Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Space Fence Solution: International Collaboration... an analysis written by my colleague and I on possible ways to keep the programme running....

Here's an analysis written by Rahul and I on the proposed shut down of the U.S. Space Fence programme and what could be done keep it running until a replacement is ready. This is important given the vulnerabilities in the absence of such a programme. The essay was published in the Space News yesterday.

The proposed shutdown of the U.S. Space Fence programme or what is formally called the U.S. Air Force Space Situational Surveillance System (AFSSS) does highlight the increasing trend of budget cuts’ constraining the ability of nations to utilize their capabilities in critical areas. The absence of such programs leaves all of us vulnerable. Given such trends, states have to think of international collaboration to get things going. How this should be worked out is something for all the major spacefaring states to consider.

Should there be a consortium of countries to keep the Space Fence up and running under an international agreement? In the face of divisive politics, it might be more appealing if such an arrangement were routed through a dedicated U.N.-affiliated agency for space traffic, like the International Civil Aviation Organization for air traffic.

For the full post, click here.



U.S. Air Force Space Situational Surveillance System
The Space Fence, or what is formally called the U.S. Air Force Space Situational Surveillance System (AFSSS), operational since 1961, is being shut down. AFSSS, consisting of three transmitters and six receivers placed across the southern U.S. and using radio waves, has kept a watch on what is going on in outer space. Many may consider outer space to be uninhabited and empty, but the reality is that over the decades it has been filled with millions of pieces of man-made junk that could cause huge harm to functioning assets. We need several systems to have a comprehensive coverage of the space environment. The United States has the largest network, even though its coverage of the Southern Hemisphere is not adequate. Russia has the second-largest network, followed by the European Union.

With the U.S. having shut down one of its major space situational awareness networks, major spacefaring powers need to make it a priority to contemplate possible solutions to track satellites and orbital debris on a continued basis.

The United States plans to set up a new Space Fence, which is to enter service in 2018. It has the potential to track much smaller objects than its predecessor and is also believed to be more accurate.

Until the replacement is ready, the duties of the AFSSS will be distributed to other branches; U.S. Air Force Space Command says it has “devised modified operating modes for the Perimeter Acquisition Radar Characterization System at Cavalier Air Force Station, N.D., and for the space surveillance radar at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., which allows the discontinuation of AFSSS operations while still maintaining solid space situational awareness.”

However, the shutdown does highlight the increasing trend of budget cuts’ constraining the ability of nations to utilize their capabilities in such critical areas. The absence of such programs leaves all of us vulnerable. Given such trends, states have to think of international collaboration to get things going. How this should be worked out is something for all the major spacefaring states to consider.

Should there be a consortium of countries to keep the Space Fence up and running under an international agreement? In the face of divisive politics, it might be more appealing if such an arrangement were routed through a dedicated U.N.-affiliated agency for space traffic, like the International Civil Aviation Organization for air traffic.

Even as it sounds clich├ęd, outer space is becoming more crowded, congested and contested. With new players still emerging in the space domain, and newer and smaller satellites entering into service, the challenges of tracking are significant. Given the potential for damage that could be done if satellites or other objects sent into space collide with each other and the numerous challenges triggered by natural causes, there is a need to build a space monitoring mechanism. Due to the costs and technology involved in creating such a mechanism, international cooperation will be crucial.

So far there have been a total of nine accidents that involved accidental collisions in outer space. Out of these, the collision of the Russian Cosmos satellite with the U.S. Iridium 33 satellite was the only incident where two satellites directly collided. All other collisions involved debris from different activities in outer space. According to NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office, “More than 21,000 orbital debris larger than 10 cm are known to exist. The estimated population of particles between 1 and 10 cm in diameter is approximately 500,000. The number of particles smaller than 1 cm exceeds 100 million.” These objects travel at a very high velocity and inflict significant damage on satellites if they collide. A Chinese anti-satellite test in 2007 created more than 3,000 pieces of space debris, further aggravating the problem. Space weather, caused by charged particles created by the sun and Earth’s magnetic field, also creates disturbing conditions for space objects. Given the dependence of military as well as civilian infrastructures on assets in outer space, these threats are likely to create enormous damage if they are able to disrupt the functioning of these assets. Therefore, maintaining a steady monitoring system such as the AFSSS is vital.

