Defence Industry

How should India Exploit Space for Military Advantage?
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 09 Jan , 2023

In December 2019, as per a declaration issued by the Heads of State and Government participating in the meeting of the North Atlantic Council in London, formally recognised space as an operational domain alongside land, sea, air and cyberspace, even though it did not announce any plans to weaponise space. Thinking of NATO on space warfare is largely influenced by the policy of the United States (US) on outer space. A 2018 US national strategy for space recognised that space is a war-fighting domain that needs to be guarded by a separate Space Force and at the end of 2019, the US Space Force (USSF) was established. Battlefield is now battle space and theatres of operations include space, which along with the intersecting cyberspace, promises to be the cause and the battle space for asymmetric conflicts in the near future.

It is quite possible that these conflicts will involve force on force contests. Already, dual use space vehicles have legitimised surreptitious militarisation of space although blatant weaponisation is yet tentative and exploratory. This article looks at the motivations to develop space defensive and offensive capabilities, the regulatory framework which tempers their development and India’s current and foreseeable preparedness to protect its space assets.

The Impulsions Behind Space Militarisation

An interesting US document called ‘The Future of Space 2060 and Implications for US Strategy’ states, “The US must recognise that in 2060, space will be a major engine of national political, economic and military power for which nations best organise and operate to exploit that potential.” The peaceful benefactions of space include the fields of agriculture, health, environment, sustainable development, disaster management, education, human settlement, R&D, transportation, communication, humanitarian assistance as well as international peace and security. Assets placed in outer space by space-faring nations for these peaceful purposes need to be protected from malignant actions of rogue nations and non-state actors. This is especially so as many of these assets are dual use and thus seen as a threat by rival nations. As an illustration of dual use, Russia has objected to Starlink, Elon Musk’s satellite internet providing company managed by Space-X, being used in Ukraine for “military purposes” and even threateningly termed the satellites as “targets for retaliation”. The situation harks back to 1991 when US-led coalition forces drove Iraqi troops out of Kuwait in what was called the “first space war” because of the role that Global Positioning System (GPS) and communication satellites played in the US triumph.

In addition to US, China, Europe, Russia, Japan and India have their own equivalent of GPS which, in addition to aerial and surface navigation, are critical to emergency search and rescue, precision farming, financial and banking systems universal network time synchronisation. Crucial communications and remote sensing rely heavily on space assets in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Significantly, all these assets are fragile and can be destroyed easily by hard kills (a missile/laser/projectile from the ground or from space) or by soft kills (spoofing, jamming, cyber attacks).

There is competition for space mining, landings on moon (especially on its South Pole) and space tourism amongst nations (and private entities like the Blue Moon project of Jeff Bezos, of Amazon fame) with the capability to mount these operations. The noble and principled motivations for use of space for constructive commercial and scientific projects in the service of mankind are being tempered by militarisation and weaponisation of space. Here, cyber warfare may be seen as a subset of space weaponisation. According to analysts, there are no known or declared orbital weapon systems that are operational: but about a fifth of the total satellites in space belong to the military and have specific military purposes of surveillance or collection of geospatial intelligence, thus posing a peril to peace and security inasmuch as they contribute to a global trust deficit. The insecurity, apprehension, competitive impetus and the associated aggressiveness is leading to the space race becoming one for weaponisation of outer space, despite an extant body of international law.

Regulatory Framework

Before looking at India’s threats and opportunities, it is worth looking briefly at the regulatory mechanisms related to space to understand the framework within which India must work to safeguard its space assets without drawing international opprobrium. Space law implies rules, principles and standards of international law enshrined in five international treaties and five sets of principles developed under UN auspices besides a variety of international agreements, conventions and resolutions. The forum for the development of international space law is appropriately called the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space; it has developed the Outer Space Treaty, the Rescue Agreement, the Liability Convention, the Registration Convention and the Moon Agreement as treaties. Significantly, the Outer Space Treaty prohibits countries from placing into orbit around the Earth “any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction.” Besides the treaties, five declarations and principles have been developed. There are also resolutions adopted by the UN General Assembly which are not legally binding on the Member States, but provide guidance for their actions. Some of the nations have elaborate national laws on space use and some have entered into multi-lateral or bilateral agreements with other nations. An ‘Open-Ended Working Group on Reducing Space Threats Through Norms, Rules and Principles of Responsible Behaviour’ works constantly to thwart military misadventure in space. It last met in September 2022.

