Strategic Ambiguity in India’s Outer Space Policy – ​​Voices from South Asia


On December 9, the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly backed up a US resolution seeking to ban direct ascent anti-satellite tests (DA-ASAT), following a moratorium endorsed by the UN First Committee on Disarmament and International Security in early November. The moratorium calls for a ban on anti-satellite weapons (ASATs) in the form of medium- or long-range missiles launched from Earth, which can destroy satellites in space. The stated motivation because the resolution is twofold: to prevent an aggressive arms race in outer space and to prevent the creation of debris in Earth’s orbits. Although not legally binding, 155 states voted in favor of the resolution and nine countries voted against, including China and Russia, which lobbied heavily against the resolution. There were only nine abstentions, one of which was India.

As a major player in outer space, India’s abstention from the ASAT missile test moratorium is not as simple as a neutral vote. It is indicative of India’s national strategy in space, an untold policy of strategic ambiguity.

India is one of four countries, apart from the United States, Russia and China, that have conducted DA-ASAT missile tests in the past. By only partially aligning with the US-Artemis bloc, India retains enough legroom to address its own national security concerns and maintain its strategic autonomy in outer space matters.

India’s legislative and organizational environment in outer space

While India’s space program is governed by a series of national laws and international agreements, it does not have an official national space policy that defines its civil and military objectives in outer space. In its diplomatic messages, India has long upheld the position that it seeks to use space technology for the benefit of the Earth and that outer space should be used for peaceful purposes. Notably, unlike the United States, China and Russia, the Indian space program is based on a civilian rather than a military organization, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), which remains the center of space activities. from India.

However, two significant developments have changed the Indian space landscape in recent times. first indian Opened its space industry to private players like Skyroot and Pixxel in 2020. Second, India has begun to recognize the military significance of outer space, successfully conducting its first direct ascent ASAT test in 2019. That year, it also established the Indian Defense Space Agency (DSA), an organization equivalent to the US Space Force, and the Defense Space Research Organization (DSRO), which supports the DSA and develops civilian space technologies for military use .

India’s historical position of strategic autonomy in its foreign policy is also reflected in its space diplomacy on the international stage. India is one of the few countries with a strong space program that has not signed the US Artemis Accords, which are multilateral agreements between the United States and other countries to establish frameworks for civil exploration and use of the Moon, Mars and beyond. Indian however cooperate in a variety of civil and military space activities with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) and through different bilateral instruments, including with the United States, allowing it to maintain its national security priorities in space. Thus, India maintains a ‘partial alignment’ with the block, for which reason it cooperates in selective activities.

Addressing India’s national security concerns

ASAT capabilities and space security have become increasingly important to India due to its asymmetrical capabilities compared to China, both in space and on Earth. India’s strategic focus on space security has been paralleled by increased Chinese investment in technology, such as in “computerized warfare” capabilities. Meanwhile, America’s continued modernization and expansion of its own space capabilities is fueling China’s pursuit of the same. The result is a security ‘trilemma’, involving India in the great power contest taking place in outer space.

India developed its anti-satellite technologies in the defensive in an apparent response to threat perceptions after the Chinese ASAT test in 2007. India successfully demonstrated its DA-ASAT capabilities on March 27, 2019, using a ballistic missile defense interceptor to strike an orbiting microsatellite as a target. prime minister modi reiterated that the test did not violate any international agreements and that India was working to ensure space safety and protect its satellites. exemplified by his name, Mission Shakti‘(‘power’), the test was likely intended to deter aggression from adversaries such as China and to signal that an attack on Indian satellites could result in a quid pro quo response.

For the DA-ASAT to be a persuasive deterrent, India’s commitment to its use must be credible, or at least perceived as credible. By abstaining from voting on the resolution banning DA-ASAT tests, India maintains strategic and political ambiguity on the issue, allowing it to use such tests as a tool in its deterrence arsenal to pursue its national security objectives. India is not alone in recognizing the deterrent capabilities of ASAT weapons. When Vice President Kamala Harris first Announced the US pledge against the DA-ASAT tests, the move drew criticism from congressional Republicans, who expressed concerns that the measure did nothing to deter adversaries and could have the opposite effect.

policy recommendations

Given the value that outer space brings to Earth, from GPS, satellite imagery, and communication to the potential exploration and mining of the moon and other celestial bodies, outer space is and will continue to be a vital asset. military dominance. International efforts to demilitarize outer space have been bogged down for years between the US-Artemis and Russia-China blocs. With the civilian and military space budgets and capabilities of space powers like the US and China dwarfing those of India, a rules-based international order is firmly in India’s interest. Addressing the root of space threat perceptions by building international instruments can reduce the possibility of space warfare. This could help India to maintain its position of using space technology for the benefit of the Earth and preserving dominance for peaceful purposes.

Although the moratorium could prima facie seems to be a step in that direction, it is recently to stop the slippery slope of space weaponization, because it specifically prohibits a test method for only one type of ASAT weapon. DA-ASAT weapons can still be tested in orbit through intentional flybys, and there are many other methods, both kinetic and non-kinetic, to kill or disable enemy satellites. However, while the ban It is not restrict the development and deployment of offensive space capabilities, the moratorium on DA-ASAT weapons will not help prevent the generation of dangerous space debris. Refraining from the moratorium remains consistent with adhering to the principle of not conducting DA-ASAT tests that generate hazardous space debris; this is a norm in which India should participate. The destruction of a satellite inevitably generates a significant amount of debris, which impacts not only foreign satellites but also the actor’s own space objects.

India’s approach of using strategic ambiguity should not be confused with reluctance. Instead of letting his abstention slip into the shadows, he should seize the moment to debate the effectiveness of the ASAT moratorium.

India has some visibility and bargaining power as it is one of only four countries to have tested an ASAT weapon. India’s strategic ambiguity could allow it to leverage its position to bring the outer space powers to the negotiating table to promote transparency and confidence-building measures as a first step instead of direct gun control. This could include focusing on non-military issues such as technology transfer and space traffic management, dual issues such as space debris generation through ASAT tests and commercial megasatellites, and military and non-military satellite registration and attribution of actions in the space. India should commit to creating international space laws to prevent unilateral rule making and also irresponsible behavior in outer space.


Image 1: Night view of the India-Pakistan border across flickr

Image 2: Artist’s concept of the ASAT weapon via NARA

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *