India Mastered Space Technologies – Need for More Strategic Focus

Sub Title :

Issues Details : Vol 18 Issue 1 Mar – Apr 2024

Author : Air Marshal Anil Chopra, PVSM, AVSM, VM, VSM (Retd)

Page No. : 61

Category : Military Affairs

: March 22, 2024

As we delve into the integration of air and space capabilities, a strategic evolution unfolds. The United States Space Force’s merger with the Air Force, the establishment of the United Kingdom Space Command, and similar initiatives by France and Russia, all signify a transformative approach to national defence. India, too, is embracing this paradigm shift, seeking to amplify its defence mechanisms through advanced space-based assets and capabilities. This comprehensive analysis explores the global trend of merging air and space domains, the advent of space weaponization, and India’s strategic advancements and challenges in securing a robust position in space for defence and intelligence purposes.

Space has already emerged as the next great frontier, where geostrategic play is quickly unfolding. All major powers are not only building capabilities to harness the great potential of space but evolving means to secure assets, and dominate the domain. China has put Space under especially created Strategic Support Force (SSF). India is a significant player, but the country currently accounts for only 2% of the global space economy, a fraction of its actual capabilities, which it has amply demonstrated. Its recent Chandrayaan-3 landing on the moon has ignited a global lunar race that was somewhat on back- burner. India’s Aditya L1 is in position at designated orbit. Clearly USA and China are racing ahead in space exploration and capability building. India has all building blocks in place but needs to invest more to become a significant space power.

Indian Program Driven at Highest Level

Indian PM Modi has directed that Space sector be ‘unlocked’ and set a five-fold increase target in its share of the global space economy. India’s Space economy stands at a modest $8 billion, Global analysts are predicting the potential of $100 Billion by 2040. Public-private partnership (PPP) is being encouraged with greater private investment. Today there are nearly 200 private Space Start- ups with a fresh investment of over Rs.1000 crore in 2023. The SpaceBudget has seen exponential increase in the last decade. Out of the 424 satellites launched by ISRO, including for 34 countries, since 1990s, more than 90% (389) were launched in the last decade. India earned significant foreign exchange from launch of the foreign satellites. The recently announced Indian Space Policy 2023, enables end-to-end participation of Non-Governmental Entities (NGEs) in all domain of Space activities.

The Indian National Space Promotion and Authorization Centre or IN-SPACe has been created to support private sector participation in space activities. Support is given through Seed Fund Scheme, Pricing Support Policy, and Mentorship support, Design Lab for NGEs, Skill Development in Space Sector, ISRO facility utilisation support, and Technology Transfer to NGEs. 45 NGEs have already enrolled. There are several industry associations in the country related to the space sector, the Indian Space Association (ISpA) being one among them. The Anusandhan National Research Foundation (NRF) support greater PPP in scientific research. NRF budget envisions a funding of Rs. 50,000 crore over five years.

 India’s Current Capabilities in Space

India’s Space program has for long been driven by the state controlled Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). The broad capabilities including putting Indian designed and built satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) and Geo Stationary or Transfer Orbits (GTO) are in place. India is one of the six countries in the world that possesses full launch capabilities, can deploy cryogenic engines, can launch extra-terrestrial missions and operate a large fleet of artificial satellites. It is one of the four to have soft landing capabilities on the moon. India’s most powerful Launch Vehicle Mark-3 (LVM3), can carry 10 ton payload to LEO, and 4 tons to GTO, and is being human rated for Gaganyaan project. The other three major space powers, including China, have launch vehicles that can put excess of 25 tons, or even much more.  India too is working to develop heavy (HLV) and super-heavy lift launch vehicles (SHLV) to deliver 50–100 tons, and also re-useable launch vehicles.

India operates a large number of home-grown remote-sensing, communications, meteorological, and other satellites. Indian satellites also support Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) for India’s strategic community needs. The major space powers have small satellite constellations. India too is working on having its own. It has begun operating its GAGAN and IRNSS (NavIC) satellite navigation systems, albeit much more needs to be done. It has sent three missions to the moon and one to Mars. India has demonstrated anti-satellite kinetic-kill capability. The crewed space flight is expected in 2025. The realistic timelines for India’s three-crew, 20 ton Space Station operating at 400 Km would be 2030. India targets to put an astronaut on the lunar surface by 2040. Interestingly, the three major space powers have had over 20 astronauts each.