The concept of space situational awareness (SSA), which includes predicting collisions in orbit, detecting launches of new space objects, predicting re-entry of space objects into the atmosphere and detecting threats and attacks on spacecraft, is crucial in predicting and preventing such events. This can be done with the use of radars, optical telescopes, electronic signal sensors, infrared sensors and spacecraft that are in orbit between Earth and the sun.

With the shutdown of the old Space Fence program, Air Force Space Command said it would save about $14 million annually. However, the huge amount of data on space objects around the Earth made available through this program was significant. More importantly, as Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation writes, “The U.S. military also uses the data to offer a close approach warning service for owner-operators of the more than 1,000 active satellites in orbit.” Using this data, more than 10,000 warnings of potential collisions were issued, and 75 “avoidance maneuvers” were supported. This highlights the extent of vulnerabilities without a continuing tracking system.

Several established space powers, including India, have a range of technologies set in place to detect and trace objects in space. Russia has the second-largest network of radars and sensors, providing a catalog of space objects. As of now, Russia, through bilateral agreements, collaborates with some of the Central Asian countries where it has located its space surveillance systems. The Russian Space Surveillance System comprises mostly phased array radars and some dedicated radars and optical telescopes.

Europe has sufficient numbers of radars and networks to monitor space objects although they are not nearly as comprehensive as the U.S. or Russian systems. The European effort is also not a coordinated one at this instance given that it is run and operated by only a few countries, including the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Norway. In 2008, Europe initiated the SSA Preparatory Programme for creating a European Space Surveillance Network, and it has received support from a number of European countries. Most recently, in March, the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union (EU), launched a new initiative to track and monitor space debris. While many European countries have national systems, radars or telescopes for tracking satellites and space debris, most of the European satellite operators have been relying on the U.S. space surveillance and tracking information. With this new initiative, the EU plans to combine all the different networks to track satellites and debris.

Another example of international cooperation in creating SSA is the International Scientific Optical Network — a collaboration between scientific and academic institutions with 20 observatories in 10 countries for tracking objects in space, instituted by the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. The Space Data Association, a grouping of commercial entities, also has a good network in this regard. It operates an automated SSA system that aims to reduce the risk of collisions and radio frequency interference. Its members currently include government and private satellite operators such as NASA, Avanti Communications, Arabsat and Telesat. The costs incurred are shared by participants and therefore reduce individual costs; this particularly could be useful given the tight budgets under which most agencies are operating.

India too possesses a wide array of ground-based tracking facilities. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) Tracking and Command Network of ground stations across India offers critical support for India’s space missions and operations. Additionally, the Indian Deep Space Network provides operational assistance to ISRO and other space agencies, and India’s two Swordfish tracking radars have the ability to track activities in space.

All of these cooperative arrangements increase security in space, but a global network for monitoring space would only contribute more toward this goal. It is beyond a single state’s capacity to monitor all activities that could threaten assets in outer space. This is why international cooperation will be crucial to prevent accidental collisions and to predict events such as the recent Chelyabinsk incident. There is a need for countries to come together and create a mechanism for sharing the information they collect about the space environment for improving security and minimizing threats in outer space.

There are several different issues in the shutdown of the Space Fence. SSA and space debris are important, but the larger and longer-term problem is space traffic control or management and safety of navigation in outer space. One could potentially look at strengthening the Space Fence in the first instance, but this has to grow into something bigger like an international space traffic management center. Such a center might come to work as a traffic controller for outer space and at a later stage could be tasked to move or remove space debris. But investment in technologies for removal of space debris is expensive. Given these realities, collaboration in technology development may be the only way to go. It may also be looked at as an incentive to secure greater support for an international code of conduct for space. Any technology developed under such a program should be freely available to all countries.

