Military & Aerospace

Militarisation of Space: Imperatives for India
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Issue Vol. 34.4 Oct-Dec 2019 | Date : 15 Oct , 2020

In the last week of July 2019, India concluded the first table-top joint war game called ‘IndSpaceEx’. Run by the military and the space scientists, it was the next logical step after India had tested its Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) defence systems and achieved many other key milestones pertaining to space including the recent demonstration of India’s Anti-Satellite (ASAT) capability and the establishment of the new tri-service Defence Space Agency (DSA). Though the Chandrayaan 2 missed the landing on Lunar surface by just two kilometres on September 07, 2019, the attempt itself has given India a ticket to the extra-terrestrial game.

India plans an orbiter to Venus, the Shukrayaan-1 in 2023. India has consistently supported peaceful exploitation of space, but with erstwhile superpowers, the US and Russia having made significant advances and China quickly moving ahead, India had no choice but to enhance its operational capability in space which is also becoming a great economic enabler and is influencing and supporting every activity on planet earth. The thin line dividing the earth’s atmosphere and space is fast shrinking with more platforms transiting between the earth and space. Greater space presence requires the capability to launch heavy satellites, increase number of launches per year, have ability to launch satellites at short notice, position high accuracy sensors, have advanced electronic and cyber capabilities and develop kinetic and non-kinetic means to defend India’s assets and interests in space. Space-based military and counter-space operations will allow own use of space while denying the adversary to use space offensively against Indian space or earth-based assets. ‘Space Wars’ are no more in the domain of science fiction, but a reality facing the world and hence India must be prepared.

Space and Military Interest

In very simple terms, ‘Space’ is the vast three-dimensional region that begins where the earth’s atmosphere thins down considerably. Space is usually thought to begin at the lowest altitude at which satellites can maintain orbits for a reasonable time without falling into the atmosphere. This is approximately 160 kilometres above the surface. The two separate entities are considered as a single domain for activities of launching, guidance and control of vehicles that travel in both entities. Astronomers may speak of inter-planetary, inter-stellar and inter-galactic space, but of immediate military interest is the region up to the Moon and subsequently, the solar system.

The ultimate desire of a space power is to dominate space and have space-based systems that allow the destruction of enemy targets in space and on earth, and deny the enemy full access to space including preventing the enemy from launching satellites and destroying or degrading enemy satellites in space. The term ‘Space War’, however, is restricted to where the target is in space and is attacked from space or from ground. While weapons are still to be officially positioned in space, scientific research is in an advanced stage to act as an enabler. Space is thus set to be the force multiplier for military operations.

Space Weapons – Cold War

By the late 1960s, the Soviet Union and the US had both deployed military satellites for communications, imaging, reconnaissance and monitoring ballistic weapons. Ballistic missile transit through space was tested and soon became a capability with many nations. The US and the Soviet Union began developing anti-satellite weapons in early 1960s. They were in the form of directed-energy lasers to decapitate kamikaze satellites for hard-kill and possible orbital nuclear weapons. In 1983, US President Reagan proposed a space-based Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to protect the US from attack by nuclear missiles.

In the 1960s, the Soviets developed a ‘co-orbital’ system that would approach the space target using radar guidance and then explode shrapnel warhead close enough to kill it. The Soviets evolved a Low Earth Orbit Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS) for earth targets. It would de-orbit for the attack. The SALT II Agreement of 1979 prohibited the deployment of FOBS systems. The Soviets also experimented with large, ground-based Anti-Satellite (ASAT) lasers with a number of US spy-satellites reportedly being temporarily ‘blinded’. The Soviets also used a modified MiG-31 as an ASAT launch platform. There were many other initiatives.

Non-Weapon Space Enablers

Military requires the use of space for Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) for networked warfare. Satellites are also used to provide early warning of missile launches, locate nuclear detonations and detect preparations for otherwise clandestine or surprise nuclear tests. Global Positioning System (GPS) is an important military application in space. US GPS, Russian GLONASS, European Galileo, Chinese Beidou and Indian Regional Navigational satellite System ‘NAVIC’ are some such examples. GPS has been operational since February 1989. It facilitates accurate targeting by smart bombs and cruise missiles. The military doctrine of network-centric warfare also relies heavily on the use of high speed, satellite-enabled communications to improve real-time situational awareness. Satellite imagery of enemy positions with accurate coordinates of target can be transferred to bombers and cruise missiles through the military internet connected through satellite communications. Modern military forces including India have such secure information grids.

