Anti-Satellite Systems (ASAT) are modified Anti-Ballistic Missiles, the latter which knock out incoming nuclear tipped missiles. After the US withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in June 2002 – apart from several other arms and nuclear control pacts – Russia and China began developing their own ABMs, strategic and tactical missiles, and lastly ASAT systems. Experts say the Indian ASAT is a result of this larger global arms race.
Today’s interconnected world does not prevent ripple effects of military strategic developments in region or country to the other. The Indian ASAT test of March 27, 2019, although backed by strong institutionalized foundations of non-weaponisation of space – as announced by PM Narendra Modi in his subsequent national address following the launch – is no exception.
It is not a standalone development and is a part of a chain reaction in a world that is seeing a return to ‘Great Power Contest’. It is therefore important to trace the genesis of the test to its foreign origins that spur nations to develop these capabilities in retaliation to acquisition of such by their adversaries, threatening another destructive conflict in this age of a ‘second Cold War’.
The origin here was the US withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Defence (ABM) Treaty on December 13, 2001 that triggered a second arms race because of the acceleration it affected in Russian, Chinese and eventually Indian missile programmes. This also isn’t the first time the US has pulled out of treaties meant to prevent arms races and nuclear buildups, touched upon towards the end of this piece.
Impact of the US Withdrawal from the ABM Treaty on Russia, China & India-Pakistan
Realizing the never-ending technological ripostes it would trigger in countries developing advanced delivery systems (missiles) to foil the BMD in an escalatory arms race, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABMT) was signed by the US President Richard Nixon and the leader of the erstwhile Soviet Union, Leonid Brezhnev, at the height of the Cold War on May 26, 1972.
US displeasure with the ABMT had begun showing within a decade itself, when it’s President Ronald Reagan officially announced the highly criticized Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) in a televised address on March 23, 1983. The SDI, that required US scientists to primarily develop directed energy weapons like lasers and plasma beams along with ground-based missile interceptors, shockingly also fancied space-based chemical lasers and missile interceptors housed in orbital modules.
Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy had described it as a “reckless Star Wars scheme.” Then Russian premier Yuri Andropov, after the Reagan address said, “It is time (Washington) stopped thinking up one option after another in search of the best way of unleashing nuclear war in the hope of winning it. To do this is not just irresponsible. It is madness.” The strategic community has long perceived the SDI as a precursor to the withdrawal from the ABMT.
Fast forward to September 11, 2001 when Al-Qaeda brought down the Twin Towers in New York. Interestingly, the “rogue non-state actors” – cited extensively by the President George W. Bush administration to pull out from the ABMT – were American creations themselves, and the military interventions to kill them spiralled the Af-PaK and Middle Eastern regions into utter chaos.
The radical Islamic outfits were funded by the US and trained with Pakistani support in a celebrated and officially acknowledged CIA operation. Driven to give Russia it’s “own Vietnam,” the US directed them against the reluctant Soviet intervention on behalf of the secular government in Afghanistan.
On December 13, 2001, Bush announced his exit from the treaty, six months before the formal departure in June 2002, as per law. “I have concluded that the ABM Treaty hinders our government’s ways to protect from future terrorist or rogue state missile attacks,” Bush had said in a press conference. He had also called the ABMT a “Cold War-era relic” that was “signed in a by the US and the Soviet Union at a much different time, in a vastly different world (where)…One of the signatories, the Soviet Union, no longer exists.”
He again pointed to non-state actors as the singular threat. “As the events of Sept. 11 made all too clear, the greatest threats to both our countries come not from each other…but from terrorists or rogue states who seek weapons of mass destruction. And we must have the freedom to develop effective defenses against those attacks.”
The Russians did not express outright outrage and stopped at cautionary warnings of an ensuing arms race, since President Vladimir Putin was seeking warmers ties with the US then. Reiterating the Russian position that the ABMT was a “cornerstone of world security”, he said the decision to withdraw was an “erroneous one”. The then head of Russia’s armed forces, General Anatoly Kvashnin, said the pullout “will alter the nature of the international strategic balance in freeing the hands of a series of countries to restart an arms buildup.”
The Russian themselves later responded by withdrawing from the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty-II (START-II), that restricted the use of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) and Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicles (MIRV). Come March 2, 2018, Putin had directly blamed the US abrogation of the AMBT for the rapid weaponisation between their militaries. “The arms race started when the US withdrew from the ABM Treaty,” Putin told NBC News.
On February 21 this year, Putin, in retaliation to the US fielding new missiles in Europe, angrily lashed out at the US in a national address, threatening to field his own missiles. Calling the threat serious since the missiles could reach Moscow in “only 10-12 minutes”, he said the Russian response will be “asymmetrical” where it’s missiles too can reach both the sites and the “decision-making centers” just as quickly, without naming the US.