Militarisation and weaponisation of space is inevitable, but there is a heartening trend of initiatives to clarify international law as applicable to military use of outer space. One such project is Canada’s McGill University’s Manual on International Law Applicable to Military Uses of Outer Space (MILAMOS) which produced Volume I (Rules) of the McGill Manual on the subject while a Volume II (Rules with Commentaries) is under process. There is also a position paper by International Committee of the Red Cross entitled ‘Potential Human Cost of the Use of Weapons in Outer Space and International Humanitarian Law (IHL) Protection’ presented to UN Secretary General which is relevant to this subject. The Cold War saga presages caution about national interests militating with adherence to international treaties none of which served to limit the asinine proliferation of nuclear stockpiles. It also points out that UN is powerless to ensure adherence to those treaties. It is under these shades of grey that India must tread the space quagmire – heeding legal but not universally followed tenets while safeguarding its national security interests.

Indian Space Endeavour

The Indian space endeavour has been steered by Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), a civilian organisation established in 1963 with a focus on space-based applications, space exploration and the development of associated technologies. ISRO is a remarkable success story and is one of the six space agencies globally that has full launch capabilities and cryogenic engines as also satellite production wherewithal. It has already sent a manned mission into space, two missions to the moon (Chandrayaan 1 and 2) and one to Mars thus making India the fourth nation in the world after Russia, US and the European Space Agency or ESA to place a space vehicle Mangalyaan in orbit around Mars and is planning to launch a manned mission to moon (Gaganyaan) in 2024.

As Chandrayaan 2 was a failure, Chandrayaan 3 is planned for next year to replicate the Chandrayaan 2 mission with some changes. Another mission, Aditya L1, is designed to study the solar atmosphere, especially coronal (outermost layer of sun) heating, solar wind acceleration, coronal magnetometry, origin of near-UV solar radiation and magnetic field of the Sun. It is likely to be launched next year. ‘L1’ indicates the orbit would be one of the five possible Lagrange points of equilibrium involving the sun, the earth and the satellite, Aditya L1.

India also has in place the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS), called NavIC, which is an independent regional navigation satellite system developed indigenously to provide accurate position information service to users in India as well as the region extending up to 1500km around.

India’s Swerve Towards Military Use of Space

ISRO was not given a military mandate and India has always maintained a pacific and peaceful approach towards its space programme. It is also a signatory to the Outer Space Treaty, formally known as ‘Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies’. However, in recent years, global developments and trends have brought about a change in the overall Indian approach in view of national security trepidations. Without overtly abandoning its stance of non-weaponisation of space, India is addressing the threats to, and defence of, its multi-faceted space assets. In this context, the year 2019 marked a significant inflexion point inasmuch as India consummated Mission Shakti, the testing of an Anti Satellite (ASAT) weapon, and carried out IndSpaceX, its first table-top space warfare exercise which demonstrated use of satellite communications and reconnaissance to integrate intelligence and firepower in the military context. April 2019 also saw the establishment of two new space related agencies – the Defence Space Agency (DSA) and the Defence Space Research Organisation (DSRO). DSA is a tri-service agency tasked for space warfare Including ASAT capabilities, satellite intelligence and formulating strategies to protect India’s assets and interests in space. The existing Defence Imagery Processing and Analysis Centre (DIPAC) and Defence Satellite Control Centre (DSCC) have been merged into DSA. DSRO works under the DSA as its parent organisation and is tasked to create space warfare weapon systems and associated technologies as also to find and implement defence applications for India’s space technologies. Significantly, the approval for these was given by the Prime Minister of India during the Combined Commanders’ Conference at Air Force Station, Jodhpur on 28 September 2018. It is expected that the DSA will someday be converted into a space command.