Weaponisation of Space

A 2006 draft of the US National Space Policy clearly formulated the opposition to arms control and aspiration to dominate space. “Space superiority is not our birthright, but it is our destiny. Space supremacy is our vision for the future,” General Lance Lord, then head of the US Air Force Space Command said in 2005. The Russian ASAT Research has reportedly resumed under President Putin to counter the renewed US strategic defence efforts post ABM Treaty. The US has also pulled out of the bilateral Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty with Russia. The US, meanwhile, continues working on a number of programmes which could be basis for a space-based ASAT. International space treaties regulate positioning of weapons or conflicts in space. To date, there have been no human casualties resulting from conflict in space, nor has any ground target been successfully neutralised from orbit. Control and denial of space-based assets forms a key part of the PLA doctrine as well.

Ground-Based Space Weapons

During tests in 1962, the Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) from a 1.4 Mt nuclear warhead detonated over the Pacific, damaged three satellites. Another area of research was into Directed Energy Weapons, including a nuclear explosion-powered X-ray laser. AGM-69 SRAM carried on a modified F-15 Eagle was successfully tested in September 1985, targeting a satellite orbiting at 555km. In February 2008, the US Navy fired a standard ABM to act as an ASAT weapon to destroy an ageing hydrazine-laden US satellite. Russia has reportedly restarted the development of a prototype laser system ‘Sokol Exhelon’. Israel’s Arrow 3 (Hetz-3) Anti-Ballistic Missile, with exo-atmospheric interception capability became operational in January 2017. It intercepts ballistic missiles during the space-flight portion of their trajectory.

In January 2007, China successfully destroyed a defunct Chinese weather satellite in polar orbit at an altitude of about 865 km using a kinetic warhead of SC-19 Anti-Satellite (ASAT) missile. The warhead destroyed the satellite in a head-on collision at an extremely high relative velocity. In May 2013, the Chinese government announced the launch of a suborbital rocket carrying a scientific payload to study the upper ionosphere. US government suspects it as the first test of a new ground-based ASAT system. The NASA space plane X-37, now with the US Department of Defense, is akin to a space version of Uninhabited Aerial Vehicle and its employability is evolving. The US National Missile Defense (NMD) programme has no weapon stations in space, but is designed to intercept incoming warheads at a very high altitude where the interceptor travels into space to intercept. In June 2019, China became the third country to launch a satellite using Long March 11 rocket that lifted off from a floating launch pad in the Yellow Sea.

Indian ASAT Test

 On March 27, 2019, India destroyed a ‘live satellite’ in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The interceptor struck a test satellite at a 283-kilometre altitude, 168 seconds after launch. The system was developed by Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). With this test, India became the fourth nation with ASAT missile capabilities. As per DRDO, the missile was capable of shooting down enemy targets moving at a speed of 10 km per second at an altitude as high as 1,200 km. However, in order to minimise debris, the interception was performed against an object moving at 7.4km per second at an altitude below 300 km. It gave India a great capability for a possible war in space.

Complexities of Satellite Intercepts

The ease of shooting down orbiting satellites and their effects on operations has been questioned by some. Tracking of military satellites with inbuilt defensive measure like inclination changes will not be easy. The interceptor would have to pre-determine the point of impact while compensating for the satellite’s lateral movement and the time for the interceptor to climb and move. Military satellites orbit at about 800 km and move at 7.5kmps and are difficult to intercept. Even if an ISR satellite is knocked out, all countries possess an extensive array of manned and unmanned ISR aircraft that could perform mission. GPS and communications satellites orbit at much higher altitudes of 20,000 to 36,000 km putting them out of range of solid-fuelled ICBMs. The constellation of many GPS satellites provides redundancy where at least four satellites can be received in six orbital planes at any one time, so an attacker would need to disable at least six satellites to disrupt the network.     

Anti-Space Weaponisation Treaties

During the Cold War, to avoid extending the threat of nuclear weapons to space, the Partial Nuclear Test Ban treaty of 1963 and Outer Space Treaty of 1967 prevented detonating nuclear devices in space. However, by then, both the US and the Soviet Union had performed several high altitude nuclear explosions in space. The salient features of the treaties were the exploration and use of outer space for the benefit of mankind and not to place weapons in orbit or on celestial bodies. In 1981, a UN General Assembly proposed Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) treaty to preserve space for peaceful uses by prohibiting the use of space weapons. China and the US prevented consensus. The proposed Space Preservation Treaty of 2006 against all space weapons and 2008 Treaty on Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space were vetoed by the US despite the treaty explicitly affirming a State’s inherent right to self-defence. In December 2014, the UN passed two resolutions on preventing arms race in outer space, both of which were opposed by the US among others.