Putin was speaking in context of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty from which the US withdrew on February 2 this year, on grounds of alleged Russian violation, a charge consistently denied by Moscow. Russia has maintained that the US accusations were a mere ploy to abandon the pact, to free its hands to develop new weapons. He said, “Americans should have honestly said it instead of making unfounded accusations against Russia to justify their withdrawal,” Putin said.
The weapons Putin was threatening the US with are a series of groundbreaking missiles that have taken both the international strategic community by storm. They were the Avangard (a Hypersonic Glide Vehicle), Kh-47M2 Kinzhal (a nuclear capable Air Launched Ballistic Missile), the Burevestnik (a nuclear-powered nuclear-tipped missile with nearly unlimited range) and the 3M22 Zircon (a hypersonic anti-ship cruise missile). Of these, the Avangard and Kinzhal are staggeringly maneuverable at every stage in flight, capable of defeating any known BMD system.
And it is this, according to Lt Gen Prakash Menon (Retd) that exposes the invincibility of Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) systems which can “always be breached.” Menon is a former Military Adviser and Secretary to the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS), and author of the book ‘The Strategy Trap: India and Pakistan Under the Nuclear Shadow’.
“The attacker always has the advantage since he can find a number to bypass your BMD,” he adds. Besides, BMDs also nullify fundamental concept of ‘nuclear deterrence’, where the mere possession of nuclear weapons itself forces two countries to never use them first, since a retaliation will cause the user to take equal destruction. “It defies the premise that you are mutually vulnerable,” Menon added.
China notably departed from its vociferous (and often emotive) stance against weaponisation of space, when its December 2006 defense white paper had no mention of its opposition to a space arms race. In its 2004 and 2003 papers, it was going so far as to call for multilateral legally binding agreements to prevent putting weapons in space.
A May 9, 2007 Jamestown Foundation report attributed the sudden Chinese shift to “response to US government and military statements advocating the development of space weapons. Chinese strategists may believe that the United States…will eventually develop them (space weapons) regardless of Chinese actions, and that they must…create a deterrent against the US.”
The Pentagon itself had announced in December 2002 that the United States would continue the “development and testing of space-based defenses, specifically space-based kinetic energy (hit-to-kill) interceptors and advanced target tracking satellites.” Sha Zhukang, who had served as China’s Ambassador on Disarmament Affairs, had criticized the US for “disrupting the balance” for global security and classified its actions as “hegemonistic”, in reference to its withdrawal from the ABM Treaty. Hui Zhang, an author on armscontrol.org, said in an article that the US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty gave it a “free hand to move forward with missile defenses, and space-based missile defenses.”
However, two important US military announcements in 2001 and 2004 directly moved the Chinese to develop an ASAT programme – which was successfully tested in 2007. In August 2004, the US Air Force proposed “counterspace operations”, “space superiority” and “freedom to attack and freedom from attack” in space, in its Air Force Doctrine document.
Prior to that in January 2001, a US Space Commission headed by it’s former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, recommended, “The US government to vigorously pursue capabilities called for in the National Space Policy to ensure that the President (can) deploy weapons in space to deter threats, and, if necessary, defend against attacks on US interests.”
India, Pakistan & Space War Dynamics
In an interview to India Today magazine in April 2012, Dr VK Saraswat, who was the then DRDO chief, said that India had “all the building blocks for an anti-satellite system in place.” Clearly, the Indian decision to develop ASAT was a counter to the Chinese capability, given their long running strategic rivalry, despite the Chinese ASAT being primarily aimed against the US.
While an arms race being triggered by the US actions is just one part, India not declaring a No-First Use (NFU) in space as well is another, according to Menon. “War in space would inevitably be linked to war on earth and thus India must act as a responsible space power by announcing a policy that reduces the possibility of a space war,” he said.
The Indian ASAT will also have very little impact on Pakistan, which cannot imitate the system since it neither has neither a BMD capability, nor a space programme. “Neither does it actually threaten anybody else since hitting just one satellite does not take down a country’s entire space surveillance system, as there is a whole constellation of satellites for that role. The kind of kinetic energy capability needed to achieve this would be colossal.
India should therefore develop ‘soft-kill’ and Directed Energy Weapons (DEW) like lasers etc. where you neutralize the technical capability of the satellite and not break it up by hitting it. The Indian ASAT until then remains technology demonstrator,” Menon explains.
But Menon believes the Indian ASAT to be an eventual consequence of the ABMT abrogation which he calls as a “turning point”. “The action of one country triggers a reaction by its adversary, setting off a chain reaction and thus there is more than a casual link here,” he said.
Prof Arun Vishwanath, who heads the Department of Security Studies in the Central University of Gujarat agrees. “China and Russia obviously began developing their Hypersonic Glide Vehicles after the US walked out of the ABMT. The western world says an arms race or a possible nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan are an isolation but it is not so. It is always a part of a larger global competition that triggers actions from allies and their adversaries,” he said.
