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Pining for PAROS or Parity?


The Greek island of PAROS, situated in the center of the Cyclades islands, is the very picture of traveler’s paradise with its famous Parian wine, Parian marble, good nightlife and wonderful beaches. PAROS has also been in the news recently for the power-games being played by the big three in last few years. PAROS is a yet to be negotiated and signed multi-lateral treaty for Prevention of Arms Race in Outer Space under discussions within the United Nations since 1982. The US has consistently rejected signing of proposed PAROS treaty on the basis of flimsy arguments that an arms race in outer space does not yet exist, and therefore, it is unnecessary to take action on the issue. The US questions the verifiability of such a treaty. The Conference on Disarmament in Geneva is now discussing ways to prevent weaponization of the outer space. We are witnessing the beginning of a new arms race in the outer space in the third millennium with China and the US firing the initial salvos!

US Abrogation of ABM Treaty as a Catalyst:

In 2001 President Bush unilaterally pulled out of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The ABM treaty signed bilaterally during the Cold War by the United States and the now-defunct Soviet Union specifically forbade testing and deployment of a ballistic missile defense system. US argued that ABM treaty prevented it from developing capacity to protect it from terrorist or rogue state missile attacks. The urgency to pull out was questioned because missile defense system could have been tested without breaching the ABM treaty. Concern was expressed that withdrawal from the ABM treaty would rupture relations with space powers and raised serious possibilities of future arms races. Putin characterized Bush’s decision to abandon the ABM treaty as a “mistake”. He wanted to create a new framework of strategic relationship quickly hoping for transparency and predictability on offensive and defensive nuclear weapons. Responding to Bush’s plan to reduce the U.S. nuclear weapons, Putin proposed deep reductions to level of 1500 to 2200 warheads. Despite US assurances, the Chinese were concerned that the U.S. national missile defense plan could be used to block their missiles, thereby upsetting the nuclear balance of power especially since Chinese nuclear arsenal was much smaller in number. Jiang Zemin remained opposed to the U.S. missile defense program and the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM treaty. Strategic experts predicted that the China would add more nuclear weapons to its stockpile. That single decision by the US had downstream consequences and catalyzed a new race for weaponization of the outer space. This new arms race in outer space started with the Chinese testing anti-satellite kinetic-killer vehicle last year and the US in response sending a message to China by shooting their spy satellite. Putin has acknowledged the threat from the US BMD activities and has threatened that Russian nuclear tipped missiles will start pointing at Ukraine, Poland and the Czech Republic.

India’s Forays in Commercial Uses of Outer Space:

Currently, six countries (India, USA, Russia, Japan, European space agency and China) have space programs with commercial and economic applications. The commercial satellite use for communications, telephony, remote sensing, navigation, direct satellite television, internet access, and radio & wireless services is growing faster. India has recently joined the club of nations that currently monopolize the commercial satellite launching business. India launched an Israeli reconnaissance satellite recently and will play an increasingly important commercial role in satellite launch business through Antrix Corporation. The commercial growth of satellite launch business will continue with increasing demands for launch services from the developing countries. As the cost of her launch services is substantially cheaper, India will pocket a significant market share in near future against stiff resistance from the three space superpowers.

Dangers of Weaponization of Outer Space:

All advanced nations have spy satellites as part of their military program. Nations rely heavily on satellites for command and control, communication, monitoring, early warning, and navigation purposes. Actors involved in this new race for space weaponization refuse to acknowledge it. The US ballistic missile defense system includes dual-use characteristics with capabilities to destroy ballistic missiles and satellites. The new arms race will alter the existing strategic balance, undermine international and national security, and disrupt existing arms control agreements. The consequences of new space weapon race are five-fold:

  1. Russian Response: The deployment of US ballistic missile defense interceptor sites in Poland and Czech Republic has lead to withdrawal of Russia from the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty. Russia threatened by an enlarged NATO will continue to push for its conventional advantage in Europe. Putin has threatened an increase in number of tactical and strategic nuclear warheads and including pointing these to targets in those two East European countries along with Ukraine. It is likely that Russia will pursue its own version of BMD under the current geopolitical situation.

  2. Chinese Response: China has responded by its anti-satellite test in 2007. China will continue to build more warheads and ICBMs to maintain its nuclear deterrence vis-à-vis the US since it continues to have problems with US on Taiwan. China remains afraid of the enormous capabilities gap with the US. The US is far ahead of China in the arena of anti-satellite testing. Since the US is still not ready to negotiate any treaty banning weaponization of space, the Chinese ASAT test was a pressure tactic by China to force the US to come to the negotiation table.

