A weapon that could change the game if India plays tough

Image result for pics of Indian ASAT

[Launch  of ASAT interceptor to take down the targeted LEO satellite]

The country must resist pressure to sign treaties that impose restraints on its ability to make the most of its A-SAT capability


General elections are often a prompt for Indian prime ministers to take strategic “big bang” decisions that they put off making during most of their time in office. Atal Bihari Vajpayee could have followed up the 1998 series of nuclear tests by ordering the launch of an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM), the design of which the Advanced Systems Laboratory, Hyderabad, had on its shelf for several years previously and was itching to test. It could have won the Bharatiya Janata Party a second term. Manmohan Singh could have derailed Narendra Modi’s ambitions in 2014 had he mustered the gumption to resume thermonuclear testing on the reasonable ground that the fusion device tested in the Shakti series of tests under a BJP dispensation had fizzled. Modi likely approved the testing of the anti-satellite (A-SAT) weapon, a capability former chiefs of the Defence Research and Development Organisation maintain was in suspended animation for almost a decade, as insurance against his re-election prospects trended in the wrong direction. Besides, it doesn’t hurt to blow up a satellite in space with a direct missile hit to follow up on the Balakot air strike as a way to burnish the Prime Minister’s tough guy image. But mark this: In each case, the decision was made or not made for extraneous reasons, and not to strategically advantage the country.

But a test is a test is a test, and deciding to green-signal it is the easy part. The more difficult thing to do, and where Indian prime ministers have tripped up, is to sustain the momentum of such tests/test-firings and similar seminal developments in the indigenous science and technology sphere, and then convert technology demonstration into military prowess. So, Jawaharlal Nehru, progenitor of the dual-use nuclear energy programme, suddenly got cold feet when it came to testing a nuclear device and weaponizing once the plutonium reprocessing unit in Trombay went on stream and began producing bomb-grade fissile material in 1964. Indira Gandhi approved the first nuclear test in 1974, and then, by barring further testing, brought the weapons programme to a shuddering halt, consigning India to strategic limbo for some 25 years. Not to be outdone, Vajpayee, despite knowing that the thermonuclear device tested in 1998 was a dud, announced a moratorium on underground testing.

The reason in each case was the same—strong external pressure, which is just another way of saying these prime ministers lacked the iron will to put national interest ahead of whatever puny rewards the external powers offered India for ceasing and desisting and otherwise remaining a subservient state. The question is, will Modi use the A-SAT success to obtain for India comprehensively capable and deployable anti-satellite missile forces able to take out enemy low earth orbit (LEO) satellites providing tactical military information and high earth orbit (HEO) satellites affording wide area strategic coverage, including spotting Indian missile launches?

The pressure will be on India to join one of two space treaties: The Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects (PPWT) tabled by Russia and China, or PAROS (Prevention of Arms Race in Outer Space) proposed by the US. Because Indian political leadership, from the beginning, rather than shaping India into a disruptive force that elbows its way into international reckoning, à la Mao in China, prizes membership in “exclusive” clubs (United Nations Security Council), technology-denial groups (Missile Technology Control Regime), and commercial and trade cartels (Nuclear Suppliers Group), all of which have victimized India, Modi or a successor PM may choose one or the other treaty stream.

In terms of a regime permitting greater latitude, the PPWT allows A-SAT; PAROS doesn’t. Moreover, the provision in PAROS of a “no-first placement initiative” in outer space is moot because the US, Russia and China are racing to put into space war-fighting platforms that are able to look down and shoot downwards and also shoot laterally using laser and kinetic kill weapons that are in their testing stage. The Indian government surely doesn’t want to once again sacrifice its options by agreeing not to do things these big powers are doing. In the event a decision must be taken, staying aloof from those treaties and testing and finessing the capability will arm India with multiple leverages and do the most strategic good, including enhancing India’s credentials as “security provider” to a host of South-East Asian littoral and offshore states fearful of China.

What is significant is Beijing’s restrained reaction to the Indian A-SAT test. The Chinese army finds that the tactical edge it had banked on, courtesy its constellation of LEO satellites transmitting real time data on Indian force disposition along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), is gone. It cannot rely on such satellites anymore to plan hostile moves in sectors once identified for weak Indian defences, or expect continued transmission by its LEO platforms once action is initiated by Chinese forces in the face of an active Indian A-SAT capability. With a blunted Chinese conventional superiority, and nuclear warheaded Agni-V missiles and Arihant-class nuclear submarines holding the Hong Kong-Shanghai belt—China’s wealth producing region—hostage, Beijing may now be more open to formalizing the LAC as the international border.


