The cosmos, once a realm of scientific exploration and discovery, is undergoing a significant transformation, evolving into an arena increasingly dominated by militarisation. This shift is notably emphasized in the recent report titled “Space Threat Assessment 2023” by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, US, which serves as a stark warning that space has become a focal point for intense great power competition.
This prediction is becoming a tangible reality in South Asia, where India is rapidly strengthening its space capabilities as part of its overarching pursuit of regional hegemony.
India’s history of diverting materials and capabilities in the civilian domain towards military objectives serves as a caution. One notable example is the CIRUS nuclear reactor provided by Canada, which was diverted for India’s nuclear test in 1974. This historical context raises concerns about the potential for a similar pattern to emerge again.
In recent years, India has been actively strengthening its space capabilities, aligning them with its broader pursuit of regional hegemony. This ambition is evident in the successful launch of the Aditya-L1 solar observatory and the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). These accomplishments highlight India’s growing expertise in space exploration and its commitment to advancing its technological prowess. However, characterizing these space projects as exclusively civilian endeavors becomes less convincing when considering India’s simultaneous development of offensive direct ascent weapons. These weapons appear to be designed with the ostensible purpose of destroying ‘rogue satellites.’ The watershed moment for India’s DA-ASAT capabilities occurred in March 2019 during the much-publicized ‘Mission Shakti.’ This event demonstrated its ability to target satellites in orbit and left a legacy of hazardous debris that continues to threaten other space assets.
Over the past decade, India has systematically advanced its space warfare capabilities through strategic partnerships with external powers, facilitated by key agreements like the U.S.-India Space Security Dialogue, the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation (BECA). Simultaneously, India’s civilian space program, led by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), now ranks among the world’s top space agencies, with advanced launch facilities and domestically produced launch vehicles.
India’s dedicated military space program, overseen by the Defence Space Agency (DSA), is vital in safeguarding national security interests and operates under the Ministry of Defence, collaborating with the Air Force, Army, and Navy. Furthermore, India’s geosynchronous satellites, including GSAT-7, GSAT-7A, EMISAT, RISAT-2, and Microsat-R, serve critical military functions, enhancing communication, intelligence gathering, and reconnaissance capabilities, reinforcing its commitment to achieving information dominance in the realm of C4ISR.
However, maturing capabilities have greater risks of fuelling instability and an arms race. As one of the primary actors in outer space, India’s abstention from the ASAT missile test moratorium is not as simple as a neutral vote. It indicates India’s national space strategy—an unsaid policy of strategic ambiguity in 2022. Rather than restraint, India appears intent on pushing boundaries. DRDO Chairman G. Satheesh Reddy has hinted that they can now manufacture anti-satellite weapons on an industrial scale with deployable contingencies. India’s intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), ballistic missile defense systems (BMDs), and space launch vehicles (SLVs) provide dual-use technologies for anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons. Specifically, India’s 12,000-km-range Surya-2 ICBM leverages SLVs and targets orbital altitudes of 800km, making the Agni-V launcher a viable SLV replacement for Prithvi.
The BECA 2020 agreement enables India to achieve the high-fidelity space situational awareness required for BMD and ASAT capabilities.
With the acquisition of its specialized satellites, India’s military is becoming more autonomous in using space assets, allowing it to create a more effective Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP). India justifies its space militarisation by citing growing Chinese space capabilities. However, as New Delhi advances its counter-space capabilities alongside its recent achievements, this relentless drive for cosmic supremacy can potentially disrupt South Asia’s fragile deterrence framework, centered on a delicate balance between nuclear and conventional forces. Simultaneously, this disproportionate build-up threatens Pakistan, with its C4ISR functions becoming increasingly dependent on satellites. Pakistan risks its assets being targeted or disabled in crises.
Space weapons could increase the proclivity for punitive and pre-emptive actions, blurring lines between the conventional and nuclear realms and intensifying security dilemmas. India’s pursuit of space dominance may grant coercive leverage against Pakistan. Still, this myopic pursuit of hegemony is fraught as the militarisation of space serves no country’s long-term interests in South Asia and beyond.
For Pakistan, it is important to focus on sustainability, evolvability, and survivability in outer space. Pakistan must start with the doable and reach for the undoable: high-fidelity space situational awareness (SSA) solutions integrated with sensory networks and the acquisition of BMD.
Preventing celestial bodies from turning into future battlegrounds demands pragmatic diplomacy. As India navigates its space ambitions, the world’s players need to ensure that the palpable security dilemmas facing Pakistan and others in the region are being addressed. Investing in shared governance of the global commons, not weapons in the cosmos, is the prudent approach for collective survival.
The author is a researcher at the Centre for Aerospace and Security Studies (CASS), Lahore. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in International Relations from Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.