Despite ISRO being a civilian body without a clearly defined military mandate, India has Geosynchronous Satellite (GSAT) 7 in a Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit since 2013 to meet the Indian Navy’s multi-band communication requirements over the whole of the Indian Ocean region. It carries payloads in Ultra-High Frequency (UHF), C and Ku bands and provides the Indian Navy with a secure, real time communication link between its land establishments, surface ships, submarines and aircraft. This was the first military satellite India sent into orbit. The Indian Navy is also purchasing a new satellite, the GSAT 7R. The GSAT 7A was launched for the Indian Air Force (IAF) in 2018, and has ten channels in Ku band with switchable frequencies for mobile users, one fixed parabolic antenna and four steerable antennas. It provides communication between ground radars, Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircraft and air bases of the IAF in addition to enabling satellite controlled operations of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). The IAF’s proposal for another satellite – GSAT 7C – has been accepted by the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) last year. The Acceptance of Necessity (AoN) for GSAT 7B for the Indian Army was cleared in July this year. So far, the Indian Army had been sharing the GSAT 7A with the IAF. GSAT 7B will meet the Indian Army’s communication and surveillance needs.

GSAT 6, a dual-use satellite, was launched in 2015, and has a multi-media communication capability with ten transponders covering the whole of the country. It may be mentioned here that the GSAT 6A, a military satellite, was launched a few months after the GSAT 6 to complement it and provide mobile communication services to the Indian military but communication with it was lost due to power failure during its injection into a Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO).

Besides these current and near future satellites, India has an Electromagnetic Intelligence Gathering Satellite or EMISAT that was launched into a polar orbit in April 2020. It is equipped with an Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) package called Kautilya that allows the collection of information on ground-based radar as also electronic surveillance across India. Some remote sensing satellites with leading edge sub-metre resolution have also been launched by ISRO as dual purpose satellites like the Technology Experimental Satellite (TES) in 2000, and the four Cartographic Satellites (CARTOSAT-1, 2, 2A and 2B in 2005, 2007, 2008, and 2010). With Israeli assistance, India has also launched four Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellites called RISAT 2, which were launched in 2009, before RISAT 1 as it was fast tracked due to the 2008 Mumbai terror attack), RISAT 1 (2011), RISAT 2B (2019) and RISAT 2 BR1(2019) essentially to address terrorism related threats. RISAT 2BR1 has an impressive resolution of 0.35 metres. Yet another dual use satellite is the HyperSpectral Imaging Satellite (HySIS) which was launched in 2018, and is available for military use. The picture would be incomplete without a mention of Microsat R which was launched in January 2019, and two months later served as the target for India’s ASAT demonstration.

India’s National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO), according to open sources, uses TES, EMISAT, CARTOSAT 2A and CARTOSAT 2B besides RISAT-1 and RISAT-2. It also operates under an MoU with the IAF, three Very Long Range Tracking Radar (VLRTR) systems for missile monitoring and detection of space-borne threats in aid of ballistic missile defence. Their ranges are 2,000 km and beyond. These VLRTR sites are located at Udaipur, Bhopal and Balasore in addition to one mounted on a ship INS Dhruv identified by its yard number (VC 11184) only in some texts.

As can be seen from this section, India has a modest array of satellites in place that have full or partial military application. So have other space-faring nations, and it was important for India to validate a hard-kill option for taking on an adversarial space object for two reasons. Firstly, three nations had already set precedents and secondly, one of them was China. Thus, it was imperative for India to carry out an ASAT test, Mission Shakti.

Mission SHAKTI

As is the wont of all military technology, space capabilities are complemented by counter-space weapons, generally categorised into kinetic physical, non-kinetic physical, electronic and cyber. Kinetic physical aim to damage/destroy space assets and could be direct ascent (missile launched from earth to damage/ destroy a satellite), co-orbital (when a satellite already in orbit is used to attack another) or ground station attacks (on satellite control stations on ground). Non-kinetic physical attacks could be Electro Magnetic Pulses (EMP), high powered lasers or high powered microwaves. Electronic attacks such as jamming and spoofing target a satellite’s means of receiving and transmitting data. Cyber attacks can intercept or monitor or corrupt data or seize control of systems. These are different from electronic attacks inasmuch as the electronic attacks interfere with data transmission while cyber attacks target the data itself and the systems that use this data.

China has fairly advanced space programmes, certainly ahead of India’s and it is, therefore, clear that Indian space assets are under threat of being attacked during any military confrontation with China. International space law, discussed briefly earlier, does not cover ASAT capability directly. The comprehensive Outer Space Treaty is silent on this aspect as are all subsequent and current initiatives on controlling weaponisation of space including a joint Russian and Chinese ‘Draft Treaty on Prevention of Placement of Weapons in Outer Space’. Meanwhile, efforts by nations to acquire ASAT capabilities continue unabated, the last test being as recent as in November 2021, by Russia of a direct ascent variety.

