Home / Opinion / Views /  Opinion | A weapon that could change the game if India plays tough

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.

Bharat Karnad is professor at the Centre for Policy, and author of ‘Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition’.

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