Military & Aerospace

Space: The Force Multiplier for Air Power
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Issue Vol. 32.3 Jul-Sep 2017 | Date : 10 Nov , 2017

India needs early warning satellites to monitor ICBM launches and even tactical airspace as an important military asset. Ground/space-based lasers are needed to disable enemy satellites or destroy/degrade attacking ICBM as part of ASAT capability. There is also the need to develop Directed Energy Weapons. India needs a permanent space station. The establishment of tri-services Space Command should not be deferred any further. The space-based systems have enabled dramatic improvement in military and intelligence operations thus enhancing its capability, accuracy and firepower. In the not-so-distant future, wars will again be fought as in the Indian epics. Space is the future for all action and capabilities, the real force multiplier. Time to invest and prepare is now.

The ultimate desire of a space power is to dominate the use of space and have space-based systems that allow destruction of enemy targets in space and on Earth…

Space is the universe starting about 100 km above the Earth where its atmosphere thins down considerably. Aerospace encompasses the Earth’s atmosphere and the space above it. The two separate entities are considered as a single domain for activities of launching, guidance and control of vehicles that travel through both. Ancient India was known to be an aerospace power. Space wars are very explicitly described in ancient Indian manuscripts. The design of modern spacecraft has a lot in common with the ‘Vimana’, or ancient Indian aerospace craft. Similarly, the details of very powerful space weapons such as the ‘Brahmadanda’ of Lord Brahma and the ‘Vajra’ of Indra, the God of Weather and wars are well documented.

Designer Werner von Braun’s ethanol-fuelled rocket A4 launched on October 03, 1942, became the first man-made object to enter space. The 1960s saw humans leap beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. By the late 1960s, the Soviet Union and USA had both deployed military satellites for communications, imaging, reconnaissance and ballistic weapons. Ballistic missile transit through space was tested and soon became a capability with several nations. The ultimate desire of a space power is to dominate the use of space and have space-based systems that allow 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 the ground. While weapons are still to be positioned in space, scientific research is in advanced stage to act as an enabler. Space is thus going to be the force multiplier for military operations.

Evolution of Space Weapons

The US and the USSR began developing anti-satellite weapons in the early 1960s. They were in the form of directed energy lasers to decapitate, kamikaze satellites for hard-kill and possible orbital nuclear weapons. The very long range Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) spent significant time in sub-orbital flight and was best intercepted in space. The initial US ‘Nike-Zeus’ programme envisaged firing Nike nuclear missiles against incoming ICBMs. Project ‘Defender’ was to destroy Soviet ICBMs at launch with satellite weapon platforms that were to orbit over Russia. Both programmes were abandoned later.

The end of the Cold War saw new players such as China, Japan, the European Union and India create their own space systems.

The ‘Sentinel’ and ‘Safeguard’ programmes were designed to use Anti-Ballistic Missiles (ABM) to shoot down incoming ICBMs. The initial plan was to use a nuclear-tipped interceptor missile, but as accuracy improved, hit-to-kill ABMs evolved. In 1983, US President Reagan proposed a space-based Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) to protect the US from attack by strategic nuclear missiles.

In the 1960s, the Soviets developed a ‘co-orbital’ system that would approach the space target using radar guidance and then explode its 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 Polyus orbital weapons system was an anti-satellite weapon with nuclear space mines and a self-defence canon. The Soviets also considered the space shuttle as a single-orbit weapon that could manoeuvre to avoid existing anti-ballistic missile sites and then bomb the target and land. 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. The end of the Cold War saw new players such as China, Japan, the European Union and India create their own space systems. Spy satellites continue to perform C4ISR missions and are also used to provide early warnings of missile launches, locate nuclear detonations and detect preparations for otherwise clandestine or surprise nuclear tests. In Operation Desert Storm, early warning satellites were used to detect tactical missile launches.

Non-Weapon Space Enablers

Global Positioning Systems (GPS) are an important military application in space. US GPS, Russian GLONASS, European Galileo, Chinese Beidou and Indian Regional Navigational Satellite System named ‘Navic’ are some such examples. India’s is a regional system with seven satellites already in position and should be operational by the end of 2017. All others are global initiatives with between 24 to 36 satellites. They allow precise own location and provide very highly accurate time reference. The GPS system is in operation since February 1989. It also 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 position with accurate coordinates of targets can be transferred to bombers and cruise missiles through the military internet connected through satellite communications. Modern military forces including that of India have such secure information grids.

Another area of research was into Directed Energy Weapons, including a nuclear-explosion powered X-ray laser.