About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Afghanistan, asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific, Asian geopolitics, China, China military, civil-military relations, Cyber & Space, Decision-making, Defence Industry, domestic politics, DRDO, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Military Acquisitions, Military/military advice, Missiles, nonproliferation, Nuclear Policy & Strategy, Nuclear Weapons, Relations with Russia, Russia, satellites, society, South Asia, Strategic Relations with the US & West, Terrorism, UN, United States, US., Weapons, Western militaries. Bookmark the permalink.

33 Responses to A weapon that could change the game if India plays tough

  1. divakarbhadane says:

    Sir,Is it really necessary to test the thermo-nuclear device? Don’t you think we will be hit by sanctions,which will hurt our economy,and threat of panicking foreign investors?? Specially Japs.And what about Pakistan,they will sure conduct it later on grounds self-defense.

    Sir your article’s are really helpful for students like us,inspite of being West educated you’re not ideologically inclined to West eg-Raja Mohan.You’re a class above.Nation first as they say.

    • Quickboy says:

      Well the funny part is Pakistan will do it, They might already have the capability, Read China. Of course then we do loose space also…Chinese would love to test it in Pakistan colours .

    • Ridney says:

      Bani types always think of economy etc. That is why in most of history the bania types hVe been barred from holding power and are objects of ridicules.
      Power is everything, money flows from power

  2. India and Indians should stop being frightened of sanctions, etc. The US is in no position to impose them without paying an enormous political and geostrategic price for doing so, which no US government will find acceptable.

    Raja Mohan is a JNU product.

    • San says:

      Dr Karnad, do we really have a pressing need to test an H-bomb? Why don’t we develop our economy farther first, to make any punitive action against us even more costly.

    • Mr Raj says:

      Honourable Bharat Sir ,

      I Do Urge You , To Please Write Your Thoughts On My Pending Queries ,

      As You Had Said That India’s Nuclear Program Was Ready 6 Months Before China Did Its 1’st Nuclear Test ,

      1. Why Doesn’t India Did Its 1’st Nuclear Test After China Had Tested Its ???

      2. Why India Waited For 10 Years Until 1974 ?
      ( Even S. Jayshankar Had Said That India Has Lost The Stategic N-Opportunity In 1967 With Formation Of NPT )

      3. Why India Did Not Followed weaponisation Program After 1974 Same As China ?

      4. Why India Did Same Mistake Of 1964 Until 1998 & Doing On….

      5. What’s Your Opinion On , When Will India Carry Its Resumed N-Test ( Seeing India’s History Its Hard Until 2030 )

      6. How Is India Going To Seek Parity With China With Its 45 N-Tests With It’s Peanuts Of 4 N-Tests [ Taking In Mind It Will Be Impossible To Seek Parity With USA ( 1030 ) , Russia ( 715 ) & France ( 210 ) Test’s . ]

      7. Was Pandit Nehru’s Vision Wrong Not To Test In 1962 War Time By Some How Fast Forwarding Program As Said By Dr Bhabha & Also Before October 1964 ???

  3. Vivek says:

    i still don’t understand why USA didnt oppose or tried to block this test? does it means that dhoval alread informed or asked us permission before testing?

    • Don’t know about the ‘space doctrine’ that Doval has been tasked to draft. But it isn’t encouraging that, as apprehended in the article, the Modi government is tending towards PPWT and the Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale is leaving for Moscow to consult about the provisions in it with a view to doing what? The fact is US, Russia and China will all try and hogtie India in treaty obligations that Delhi adheres to religiously, even as these great powers treat all treaties they forward as pieces of paper to be ignored if their national interests require it. This is the REAL problem — the Indian government’s incomprehensible preternatural desire and eagerness to join treaty regimes that invariably curtail the country’s options and hurt the national interest. I mean India has conducted just one LEO target test, has no space warfare paraphernalia of any kind, least of all for HEO satellite destruction, and yet its rulers are already contemplating joining a treaty imposing limits. Go figure!

  4. jorawar says:

    yeah, if india acts though. no chance of that. the indian establishment doesn’t have the mental strength to even act tough

  5. Rupam says:

    Bharat Karnad ji do you think the further development and manufacturing of the ASAT should be given to the private sector, on competition basis, to not only further increase more capabilities, but also this would act as the seed for the private sector getting experience in space weapons, given space will soon become the war zone. Similar to Raytheon in America. While this happens, DRDO and ISRO can work on ASAT for HEO satellites. What do you think?

    • San says:

      Space should not become an active warzone or ‘hot zone’ – space should be cultivated as a field of commercial endeavour. We just want a seat at the negotiating table, so that we’re not shut out, as with NPT.

    • Ridney says:

      Defence if given to warrior types and not to private sector of bani types whose motive is to loot wealth from others.
      American arms industrial cabal is exa. Ple of how much private sector is bad for defence asking exorbitant price for arms.
      American prints dollars
      India can not do that.

