- In 2019, the government approved the creation of a Defence Space Research Organisation, with command over the space assets of the Army, Navy and Air Force
- India has a handful of military satellites in operation, compared to over 40 civilian ones.
- There are several use cases of space tech in defence, in areas such as communication, weather, target detection, among others.
In a historic move, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently announced that the country was raising Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) cap to 74% in the defence sector. Moreover, he particularly invited US companies to invest in the space sector.
Over the last few years, space has become the new frontier in defence. Nations all over the world, including India, have embarked on building robust military space capabilities.
In 2019, the government approved the creation of a Defence Space Research Organisation, with command over the space assets of the Army, Navy and Air Force, including the military’s anti-satellite capability. It is a breakthrough for India’s defence establishment, ever since the nuclear arsenal was operationalised around 15 years ago.
The case for India’s utilisation of outer space has always been to “harness space technology for national development, while pursuing space science research and planetary exploration”. Today, the global space economy is an intrinsic part of modern society infrastructure that not just provides connectivity, but is also a critical component for security.
Military and Space: Hand in Glove
Though Indian Space Research Organisation( ISRO) was founded in 1969, it was only in the mid-1980s that its technology from Satellite Launch Vehicle-3 was employed in the Agni ballistic missile. When it comes to satellites, India has a handful of military satellites in operation, compared to over 40 civilian ones.
There are several use cases of space tech in defence, in areas such as communication, weather, target detection, navigation, high-resolution, remote sensing and high-energy weaponry, according to an article by the Indian Defence Review.
Space Situational Awareness (SSA) for keeping track of objects in orbit, and predicting where they will be at a given point in time, is another area where space and defence go hand in hand.
There is widespread need for strong communication services in the use of various command networks, real-time information networks as well as video calls. Moreover, with an increasing number of weaponries and vehicles getting connected to a central network, high-speed connectivity becomes mandatory.
In 2007, the Chinese ASAT (anti-satellite test) missile test destroyed an unused weather satellite. Over the years, there have been several conversations around India’s ability to develop ASAT capabilities, since the country recognises such tests as a threat to all its space assets.
Finally, in 2019, India successfully conducted an ASAT test using a ballistic missile defense interceptor, the Prithvi Delivery Vehicle Mark-II (PDV MK-II), developed by India’s Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO).
Its use can also be in Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RPV) that are largely used for surveillance and combat operations.
The last two decades have brought about significant changes in international and regional security, and experts suggest that this is India’s time to deploy its space capacities to secure its regional and territorial interests.
There are some steps that have already been taken over the years. In 2010, an Integrated Space Cell (ISC) was created under the Integrated Defence Services (IDS) Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence. The agency is responsible for greater integration of space technology into military operations.
Post this, in 2013, ISRO launched a dedicated military communications satellite for the Navy, GSAT-7, for the very first time. In 2015, GSAT-6 was built for the armed forces.
In May 2020, according to an article by The Indian Express, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced a ground-breaking initiative by opening up space and atomic energy to private players, referring to them as “fellow travellers”. And, on May 30, history was created by SpaceX when NASA astronauts were launched into orbit by the first-ever commercially-built rocket and spacecraft. “NewSpace” is a rapidly growing market that will be worth hundreds of billions of dollars in the next decade.
This has also paved the way for the launch of several space tech startups, including Pixxel, founded by two BITS Pilani graduates.
“The small satellite will go in a Russian launch vehicle and will focus on high clarity satellite imagery. It would be helpful for governments and private organisations in collecting AI-powered analytical data related to agriculture, climate, spread of crop pests and diseases, defence monitoring, and mining in order to find illegal operations, monitor oil and gas pipelines, natural disasters, forest fire etc”, said Awais Ahmed, founder and CEO of Pixxel, to a publication.
Another startup, Bellatrix Aerospace, offers novel “electric propulsion” systems, which have applications in the field of nano and micro-satellite propulsion.
It is noteworthy that unlike other global space powers, India’s space program began as a civilian project, making the country relatively inexperienced when it comes to the military side of things.
“The US, Russia, China and Europe developed space capabilities for military purposes first, and then put those technologies to civilian use. Barring Europe’s Ariane rockets, their extant satellite launch vehicles are derived from their respective intercontinental ballistic missile designs. India’s space quest, on the other hand, was focused on civilian use—weather forecasting, broadcast, telecommunications and remote sensing,” shared Nitin Pai, co-founder and director of The Takshashila Institution, with The Blue Circle (this text has been used with his due permission).
According to an article titled India’s Defence Space Agency: The Way Forward published by the Takshashila Institution, “First, the DSA and the DSRO face the acute danger of falling into the arms race spiral in space, as innovation in this domain is rapid, with a wide array of weapon-systems available at a country’s disposal..Despite having tested the anti-satellite missile, ASAT system — which offer limited strategic benefits — it only acts as weapons of last resort as the threat of creating an enormous amount of debris by shooting a satellite may be seen as a less credible threat. Given that the military space program faces severe financial constraints, India must first build the capability to monitor and track assets in space, operant command and control systems for having an effective space situational awareness which act as a prerequisite for harnessing military space power.”
The other challenge is the lack of a full-fledged space doctrine. Simply having a doctrine focusing on space-to-space engagement or ground-support engagement is not enough. “In order to remain relevant in today’s informationized domains, and be fully integrated into India’s defence force structure, the DSA must lead the way in devising a new doctrine that fully integrates the three services of the armed forces, while at the same time having a long-term vision of India’s interests in space,” informed the article.
What Lies Ahead?
Several opportunities lie before India, when it comes to the integration of satellite-based technologies into the defence sector. Although several gaps exist today, it is important to remember that the path to building space defence has already begun, it’s only a matter of time until India commands a fair share in this space.
“Liberalising India’s space sector is a necessary condition for the country to achieve greater self-reliance not just in space, but in the broader high technology domain. Yet, for that goal to be achieved, New Delhi must aggressively fight for an open global economy. The paradox of self-reliance is that it can only be achieved through openness. This is so in space as in most other things,” shared Nitin with TBC (the text has been used with his due permission).
(Edited by Anu Choudary)