Holding the high ground has always connoted a position of advantage or superiority in the military. Sixty years after the first satellite was launched, space is becoming the new military high ground that countries want to seize and dominate.
Just last year, the US signalled this by establishing a sixth branch of its military: a re-established US Space Command with its own ‘Space Force’. The Chinese created the Strategic Support Force, the fifth branch of their military in 2015, with responsibilities for space and cyber warfare. This is the context in which we need to see India’s somewhat cautious decision to establish a Defence Space Agency (DSA).
From the outset, space has evoked interest from a military point of view and, indeed, most space programmes were military run. The Outer Space Treaty bans the placement of nuclear weapons in space and prohibits national appropriation of celestial objects, or building military installations. However, it does not ban military activities in space, space-oriented military forces or the use of conventional weapons in space.
The decision to create the DSA is in keeping with India’s parsimonious space programme. Equally, it has to navigate through the conflicting claims of agencies like the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) and the National Technical Research Office (NTRO) for the control of space-based assets.
India is the country that pioneered multi-tasking satellites like those of the INSAT series, and in defence terms, too, it finds it convenient to insist that different agencies share the use of assets.
In most countries, civilian applications of space were an offshoot of their essentially military programmes. India was the odd one out, insisting that its programme was aimed at serving developmental goals. India has gone out of its way to make its programme as transparent as possible, providing all manner of details about the technologies it is developing, its test processes and so on.
One reason for this was ISRO’s decision to get all the foreign assistance it could get in the pre-Missile Technology Control Regime era. And it did obtain quite a bit of it, for a range of applications ranging from space launch vehicles to sensors and satellites.
As for the military applications, India had the Defence Research and Development Organisation, which went along its own road to try and develop missiles. However, when this did not work, they imported knowhow from ISRO in the form of A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who had helped develop the SLV-3, and used the knowledge to develop the Agni series. Eventually, India settled for a model that exploits the dual nature of many space applications.
India began to exploit space for telecommunications, remote sensing and navigation in the 1980s, but its use for defence was limited to obtaining imagery from organisations like SPOT of France. Subsequently, it developed its own imaging vehicles, offshoots of the civilian effort, such as the Indian Remote Sensing (IRS) Satellite programme in the 1980s. In 2001, it launched an imaging satellite called the Technology Experiment Satellite (TES).
But it was only with the Cartosat series, beginning in 2005, that India got its own satellites capable of providing militarily useful imagery, though only some work exclusively for the armed forces, the others, as usual, multi-task.
Other militarily important multi-taskers are the Resourcesat 2 (2011) series, weather satellites like SARAL (2013), OceanSat 2 (2009) and the RISAT 2 (2009) and RISAT 1 (2012). So data may flow to the ISRO stations or to those managed by the defence and intelligence agencies.
The DIA, set up in the wake of the 2001 reforms, runs the Defence Image Processing and Analysis Centre, which has a satellite receiving centre at Gwalior to analyse satellite data. The NTRO, which was given control of the military satellites, has its own station in Assam. Its mandate is to provide raw information to the Central Archival Facility so that it can be accessed by all users.
In the area of communications, ISRO’s INSAT series has been providing the country with the capability for telecommunications and TV broadcast. But the first satellite dedicated for military communications, the GSAT 7 (a.k.a. INSAT 4F), was launched only in 2013. This was to service the needs of the Indian Navy. Then, in December 2018, it launched the GSAT 7A to service the requirements of the Indian Air Force.
In the area of navigation, India has come up with its Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) to provide a GPS-like capability for India in southern Asia and will like – the latter – also provide encrypted data for military use.
In the early decades, space was used by the military in a mostly passive manner – to obtain imagery, electronic intelligence and for communication and navigational aids. However, increasingly, the importance of quick encrypted communications and imagery to provide battle-space awareness has become an important factor in modern warfare. So has the ability of space systems to guide fighter jets, UAVs and munitions. Indeed, many militaries see the use of space as vital to their ability to fight and win wars.
So, we have seen a military interest in blinding adversary satellites, jamming their signals or even capturing and destroying them. This is a whole new world of what is called “counter-space” missions. The Indian ASAT test was just the tip of the iceberg, and a somewhat outdated demonstration. Countries like the US and China have moved to other techniques, like ramming satellites or using ground- or space-based lasers to take them out.
The future environment is likely to see an even more intense use of satellites, perhaps constellations of smaller satellites, that can provide real-time information on demand. In an environment where satellites can be disabled or neutralised, the military would want to have the ability to rapidly replace them – in other words, have their own launch vehicles and satellites.
It is not surprising that India has thus set up a DSA. Simultaneously, it has also signalled a sharp increase in its space-related activities. In the next decade, ISRO will be working on new rocket motors, launch vehicles, launcher configurations, propulsion systems, fuel types, etc. It also hopes to launch an orbital crewed spacecraft by 2022, and more recently, the ISRO chief announced the goal of establishing a space station by 2030.
As in the case of other countries, many of these missions will develop technologies that have military applications.
But India has a long way to go, not just in the area of counter-space technologies – where its lone ASAT test doesn’t really amount to much. The challenge comes as much from dual-use space technologies, such as robots to inspect, repair and dispose of damaged satellites, as from satellites that could be armed with lasers.
India’s capabilities for using space for military purposes are extremely limited. It has just a little over a dozen satellites for military purposes whereas China probably has 10x as many.
Imagery satellites like Cartosat and RISAT may provide useful imagery, but India has a long way to go before it can have near real-time imagery or electronic intelligence, that is often essential in maintaining the tempo of modern warfare.
Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation.