If one is to believe the countless recent articles about hypersonic weapons, then Russia and China have invented a revolutionary weapon fundamentally challenging U.S. missile defense and the security of the American people. Fittingly, one particular op-ed in the New York Times is actually titled “Hypersonic Missiles are a Game Changer” . The New York Times op-ed, like so many others, reminds us that “no existing defenses can stop such weapons” and that hypersonic velocity is “something no missile can currently achieve, aside from an ICBM during re-entry” . According to another article, America’s missile defense needs to “be like Sparta” because we “are staring at a critical gap in our nation’s missile defense” . Both articles, representative of many others, claim that U.S. missile defense “effectively provided protection from intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) through the most sophisticated multilayered ballistic missile defense capabilities known to man. Now, next-generation foreign threats are creating near term vulnerability, the gap if you will, that challenges our defensive capabilities” .
But are these alarming messages actually true? The short answer is no. Contrary to the notion promulgated in the articles, there is currently no multilayered ballistic missile defense against ICBMs. There are no layers of different systems to engage an incoming ICBM. There is only one limited system: Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD). GMD has currently 44 interceptors available in Fort Greely, Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California to engage incoming ICBMs. The task of the GMD system is only to defend against a limited ICBM threat that could emerge from North Korea and potentially from Iran in the future. GMD was never intended to be used against the vast ICBM arsenals of Russia or China with hundreds of ICBMs and thousands of nuclear warheads. Defending against a massive ICBM attack from either of these countries has always been impossible. Therefore, hypersonic weapons are not a new threat that suddenly give Russia or China the capability to attack North America with nuclear warheads. This capability has existed since the development of ICBMs. Russia and China possess the capacity to attack the United States with ICBMs just as the United States has the ability to attack those countries. However, it is worth noting that neither Russia nor China possess any defense against ICBMs that is comparable to the U.S. GMD system.
It is worrying that the aforementioned op-eds were written by experienced individuals who should know of their inaccuracies. The authors include a former member of the National Security Council and a former Member of Congress who served on the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
On the other side of the discussion, several articles completely contradict the notion of an emerging threat and downplay the dangers and capabilities of the new hypersonic weapons. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), indicative of the broader critical opinion, paint the mainstream view about hypersonic weapons as a “fantastical depiction” . This depiction, according to the UCS, is aimed to support an arms race among the major military powers to develop these weapons and “is part of a long pattern of media hype” . Further, the critics also correctly address that “current U.S. defenses are not designed to defend against Russia and China, the nations currently deploying hypersonic weapons. The United States will therefore remain vulnerable to missile attack regardless of whether or not hypersonic weapons are deployed” .
The UCS (and other like-minded critics) have valid points against much of the sensational and often fundamentally wrong reporting on hypersonic weapons in the media. However, these critics often base their arguments’ assumptions on theory and lack important operational considerations that should be part of the discussion.
The speed of hypersonic weapons is typically the key focus in most discussions of them as a dangerous new weapon system. This is understandable, as their speed is certainly significant and poses a strong technical challenge in designing a system to counter their employment. However, it must be understood that speed is only one consideration for successful intercept. The ability for hypersonic missiles, or glide vehicles, to significantly maneuver and avoid a predictable trajectory is the critical feature that will be the biggest challenge to overcome. Existing air and missile defenses are designed against ballistic missiles, which travel along a predictable trajectory with very limited ability to maneuver. Hypersonic weapons will negate current defense capabilities due to their greater speed and maneuverability relative to ICBMs.
To qualify as a hypersonic weapon, the weapon must be able to travel at least five times the speed of sound. The Russian Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle, the first operational hypersonic weapon, has the ability to achieve speeds between 20 to 27 times the speed of sound, according to the Russian government. In comparison, a traditional ICBM changes speeds throughout its parabolic flight (between boost, exo-atmospheric midcourse, and terminal phases) and achieves speeds averaging 20 times the speed of sound during re-entry into the atmosphere. By this definition, current ICBMs would also technically be hypersonic missiles. Therefore, according to the critics of the hypersonic weapons hype, the speed and flight time of hypersonics, even if they were faster than ballistic missiles, is immaterial. However, that argument is incorrect. Missile flight time makes a significant difference because it directly influences decision space, the time that human operators have to react to an incoming threat, and potential engagement windows, the time defense systems need to successfully counteract a missile threat.
