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, which consists of three satellites (eventually to become six.) This entails Maxar becoming a 49 percent investor in a new Indian company. As with the previous Pentagon purchase of Starlink terminals for Ukraine, the U.S. Defense Department contracts with Maxar to buy mobile Maxar terminals for India. The Maxar satellites involved include space situational awareness capabilities and a payload “important” to the United States. The deal, which has dual-use military implications, has the blessing of the U.S. government.
China, meanwhile, develops a similar system for a Pakistani “private entity.” China’s satellite service provides analysis of the images. The Pakistani “private entity,” owned by retired General T. Khan, a former Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) official, allows terrorist groups based in Kashmir to access this commercial resolution service. Meanwhile, the Pakistani government has turned a blind eye to these groups’ acquisition of armed drones. The Chinese constellation is capable of both remote-sensing and satellite communication data link. This would give the user command prompts for any navigation required to get to a given target, allowing over-the-horizon command of remote assets.
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 its access to this commercial imagery to use drones to target Indian nuclear-capable Rafale fighters at Ambala Air Force Base (Pakistan famously attacked this airbase in 1965 and 1971), and 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. India 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. India also 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.
Shortly thereafter, the terrorists launch a second attack against the Ambala Air Force Base. The attack takes out another three NETRA command aircraft and results in twenty-four fatalities and at least fifteen other major casualties. India again accuses Pakistan and China of allowing the use of Chinese satellite services to pull off this attack. Facing major internal protests, India shows its displeasure unilaterally: It uses its recently built laser tracking system to dazzle one of the satellites in the Pakistani-Chinese constellation. It holds in reserve its direct ascent capability, cyber, and local jamming capabilities. 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.
India pressures 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 has 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.