India’s test in March 2019 was kept tightly under wraps until it had been executed successfully. A kinetic physical kill was achieved using anti-ballistic missile defence technology and, therefore, more politically acceptable than some other options outlined earlier. Besides proving the capability for Indian and foreign audiences, it served another crucial strategic rationale: if the world gets around to address ASAT arms control treaties and principles, India would be seated with those who already possess the capability, unlike the disadvantageous position it had in most nuclear parleys before it carried out its own peaceful nuclear explosion in 1974. However, having a successful ASAT test under its belt is no reason to be complacent. There is a compelling need to put in place a military organisation with a mandate to defend Indian space assets, if required, through offensive action.

Indian Space Command

In terms of numbers, Indian presence in space is not very large, but it is still significant and critical for the nation. The military assets described above and the civilian ones, especially remote sensing satellites and the dual use NavIC, need protection. In this light, the swerve towards building military space capability is a cheering process. However, there is a need to establish a space command so that there is a clear military mandate under a single command for better control. This will also serve the strategic purpose of space deterrence, especially with focus on China.

India is still far from setting up the tri-service Space Command. One of the reasons is that there are not enough space-specific assets collectively with the three services to bring together under one command as Indian policy has always been non-militarisation and non-weaponisation of space. Secondly, the government’s plan to set up theatre commands has already run into trouble over the first aerospace related command – the Air Defence Command – with the IAF advocating a doctrinal stance different from the other two services’. Once that command is in place, it would set a precedent for the Space Command to be born.

At this point, it would be pertinent to note the difference between a space command and a space force. While a space command would be a combatant command providing command and control over assets and personnel from the other three services as related to the space domain, a space force would be a fourth arm of the Indian military or the fifth if Coast Guard is also counted as a defence force. The US Space Command (SPACECOM) was originally created in September 1985, to provide joint command and control for all military forces in outer space and coordinate with the other combatant commands. It was disestablished in 2002, and its responsibilities and forces were merged into United States Strategic Command.

A second incarnation of Space Command was established on August 29, 2019, with a re-emphasized focus on space as a war-fighting domain. The US Space Force was initiated by President Trump in 2018, but was finally approved by the US Congress in 2019, when it became the sixth branch of the US military after the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard. With space already acknowledged as the fifth domain of warfare, a space force should be an imperative for India as well. However, India’s posture on space militarisation would inhibit erecting a space force, with the implied offensive connotation, for many years to come.

Coming back to Indian Space Command, besides the impedances mentioned earlier, there is also the question of budgetary allocation for a new command when even the current commitments by the three services are not supported by the allocations. With the current trend of defence budget vis-a-vis GDP, the prospects of any substantial increase in availability of funds is bleak. Thus, the near future, despite a well-advanced space technological base, does not look promising from the point of view of having a space command in place. Should an overt offensive action be taken by China against an Indian space asset, the Indian response may be disjointed and knee jerky with some indecision on which knee to jerk first.

The Naresh Chandra Task Force set up to review the recommendations of the Kargil Review Committee had recommended the creation of an aerospace command and the establishment of DSA is a first step towards that command. There is a need to work speedily towards organising, equipping and training the command to be prepared to take on China’s misadventures in space. A well-equipped and adequately manned Space Command, with inter-continental reach and the wherewithal to mount offensive missions as well as provide a fair degree of assurance in terms of defensive capability is what is required by the nation. Our capability in building satellites and launch vehicles permits such an entity to be thus endowed. It remains for the government to accord priority to this inescapable national security imperative and make available the capital resources to fund it.


The noble objectives of peaceful exploitation of space and the famous “there is room in space for everybody” statement by Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space are utopian and do not appear to be realistic in view of the US/Russia/China rivalries. History tells us that the UN has no teeth to enforce treaties in spirit. The undebatable conclusion is that India must strive to keep space peaceful but at the same time gear up for military confrontation in space so as to affirm its ambition of becoming a global power. How and when our space command gets established and how empowered it is will decide whether we deal with those confrontations from a position of strength or otherwise.

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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

Gp Capt AK Sachdev

Director - Operations, EIH Ltd.

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