Pakistani military. Haqqani states that there is possibility of future tussle between the Jihadists in Pakistan due to different interpretations of the Ghazwa-e-Hind. Thus, not only nukes but Pakistan as a whole is in great danger because some Jihadists have claimed Pakistan as part of the Ghazwa-e-Hind, too. Naeem Salik, however, is not confident about the total breakdown of the state structure as well as the complete meltdown of military in Pakistan that might led to an imminent takeover of power in Pakistan by religious extremists. Also, moderate mainstream religious political parties have never won more than five to seven percent of the votes in any national election.
Nevertheless, the historical experience is a valid evidence that Pakistan might fall into the hands of extremists. The extremist ideology is not confined to religious people only, people involved in media, military, judiciary, bureaucracy, and academics are also influenced by radicalism in Pakistan, Haqqani stated. The former president of Pakistan Zia ul Haq was the follower of Jamaat-e-Islamia. Zia implemented the blasphemy laws that resulted into persecution of minorities in Pakistan. The minority communities especially the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community were isolated in their own country. The Jihad policy was also introduced during Zia’s rule. Thus, this is not a distant dream when extremists might rule Pakistan and hopefully, Islamists would prefer to provide extended nuclear deterrence to Muslim states as senator of Jamaat-e-Islamia Khurshid Ahmad have stated. Khuram Iqbal in his piece The Making of Pakistani Human Bomb argued that suicide bombers (young, rural, and semi-literate) are the deadliest in the world and suicide terrorism is caused by religious fundamentalism. In case terrorists got access of some nukes in future in Pakistan, there is a possibility they might prefer suicide nuke bombings, too.
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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