Of all the “official” nuclear powers (Russia, the US, France, the UK, China), the UK arguably displays the most peculiar approach to nuclear deterrence. Here, we will outline the most salient details, assess the prospects, and suggest possible confidence-building measures.
Let us start with the “hardware” before addressing various conceptual features. As of today, the UK’s nuclear deterrence appears highly optimized, resting on the following three pillars:
- Four UK-manufactured Vanguard-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) providing “Continuous At-Sea Deterrence,” that is, permanent at-sea presence of at least one ballistic missile submarine (presumably in the North-East Atlantic) ready to deliver a nuclear strike at any time (while another submarine is being readied for patrol at the base and two more are undergoing maintenance)
- Trident-II submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) “leased” from the US (unused Tridents are stockpiled at the US naval base appropriately named Kings Bay)
- UK-designed nuclear warheads (presumably with certain specific features making them very similar to US-made W76-family warheads) with a payload of about 100 kt (other variants are also possible) most likely “packaged” in reentry bodies similar to the US-made Mk4/Mk4A.
The total number of warheads is steadily declining, with the goal of reducing the amount from 200 currently to only 180 by the mid-2020s. The latest 2015 stage legally enshrined the following figures: not more than operationally available 120 warheads with a maximum of 40 warheads per SSBN on combat patrol.
As regards nuclear payloads for British SSBNs, it is a curious (though not officially confirmed) fact that, while the US creating the low-yield W76-2 warheads prompted rather passionate debates worldwide, the Royal Navy has never caused anyone any particular concern even though it has roughly the same weapons.
Currently, work is underway to develop a new generation of aptly-named Dreadnought-class strategic missile submarines that will replace the Vanguard-class SSBNs in early 2030s and ensure that the UK has a “convincing, independent, and battle-worthy” deterrent until 2060. The new Dreadnoughts will be equipped with 12-SLBM “common missile compartments” (CMC) (three four-tube launchers), while actually carrying eight SLBMs, which is similar to the new Columbia-class American SSBN developed with a significant financial contribution from London. Incidentally, American partners are working with their British allies on developing the nuclear power unit for the Dreadnoughts.
Work has already started on the lead Dreadnought SSBN (2016), on the first follow-up Valiant (2019); the second and third follow-ups will be called, no less aptly, Warspite and King George VI.
An interesting development in recent months is that American officials have announced a programme for developing new W93/Mk7 SLBM warheads (in terms of START treaties, we may say that W refers to warheads, while Mk refers to reentry bodies) and directly mentioned cooperation with the UK. This came as news to the British expert community, especially since the UK’s Ministry of Defence is mandated to notify the Parliament about any plans to develop new nuclear weapons. Giving credit where it is due, a relevant public statement was made very promptly.
Certainly, debates around the term “new” when it comes to nuclear warheads (especially since one would like to believe there are no opportunities or plans for nuclear test explosions) are extremely interesting in and of themselves, and each party may gain nothing. Yet, this situation serves as a vivid illustration of possible “glitches” in coordinating “para-nuclear” communications, even between the closest allies. Currently, though, there are more questions than answers related to W93.
The UK’s SSBNs are based at the Clyde naval base in Scotland. Certainly, despite Brexit, the prospects for an independent (and non-nuclear) Scotland remain rather slim, yet, if London’s worst-case scenario comes true, a new site will have to be found and new infrastructure built in a very short order.
The UK’s nuclear doctrine guarantees unacceptable damage to any aggressor and there is no doubt that the UK has the requisite capabilities. Nuclear weapons can be used independently or as part of NATO’s nuclear forces. Since 1994, it has been assumed that Tridents are de-targeted. Yet, retention of a certain ambiguity regarding, for instance, the first nuclear strike is considered rather useful in order to bolster deterrence.
The order to use nuclear weapons can only be given by the Prime Minister, although experts believe the decision would be collegial. The order would travel from a special room in a bunker beneath Whitehall, down the chain of command to a SSBN and, at each stage, two people would participate in “passing the signal.” The order could, it is believed, be issued from the Prime Minister’s airplane, as well, but it would still travel via the Pindar.