Space Command Structures

The US Space Command (USSPACECOM) was created as a Unified Combatant Command in 1985 to coordinate the use of outer space by the US Armed Forces. After the reorganisation in 2002, it was placed under US Strategic Command. In December 2011, the Russian Space Forces became Aerospace Defence Forces, fusing all space and some air defence components into one joint service. In August 2015, they were merged with the Russian Air Force to form the Russian Aerospace Forces.

As part of the reforms in December 2015, the People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force was created. It is understood that it includes high-tech operations forces such as space, cyberspace and electronic warfare. The major mission of the PLA Strategic Support Force is to give support to the combat operations so that the PLA can gain regional advantages in astronautic, space, network and electro-magnetic wars. In 2012, the Indian Armed Forces Chief of Staff Committee had recommended the formation of three commands for cyber, space and Special Operations. In April 2019, India created the tri-services DSA based in Bangalore for better utilisation and integration of space resources. It will combine key functions performed by the Defence Imagery Processing and Analysis Centre (DIPAC) in Delhi and the Defence Satellite Control Centre (DSCC) in Bhopal. It will also evolve space doctrines and support suitable military action in space. The DSA will work closely with the ISRO and DRDO.

India’s Launch and Satellite Capabilities

ISRO’s main launch vehicles are the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV). In January 2014, ISRO successfully used an indigenous cryogenic engine in GSLV-D5 launch of the GSAT-14. ISRO sent one lunar orbiter ‘Chandrayaan-1’ on October 22, 2008, and a Mars orbiter mission, which entered Mars orbit on September 24, 2014, making India the first nation to succeed on its first attempt. India’s Space programme though overtly for peaceful exploitation of space, has military off-shoots. These include remote sensing satellites of IRS series with some having spatial resolution of one metre or below. There are others with panchromatic cameras, synthetic aperture radars, satellites providing scene-specific spot imagery for cartographic/military applications. ISRO used its heaviest rocket, GSLV-Mk III, on June 05, 2017, to launch the four-tonne GSAT-19. Soon the capacity will increase to launch up to 5,000-kg satellite. ISRO has launched 239 satellites of which, some have been for 28 foreign countries. “India will send its first manned mission to space by December 2021,” says ISRO Chief Kailasavadivoo Sivan.

Indian Military Application Satellites

India currently has 15 operational Indian Remote Sensing (IRS) satellites. All these are placed in polar sun-synchronous orbit and provide data in a variety of spatial, spectral and temporal resolutions. India also commercially offers images with one-metre resolution. Radar Imaging Satellite 2 (RISAT-2) has Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) from Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). It has a day-night, all-weather monitoring capability with one-metre resolution.

The CARTOSAT-2 carries a state-of-the-art Panchromatic (PAN) camera that takes black and white pictures of the earth in the visible region of the electromagnetic spectrum. CARTOSAT-2A is a dedicated satellite for the Indian Armed Forces. Because of high agility, it can be steered to facilitate imaging of any area more frequently. CARTOSAT-2B offers multiple spot scene imagery. CARTOSAT-2E was launched in June 2017. GSAT-6 is the second strategic satellite mainly for use by the armed forces for secure communication. The Indian Navy uses GSAT-7 for real-time communication among its warships, submarines, aircraft and land systems. GSAT-7A or ‘angry bird’ – an advanced military communications satellite exclusively for the Indian Air Force (IAF), was launched in December 2018. It will enhance network-centric warfare capabilities by interlinking with the IAF ground radar network and Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircraft. The GSAT-7A will also be used by Indian Army Aviation Corps. India has 13 satellites with military applications. India is also planning a laser-based weapon system to destroy a ballistic missile in its boost phase.

China and Pakistan Space Programmes

The first Chinese manned spaceflight was in 2003. In January 2007, China used an anti-satellite missile to destroy an aging Chinese weather satellite. China’s ASAT programme includes land-based missiles, experimental lasers, and signal jammers. China has successfully performed the soft landing of a rover on the Moon, including on the only ones to land on the dark side. China has long term ambitions to exploit Earth-Moon space for industrial development. China plans to have a habitable space station Tiangong 2 online by 2022, and put Chinese astronauts on the Moon in the mid-2020s. China also has the Mars lander mission coming up. China has launched ‘DAMPE’, the most capable dark matter explorer to date in 2015, and world’s first quantum communication satellite ‘QUESS’ in 2016. China is averaging 20 space missions a year.    

Pakistan’s Karachi-based Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO) is more of a bureaucratic agency with little to show as end products. It is a part of the Strategic Plans Division (SPD) of Pakistani Armed Forces under the control of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). Pakistan’s very fledgling space programme has Chinese support and stamp. Pakistan takes Chinese support for satellite launch. It has also joined the Chinese satellite navigation system Beidou. The main concentration has been to develop a series of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles for the Pakistan Army.

