According to some international press and media sources, China is investing significant sums of money in some dual-use technologies – i.e. both civilian and military at the same time – which would have powerful innovative effects, both in the commercial and in the defence sectors.
This is the result -i.e. the sequence of investment – of President Xi Jinping’s now old request of 2017for the complete renewal of the People’s Liberation Army by the end of 2035 – a project that implies the one of China’s new global military relevance within 2045.
With a view to following Xi Jinping’s policy line, China has recently increased military spending by 7.5% and funding for “dual” research by as much as 13.4%.
According to the US intelligence, the sectors recording the largest investments would be those of Artificial Intelligence, the enhancement of the e-computation tools and their technical substrates and finally quantum technologies and hypersonic weapons.
There are also research projects on new materials and alternative energies.
With specific reference to military Artificial Intelligence, China is currently studying the new techniques for the Recognition and Selection of Targets, as well as the deployment of mines and, in particular, the automated land and sea attacks.
For all major States, contemporary war is labour saving and soldier saving, as it happens with the same advanced technologies when they are used in a civilian context.
Fully automated vehicles, drones and submarines, equipped with a semi-autonomous analysis of the area of operations, so as to relieve the Chief of Staff from simply tactical issues – which are often not completely matched with updated data -and to concentrate instead on strategic equilibria.
With the arrival of new hybrid operations for everybody, the Chinese battlespace with simultaneous and multiple dimensions will have a dimension and a series of cascade effects that will make necessary an AI and quantum computerized analysis at a high level of complexity and simultaneity.
This also applies to the civilian political and strategic decision-making process, which is ever less distinguishable from the military one and, above all, it is a management capable of avoiding those paradoxes of choice that have characterized all contemporary political regimes.
In other words, the incorrect or excessive evaluation of a particular detail, the wrong analysis of timing, as well as the study – this time accurate and correct – of the effects and their specific areas. All man-made errors, often inevitable for the human mind, that AI and quantum computing can avoid.
Whoever has worked on these platforms, even as an international manager, can understand what I mean.
As for the Made in China 2025 project, which aims at freeing China from its ancillary role as economy hosting all the mature industries of the world, China will deal mainly with advanced semiconductors.
As early as September 2014, again upon President Xi Jinping’s recommendation, the China Integrated Circuit Industry Investment Fund was set up. This entails that, if all goes well, China will very soon have semiconductors for IA machines and for advanced systems. For the civilian economy or for military systems, assuming that a difference can be made between them.
In China’s planning, quantum mechanics applications have their origins in the Five-Year Plan which began in 2016.
Since then a megaproject has been in place, which is expected to lead to IA quantum communication and to the operational quantum computer by the end of 2030.
In a brief essay on its corporate blog which, by chance, disappeared shortly after its publication, Google has finally declared it has reached global quantum supremacy, with a new supercomputer capable of solving, in three minutes, a computational problem that the most powerful computer currently available would solve in 10,000 years.
However, what is the point for the geoeconomic and, above all, technological struggle between China and the United States, the two real future competitors for world leadership? In fact, this is the real competition between the two countries.
The competition on quantum and AI technologies is needed to be the strongest in the world in the field of frontier innovation and technology, i.e. of all the devices for coordinating and interconnecting data that will revolutionise, in particular, all future economic, political and administrative processes, including financial ones.
The processes of a new finance, which currently can only be glimpsed on the horizon.
Now it is still the last phase of “hard” and information technology and later there will be the further phase of frontier innovation and technology at biological and biochemical levels.
With innovations that will make the current quantum and IA revolution pale into insignificance, but will be based precisely on these technologies.
As mentioned above, a quantum computer is above all a hardware platform for applying and creating quantum deep learning algorithms, i.e. the algorithms that currently contain mainly Artificial Intelligence techniques.
Hence of complete simulation – just to use the mentality of the military Chiefs of Staff.
The quantum computer initially exploits Richard Feynman’s idea, i.e. the exploitation of the properties of the particle wave or, rather, of the subatomic particle when it presents itself as a wave.
Therefore, the quantum computer can break the limits imposed by Moore’s Law, which provides for the doubling of transistors in circuits every 18 months.
Hence, in the quantum computer, there is no longer an objective and physical limit to the miniaturization of circuits.
Just think of the ability – for those who can develop such technologies – to defend themselves from computer attacks, and to develop complex and verifiable scenarios without social experiments in corpore vili.
An unimaginable theoretical and political revolution.
The only exception to the Sino-American duopoly is Israel, with a consortium of companies and State agencies studying civilian and military AI and quantum security.
Furthermore, in addition to quantum computing, Israel has a specific interest in quantum communication, but also in advanced encryption and in the evolution of high specificity sensors.
Other geopolitical needs, other technological choices.
Nevertheless China, too, is developing quantum radars, hyper-specific sensors, new tactical and strategic AI and quantum imaging, new meteorology and automated navigation techniques.
Once again we can guess China’s interest in dual-use quantum technologies, especially in view of China’s already announced economic shift towards Blue Economy and environmental protection.
China has already launched Mucius, a quantum satellite put into orbit by a “Long March” missile in August 2016 – a satellite that allowed a quantum phone call between the space and three Chinese ground stations.
As early as 2012, again upon President Xi Jinping’s order, the Quantum Experiments of Space Scale (QUESS) was funded.
In China the QKD quantum cryptography is already a reality and is physically inviolable.
Financial analysts maintain that the next market for quantum computing – which will not have, if not in an unspecified future, a very large retail market as happened for laptops – will be worth as much as the current market for “classic” supercomputers, namely 50 billion US dollars while, as early as this year, the market for the traditional products of advanced but not quantum commercial computing will be worth 1.2 trillion US dollars.
