Late in 2027, India seals a business contract with Maxar, a U.S. commercial imagery satellite company. The contract allows India to gain access to this company’s upgraded sun-synchronous system. This would entail Maxar becoming a 49 percent investor in a new Indian company, which would act as a feeder for data gathered from Maxar’s satellites. The Maxar satellites involved would include space situational awareness capabilities and a payload “important” to the U.S. The deal, which has dual-use military implications, has the blessing of the U.S. government.
China, meanwhile, develops a similar system, which a Pakistani “private entity” subscribes to in 2026. In addition, China’s satellite service provides analysis of the images. This Pakistani entity allows terrorist groups based in Kashmir to access the commercial resolution version of this service. Meanwhile, the Pakistani government has turned a blind eye to these groups’ acquisition of armed drones.
The terrorists are eager to force the Pakistani government to commit fully to the terrorists’ cause in Kashmir and hit upon the following strategy. One of these groups takes advantage of the commercial imagery it has access to to target Indian nuclear-capable Rafale fighters at Ambala Air Force Base (Pakistan famously attacked this airbase in 1965 and 1971) as well as NETRA Airborne Early Warning and Control planes that have been temporarily forward-based there. The terrorist group launches its attack against these targets and successfully destroys two Rafales and one NETRA plane. This attack also kills five Indian airmen servicing the NETRA aircraft.
India’s military scrambles to determine the source of the attack. It reaches out to Washington and U.S. intelligence services. The CIA has been monitoring the attack and passes on its conclusion that Pakistani-contracted Chinese satellite imagery services supported the attack. Given this information, the Indian prime minister immediately goes on television identifying Pakistan as the perpetrator. India demands a Pakistani apology, admission of guilt, and a crackdown on terrorist groups based in Pakistan. In addition, India accuses the Chinese of providing satellite imagery to support the operation. Pakistan denies it had anything to do with the attack; China states that it bore even less responsibility. The satellite service, Beijing noted, was the result of a private commercial contract between Pakistan and a private Chinese satellite company. India, which is sitting on the UN Security Council, asks for an emergency meeting.
In the interim, the terrorists launch a second attack against the Ambala Air Force Base. India again accuses Pakistan and China of allowing the use of Chinese satellite services to pull off this attack. Facing major internal protests, India decides to show its displeasure unilaterally: It uses its recently built laser tracking system to dazzle one of the satellites in the Pakistani-Chinese constellation. Unintentionally it damages the satellite’s optics. This is the first dazzling to result in permanent optic damage. China and Pakistan condemn India. China demands India pay for China’s damaged satellite and that India dismantle its dual-use laser tracking system. It threatens to take proportionate action if its demands are not met. India rejects Beijing’s demands and again calls for arbitration at the UN Security Council.
China and India pressure the United States to give a detailed brief on its intelligence regarding the attack. The U.S. intelligence community is wary to do so. It is able to confirm with human intelligence (HUMINT) that Pakistan allowed the proxy groups to use China’s satellite services to support both attacks but insists that sharing the source of this evidence with India and China would jeopardize the life of a critical intelligence source. A debate within the policy and intelligence communities as to what to do ensues.