Wargame IndSpaceEx

IndSpaceEx, a table-top exercise, was conducted by the Ministry of Defence on July 25 and 26, 2019. The exercise assessed threats in space from a military perspective and India’s current capability. It took stock of the military space assets of the US, Russia and China. The country’s armed forces along with DRDO, ISRO, academia including IIT-Mumbai, think-tanks such as ORF and private industry were part of the exercise. Within the community of strategic thinkers, Beijing poses a major threat to India’s security interest – satellites and other assets. This first of its kind exercise, at this level, was to help gain a better understanding of space-related security issues. The limited agenda was to give insight into vulnerabilities and the gaps in India’s space security and identifying areas for India to develop and strengthen technological capabilities in order to establish effective deterrence as the logical next step.

Capability Building

Dr. S.Chandrashekhar of the National Institute of Advanced Studies at Bengaluru looked into some of the important aspects of security-related aspects utilisation of space in his study ‘Space, War & Security – A Strategy for India’. The major space-based components would be a robust Space Situational Awareness (SSA) capability comprising radar, optical and laser tracking facilities that are able to operationally monitor the space environment. A constellation of advanced communications satellites in Geo Stationery Orbit (GSO) are required for carrying out vital C4 functions. A constellation of satellites in LEO will provide Internet services for the military and clusters of satellites will be used for ELINT function. A constellation of Electro-Optical and SAR satellites will be placed in appropriate Sun Synchronous Orbits (SSO) for ISR. Small satellites on hot-standby will be launched at short notice into LEO for ISR needs during crises. There will be adequate Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System (TDRSS) satellites in GSO C4ISR capability, as well as satellites for meeting operational weather requirements and navigation functions. To meet all these requirements, India would need 16 PSLV, seven GSLV and seven Agni 5-based launchers every year. This would mean creating significant indigenous launch capacity.

In future, India requires ‘Heavy’ (4,200 – 5,400 kg) to Very Heavy satellites (>5,400 kg). The use of Ion Propulsion for moving the satellite from GTO to GSO is an emerging trend. This approach will allow the GSLV Mark 2 to launch the equivalent of an intermediate class GSO satellite and the GSLV Mark 3 can launch the equivalent of a heavy-class satellite. The creation of an ELINT capability and a TDRSS capability are major gaps that have to be bridged on priority. Indian capabilities for dealing with the infra-red (thermal) part of the spectrum are also limited. These need to be strengthened significantly. Antenna technology for meeting modern SSA, SAR and C4 needs national attention. Extending the IRNSS scheme for navigation via an MEO constellation to improve navigation accuracies and eventually provide for an indigenous solution to the navigation problem is required.

Space Strategy Ahead

Noted strategist Guilio Douhet had said, “Victory smiles upon those who anticipate the changes in the character of war, not upon those who wait to adapt themselves after the changes occur.” When Britain dominated the seas, it ruled the world. The Americans have been leaders of the free world ever since they gained superiority in the air. Now, the dominating position will belong to those who gain supremacy in outer space. The Sino-US dynamics will drive the other major powers to act to preserve and enhance their security and national interests. Space assets will act as the force multipliers and will play a vital role in the formulation and implementation of the strategies. The entire National Security Complex would have to be re-organised and restructured keeping in mind this reality. The role of space-based C4ISR assets complemented by other ground-based SSA components will be critical in deciding on the new national strategy for waging war and for preserving the peace.

With space having emerged as the fourth medium for military operations, the IAF had brought out its blueprint titled ‘Defence Space Vision 2020’. Integrated Space Cell under the IDS headquarters in Delhi is working on furthering joint space strategy. The Defence Space Satellite Centre works closely with ISRO. Both will now be part of the DSA. India has developed all the building blocks necessary to integrate an anti-satellite weapon to neutralise hostile satellites in low earth and polar orbits. India needs early warning satellites to monitor ICBM launches and even tactical airspace as an important military asset, and ground/space-based lasers to disable enemy satellites or destroy/degrade attacking ICBM as part of ASAT capability.

There is also a need to develop Directed Energy Weapons. Someday, India will need a permanent space station. The space-based systems have enabled dramatic improvement in military and intelligence operations thus enhancing its capability, accuracy and fire power. In the not-so-distant future, wars will again be fought in the manner we read about in the Indian Epics. Space is the future for all action and capabilities – the real force multiplier. India is doing well. Time to invest more and prepare is now.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Air Marshal Anil Chopra

Air Marshal Anil Chopra, commanded a Mirage Squadron, two operational air bases and the IAF’s Flight Test Centre ASTE

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