My past post on outer-space arms conflict has been published as a letter in the latest issue of the magazine Pragati. In that post I had commented on a piece by Adityanjee in the previous issue of Pragati that encouraged development of ASAT (Anti-Satellite) capabilities by India. Mr Adityanjee responds to the letter and hence to my post in the same issue of Pragati by saying:
“Nuclear Dreams presents some cogent arguments for early successful negotiations for preventing an arms race in space. This is indeed a laudable goal for all the space-faring nations. However, of the six space-faring nations (US, Russia, China, Japan, European space agency and India) currently, three nations (the US, Russia and China) already have demonstrated ASAT capabilities. In reality the race has already started. Nuclear Dream’s arguments do not consider India’s strategic interests. States negotiate international treaties not from an altruistic point of view but to further their interests. In fact, Nuclear Dreams contradicts himself when he justifies a space weapons ban so as to permanently freeze US superiority in space-warfare capabilities. A space weapons ban might arguably be in US interests—and analysts such as Ashley Tellis argue that it is not—but India should avoid being cast out of the league of ‘legitimate’ space powers”
Since I am a little short on time this week, let me respond briefly to some of Mr Adityanjee’s objections. I will try to pen a detailed response later.
Mr Adityanjee says that I contradict myself when I justify a space weapons ban so as to permanently freeze US superiority in space. I don’t think I do. First of all, the US has had superiority in space technology and assets for a very long time now. And even if a ban freezes US space superiority, so what? The question is whether that superiority will endanger India’s strategic interests, something which Mr Adityanjee thinks I am not considering. For answering these questions, we have to also look at US interests. This is related to Ashley Tellis’s article cited by Mr Adityanjee on how the ASAT ban proposed by China and Russia may not protect US interests as it only applies to space-based ASAT weapons.
What is Tellis’s rationale for this opinion? As I understand it, he says that because the ban will not cover land or sea-launched ASAT weaponry, it would not be in the best interests of the US since it will leave the way open for other nations to develop such weaponry. But there is a second explanation which I don’t find improbable; the US opposes the space-weapons ban because it wants to leave open the possibility of developing space weapons itself in the future. This is not inconceivable, given the long history of US attempts to try to design and implement space-based weapons; Reagan’s Star Wars being the most famous example of this. In fact it’s instructive to remember that Star Wars was supposed to defend against ballistic missiles, an idea that the US is clearly still wedded to, given its recent developments in missile defense. The Bush administration might be as or more concerned about not being able to develop space-based ASAT weapons in the future as it is about other countries developing land-based ASAT weapons. Simply put, the ban is really not against US interests, but against those of the Bush administration. While the distinction is unfortunately inconsequential right now, there is a fair chance that the next President might find it compelling. As Mr Adityanjee rightly says, it is a truism that every country thinks about its own strategic interests. In reality, the US opposing the ban is actually contrary to its strategic interests. This is because any space-weapons or ASAT race might harm the US more than it harms other countries, since the US has the most number and the costliest of assets in space. Plus, space-based weapons have already shown to provide little if any defense against ballistic missiles. On the other hand, ASAT capabilities in space would be a good disguise for other countries to develop more ICBMs in the first place. In consequence, as was paradoxically the case in the early days of the Cold War (an opportunity the US lost), the US superiority in space weaponry and its strategic space interests would be best maintained by convincing other nations that this space capability would never be used. India does not need to fear a superiority that would not be functional.
Thus in my opinion, the US opposition to the ban while not entirely unwarranted, is more a product of traditional Bush administration policies than of cogent thinking about US strategic interests. Sadly, this is a further example of the administration’s misguided policies which are supposed to protect US national security, but which possibly might harm it in the long-term; recall that the administration has already withdrawn from the ABM treaty which actually makes its inertia to space-weapons bans more understandable.
Coming back to India’s strategic interests, I think it is fair to say that a country’s strategic interests should be a subset of its long-term and large-scale national security interests. These national security interests involve many peacetime activities which strengthen a country’s resources and manpower. Given the above situation, India’s strategic interests would be to do its best to prevent a space-weapons race, for basically the same reasons as it would be in US interests to do this. India more than many other nations has both the need and fortunately the capability to put satellites in space for vital purposes such as precipitation measurement and surveillance. Certainly the second objective and I dare say the first one is important for India’s long-term national security. In fact, of one thing we can be sure; any ambitious country- and ASAT-capable China and Russia would count in the forefront- would greatly value the benefits accrued from harnessing the power of satellites in space. It is in no developing country’s interests to render space hostile for its satellites. But if India aggressively pushes ASAT development, it may put off China and Russia from trying to advocate bans on such developments. The result most probably will be a space arms race with both space-based weapons and land-based weapons, clearly jeopardizing India’s further progress and interests.
The question naturally asked in this context is; shouldn’t India build up insurance against a possible shoot-down of an Indian satellite by the US or China or Russia. This is what I call the problem with planning for worst-case scenarios. Let me digress a bit. One worst-case scenario for India would be for Pakistan to carpet the country with nuclear weapons. What would be the best planning to forestall such a scenario? Defense would not do, because no amount of defense would be sufficient against a full-scale nuclear attack. In such a case, the logical conclusion is that only a full-scale preemptive nuclear attack on Pakistan would be the correct response by India to prevent a worst-case scenario. The horror of this situation reveals the absurdity of always thinking in terms of worst-case scenarios. A Churchillian admonition comes to mind- “It is not enough to do our best. Sometimes we must do what’s required”. The questions to ask are; under what realistic circumstances would the US (highly improbable) or China (conceivable but still improbable) shoot down an Indian satellite? How many satellites would need to be shot down? And perhaps the most important question is; is an ASAT capability the only way in which India could counter such an improbable transgression? India already has adequate military resources to threaten China if it wants to. But more importantly in this age of globalization, we again come to the question asked earlier; will it be in China’s interests to do something as eminently stupid as that, when its future depends on the preservation of a delicate strategic and economic balance in Asia and around the world?
Having said all of the above, let me note that I did not say that India should not spend resources on ASAT capabilities at all. But as in any other decision, it has to consider the balance of arguments which inevitably include complex and multi-factorial issues. What I am saying is that for India’s own future strategic interests as well as those of others, it still makes the most sense to try to push for a ban. While India can pursue rudimentary ASAT development on the side, its primary attitude should be conciliatory and advocate an anti-ASAT treaty. In this, it must take the lead and try to include China and Russia on its side. As Adityanjee notes, countries don’t negotiate bans for altruistic purposes. And neither will India.