Military & Aerospace

Space: The New Battle Zone
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Issue Vol. 30.2 Apr-Jun 2015 | Date : 01 Oct , 2015

The most potent threat to Indian military and dual use satellites in Low Earth Orbit (RISAT, CARTOSAT, TES) comes from Chinese hit-to-kill ASAT interceptors. However, the debris resulting from large scale kinetic attacks on Indian satellites could potentially damage scores of satellites belonging to other countries over a period of time leading to global disruption of services. Such debris could make access to large tracts of orbital space hazardous. It is unlikely that China would consider using kinetic ASAT weapons against India unless faced with ignominious defeat. The threat to Indian space assets will mostly come from jamming, spoofing and perhaps DEWs. China has demonstrated its ability to attack satellites and is likely far ahead of the defensive measures that Indian satellites currently incorporate.

It is possible that outer space could, one day, become a battle zone reminiscent of scenes in films such as Star Wars and Star Trek, with agile space fighters deftly emerging from the cavernous insides of humongous carrier ships through loud clanging airlocks, to engage swarming hostiles launched by ominous death star alien motherships. Trust us, it may never happen!

One simple reason is that a manoeuvering a spacecraft is largely governed by orbital mechanics, not by hot-shot pilots yanking at their control sticks. Media hype notwithstanding, nations will not battle each other in outer space because it is not an extension of air space. A country exercises sovereignty over its airspace as demarcated by its geographical boundaries; it can defend the airspace with all the ferocity that it can muster. Not so with outer space, where there are no geographical boundaries. When viewed from orbital distances, national boundaries spin out of sight and relevance. The whole world is one – a serene, jewel-like blue planet in the infinitesimal void and darkness of the universe.

The Indian Armed Forces are now heavily investing in network-centric warfare…

Space fighters and light years straddling motherships, will forever remain in the realm of science fiction, or at least, till we stumble upon bad aliens. What about the talk of the Indian Air Force (IAF) setting up an Aerospace Command as the other world powers have already done? Well, an Aerospace Command will happen, but not because the IAF wants to take future battles to outer space. The proposed command would not be an operational theatre command such as the Western, South Western, Central, Eastern and Southern Commands. It would be a non operational command like the IAF’s Training and Maintenance Commands; a command that would oversee development and maintenance of space assets and their integration with the IAF’s war fighting capability.

“The Moon, the stars are not high in the sky,” our Science teacher in school would say, “They are far from the Earth.” Having forcefully made a point, let me back up a bit. No nation can claim a right to outer space, but every nation has the right to access and use it through satellites. The problem occurs when these satellites are dual use in nature and are used for military purposes. Major world powers including India are now using satellites for military communication, navigation of aircraft and missiles, Electronic Intelligence (Elint) and reconnaissance. The use of outer space for military purposes is termed as militarisation of outer-space. Militarisation makes a nation’s space-based assets fair game for attack by the enemy in case of a war!

While the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 prohibits placing weapons of mass destruction in outer space, no treaty prohibits space assets being attacked electronically, with Directed Energy or kinetic kill vehicles. The attack could come from space or from the Earth.

Indian Space-Based Military and Dual use Satellites

The Indian military began its tryst with space technology with the use of meteorological imagery obtained from satellites in the early eighties. Towards the end of the decade, the Armed Forces (AFs) started using satellite imagery for monitoring military activity across the borders. As ISRO’s imaging capabilities matured – the Technology Experiment Satellite (TES), launched in 2001 provides a resolution of one metre with good attitude and orbit control capability – satellite reconnaissance became a serious endeavour for the AFs. The Cartosat-2 series that followed the TES improved upon orbital and attitudinal control as well as resolution which improved to 0.8metre.

Military use of satellites is here to stay and grow…

The RISAT-2 satellite launched in 2009 gave the AFs a game changing ability to capture imagery at night and through cloud. The RISAT-2 features an X-band Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) manufactured by Israel’s IAI. The 300-kg satellite was put together by ISRO in quick time and launched using the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) in the aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

The RISAT-1 launched on April 26, 2012, features a C-band Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) operating at 5.35 GHz in a multi-polarisation and multi-resolution mode (ScanSAR, Strip and Spot modes) to provide images with coarse, fine and high spatial resolutions respectively. It was placed into a 470 x 479 km orbit using PSLV-C19 XL launcher. TheGSAT-7, launched in the early hours of August 30, 2013, using Ariane-5 Flight VA215 from Kourou in French Guiana, was India’s first communication satellite dedicated to military use. The Indian Navy is using GSAT-7, also called Rukmini, to communicate with its submarines, frigates, destroyers and aircraft from its centres on the shore.