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. She served in India’s National Security Council Secretariat from 2003 to 2007. Rahul Prakash is a Junior Fellow at the Foundation.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

story by Ian Williams in the latest issue of Arms Control Today on India's efforts at enhancing its nuclear weapons...

Here's a story by Ian Williams in the latest issue of Arms Control Today on India's efforts at enhancing its nuclear weapons. The story quoted me as well where I argued that given the “changing security environment,” of Asia, it is “imperative that India makes advances in weapons and technology. Particularly, the Chinese ballistic missiles deployed near Tibet are a key motive for India’s ballistic missile ambitions.

For the full story, click here.




India is pushing to improve its nuclear counterstrike capabilities with a plan to finish development of its Agni-5 ballistic missile by 2015, according to Avinash Chander, India’s new head of defense research.

Chander, director-general of India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), told India’s Headlines Today on July 2 that he will reduce the time required to launch a retaliatory nuclear strike to “within minutes” by making the country’s ballistic missile forces “much more agile, fast reacting, and stable.” The DRDO is the main Indian government entity responsible for developing new, advanced military technologies.

Response time is the most critical factor for an effective nuclear second-strike capability, said Chander, who was appointed to his post in May. He previously served as the chief controller of the Agni ballistic missile program and is considered one of the main architects of the Agni-5.

The DRDO is preparing to conduct two more tests of the nuclear-capable Agni-5 this year, Chander said in a June 29 interview with The Times of India. The three-stage Agni-5 is solid fueled and can carry a 1,500-kilogram payload a distance of 5,000 kilometers, according to news reports. The Agni-5’s first and only test-flight, which took place in April 2012, was considered a success. (See ACT, May 2012.)

A range of 5,500 kilometers is generally considered the threshold between intermediate range and intercontinental ballistic missiles. A missile’s range can be extended by lightening its payload.

When asked in the June 29 interview about the feasibility of finishing the development of the Agni-5 within two years, Chander said that there is no longer a need to conduct a large number of trials because the DRDO now conducts “thousands” of flight tests through computer modeling and simulations. The actual flight tests, Chander said, “are just to validate what’s predicted in the simulations.”

Agni-5 Timeline Questioned

Tessy Thomas, the current head of the Agni-5 development program, echoed Chander’s comments at an engineering conference Aug. 2, saying that, after two or three more successful test-flights, the Agni-5 will be “ready for operational service by 2015.”

Deployment of the Agni-5 would give India the ability to strike targets almost anywhere in Chinese territory. India has an explicit no-first-use nuclear weapons policy, but will “respond with punitive retaliation” to a nuclear attack on Indian territory, according to its draft nuclear doctrine released in 1999. India’s two main strategic rivals, China and Pakistan, each have deployed ballistic missiles capable of reaching Indian territory.

Some analysts question whether the DRDO can finish development of the Agni-5 by 2015. Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, said in an Aug. 2 e-mail to Arms Control Today that he thinks two years is “too optimistic,” citing the technical problems that “can and tend to pop up on the road to full operational status.” Kristensen pointed out that even after its first successful test launch in 1999, the Agni-2 ballistic missile underwent 14 more years of testing before it finally was classified as “deployed” by U.S. intelligence earlier this year.

The DRDO “has often overpromised and underperformed” on past projects, said Michael Krepon, director of the Stimson Center’s South Asia program, in a July 16 e-mail to Arms Control Today.

Monika Chansoria, senior fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies in New Delhi, said in an Aug. 21 e-mail to Arms Control Today that although she believes there will be an “operational version” of the Agni-5 in service by 2015, the missile will not be deployed in significant numbers until the end of that decade.

Chander said in the June 29 interview that India is developing more-flexible and more-resilient launch platforms for its ballistic missiles. One of the DRDO’s planned test flights for this year will involve firing the Agni-5 from a road-mobile launch truck, according to Chander. Road-mobile launchers are more agile and easily concealed than fixed-site or rail-mobile launch platforms, making them less vulnerable to a pre-emptive strike. Currently, India’s only deployed, solid-fueled, road-mobile ballistic missile is the single-stage Agni-1, with a range of 700 kilometers, according to a recent report from the U.S. National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC).