The first quantum computer suitable for the public will probably appear in 2030 but, in the early twenties of the third millennium, the market for computing machines with a first level quantum technology will be worth over 500 million a year.
Nowadays we have to do with government quantum computers of 19 or 20 qubits.
Someone even announced quantum computers of 50, 72 and 128 qubits, but there is no evidence of that.
It should be recalled that, unlike the traditional bit, the qubit can be worth both “one” and “zero”. It is a mathematical vector that, in theory, can take up all the information available in the world.
Nevertheless, on a strictly military level, quantum computing is currently essential for developing and reaching global hegemony.
The aforementioned Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) is capable of making all strategic communications safe, while the quantum cryptoanalysis and the creation of “covert” languages is an intrinsically offensive practice.
There will no longer be agents capable of opening a safe when an Ambassador is absent – just the launch of a quantum frequency from an AI computer will be enough.
In the future, the war will be totally offensive in all its phases and it will serve to defeat, destroy and integrate – into its value chain – dangerous technologies and the most important data of the enemy.
Probably the population will not even realize it, as happened at the beginning of the October Revolution when – as Curzio Malaparte told us – the Bolsheviks conquered the basics of power (energy, light, phones, etc.) while the people, unaware, were dining out or went to the movies.
In principle, the QKD works by sending photons superimposed on the normal encryption.
According to Heisenberg’s principle, whereby we cannot determine all subatomic quantities simultaneously, the QKD photon states are indeterminate until they have been isolated and measured.
Again with the QKD, this enables us – inter alia – to understand whether the message has been intercepted and by whom.
As stated in the State Council Document of July 2017, for China Artificial Intelligence is the new primary goal of international competition and “the new engine of economic development”.
Moreover, AI offers “new opportunities for social construction” to China.
For the civilian sector, IA and quantum supercomputers will be useful for social planning, especially in a phase of economic maturity and of necessary accurate distribution of resources and potentials. In this regard, just think of the pension and health systems.
In a key sector for future development, namely the military one, China is thinking about the use of AI and quantum computing to fully automate the battlefield, but above all to combine it with the accurate calculation of resources, with their protection from cyberattacks and with the integration between civilian economy and military operations.
Therefore, AI and quantum computing are mainly used “to integrate China’s economic, social and national defence”.
In the planned time schedule, China will develop its own quantum and AI strategy in three phases. Firstly, to synchronize the current general technology and the widespread AI application – at world standard level – by the end of 2020.
Secondly, to create a new generation of Artificial Intelligence theory and technology.
This means possible Chinese hegemony in Big Data Intelligence, Cross-Media Intelligence, Group Intelligence, Hybrid Enhanced Intelligence and Autonomous Intelligent Systems.
Cross-media intelligence means content analysis, media monitoring and creation of semantic online search keys.
Group Intelligence means consensus decision-making, halfway between socio-biology, political science and crowdsourcing IT applications.
Hybrid Intelligence is the effective synthesis between man and machine. The Autonomous Intelligent Systems are systems that learn from reality and process it according to enhanced models, deriving from human learning, multiplied by many times.
Hence, again according to the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, it is necessary to develop – at first – a system of Big Data, and later an IT theory of cross-media perception, as well as a theory of hybrid artificial intelligence, with an improvement and refinement of the man-computer symbiosis, but also with new models for the evolution of knowledge and of the hybrid enhanced intelligent learning, i.e. the man-machine one.
Thirdly, to soon develop – for the Chinese leadership – a new heuristic and quantum theory of intelligent computing.
And again, IA Group Intelligence.
Hence Advanced Learning, with the study of statistical learning innovative technologies.
All this is a technological and political model that must be interpreted according to the current doctrines of the Chinese PLA.
For China, the international military and economic forces have strongly accelerated their differentiation, especially between advanced and developing countries.
Strategic competition is on the rise.
However, the Chinese Armed Forces’ policy line – also at technological level – can be summarized as follows: a) to resist and stop – at first and on the borders – any external aggression; b) to reject any “areas of influence” logic, which would close China into a peripheral area; c) to adhere to a military logic of territorial defence and of protection of the primary interests abroad, but always jointly with other States; d) to fully mechanize/automate the Armed Forces in 2020; e) to maintain a state of average efficiency and of very high speed of response; f) to pursue anti-terrorism and the defence of China’s foreign interests; g) to establish a new relationship between politics and the defence system, not based on mere dependence.
In the doctrinal history of the Chinese Armed Forces, everything began – in recent times – with the 2015 document on the “Chinese Military Strategy”.
In particular, enhancement of the role played by the Technical-Scientific Committee of the Central Military Commission, as well as careful protection from the danger of the “technological and strategic surprise effect”, and a radical innovation of the doctrines for the use of the Armed Forces.
This will be the new level of strategic and political thinking of the Chinese Armed Forces.
However, with a view to being crystal clear on the matter, what is a quantum computer?
It is a computing machine using the laws of quantum mechanics to solve problems and make calculations.
The traditional computers are based on the binary digit (bit), i.e. the minimum amount – between 0 and 1 – of binary information needed to discern between two equally probable events.
The quantum computer uses the qubit, an overlapping of quantum states that can be 0 and 1 at the same time and in several layers.
For example, if I look for the word “China” in a text, the traditional computer proceeds at maximum speed, but line by line, to search for that word.
Conversely, the quantum computer has all the pages available at the same time. This is exactly what the aforementioned qubit is from the operational viewpoint.
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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