Weaponisation of Space

Space weapons can be categorised as those that attack targets in space (anti-satellite) or attack targets on ground from space or attack targets transiting through space (anti-ballistic missile). The Russian space station Salyut-3 was fitted with a 23mm cannon which was successfully test-fired at target satellites. In the 1960s, the US had envisaged a possible airbase on the Moon manned by 21 airmen as part of Project Lunex that was never executed. It is technically possible to position conventional or nuclear missiled in space that could reach targets on the ground. However, these would be expensive and difficult to maintain. Also, carrying heavy missiles would be a logistical nightmare and have only small advantage of saving time vis-a-vis aircraft and submarine-launched weapons. Even for the advantage of guaranteed second nuclear strike capability, it would not be worth the complications. The initial US plan which was later called off, was for a space-based constellation of 40 platforms deploying up to 1,500 kinetic interceptors. Under President Putin, research on ASAT weapons has reportedly been resumed to counter the renewed US strategic defence efforts post the ABM Treaty. The US also continues working on a number of programmes which could be the 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 space.

Ground-Based Space Weapons

Use of high altitude nuclear explosions to destroy satellites through damage caused by Electro-magnetic Pulse (EMP) on electronic equipment was considered. During tests in 1962, the EMP from a 1.4 mt warhead detonated over the Pacific damaged three satellites and also disrupted power transmission and communications across the Pacific. 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 555 km.

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 development of a prototype laser system ‘Sokol Exhelon’. Israel’s Arrow-3 (Hetz 3) anti-ballistic missile with exo-atmospheric interception capability, is in an advanced stage of development. In January 2007, China successfully destroyed a defunct Chinese weather satellite in polar orbit at an altitude of 865 km using a kinetic warhead of SC-19 ASAT missile. The warhead destroyed the satellite in a head-on collision at an extremely high relative velocity.

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In May 2013, the Chinese government announced the launch of a suborbital rocket carrying a scientific payload to study the upper ionosphere. The US government see 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. Currently, the US has a space strategy to focus on prevention of nuclear blackmail by major players or rouge states. The US National Missile Defense (NMD) programme has no weapon stations in space, but is designed to intercept incoming warheads at very high altitudes with both land and sea-based missiles.

Complexities of Satellite Intercepts

The ease of shooting down orbiting satellites and their effect on operations has been questioned by some. Tracking of military satellites with inbuilt defensive measure such as 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 above sea level and move at 7.5 km/s 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 such missions. GPS and communications satellites orbit at much higher altitudes of 20,000 to 36,000km putting them out of range of solid-fuelled ICBMs. The constellation of 30 GPS satellites provides redundancy where transmission from 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.

The US, Russia and China are the frontrunners in the weaponisation of space, though no weapons have been formally deployed in space yet.

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. The Moon and other celestial bodies were to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and astronauts were to be treated as envoys of mankind. However, by then, both the US and USSR had performed several nuclear explosions in space. The salient features of the treaties were the exploration and use of outer space for the benefit of mankind and that outer space is not subject to national appropriation. States are not to place weapons in orbit or on celestial bodies. States shall be liable for damage caused by their space objects. India had signed the Outer Space Treaty of 1967.

In 1981, the UN General Assembly proposed a Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) treaty to preserve space for peaceful uses by prohibiting the use of space weapons. The treaty would prevent a nation from gaining military advantage in outer space. 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 of self-defence. In December 2014, the UN General Assembly passed two resolutions on preventing arms race in outer space, both of which were opposed by the US and a few others. The US, Russia and China are the frontrunners in the weaponisation of space, though no weapons have been formally deployed in space yet.

Space Command Structures

The US Space Command, an element of the US Air Force (USAF), is located at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado. After the reorganisation in 2002, without touching its internal structure, this has been placed under US Strategic Command (STRATCOM). Within STRATCOM, the Joint Functional Component Command for space headed by a USAF General oversees US military space operations. In December 2011, the Russian Space Forces became the 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 PLA Strategic Support Force was created. It includes high-tech operations forces such as space, cyberspace and electronic warfare. The major mission of the PLA Strategic Support Force is to support combat operations so that the PLA can gain regional advantages in astronautic war, space war, network war and electromagnetic space war while ensuring smooth operations.

The largest Indian space launch vehicle GSLV can lift up to 5,000 kg payload.

Indian Space Industry

The Indian space industry is already acclaimed global player, is internationally competitive and maintains international quality standards. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) was established in 1972 to promote development and application of space science and technology. In the initial years, space applications were for communication, television broadcasting and remote sensing satellites and to perfect satellite launch vehicles. Today, India has an impressive array of satellites covering the entire spectrum. It has a world record of putting in orbit 104 satellites through a single launch. India has had a mission to Mars and has also planned mission to the Moon.

India also has the largest constellation of Earth observation satellites called Indian Remote Sensing (IRS) satellites with under one metre resolution. Larger INSAT series besides TV Broadcasting, telecommunications and meteorological applications, support societal applications such as tele-education and telemedicine. The largest Indian space launch vehicle GSLV can lift up to 5,000 kg payload.

Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), the Defence PSU manufacturing aircraft, is the premier manufacturing partner of ISRO. It has a dedicated Aerospace Division. Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO) with a network of 52 laboratories, supports development of critical defence technologies. Other organisations that are active participants in the space programme are the Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL), Bharat Dynamics Limited (BDL), Mishra Dhatu Nigam Limited (MIDHANI) with metallurgical competence in super-alloys and special purpose steels and BrahMos Aerospace with technologies evolved for supersonic cruise missile. Around 40 private sector companies including Larsen and Toubro and Bharat Forge are partners.