India successfully test-fired an Agni-2 ballistic missile from a road-mobile platform on Wheeler Island, according to an April 7 DRDO press release. However, the NASIC report said the solid-fueled Agni-2, which can carry a 1,000-kilogram payload a distance of 2,000 kilometers, is currently deployed only in rail-mobile mode.

In view of Asia’s “changing security environment,” it is “imperative that India makes advances in weapons and technology,” Rajeswari Rajagopalan, senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, said in an Aug. 22 e-mail to Arms Control Today. Rajagopalan specifically cited Chinese ballistic missiles deployed near Tibet as a key motive for India’s ballistic missile ambitions.

Advancing SLBM Capability

India also has been progressing toward a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) capability. (See ACT, September 2012.) In January, India conducted its third successful test-firing of the nuclear capable K-15 SLBM from an underwater pontoon, according to a DRDO press release. Sometimes referred to as Sagarika or B05, the missile has a maximum range of 700 kilometers and can carry up to a 700-kilogram payload, according to a 2012 article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. China, France, Russia, and the United States are the only other countries currently capable of producing SLBMs.

The K-15 is expected to be the main armament of the nuclear-powered INS Arihant, India’s first ballistic missile submarine. (See ACT, September 2009.) In development since the late 1980s, the Arihant’s nuclear propulsion reactor “achieved criticality” sometime in early August, according to an Aug. 10 press release from Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s office. The indigenously produced Arihant is now expected to undergo sea trials starting this year. In his statement, Singh described the success of the reactor as a “great stride” in India’s technological progress and said he looks forward to the submarine’s “early commissioning.”

Monday, September 2, 2013

Should India Declare a Space Policy?, my short essay published by the Diplomat

Here's the link to an essay of mine published by The Diplomat on whether India should declare a space policy or not.

A low-intensity debate has been taking place in India as to whether India should have a declared space policy or not. The general consensus appears to be that there is no need. But there are several arguments to make in favor of outlining a policy in the open. In today’s world, the advantages of a declared policy far outweigh the disadvantages. A declared policy calls for a clear understanding of how it should be tailored, what it should contain and what should be left out.

For the full essay, click here.


First, open policy statements and declared policies have remained the best means to assuage fears, build confidence and avoid ambiguities. These are important measures for building transparency and reducing tensions in regional and global contexts. Since the Asian context is characterized by growing competition and rivalry and the potential for conflict, even relative openness and transparency will go a long way in diluting the levels of regional insecurities.

A declared space policy would be an effective tool of communication for both internal and external audiences. For both audiences, it will set limits as well as open up opportunities as the number of states engaged in space exploration and utilization continue to grow. The value of communication through such an exercise, with both internal and external communities, is important. However, it is worth remembering that as a policy is prepared and articulated, while an internal audience is important, the policy will also send a message to external audiences. As such, it must be written in a manner that does not aggravate insecurities. Fail to do that, and external audiences could be left with the wrong impressions about India’s space program and policy, further raising the risk of misperception and miscommunication. How external audiences will read the policy statement and what they perceive about India’s needs, objectives and plans for the future, therefore, must be an important consideration as New Delhi readies a space policy document.

Second, India should have a clear picture of its long-term objectives and these should become guiding factors for a good space policy. The long-term objectives should consider both where India wants to be in a 25-year framework, and the perspective of outer space itself. A long-term vision should be followed by prioritization of important capabilities (political, diplomatic, military and economic) and partnerships that will help India reach its destination. This should translate into national security strategies articulated by the political leadership and then national military strategies derived from the national security strategy.

The second set of objectives will come from a debate on what sort of future India wants to achieve in space and accordingly what sort of behavior will be counter-productive to achieving those goals. Once there is clarity on these issues, India should adjust the orientation of its own space program and its priorities while working towards a favorable framework that would allow it to meet those goals. India should also steer its efforts in developing rules that would affect and curtail certain space programs and activities that may potentially be destabilizing and irresponsible. In addition to creating a framework that will protect its own interests, the political impact of this exercise is important. India should also strengthen its ability to maneuver at the global high table by prioritizing and fostering partnerships with countries that might share India’s vision in space.