“Respect for India’s space program has increased phenomenally after Chandrayaan-3”, said a NASA Official. India’s interests on moon are not over yet, and next target is to bring rocks from surface said ISRO Chief. NISAR is a low earth orbit observatory being developed by ISRO and NASA, which will map the entire Earth in 12 days and provide consistent data for understanding changes in the planet ecosystems.  The best part is that India has built its space capabilities with rather low budgets.

Near Space; Place of Action

Typically, Space begins above 100 Km (Karman line) from the earth. The airliners fly till maximum around 12 km. The “Armstrong’s line” is around 18 Km, because above this aircrew require pressure suits. Technically above 23 Km the near space begins. The lowest perigee of satellites being able to orbit the Earth is about 73 km. Thus there has been a considerable “No-Man’s” land. The region called mesosphere, has very little air to support conventional aircraft flight.

The region would see spy balloons, solar-powered drones, and operation of hypersonic missiles. Tethered solar-based drones as quasi-satellite acting as eye in the sky, at around 30 Km altitude are evolving. China has reportedly established the world’s first ‘Near- Space Command.’ The Chinese believe that space is the next battleground and dominating near-space will provide China with an edge in future wars. Chinese very high altitude spy balloons over USA had caused serious face-off between the two.

NASA’s Near Space Network delivers critical communications and navigation services to missions observing the Earth, studying the Sun, and exploring the Moon and beyond. Through this network, spacecraft can send all forms of data back to Earth, including astronaut voice communications with mission control, a science image of a neutron star, and much more.

The IAF Chief VR Chaudhari has already highlighted the importance of Near Space, and need to harness it. Bengaluru-based NewSpace Research and Technologies Pvt Ltd (NRT) has flown its long-endurance drone, the solar-powered High Altitude Pseudo- Satellite (HAPS), a first flight lasting over 21 hours.

 Private Sector Huge Potential

Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp (SpaceX) became the first company to come into all domains of space systems, including spacecraft manufacture, launch service provider, defence contractor and satellite communications. The Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (IN-SPACe), an agency operating under the Depart of Space (DoS), was established to serve as the link between commercial and government ventures. The Indian Space Association (ISpA), a coalition of Indian space companies, was formed in 2021. India’s space sector is set to be a US $50 billion industry by 2024, requiring huge private sector participation. Significant number of private players are now in space domain. India’s multinational Larsen & Toubro (L&T) has a 50-year partnership with India’s Space program. They have been building critical sub-systems. Hyderabad-based Skyroot, specializes in launch vehicles and is working on a series of cost-efficient, non-reusable rockets, called Vikram, specializing in the launch of small satellites (small sats). Bengaluru Bellatrix works on satellite propulsion, rocket propulsion, orbital manoeuvring, and electric propulsion. Hyderabad- based Dhruva are satellite experts, offering a ‘full-stack’ system that includes satellite platforms, launch solutions, and orbital deployment, as well as ground services. Agnikul, is into small rocket that can fly 25 to 100 kg payloads. Bengaluru-based Pixxel’s plans involve larger constellations of around 24 satellites.

Merging Air and Space

In December 2019, the newly created United States Space Force (USSF) merged with its sister branch, the U.S. Air Force, and became part of the Department of the Air Force. They collaborate closely for technology development and command and control of the domains. The United Kingdom Space Command (UKSC) was founded in April 2021, functioning as a joint command organized under the Royal Air Force, and led by an RAF officer. The French Air Force transitioned into the French Air and Space Force in September 2020, and the French Space Command is now an integral part of it. On August 1, 2015, the Russian Air Force and the Russian Aerospace Defence Forces amalgamated, forming the Russian Aerospace Forces. While India currently has a tri-service Defence Space Agency (DSA), the Indian Air Force (IAF) outlined the Defence Space Vision 2020, further expanded upon in the IAF Doctrine 2022, with the aim to utilize satellite resources to significantly enhance India’s defence preparedness. In view of significant action in the ‘Near Space’ there is a requirement to merge the air and space domains. This would support aerospace deterrence and safeguard space assets, offer significant potential to leverage space as both a weapon and a shield.