A threat missile may undergo a 15-20-minute flight time until target impact, during which defenders have an approximately five-minute engagement window in which to react. This window varies depending on where the threat originates relative to the interceptor location; therefore, one or two minutes within this cycle is a significant amount of time, representing twenty to forty percent of the total engagement window. If one was only focusing on theoretical concerns, one or two minutes may seem inconsequential. However, from the perspective of military operations, it may be critical. Precise flight timing impacts equipment and software requirements, defense crew processes, and other operational considerations with significant impact on achieving success. The UCS, in their criticism, appear to ignore established missile defense tactics. Air and missile defenders generally attempt multiple shots against an incoming threat to increase the probability of successful intercept. Under such scenarios, every minute counts in order to have as many shot opportunities as possible. This is particularly important when dealing with nuclear warheads with unimaginable consequences if not intercepted.
Critics also tend to address the low flying flight path of hypersonic glide vehicles. In their eyes, taking advantage of the curvature of the earth to fly beneath missile defense radars is overstated. But here too, there is a more than what meets the eye. The UCS state that total reliance on ground-based radar for early warning of missile attacks is a relic of the past for technologically-advanced nations like the United States or Russia . According to them, both nations have operated early warning satellites since the 1970s. It is true that space-based infrared sensors would detect a hypersonic missile launch just as easily as an attack with traditional ballistic missiles due to the infrared emissions. However, what is missing in this assessment is the fact that detection alone will not help in the actual intercept of the threat. Detection alone would only give the opportunity to warn people of incoming strategic missiles that will impact in approximately 20 minutes, which is hardly any time to prepare a metropolitan area for an impact. In order to engage an incoming missile, radars are required, which are more precise than the data obtained from infrared satellites. These satellites do not produce an exact real-time accurate picture. Even if they did, discrimination of the warhead from space would be nearly impossible. Discrimination, the ability for a radar to discern which object is the lethal warhead and needs to be intercepted, is critical for a successful engagement. When an ICBM is launched, a so-called ‘missile event’ could produce a flying cloud or cluster of several hundreds of parts and debris, with one of them being the actual warhead. In addition, there are decoys that are made to look like the lethal warhead to confuse defense systems. Hypersonic weapons could, just like ballistic missiles, be equipped with such decoys. Therefore, ground-based radars are essential for effective missile defense to discriminate and destroy the warhead.
Despite the flaws in their theoretical approach, critics are correct in stating that hypersonic weapons are being inaccurately presented as new and insurmountable urgent threats. Hypersonic glide vehicles, although new, are not strategic game changers that pose a new threat by enabling Russia and China to attack the United States with nuclear warheads. Hypersonic weapons are not a new advantage for China, Russia, or for the United States. The United States does not need hypersonic weapons to attack Russia, China, or any other nation to overwhelm any sort of missile defense system. Contrary to the United States, no other country has even a limited capability to engage ICBMs.
However, to claim that hypersonic weapons are simply ‘hype’ to justify increased military spending, is only telling half the story. Hypersonic weapons do represent a basic capability that is revolutionary in the field of missile defense. Missile defense is currently grounded in math to calculate and predict, based upon a missile’s trajectory, where an incoming missile will be at a certain time in order to engage and destroy that it. With the development of new hypersonic weapons that have the ability to maneuver and therefore don’t follow a predictable trajectory, the very basis of missile defense is called into question. Therefore, it is necessary to research methods and technology to counter this threat because it could potentially make traditional missile defense as we currently know it obsolete.
The question of why the United States appears to lag behind Russia and China regarding hypersonic weapon systems as well as why defense against such systems was not part of earlier U.S. military planning must be addressed as part of the hypersonic discussion.