  6. Yes, the Indian private sector has untapped capabilities the nation should use. It’s a pity there’s still so much suspicion about this sector in MoD and elsewhere.

    • Rupam says:

      Bharat Karnad ji why do you think this suspicion occurs? Is it inherent in the babus, is it the training or is that the domestic private sector does not have enough lobby compared to the foreign vendors who are further helped by their govt. and head of states.

    • Ridney says:

      There is a reason why privateers are hatedook at Hugh profit margin they take in defence of supply.

      • not the western parties like raytheon and Lockheed Martin and Boeing by the way. So it could change. L&T kind of indian companies are making N-Powered Submarines in India already.

  7. siddharthso says:

    Anti-satellite missile – like nuclear weapons- is necessary for deterrent, but has very little utility in theater of space war. A country relying solely on the nuclear weapons without the conventional military armament would be vulnerable to Fighter aircrafts, ships and artillery attacks. Similarly, relying solely on Anti-satellite missile and neglecting the bread and butter of Space war (space and ground-based Laser and Electromagnetic weapons) would rendered the country defenseless in a peacetime conflict.
    Anti-satellite missile would be a last ditch option, creating chain reaction of debris colliding with satellites which would rendered the space unusable. It would be equivalent to poisoning the well that everyone drinks from.
    A much more surgical method of disabling satellite is called for, mainly, of using the ground and space based laser and electromagnetic weapons to blind the adversaries satellite without creating debris and giving the adversary no clue about the aggressor.
    The beauty of such a weapon is in its secrecy. India does not have to proclaim its existence, just use it clandestinely.

    • The fly in the ointment is the laser weapon — so far despite hundreds, if not thousands, of billions of dollars of R&D no country has managed to at once retain the power and miniaturize it as a land-based weapon. Space-based laser systems are, for the same reasons, still only a theoretically effective armament.

  8. Unicorn says:

    Mr. Karnad – I can understand your views on India and its deficiency in Thermonuclear weapons.

    But with the technological capability India has, a warhead yielding 120-150kt does not seem unreal, which quite frankly is a great deterrent (Especially with Agni 6 and her MIRV capabilities). Megaton warheads are really relics of the past when ballistics were greatly inaccurate (without the aid of todays satellite navigation or Ring laser gyroscope.)

    That being said isn’t the window of opportunity for nuclear testing essentially over for India? I cannot think of circumstances allowing for resumption of testing anytime in next 4-5 decades. That window (of opportunity) really was 70s, 80s and 90s – With that opportunity gone unused by the weak and timid Indian leadership, I am not really sure if they can do it again anytime soon.

    • For sovereign nations jealously protective of their own interests, no window is ever closed, and opportunities are created by acting on the basis of imperative need. The 120-150 KT yield ordnance is a 2-stage fusion weapon — which technology failed to fire properly in 1998. Unless tested again, how will India be sure that the rectified thermonuclear design works?

      • Unicorn says:

        The 120-150 KT possibility rests on three assumptions:

        1. That 1998 tests were miniature designs and is “scale uppable.”
        2. Boosted fission magnifies the yield.
        3. Indians are supported by first rate data from 74 & 98.

  9. The S-1 design was scalable. The trouble is that even as boosted fission it did not produce the bang it was configured for. So….?

    • Unicorn says:

      We really cannot argue with your assertions. Our argument rests on gut feeling, but yours on actual experimental evidence – or rather a lack of it (supporting the yields). So your statements cannot be disputed with words.

      However we have a foolish tendency to underestimate ourselves. If in this process we are misled into thinking that our strategic weapons are not as powerful as they actually are, then perhaps no harm can come out of it.

      Finally until the economic heft of India increases further substantially, the window of opportunity for testing will not be open. I really cannot see GOI resuming testing in next 2-3 decades (Do you?). I mean is India really in a position to confront the “status quo regime” – US, Russia & China? (France & UK being too incidental to matter).

      India always seemed too big and strategically placed in the world to be bullied by NPT/CTBT/P5. Why it decided not to continue with weaponization, post 74 is a sort of mystery – it really beats me!

      • OK. Look at the issue of resumption of testing in another way. What’s the worst that can happen? Are US, Russia and China so much in sync as to work unitedly and then to do what? Sanctions? Come off it! Sanctions didn’t work the last time and they never have. Now consider India’s leverages — zero access to the Indian market, this combined with the threat/promise from GOI of permitting major countries — especially Japan, South Korea, Taiwan — not adhering to the sanctions regime with invitation to speedily build up their economic stakes in India with fast-tracking if land acquisition and labour decisions, etc. as incentives. It will send shivers through the US and China econ scenes. The trouble is, as I have repeatedly argued over the years,we act so frightened of the consequences of actions we take in our national interest that, in fact, national interest, national security, and national sovereignty are the first casualty.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.