Current Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s coming down with coronavirus once again brought to the fore the issue of delegating responsibility for the “nuclear button.” The Prime Minister may supposedly personally appoint up to three “nuclear deputies” in the government, whose identity is kept secret and who are vested with the authority to commit nuclear forces in a predetermined order. During the Cold War, “nuclear deputies” (two, as a rule) were selected from among the Foreign Secretary, the Defence Secretary, and the Home Secretary. The procedure was suspended after the end of the Cold War but resumed in 2001. Supposedly, while Boris Johnson was in the hospital, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab acted as such a “deputy”, in the same way that he shouldered other duties of the Prime Minister.
A curious feature of the British nuclear forces combat control is the tradition of written letters whereby the Prime Minister describes procedures and lists targets for a nuclear conflict; subsequently, such a “letter” is sealed in an envelope and placed in a safe box onboard each SSBN. When a prime minister leaves office, the letters are destroyed unopened and new letters are delivered (sealed as well). Remarkably, even though the world has been afflicted by a real epidemic of leaked official and sensitive information, the contents of such “envelopes” remain inaccessible to researchers even today. Nonetheless, the possible “options” given to an SSBN’s captain include: “retaliate,” “do not retaliate,” “use your own judgement,” “place the submarine under an allied country’s command.”
The Royal Navy is staffed by flesh-and-blood people, the result being sex and drugs scandals and possible danger to maintaining CASD amid the COVID-2019 pandemic. Confined spaces often without access to outside air are, in general, good breeding grounds for infections, so reasonable concerns have been voiced about breaking CASD for the first time in the 50 years it has been in place. It should be stressed, however, that should this happen, even a sick crew would launch a missile if such a need arose, and a second submarine would be ready to go on combat patrol immediately.
It is not certain whether human error led to the failed submarine test launch of a Trident missile in the summer of 2016 (the British crew reportedly did everything by the book but the American-made missile failed), but the “political dimension” of the situation was very personal. According to media reports, Barack Obama personally asked then Prime Minister David Cameron to keep the details of the incident a secret. Theresa May, who became Prime Minister shortly afterwards, also kept mum. One of the first “victories” of the new cabinet was a successful vote on renewing the British deterrence programme (this ultimately became the above-mentioned Dreadnought). It is hard to say whether things would have gone differently if the information had been made public in a timely manner but, on the whole, the picture is not entirely seemly (even if not entirely new).
The UK’s powerful anti-nuclear movement is another important “human” factor and sometimes a source of remarkable documents. The starkest example is probably a report on the consequences of an SSBN nuclear attack on Moscow. We will not go into every detail of this valuable material but do note that, based on the calculations therein, up to half of Moscow’s population would die. Certainly, Moscow’s missile defence can handle some threats but the hypothetical British attack could involve several submarines. Of course, this is a purely hypothetical scenario, yet it serves best to show the destructive power even such a modest (compared to Russia and the US) nuclear potential has.
The International Dimension
Unlike France, with its emphatic “nuclear independence,” the UK has always maintained a significant “international element” in its nuclear development, primarily through close cooperation with the US. In the late 1970s, for instance, the UK had nearly 400 American warheads, including such exotic ones as artillery shells and nuclear landmines. At the same time, when it comes to arms control, the nuclear stockpiles of the US’ allies have traditionally been discounted.
Russian scholars note that continuously discounting the UK, with its added US-made SLBMs, from Russia-US nuclear arms control treaties is a way of executing Trident launches that do not count towards the treaties’ telemetry exchange limits. The problem may not be particularly relevant with respect to this venerable missile itself. When, however, a new generation of “Anglo-Saxon” SLBMs appears (approximately by the late 2030s), it might already be too late to discuss new approaches. It is, therefore, unacceptable to reduce the problem of multilateral nuclear control to the Russia-US-China triangle.
When it comes to the UK, traditionally proposed transparency measures appear too timid, given the “material” aspect of the UK’s nuclear deterrence architecture, as described above. Still, searching for uniform approaches to the declarative information on deployed and non-deployed nuclear forces, to notifications of test launches, etc. could promote further advances toward multilateral arms control.
The topic of the Russia-UK “para-nuclear” interaction conducted both bilaterally and within the “P5” (which was originally London’s idea) has been researched very thoroughly, and proposed cooperation options deserve the closest attention.
In conclusion, let us note that the British authorities are experts at providing information to the public at large. Certainly, the publicly accessible data are not exhaustive, but any attempt to clarify Russian nuclear deterrence approaches (which are significantly more multi-level and involve qualitatively different elements) in a similar manner would be a useful exercise at the very least.
From our partner RIAC
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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