Russia’s announcement of its first operational hypersonic weapon seems to have been a ‘Sputnik moment’ for the U.S. military. By 1957, the Soviet Union “had acquired the world’s first ICBM, which also placed the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, in space. For the United States, this presented a substantial threat and challenge, amplifying fears about American weakness against a Soviet ICBM attack. This shaped the political support for the creation of an American anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system” . Similar to what we are seeing now with hypersonic weapons, the first American ICBM was declared operational two years after the Soviet Union already had ICBMs. The reason for the American delay during the Cold War was due to a different strategic focus and military leadership that was not adaptive in its approach. With overwhelming air superiority and capable intercontinental bombers, the U.S. Air Force did not take the development of ICBM technology seriously in the 1950s. Within the Air Force, many fighter and bomber pilots, the elite of the hierarchy in the Air Force and the main pool from which decision makers came, were opposed to the notion of American ICBMs, since they saw their traditional roles in danger and could not conceptualize a new form of warfare.
Today’s U.S. military lags behind Russian and Chinese developments in the field of hypersonic weapons and is pressed to find a quick solution for the defense against such weapons because of similar reasons. Completely focused on nearly two decades of counter insurgency warfare, the U.S. military neglected strategic planning, air and missile defense, and the military and technological modernization of Russia and the emergence of China. The U.S. Army, responsible for land-based air and missile defense marginalized its Air Defense Artillery formations. Similar to the Air Force’s pilots, the Army’s top decision-makers tend to come from the infantry or maneuver forces. The notion that the United States would always maintain air superiority because insurgents do not have air forces became ingrained in these decision-makers’ minds. Under this pretext, short-range air defense (SHORAD) was practically abandoned and anti-drone warfare not developed. Now, the U.S. Army is playing catch-up in these very disciplines. While the United States was consumed with fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Russia and China developed their anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities and hypersonic weapons programs.
However, it is also important to understand that the current hypersonic weapons of U.S. adversaries cannot deliver what their operators want the public to believe. A warhead of a traditional ballistic missile only spends a relatively short time exposed to air resistance when it re-enters the atmosphere at high speed in its terminal flight. Hypersonic weapons on the other hand, traveling at hypersonic speed within the atmosphere, experience air friction throughout their entire flight and thus experience much higher levels of heat buildup. This could have dire consequences for the performance of those weapons. It is currently unknown what the effect of this amount of heat will be on hypersonic warheads and if their accuracy is compromised.
An examination of hypersonic weapons must be factual and not driven by political goals or emotion. Obviously, there is hardly any operational knowledge when it comes to this new type of weapon. However, the discourse on missile defense cannot be held solely based on theoretical knowledge and unrealistic assumptions when there are decades of operational knowledge regarding missile defense and its tactics and true capabilities. Are hypersonics a game changer when it comes to the security and defense of the American people from a nuclear attack? Definitely not. The American people have lived in the crosshairs of hundreds of ICBMs equipped with nuclear warheads for decades. The 44 Ground-based interceptors of the GMD system do not stand a chance against the hundreds of ICBMs that Russia and China have, not to mention that these ICBMs are equipped with multiple warheads.
In the future, hypersonic weapons may be a game changer in the field of weapons technology since they require a completely new approach for defense. Of course, research is needed to develop ways to defend against these hypersonic weapons as soon as possible. Despite this, one must remember that current hypersonic weapon capabilities are by far nowhere close to giving their operators a clear military advantage.
 S. Simon, “Hypersonic Missiles Are a Game Changer”, New York Times, Jan. 2, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/02/opinion/hypersonic-missiles.html
 T. Tiahrt, “How to Improve America’s Missile Defense, Be Like Sparta, The National Interest, March 2, 2020. https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/how-improve-americas-missile-defense-be-sparta-128467
 C. Tracy, “Setting the Record Straight on Hypersonic Weapons”, Union of Concerned Scientists, February 03, 2020. https://allthingsnuclear.org/ctracy/setting-the-record-straight-on-hypersonic-weapons
 M. Unbehauen, G. Sloan, A. Squatrito,”The U.S. Missile Defense Shield and Global Security Destabilization: An Inconclusive Link”, International Journal of Business, Human and Social Sciences, Zenodo, May 1, 2019. https://zenodo.org/record/3299365#.Xm6JNI7Yqzz
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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