Non-Kinetic Anti-Satellite Options for Pakistan

Pakistan, like any other country, is increasing its dependency on the use of space for civilian and military applications. While the country continues to operate a small number of satellites, the threat to its national security from space is increasing significantly. Arch-rival India has developed a range of counterforce capabilities against Pakistan. These counterforce capabilities are dependent on the use of satellites for their successful employment, which can have severe implications for the survivability of Pakistan’s assets. Besides aiding counterforce capabilities, satellites are integral for military communication, providing intelligence for decision making and planning. For this, India continues to develop its space program military applications. In addition to increasing the number of satellites for military applications, it has also tested anti-satellite (ASAT) technology putting it in the elite group of nations to have tested it.

Hiding anything from the adversary’s eyes in the sky has become a challenge. Round-the-clock coverage of important installations, movement, and deployment of assets and forces have become possible with the availability of military satellites as well as commercial services providers. This not only takes away the element of surprise but also compromises one’s ability to retaliate to an adversary’s attack. To eradicate the vulnerability of command and control and deny surveillance over their territories, few countries, including the United States, Russia, China, and India, have demonstrated ASAT weapons, although these have never been applied in a real war.

Non-kinetic ASAT options include jamming, spoofing, meaconing, laser, and high-powered microwave attacks.

ASAT weapons are employed to render adversary’s satellites inoperable for military uses. These can be undermining the adversary’s command and control by denying it intelligence gathering, reconnaissance, and surveillance or hindering other’s military operations, in simple words. The most popular ASAT weapon is the kinetic warhead which collides with the satellite to destroy it. However, there are issues regarding the altitude of satellites as sometimes military satellites are orbited at higher altitudes. At this, they give a constant view of the same area. These need longer-range weapons. On the other hand, the majority of satellites, including remote sensing or earth observations satellites, orbit at lower and medium altitudes and are more vulnerable to direct ascended or co-orbital ASAT weapons. The biggest concern of kinetic ASAT weapons remains the creation of debris in the orbit that poses a threat to other satellites present in orbit.

Due to India’s growing use of military satellites and testing of anti-satellite technology, the threat to operations and survivability of Pakistan’s forces has increased. In this regard, possessing non-kinetic ASAT capabilities can add to the deterrence value of Pakistan’s defence posture.

Non-kinetic ASAT Options

There are several vulnerabilities of satellites’ working to cyber and electronic attacks that can be exploited to make them useless for an adversary, such as taking control of a satellite and denying access to it. Non-kinetic ASAT options include jamming, spoofing, meaconing, laser, and high-powered microwave attacks.

Spoofing satellites’ signals, like the broadcasting of fake GPS signals, can be used for misguiding or fooling an adversary’s potential offensive. While denying access to a satellite can instantly communicate to the adversary about the cyberattack, spoofing a satellite with fake signals will require more time for the operator to determine whether the satellite is working just fine or may have been compromised. Similarly, meaconing is used to intercept and rebroadcast navigation signals to confuse the enemy’s navigation.

The advantage of these weapons is that they do not create debris that is equally harmful to civilian and military space assets.

There are also directed energy or laser weapons that can blind a satellite. The level of directed energy can have a range of impacts on the operations of a satellite. While a low-powered attack can temporarily disrupt its operations, a high-powered attack can render it permanently useless. The employment of microwaves on the electronic systems of a satellite can disrupt or damage them temporarily or permanently depending on how much these waves enter inside their electronic systems through their antennas. The advantage of these weapons is that they do not create debris that is equally harmful to civilian and military space assets.

Targeting the ground-based command and control centre of satellites by kinetic means can also be among the options if avoiding the creation of debris is a priority. But a country can opt for this option if one is ready for escalation of conflict as it requires striking facilities in the adversary’s territory.

Non-Kinetic Options for Pakistan

Unlike India, Pakistan has small space assets, which include only commercial or civilian applications. The Pakistani military uses China’s BeiDou Navigation Satellite (BNS) system for guiding its missiles and other weapons. Therefore, Indian possession of kinetic or non-kinetic anti-satellite weapons will have a limited threat to the employment of Pakistan’s offensive or defensive weapon systems. If it wants to obstruct Pakistan’s weapons guidance systems, India will have to destroy the Chinese satellites, which is an unlikely and irrational choice and will carry escalatory challenges. Theoretically, even if it wants to target them, India needs to destroy more satellites at higher altitudes with more sophisticated longer-range missiles.

However, Pakistan does operate earth observation and communication satellites that India can target. In the future, Pakistan also plans to launch more satellites. This will increase the stakes for Pakistan to invest in anti-satellite capabilities to have a deterrence against India’s possession of such capabilities.

India itself operates Cartosat 1, 2, 2A, RISAT-1, and RISAT-2, electronic surveillance satellite EMISAT, and military imaging satellite Microsat-R for military applications. Besides these satellites, Indian armed forces operate several other communication satellites. In the future, the reliance on a large number of small satellites in low earth orbit for earth observation and remote sensing is likely to grow. These satellites give India Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) advantages. The possession of non-kinetic anti-satellite means by Pakistan can increase Pakistan’s options against India. Pakistan can blind India’s satellites to hinder its Command, Control, Computers Communications, and Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities.

In principle, Pakistan has opposed the weaponisation of space and has been at the forefront of international forums to conclude treaties banning the weaponisation of space. However, developing non-kinetic measures for deterrence and enhancing national security remains within the ambit of Pakistan’s position on the weaponisation of space. Their development also becomes necessary as the global adoption of space and cyber technologies for military applications increases.

Samran Ali

Samran Ali is an Islamabad-based defense analyst. He writes on military capabilities, national security, and defense issues. He tweets at @Samranali6.

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