  3. US Response: The US became so alarmed by the Chinese anti-satellite test that it conducted simulated test attacks against its own satellites to determine the severity of this threat. While rejecting any treaty obligations, the US has already sent an overt political message to China with its shooting down of its failed spy satellite. Furthermore, the US is going ahead with its proposed BMD sites in the Eastern Europe.

  4. Pollution of Outer Space: Space debris resulting from anti-satellite test poses a considerable hazard to commercial spacecrafts. Owing to absence of gravitational force in the outer space, fragments remain orbiting. Space junk can cause serious damage to satellites that are already orbiting in space or are launched in the future. The Chinese test created nearly 800 debris fragments of size 10 centimeters or larger, nearly 40,000 debris fragments of a size between one and 10 centimeters and perhaps two million fragments of a size of one millimeter or larger in the space. Large pieces of space debris are expected to orbit the earth for years preventing other spacecraft from using same or similar orbits. The US shooting down of its own satellite would do the same but at a much lower orbit. Russians also contributed to space debris during Russian anti-satellite test in 1980s. There are no worthwhile international efforts to handle the existing problem of space debris.

  5. Future Consequences: It is likely that countries like Japan, Iran, North Korea and Pakistan may build their own anti-satellite kinetic kill capabilities. Although no country has so far shot down another country’s satellites, in asymmetric warfare this can not be excluded. Destruction of a large number of satellites during the course of a future space-based war would pollute the outer space and make it completely inhabitable for existing and future commercial satellites.

China’s ASAT Test:

In January 2007, China tested an anti-satellite weapon against one of its own ageing weather satellite orbiting at 500 miles (850km) above the earth. The anti-satellite weapon was a non-explosive “kinetic kill vehicle,” which destroyed its target by colliding with it. This was the fourth Chinese test in the series, previous three had failed. There was a total silence from the Chinese political leadership initially. China, subsequently, cleverly implied a communication gap between the PLA leadership and the Chinese government. It is impossible for the PLA leadership to conduct an ASAT test without the Chinese government being aware of it because Chinese Communist Party’s doctrine is “the (communist) party controls the gun”. China has been focused on space warfare activities since the first gulf war. The US demonstrated an asymmetrical advantage against its opponents in satellite technology in Gulf War I, the Afghan war and Gulf War II. China has also developed navigation satellite jammers that are equipped to disrupt GPS. In recent years, the Chinese secretly fired powerful laser weapons to disable US spy satellites by “blinding” their sensitive surveillance devices and preventing spy photography when they pass over China. The US did not condemn this hostile Chinese action publicly. Perhaps, the US was afraid of “losing China” in its diplomatic offensives against North Korea and Iran. In case of future conflict with Taiwan, China is concerned about the US superiority with US spy satellites keeping vigilance over the Taiwan Straits. China remains apprehensive about massive Japanese investments in military space technology despite recent warming of Sino-Japanese relations. China finally claimed that its test was a defensive and was essentially a technology demonstrator. China considers the ASAT test as ‘deterrence’ against an untrustworthy US. Since China can not match the US in terms of numbers and technology its best policy option is to develop asymmetrical space warfare advantages.

Russia, China and PAROS:

Recently, Russia and China circulated draft of a Treaty on the Prevention of Arms Race in Outer Space at the 65-member UN Disarmament Conference in Geneva in 2008. Russia and China have pushed for years for a PAROS treaty. The draft PAROS treaty aims to fill gaps in existing law, create conditions for further exploration and use of space, and strengthen general security and arms control. A draft treaty on the prevention of placement of weapons in outer space (PPW) was also submitted. Russia insists that it constitutes another multilateral measure in the field of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation and thus would be a real contribution to strengthening the NPT regime. The US refuses the need for arms control agreements in outer space as it considers they are not a viable tool for enhancing the long-term space security interests of the US. The draft treaty on preventing arms race in outer space provides for a ban on placing any arms in space, a ban on the use of force or a threat of force against space objects as well as is called upon to remove the present lapses in the international space law as well as to ensure preservation of space property and strengthening of universal security and control over armaments. The US responded to these proposals saying it opposed any treaty that sought “to prohibit or limit access to or use of space.” The US insists that such a treaty would also be impossible to enforce and verify because “any object orbiting or transiting through space can be a weapon if that object is intentionally placed onto a collision course with another space object.”

US Destruction of Failed Spy Satellite:

The recent US shoot down of a failed 5,000-pound spy satellite (USA-193 or NROL-21) with a missile defense interceptor was aimed ostensibly at preventing toxic fuel from reaching earth. The US destroyed the spy satellite just before it entered Earth’s atmosphere, about 150 miles (241 km) above the earth with a single missile (SM-3) fired from a Navy AEGIS warship, the USS Lake Erie in the northern Pacific Ocean. The US claimed that the missile strike was meant to prevent the toxic 1000 pound hyrdazine tank from landing in a populated area and scattering debris over several hundred miles. It was first time a missile defense interceptor was used against a satellite since 1985, when the US tested an anti-satellite missile from a jet fighter. The US ensured that this destruction of the damaged U.S. spy satellite did not jeopardize the safety of crew aboard the US space shuttle and international space station.