Third, India should articulate its interests and policies in the broader context of the region and beyond, rather than talk about its interests in a narrow sense. This will have multiple benefits. For one, India’s policy articulation will be perceived as less threatening to the region. There are apprehensions particularly in the immediate neighborhood because of India’s dominant presence in South Asia. India’s growing capabilities in the space arena as in several other areas has the potential to heighten insecurities among these smaller neighbors. It will benefit India in the longer run if it were to showcase its interests and benefits in the regional context. Moreover, India should be able to cultivate regional interests that are akin to its own interests. It should be articulated in a manner wherein the region is able to transpose its interests and ideals with that of India’s. India should be able to convey to the region as to how such a policy might be in the interests of regional peace and stability.

Fourth, the domestic debate on India’s space policy has tended to highlight the utility of being ambiguous about policy. However, it should be understood that ambiguity has its limits. Bringing clarity to India’s policy and program will have multiple benefits. Despite the fact that India’s space program has been predominantly civilian in focus, the rising trend towards militarization in the region and beyond is influencing India’s orientation as well. Categorization of India’s space program into civilian and military components followed by clear-cut departmental structures would allow for greater focus, clarity and better financial outlays. Currently, institutional and budgetary resources are stretched across different programs. Devising a military space program will cater for better budget allocations as well as dedicated human resources.

Fifth, articulating an open policy would also add to the credibility of India as a major spacefaring nation. It would be a major transparency and confidence building measure, which is particularly important in the Asian context. Apart from its value in that regard, the policy should also articulate in clear terms redlines and limits that should not be crossed. This should be in terms of both capabilities and activities that may be considered irresponsible and contributing to regional and global uncertainties. Indicating such boundaries is important both for national security and deterrence as well as an international rule-making perspective. A national policy that would categorize certain activities as irresponsible and destabilizing will be in a position to determine when defensive responses can be activated and justified.

Similarly, defining what may be considered a space weapon or how one may define peaceful or defensive use of space will be significant in deterring accidents in outer space. This may be truer in the case of Asia, but space being a truly global commons, it has the potential to trigger conflicts even among the larger community of spacefaring powers. Being ambiguous about these boundaries and redlines undermines deterrence and increases the potential for accidental conflict. From an international framework perspective, a code of conduct that would set restrictions and limits and categorize certain capabilities as irresponsible or unacceptable might deter such actions. India should take a lead role while framing these restrictions at the global level in order to have its own interests protected.

Apart from the Cold War rivalries between the U.S. and U.S.S.R., space was seen as a benign domain with great utility in the civilian and developmental sectors. However, growing space capabilities are increasingly part of comprehensive national power. Growing facets of space use from space exploration to a quest for resources, including minerals, exploitation for energy resources (space-based solar power), operational response to natural disasters, and military use are changing the nature of our engagement with outer space. The technological spin-offs of ambitious projects such as space-based solar power have tremendous potential to bolster the science and technology base of any country.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) should be commended for its achievements, particularly given its modest budget. However, as recently noted by the ISRO Chairman, private sector involvement will inject a much-needed stimulus to India’s program. India must aim at creating a strategic space industry if it is to keep pace with growing commercialization. Launching satellites is becoming a lucrative business and India should not lose opportunities in this regard. Also, the number and types of players have undergone a major change in the last few years. India needs to respond to these changes and become a leading figure by articulating its needs and objectives for the future. As in many other areas, articulating a policy along with its broad orientations would also bring much-needed clarity internally within the space sector. Additionally, partners that look to India for collaboration across fields including the use of space-based assets and space situational awareness will only benefit India’s capabilities.

Finally, India’s space policy should also outline its efforts in the area of international rule-making. Given the potential for space exploitation to affect every aspect of our daily lives, actions could have serious consequences. Therefore, laying down the rules of the road is a task that should not be left until space is highly weaponized. Aside from the political and strategic value, India has a huge financial stake given its investments and reliance in this regard.