Under President Xi Jinping, plans for China’s “space dream”, as he calls it, have been put into overdrive the new superpower is looking to finally catch up with the US and Russia after years of belatedly matching their space milestones. The ambitions start with a space station of its own – China was deliberately left out of the International Space Station effort – with the assembly of pieces in space expected to start this year and crewed use to begin in 2022. China is also planning to build a base on the moon with the country aiming to establish a lunar mission by 2029.
Recently, there have been reports of China testing a kind of ‘Space- Plane’, which can be repeatedly reused. A reusable spacecraft – as the name implies can undertake multiple trips to space – thereby potentially lowering the overall cost of launch activity.
A conventional one-off spacecraft – costing hundreds of Crores – is practically rendered useless after a single mission. This experimental vessel reached an altitude of about 350km, which is in line with China’s previous crewed flights. The spacecraft also released an unknown object into the orbit before returning to Earth. Once the testing is complete, such a vehicle could be used for logistics sustenance of a space station and carry out many tactical tasks including repair of satellites and transportation of astronauts and goods to and from orbit. The Chinese craft has been reported to be akin to X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle operated by the US Air Force. If confirmed as a space plane, China would become only the third country to have successfully launched such a vehicle into orbit after the US and the former Soviet Union (It is reported, an Indian space plane is also under make).
China’s astronauts and scientists have also talked of crewed missions to Moon& Mars as they strive to become a global space power.
There is little distinction between China’s civilian and military space programmes which fuels suspicions about Beijing’s space ambitions. With the new ‘Tianhe’ space station, Beijing is set to create another battleground.
It would be the first crewed space station. Reportedly, the launch of its core module on a Long March 5B will be in 2021. The space station will orbit at an altitude of around 380 kilometres with an inclination of between 41 and 43 degrees. This step will militarise space and will be the beginning of a space war in heaven.
Undoubtedly, it will challenge the US and the world. Geopolitically, this scenario draws parallel to the Indo-Pacific theatre, where China will in due time assert its claims in the near space. It would be like capturing a height in the mountains akin to the ground of tactical importance.
China last year termed space a “critical domain in international strategic competition”, having deemed “security of space” as a cornerstone of the strategic protection of its national development. This has alarmed India—indeed and the global community—since it signals that China implicitly considers space as another battlefield, notwithstanding the country’s posturing of being against the weaponisation of space.
India has multiple options. Firstly, because it enjoys a good standing among nations and secondly because it has a good scientific base in ISRO, which can deliver very difficult space missions with low budgets. This needs to be exploited by the nation. Thirdly, India’s Strategic Partnership with the USA can benefit from space technology in a very economical way. Rather than re-invent technology, India should be able to harness available advanced technologies from the west to wrest the Chinese initiative. There is a need for geopolitical and geostrategic leveraging, which India can do to offset asymmetry with China for its space security etc. The recent signing of the fifth Foundational agreement with the USA is a step in the right direction.
This the high-level agreement secures the future of India for the time being, as far as space-based surveillance and missile guidance is concerned. In the existing Standoff with China along the LAC in the Himalayas, India is now able to offset Information dominant asymmetry with China. This has consequently resulted in the existing stalemate. This also shows the way forward for India in becoming self-reliant on many space issues.
India happens to be China’s neighbour. China happens to be an expansionist state. China happens to have border problems with all its neighbours. Therefore, logically China is antagonist against India and happens to be in a perpetual state of confrontation with India.
China also happens to be a peer super power. Therefore, China’s growing comprehensive space power impacts on India, the most. India therefore, has no other option but to match these capabilities. However, due to a lower economic capacity, India cannot afford the same level of space activities. The answer, therefore, lies in India trying to create a minimum deterrence in space. China thus has to be countered, by India creating its own space and counter-space capabilities as a punitive measure. This could be enabled, by India acquiring niche technologies of ASAT and other Non-Kinetic systems in outer space. India is already on the path of acquiring cutting edge technologies in this domain. The tri-Service integrated defence staffs (IDS) under the defence ministry has already conducted a two-day “IndSpaceEx”, with all military and scientific stakeholders in 2019. India also successfully tested an anti-satellite (A-Sat) interceptor missile to destroy the 740-kg Microsat-R satellite, at an altitude of 283-km in the low earth orbit (LEO), in a “hit-to-kill mode” under “Mission Shakti” few years back. (See photo above). Also an Indian Tri-services Defence Space Agency is in the making before the formation of a full-fledged Space Command which is envisaged to be raised by 2025-2027.
In addition like the QUAD, India has to knit a coalition and partnership with like-minded nations. India should also exploit the Indo-US Strategic Partnership, especially the operationalisation of ‘BECA’ etc., for maintaining an ‘Information Domination’ edge over China through a real-time ‘OODA’ loop. For example the creation of this enhanced ‘Situational Awareness’ advantage in Ladakh during the present India-China standoff really gets converted into a combat stalemate, in spite of the asymmetry between the two nations. China’s investments in Space have almost been five times more over India since the last 20 years.
But because of these geostrategic partnerships at no financial costs, India is able to match the opponent and create a comprehensive deterrence against China. The credit goes to India’s smart geopolitical posturing to ensure allied and US support. Even Joe Biden, the President designate of America has shown inclination in support of India. His era is likely to provide a more coherent and institutionalised U.S. support to India and the Indo-Pacific Region. India’s space strategy should be to harness the available niche technologies of the U.S. and maximise closer space assets linkages rather than re-invent the systems. Towards this, the recent establishment of a ‘Situational Awareness Centre’ at Bangalore is a great milestone in the management of Real time Information and its military application. This can offset China’s space superiority.
India should also be made a partner in the existing International European Space Station. Or otherwise India should lead by forming an Asian Space station with the help of Japan, Vietnam, South Korea, Israel and even others. These kind of similar initiatives in space are urgently required to enable India in check mating China from a free run in bull-dozing their way and seizing geopolitical and geostrategic High Grounds in Space. The Space environment will have a cascading effect on the geographical earth surface towards sovereignty and protecting the land territories of smaller nations.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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