China is averaging 20 space missions a year. As per estimates, China has over 500 ballistic missiles including 100 ICBM, 25 per cent of which are submarine based and some with MIRV warheads, with ranges beyond 13,000 km.

South Asian Aerospace Realities

China is a clear leader in space and is investing heavily. The first Chinese manned spaceflight was in 2003. In January 2007, China became the first Asian military space power to send an anti-satellite missile into orbit and destroy an ageing Chinese weather satellite. Anti-satellite technologies to destroy or disable space-based assets are a critical part of the Chinese space programme. These include land-based missiles, experimental lasers and signal jammers. China has successfully landed a rover on the Moon and has plans to put humans on the Moon. China plans to bring a habitable space station Tiangong2 online by 2022 and put Chinese astronauts on the Moon in the mid-2020s. They also have Mars lander mission coming up.

The Chinese space programme is linked to the nation’s efforts at developing advanced military technology. In 2015, China launched ‘DAMPE’, the most capable dark matter explorer to date and world’s first quantum communication satellite ‘QUESS’ in 2016. Pakistan’s very fledgling space programme has Chinese support and stamp. China is averaging 20 space missions a year. As per estimates, China has over 500 ballistic missiles including 100 ICBM, 25 per cent of which are submarine based and some with MIRV warheads, with ranges beyond 13,000 km.

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 takes Chinese support for satellite launch. They have also joined the Chinese satellite navigation system Beidou. The main focus has been to develop a series of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles for the Pakistan Army with payloads up to 1,200 kg and range of 2,500 km. In January 2017, they tested the Abadeel, a development of the Shaheen-III with Multiple Independently-targetable Re-entry Vehicles (MIRV). The system is meant to counteract the Indian Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD).

India became the fourth space agency in the world to send a spacecraft to Mars, behind US, Russia and the EU. India launched its first Moon mission Chandrayan-1 and later in November 2013, its maiden interplanetary mission, the Mars Orbiter Mission which in September 2014, entered its intended orbit around Mars. Indian ballistic defence programme is a multi-layered system consisting of two interceptor missiles, the Prithvi Air Defence (PAD) missile for high altitude and the Advanced Air Defence (AAD) missile for lower altitude interception. It would be able to intercept incoming missiles launched from 5,000 km away. PAD was tested in November 2006, and AAD in December 2007. India thus became the fifth country to have an ABM system after US, Russia, China and Israel.

The ‘Swordfish’ radar for the BMD system currently has a range of 800km. It is planned to upgrade its range to 1,500 km – 2,000 km.

On March 06, 2009, India successfully tested its missile defence shield when an incoming missile was intercepted at an altitude of 75 km. The ‘Swordfish’ radar for the BMD system currently has a range of 800km. It is planned to upgrade its range to 1,500 km – 2,000 km. Two new anti-ballistic missiles to intercept IRBMs are being developed to cover a range of up to 5,000 km. India is also planning a laser-based weapon system to destroy a ballistic missile in its boost phase.

India’s RISAT 1&2 satellites use Israeli synthetic aperture radar and have significant all-weather surveillance capability. The GSAT-7 or INSAT-4F is a multi-band military communications satellite developed for the Indian Navy. It became operational in September 2013. The IRS series of satellites have a spatial resolution of one metre or below and also have military applications. The CARTOSAT series carry state-of-the-art panchromatic cameras. The data from the satellite is used for mapping and other cartographic applications. The GSAT-6 is the second strategic satellite mainly for use by the armed forces for quality and secure communication.

The Way Ahead

Noted strategist Guilio Douhet 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 the 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. India is one among the top six space powers in the world namely the US, Russia, China, European Space Agency and Japan. Satellites of several countries are used for variety of military purposes. US, Russia and China have developed and successfully tested ASAT weapons.

Now the dominating position will belong to those who gain supremacy in outer space.

With space having emerged as the fourth medium for military operations, the IAF had brought out its blueprint entitled ‘Defence Space Vision 2020’. The Integrated Space Cell under the IDS headquarters in Delhi, is working on furthering joint space strategy. The Defence Space Satellite Centre works closely with the ISRO. 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 is known to be developing an exo-atmospheric kill vehicle that can be integrated with a missile to engage satellites.

India needs early warning satellites to monitor ICBM launches and even tactical airspace as an important military asset. Ground/space-based lasers are needed to disable enemy satellites or destroy/degrade attacking ICBM as part of ASAT capability. There is also the need to develop Directed Energy Weapons. India needs a permanent space station. The establishment of tri-services Space Command should not be deferred any further. The space-based systems have enabled dramatic improvement in military and intelligence operations thus enhancing its capability, accuracy and firepower. In the not-so-distant future, wars will again be fought as in the Indian epics. Space is the future for all action and capabilities, the real force multiplier. Time to invest 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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