The Indian AFs are now heavily investing in network-centric warfare using high bandwidth IP-based connectivity through fibre optic cables and high bandwidth Ku-band satellite transponders. The GSAT-7 will be followed up by GSAT-7A, a dedicated Air Force communications satellite.

Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS)

India is developing its own navigation satellite constellation – Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS). The IRNSS is expected to provide positional accuracies similar to the Global Positioning System (10 metres over Indian landmass and 20 metres over the Indian Ocean) in a region centred around the country with a coverage extending up to 1,500 km from India between longitude 40° E to 140° E and between latitude ± 40°.

The full constellation of seven satellites is planned to be realised by 2015-2016. Three satellites – the IRNSS-1A, the IRNSS-1B and the IRNSS-1C have been already launched. The IRNSS-1D is scheduled to be launched in March 2015. By the middle of 2015, the IRNSS would be able to provide GPS services to Indian users. In the years ahead, there would be many more dedicated military communication satellites, as also Elint, SAR imaging and missile launch warning satellites. Military use of satellites is here to stay and grow.

China’s Space Capabilities

Like India, China too is heavily invested in military use of outer space. It operates an impressive constellation of intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, meteorological and communications satellites. In 2013, China conducted at least eight space launches to maintain and expand the constellation. China has its own navigation satellite constellation, Beidou, which will eventually provide global coverage rivaling GPS. In 2013, China released Beidou signal interface control document to allow for the production of ground receivers. The constellation is expected to be completed by 2020.

China’s ASAT capabilities span the entire spectrum of threats – hard kill, soft kill and deception…

Quick Launch Capability

China is acutely aware that the US would attack and incapacitate at least some of its military satellites in the event of a major military confrontation between the two. China’s ocean monitoring satellites used to obtain targeting data for its DF-21D Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM) would be prime targets. To thwart such surgical disarming, China is investing in quick launch capability to replace space assets lost to enemy attack. China has developed and demonstrated the new solid-fueled Kuaizhou Launch Vehicle (LV) capable of placing a 400-kg satellite into Low Earth Orbit (LEO), ostensibly for “natural disaster monitoring”. On September 25, 2013, the Kuaizhou LV placed Kuaizhou-1 satellite in orbit from Jiuquan.

China is also developing the Long March 11 LV for rapid launch of satellites in case of emergencies or disasters. The LV, planned for launch by 2016, will feature China’s largest solid-fuel rocket motor. While China’s space capabilities are of concern to India, of even greater concern is China’s counter-space capabilities. There can be no doubt that in any future military conflict against China, or China’s ally Pakistan, attempts would be made to incapacitate Indian military and dual use satellites.

Spectrum of Threats Faced by Space Based Assets

Satellite operations can be interfered with in several ways such as

  • Surreptitious up-linking and commandeering
  • Jamming communications and command links
  • Spoofing or jamming navigation satellite signals
  • Dazzling or blinding satellite sensors using radio or laser energy
  • Kinetic (hit-to-kill) attack to destroy or damage LEO satellites
  • Directed energy (heat-to-kill) attack to destroy or damage low and high orbit satellites
  • Destroying satellite tracking and control ground terminals

Disrupting Communication

Satellite communication (SATCOM) infrastructure can be divided into three major segments – Space, Ground and User. The Space segment comprises the satellite constellation. The Ground segment is used to deploy, maintain, track and control the satellite constellation. The User segment comprises infrastructure to access satellite signals using ground, ship or aircraft based terminals or other devices.

Although the Ground segment is guarded, it can be physically attacked and destroyed just as any other military installation. The Space as well as Ground segment is vulnerable to being electronically attacked, blinded or jammed.

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User Segment Vulnerabilities

A recent security audit revealed that SATCOM terminals typically have vulnerabilities – backdoor, hard-coded credentials, undocumented and/or insecure protocols, and weak encryption algorithms – that allow a malicious actor to intercept, manipulate or block communications and in some cases, to remotely take control of the physical device.

Often the terminals are required to be remotely operated, sometimes even through an SMS. While this may be convenient to users, a hacker using hard-coded credentials or other backdoor could run malicious code on the terminal. Such a code could damage, shut down or broadcast coordinates of the terminal compromising critical military operations. SATCOM works by modulating data (voice, video) over a carrier and beaming the carrier to a satellite transponder. The transponder amplifies the carrier and transmits it back to a target area at a different frequency. A denial of service attack on a communication satellite can be as simple as double illuminating a transponder. Satellite jammers with a 200-kilometre range have reportedly been available off-the-shelf for many years from the Russian company Aviaconversiya.

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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

Sqn Ldr Vijainder K Thakur

Former Fighter Pilot with extensive flying experience on IAF Jaguar and HF-24 Marut.

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