Should India Worry About China’s Offer To Provide SLC-18 Radar To Pakistan? 

If Pakistan ends up purchasing the radar system, the threat it poses to the Indian security apparatus will be multi-faceted
Should India Worry About China’s Offer To Provide SLC-18 Radar To Pakistan? 

Chinese state-owned China Electronics Technology Group (CETC) displayed the new SLC-18 radar system at the Zhuhai Air Show, which took place from November 8 to 13. The radar system’s capability to detect and track satellites in low-earth orbit (LEO) and China’s willingness to export it to its allies can be a cause of concern for the Indian defence establishment.

The SLC-18 radar system is potentially the world’s first active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar that can operate at such a large scale. It is an impressive addition to China’s arsenal as it has next-generation tracking technology and large phased arrays with fully digital controls. Unlike previous long-range low-frequency systems, the SLC-18 can expand and retract its tracking nets.

This capability is a vital step in any future low-orbit counter-measure engagements. In such a case, it would be a major technological advancement as it would not only be a tracking tool but also a targeting system. If Pakistan ends up purchasing it, the threat to the Indian security apparatus will be multi-faceted. India will have to grapple with issues of satellite- and missile-tracking, as well as interception of secure communications.

Threat Of Tracking

There are several advantages to using the SLC-18 radar. “The radar utilises a cutting-edge, all-solid-state active phased array system and operates in a lower frequency band. It offers exceptional advantages such as multi-target capability and an extensive search range,” Girish Linganna, an aerospace and defence analyst, tells Outlook Business. The radar's ability to function in all weather conditions also makes it an all-around threat.

Linganna adds that “The SLC-18 radar can track a constellation of satellites at a time and also gives data on drones, aircrafts and missiles.” Hence, it has been considered a counter to Elon Musk’s Starlink constellation of satellites which has kept communications in war-torn Ukraine up and running despite Russia destroying cellular phone and internet networks.

Yet another threat that has emerged against satellites and missiles is directed energy weapons (DEWs). If a DEW is integrated with the radar system, it could be tasked to neutralise a satellite or a missile.

If Pakistan were to operate this radar, it would have a more convenient technique to track Indian satellites. The radar's range is likely to cover most of India. And in all likelihood, China will receive all the data collected by Pakistan, thereby eliminating their reliance on costly and labour-intensive missile-tracking ships that are used to monitor traffic around Indian military assets.

Earlier this year, two Chinese spy chips – Yuan Wang-5 and Yuan Wang-6 – were seen operating in the Indian Ocean Region, reportedly to track Indian satellites and missiles. The docking of Yuan Wang-5 in Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port came under criticism from India, as well as the US. An advanced radar such as the SLC-18 can allow China to cut down on such risky maritime moves.

Concerns Over Communication

India has many remote areas where conventional communication measures cannot hold up due to the rugged terrain and adverse climatic conditions. For example, Siachen Glacier, which is the world’s highest battlefield at 5400m, has no cell phone towers. The same is the case in the Northeast region. In such places, communication lines are dependent on LEO satellites.

Satellites inserted in LEO are also used for military reconnaissance and spying, according to Linganna. If these satellites are damaged, perhaps by a DEW, India’s military  communications network will be hampered. Such an impact can subsequently escalate into further security threats in no time.

A radar system such as the SLC-18 endangers not just the military communication system but can also negatively impact other sectors. Linganna cites examples of earth-observation, logistics and geo-location, signal monitoring, and even scientific missions.

Tightening The String 

There is a popular narrative on the Indo-China geopolitical tussle known as the ‘String of Pearls’ theory. International relations analysts describe it as a strategic positioning of Chinese military assets around India across both the land and sea fronts. And now, China can potentially add the space-based threat to their existing dual fronts. This would involve a constellation of LEO satellites.

The sale of its radar can be seen as a move in this direction. If numerous host countries under China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) can acquire the Chinese-made advanced radar system, India's satellite advancements can be strategically negated. This would indeed be a genuine security threat to India. Counter-measures against such radar activities are the need of the hour if India is to effectively safeguard its security interests.

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