Weaponising Space

More and more platforms and weapons such as ballistic missiles and hypersonic glide vehicles are transiting through space. Both, hard and soft kill anti-satellite systems have been tested and are in place. Space-based jamming, directed energy weapons and electromagnetic pulse systems are being developed, for use in space or from ground. Space warfare is being fine-tuned. Space will be used for electronic and cyber warfare. China has developed capabilities to grab and remove satellites, ostensibly as 'space cleaners'. These could be used to remove adversary satellites. Indian Military Capabilities in Space Need a Boost India has all basic technologies in place, but capabilities have to increase to meet national strategic requirements. Modern ISR and communication satellites are the centre of gravity for military operations. India has a huge landmass and Oceans to secure from two formidable adversaries. IAF aircraft and Indian Naval platforms have to cover global ranges and require satellite based support. India needs high-resolution radar and electro-optical sensors in space. Space Communication links need to be secured. Satcom Association of India (SAI) is already working on this. Immediate priority is to increase India’s ISR capability and reduce revisit time, and secondly to fully operationalize the satellite navigation system and increase its footprint. Ultimately Indian armed forces and public must migrate from GPS to NavIC.

India’s secure Positioning Navigation and Targeting (PNT) ability has to go up. The satellite requirements are huge. India is still in the process of building large small-satellite constellations. These will reduce costs and increase redundancy. India has already developed Small Satellite Launch Vehicles (SSLV). Numbers have to go up for launch on demand readiness capability. Setting up the constellations needs acceleration. The very huge data from space based assets would have to be processed and secured. This would need fusion and integration with data from other aerial and ground-based sensors. In the end the armed forces and the security agencies need actionable information.

More countries, including China are building counter-space capabilities. New Delhi has space security  artnerships with the Quad countries as well as some others like France. India’s Mangalyaan mission got support from NASA for deep space communications. The security and defence agencies spend nearly a billion dollars annually to procure earth observation data and imagery from foreign sources. This high reliance on foreign entities is not desirable for India’s security. India has a long way to go for real-time satellite imagery. In the areas of interest we should be able to image once in 3- 4 hours. This would mean many more small satellites. India carried out its ASAT test against a target satellite at 283 kilometres altitude. Agni-5 class three-stage rocket will allow satellite intercepts up to 800 kilometres. Analysts are suggesting need for a repeat ASAT capability test. India must secure its satellites from electronic and cyber-attacks. New satellites are being developed with atomic batteries and plasma thrusters to allow increase manoeuvrability. There is need to develop Directed Energy Weapons (DEW) to neutralise adversary satellites.

Space Situational Awareness (SSA) is important ingredient of Space Domain Awareness (SDA). A joint nternational mechanism to monitor space attacks and enforcing the Outer Space Treaty is important. India needs to track space objects and classify them as friendly, hostile or debris and predict their orbits. India must promote a multilateral partnerships with major space powers to share SDA and also to promote peaceful space governance and work towards securing its assets. India may consider being part of Artemis Accord that promote safe, peaceful, and prosperous future. Artemis Accords partner nations will be required to uphold this principle by publicly describing their own policies and plans in a transparent manner. They will promote interoperability of systems critical to ensure safe and robust space exploration.

Way Ahead

The Indian Air Force Chief VR Chaudhari has been saying for some time that Militarisation of Space is happening, and India needs to develop offensive and defensive capabilities. With a new Air Force doctrine cantered around the effective utilization of the ‘air and space continuum’ and a ‘Space Vision 2047’ the IAF has presented a detailed proposal to the government for its renaming to Air and Space Force. The IAF envisions India having over 100 military satellites, both large and small, within the next seven to eight years, with active participation from the private sector, the Air Chief added. As part of this transition, the existing integrated air command and control system (IACCS) will evolve into the integrated air and space command and control system (IASCCS). India must develop capabilities in the “Near Space”. India has the technological wherewithal. More funding and focus is required. Time to act is now.