US Message to China:

When China conducted its first successful test of an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon in Jan 2007, the US perceived it as a new strategic threat. The Pentagon has discussed ways to deter and counter China’s ASAT weapon, which can threaten U.S. military and civilian communications, especially command and control systems involving satellites. U.S. military and national security officials acknowledge the Chinese ASAT test is part of China’s asymmetric warfare capabilities and represents a new strategic weapon that could cripple the U.S. military in a future conflict by giving Beijing the capability to shoot down most low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites. The U.S. just publicly signaled that U.S. missile defenses can be used to counter China’s strategic anti-satellite weapons. The timing of the announcement of the US satellite destruction plan followed the renewed Chinese and Russian attempts at Geneva to bolster an international effort to ban weapons in space.

Russian and Chinese Perceptions of the US Action:

Russian defense ministry commented that US downing of the spy satellite appeared like a veiled weapons test and an “attempt to move the arms race into space”. Furthermore, The Russians speculate that the spy satellite may have nuclear components that US wished to prevent sensitive technology from falling into wrong hands. The international perception is that this was indeed a test despite denials by the US. Questioning the US apparent rationale to avoid contamination from hazardous fuel on board, China has urged the US to fulfill its international obligations and avoid threatening security in space and the security of other countries. The Chinese have demanded the data in a timely and prompt manner from this event/test to study whether original US claim was justified.

Strategic Implications for India:

There are rising tensions between US, Russia and China over the militarization and weaponization of space. With both US and China capable of destroying satellites, the US-China rivalry could have unintended consequences. An irrational China can use its ASAT capability to hit Low Earth Orbit (LEO) Indian satellites. China can also utilize jamming technology and laser technology to jam India’s satellites. The Chinese ASAT capability poses a direct challenge to India’s C4ISR architecture. China can compromise Indian efforts to establish an independent navigational network with MEO and LEO satellites. India also needs to learn from her historical experiences from the NPT and its subsequent extension “in perpetuity”. If India had tested its nuclear device in 1968 instead of 1974, India would have been grandfathered into the NPT as a nuclear weapon state and would have successfully negotiated any strategic challenges. India would not have been boxed into the current situation she is in. China has already acquired the ASAT capability and pursues the doctrine of asymmetric warfare. China will continue to advance her cyber war and space war capabilities to achieve strategic parity with the US. China has ostensibly pledged not to proliferate ASAT technology. Chinese pledges, as experience tells us do not mean a thing! China does have the habit of proliferating advanced weapons technology to its all-weather ally Pakistan to contain India. In all probability, China will proliferate these technologies stealthily to Pakistan. India needs to look at the military uses of space technologies and be prepared with its own ASAT capabilities in case of future need. India should propose her own draft of PAROS and should become an active party to the outer space disarmament agenda. One of the reasons for a proactive stance is that economically India can ill-afford an outer space arms race with China. Furthermore, we need to able to influence the future treaty negotiations as an insider rather than as an outsider. India must factor in the worst case strategic scenario of a hegemonistic China emerging as a “rogue” outer-space superpower backed by its 1.3 trillion $ foreign exchange reserves. The twin possibilities that China either will start proliferating to Pakistan or will overtly or covertly threaten to shoot down Indian satellites should be factored into the decision making process.

Task Ahead for the Next Government of India:

It is imperative at this stage that India formally demonstrates her own ASAT technological capabilities prior to successful negotiations of a multi-lateral PAROS. Owing to the nature of the power games being played, it is unlikely that we will have a successful PAROS treaty signed soon. Meanwhile, the big three actors, namely USA, Russia and China will continue to enhance their capabilities for military weaponization in the outer space without formally acknowledging the intent. It is incumbent upon the future Governments of India to take this issue seriously, for once, in a proactive manner instead of reacting to international demands. There is still time for India to test, demonstrate the technology, acquire the ASAT capability, should the need arise in future and thereby safeguarding our long-term strategic interests. The window of opportunity for India will not last very long in case the US decides after its current test to agree for signing of internationally verifiable PAROS and PPW treaties. Hopefully, PAROS and PPW can preserve the peaceful paradise of the outer space by preventing the power-games being played by the three space superpowers. Before those treaties come into force, India needs to preserve her strategic parity and balance of power with China by developing her own anti-satellite kinetic-kill capability.

(The writer, Dr.Adityanjee, is President, Council for Strategic Affairs, New Delhi. Email:

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