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Confronting threat posed by China’s space programme : The Tribune India

Jan 27, 2024

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Updated At:May 18, 202305:52 AM (IST)

Arsenal: China's space weapons include both disruptive and destructive options. AP/PTI

Yogesh Gupta

Former Ambassador

SPEAKING at a symposium organised by the Indian Space Association in New Delhi last month, India's Chief of Defence Staff General Anil Chauhan made a strong pitch for India to acquire defensive and offensive capabilities in the space domain. The steady progress towards the weaponisation of space had led to a possibility of war in space; space can enhance capabilities of war on land, sea, air and even in cyberspace. India needs to work on "miniaturisation of satellites and reusable launch platforms" to reduce costs and augment its space capabilities, he added.

The Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari, reiterated some weeks later that India needs to have a "full-fledged military space doctrine" amid the increasing weaponisation and contestation in space. Giving the examples of the USA and France, he said India should transition from air power to aerospace power. Both the Chiefs had in mind the rapid progress made by China, which has doubled the number of its satellites to about 700 in the past three-four years. It has also acquired the capability to degrade and kill satellites of its adversaries by kinetic means, electronic warfare and lasers, and track the movement of aircraft carrier groups and missile tests.

China's space programme began in the 1950s with the use of their Dong Feng 3 Intermediate Range and later, the DF-5 inter-continental ballistic missiles modified as satellite launch vehicles. China's three-phase space strategy crafted in 1992 involved sending a manned spacecraft into outer space and returning its crew safely back to earth, which was achieved in 2003. The second phase involved extravehicular activities, rendezvous and docking operations and landing a rover on Mars. The third phase required setting up the Tiangong space station, which was launched on

April 29, 2021. It is conducting experiments in space medicine, life sciences, microgravity, combustion, astronomy and emerging technologies.

During the restructuring of its armed forces in 2015, China set up a Strategic Support Force to assist its combat operations, including in the land, water, cyber, electronic and psychological warfare domains. The first task of China's weaponisation of space was accomplished in 2007 when its Dong Neng-1 rocket, which was a modified version of its SC-19 anti-ballistic missile, destroyed a defunct Chinese weather satellite. An upgraded Dong Neng-2 was tested in 2013 for a non-destructive test of a geostationary satellite.

In 2016, on the first China ‘Space Day’, Chinese President Xi Jinping directed his government and the military to become the "foremost global space power by 2045". The Chinese space programme was aimed mainly at the US; in its thinking, the overwhelming capabilities of the Americans gave them undue advantage which needed to be neutralised before China could take territories in the first island chain (Taiwan), and dominate the second islands chain and beyond in the Pacific.

China's space weapons include both disruptive and destructive options. The disruptive options include terrestrial lasers, which can degrade satellite sensor and electronic jammers that interfere with the navigation and communication systems. China has set up land-based satellite tracking stations in Xinjiang and other provinces, which can disable satellites through release of high-energy beam and electro-magnetic interferences.

China has developed plenty of destructive options to kill an adversary's satellites by hacking into them, manipulating their outcomes, sending orbital interceptors, which can attack the satellites, and deploying ‘parasitic microsatellites’ released from another satellite, which can smash into the adversary's satellite. There have been reports of Chinese satellites spying on those of its adversaries.

India is about 15 years behind China in some of the above fields, as per some experts. China's BeiDou satellite navigation system based on 35 satellites in orbit is far more advanced in reach than India's Navigation with the Indian Constellation (NavIC), which is working with eight satellites and has a regional coverage up to 1,500 km from its borders.

China's space programme has been very ambitious and its budget for 2023 is $12.77 billion, well above India's $1.529 billion. The Chinese launch vehicle (Chinese Long March 5 rocket) is capable of carrying five times more payload than India's heavy lifter GSLV-Mk3. In 2021-22, India had fallen behind in new launches as compared to China due to the spread of the Covid-19 infection; while China launched 55 satellites in 2021, India was able to launch only two.

India's security-related space programme got a boost in 2019, when it set up Defence Space Agency (DSA) in Bengaluru, integrating the functions of the Defence Imagery Processing and Analysis Centre, New Delhi, and the Defence Satellite Control Centre, Bhopal. Separately, the Defence Space Research Organisation (DSRO) was set up to provide technical and research support to the DSA for space warfare-oriented technologies and weapons. India launched a Network for Space Object Tracking and Analysis (NETRA) project in September 2019 to improve its space situational awareness.

In November last year, India got its first privately designed and operated rocket launch pad and mission control centre set up by a space startup called Agnikul Cosmos, using the facilities at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre (SDSC), Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh. The first private launch took place on November 18, 2022, when a private firm, Skyroot Aerospace, launched its suborbital rocket from the SDSC facility.

In March 2019, India successfully tested an anti-satellite weapon when a fast-moving Indian target satellite in low earth orbit was neutralised with pinpoint accuracy by a three-stage A-SAT missile with two solid rocket boosters. India has two military satellites (used by the Navy and the Air Force) as compared to China's 68 and the USA's 123. India needs to add jam-proof Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) and Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) and Electronic Warfare (EW) satellites as well as sophisticated jammers to shield its satellites from attacks by adversaries.




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