Little cause for alarm

By Bharath Gopalaswamy, July 20, 2015

In Round Two, Nancy Gallagher encouraged "all sides [to] admit that some of their outer space experiments, missile defense projects, and efforts to control space as a global commons make other states feel extremely insecure." I question how insecure the United States has a right to feel regarding other nations' space activities. But the most important question in this roundtable remains whether antisatellite weapons are likely to trigger an inadvertent nuclear exchange. Wu Chunsi and I agree that antisatellite weapons do not increase the risk of nuclear war. Gallagher sees things differently.

Today, space assets provide the US military unparalleled asymmetric advantages in conventional warfare. Still, US security managers worry that China's increasing counterspace capabilities will increase the costs of a conventional military conflict in the Western Pacific. To be sure, China is threatening to close the gap in space. But available evidence suggests that the United States will maintain its commanding lead for some time—in part because Washington enjoys redundancy between its space and terrestrial assets, which should be sufficient to neutralize China's counterspace advances. But will China's increased counterspace capabilities, and an erosion of US dominance, result in aggressive Chinese behavior and greater instability? If so, China's advances in space are indeed threatening. If not, they are rather a moot point. But in any event, as Wu and I have argued, countries (such as China and India) that pledge not to carry out nuclear first strikes have no incentive to develop antisatellite weapons in order to help execute first strikes.

India's no-first-use policy, incidentally, has not changed much over the past 15 years, and it appears unlikely to change any time soon. Nor does any evidence indicate that India is pursuing antisatellite weapons. But in Round Two, Gallagher wrote that India is "conducting antisatellite research in the context of a ballistic missile defense program." She presents no evidence to support her claim. Admittedly, technologies that underlie antisatellite weapons and ballistic missile defense share some synergies. But nothing—other than a few statements by officials under the former United Progressive Alliance government—indicates that India is pursuing antisatellite weapons. To the contrary, Indian policy managers seem highly cognizant of the hazards surrounding hard-kill weapons in space.

Finally, I share both Wu and Gallagher's desire for strategic dialogue on space issues to address all sides' concerns and forestall potential misunderstandings. But I would emphasize, along with Wu, that nations such as India and China will welcome dialogue only if the rules and framework underpinning it are fair. Indian policy managers in particular are likely to engage in space dialogue only if it seems likely to genuinely reflect their security concerns—and they will agree to measures that inhibit India's options in space only insofar as India is not prevented from achieving technological parity with other countries.