“The Indian ASAT test has to be seen in today’s context where great powers are forced into weapons technology races when their rivals are leading. China’s eventual decision to conduct both ASAT and BMD tests are a result of this trend,” said A. Vinod Kumar, Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA). “The Indian ASAT test therefore might not be a direct linear effect of the Chinese actions but is the result of a larger security dilemma where it comes up with technological counters to an adversary,” he added.
What Does ASAT Have To Do With BMD? They Are The Same Missiles!
ASAT systems are primarily modified Anti-Ballistic Missile Interceptors, where the same missile used to hit an incoming ballistic missile – usually a nuclear tipped one – before it hits land, is tweaked to reach outer space and knock out a satellite. So obviously, the ABM system was invented first, during the Cold War by the US and the Soviet Union. ASATs themselves came to be developed by both the Soviet Union (or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics – USSR) and the US as early as the 1950s, a both anticipated the other to strike from space.
It was the USSR to get the lead with it’s ‘Co-Orbital’ weapon, involving a UR-200 rocket that approaches a target overtime and explodes close to it with shrapnel, tearing through the satellite’s soft body, according to a paper by the ‘Union of Concerned Scientists’. The paper added that the USSR declared the system operational after conducting a series of seven tests – including five interceptor detonations – between 1963 to 1971.
After the Russian successes, the US began developing and successfully tested the Vought ASM-135 ASAT system on September 13, 1985 where a modified AGM-69 air to surface missile struck a Solwind P78-1 satellite. The missile itself was launched from a modified F-15 Eagle, from a height of 38, 100 feet. The point here being that the AGM-69 was nuclear capable, able to carry an atomic warhead.
Similarly, the January 11, 2007 Chinese ASAT test also used a modified DF-21 Medium Range Ballistic Missile (MRBM), called the SC-19. It had hit the Chinese FY-1C polar weather satellite at an altitude of 865 kilometers. Like India, China too followed up with a statement stressing its commitment to “peaceful use of space, opposing (space) weapons (proliferation),” and assuring that the test “did not constitute a threat to any country.”
This was followed by the February 20, 2008 American ASAT test where a Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) was launched from an US Navy Aegis destroyer to take out the USA-193 reconnaissance satellite, that the Americans said was decaying and threatened earth with the toxic hydrazine fuel on board.
The missile used, SM-3, is a ship-based missile system used to intercept short and medium range ballistic missiles. Russia too later conducted a series of successful flight tests of its PL-19 Nudol, an anti-ballistic-cum ASAT missile on 18 November 2015, May 2016, December 2016, 26 March 2018 and 23 December 2018.
The Indian missile that hit the Microsat-R satellite on May 27, 2019 (Mission Shakti) too was a Ballistic Missile Defence Interceptor, which India had tested multiple times a few years before as a part of it’s BMD shield project. The purpose of this section is to highlight the overlap between ABMD and ASAT systems, and that ASATs are a direct evolutionary offshoot of the ABM missile. And it is in this context (of the American withdrawal from the ABMD in 2001) that the development in Russian, Chinese and eventually the Indian ASATs should be studied.
This is also not the first time the US has walked out of pacts meant to check conventional and nuclear arms build-ups. Since 1996, the US has failed to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and more recently, has expressed reluctance to renew the 2010 New Start Agreement while pulling out of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The New Start Treaty signed between former US and Russian Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev requires cutting their strategic warheads to 1550.
Due to expire in 2021 and extendable by another five years, the US has been accused of procrastinating and refusing its renewal, while demanding the participation of China. Interestingly, China has an unambiguous and explicit No-First Use (NFU) policy, possesses not more than around 300 warheads and is known to keep the warheads separate from its delivery systems.
On February 2, 2019, the US announced it’s pullout from the INF Treaty that prohibited missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. While the US points to the Russian 9M729 cruise missile that allegedly violates the treaty, Russia consistently cites the US missile defence systems in Europe that can be repurposed for offensive use.
A year prior, the US under President Donald Trump exited from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Agreement (JCPOA) – or simply the Iran Nuclear Deal – despite no evidence of Iranian nuclear buildups or uranium enrichment, as per multiple studies by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The more recent has been the exit from the Open Skies Treaty with Russia on May 21, 2020 which coming amidst a time when the world is grappling with the Coronavirus pandemic, further jeopardizes a tenuous global stability. The treaty allowed for official surveillance flights by each other’s air forces over either one’s military bases to observe possible military mobilizations.
Mohan Guruswamy, of the Center for Policy Alternatives, while denying any effect of the ABM Treaty on the Indian ASAT test, however blamed the “powerful US Military Industrial Complex (MIC) for guiding their foreign and military policy in a way which will keep their arms manufacturers in business.” “Thus their pullout from treaties that keeps raising the need for new weapons,” he said.
About the Author
Parth Satam is a Principal Correspondent with Fauji India magazine. With his tenure in The Asian Age and Mid-Day, he has covered India's security and military establishment for a decade. He maintains an keen interest in defence, aerospace and foreign affairs