India’s Space Programme: Moving in Sync with the Times

Sub Title : Steps to strengthen India’s Space programme

Issues Details : Vol 16 Issue 3 Jul – Aug 2022

Author : Sanat Kaul

Page No. : 17

Category : Military Technology

: August 4, 2022

As Spacefaring nations race to exploit the Space domain for peaceful and military purposes, India has taken steps to keep in sync with the times. Firstly, due cognizance has been taken of the fact that the Space domain will play a significant role in military operations and accordingly appropriate actions are being taken, secondly India is looking at participation by private players. The immense potential thereof will certainly be to the nations advantage

India is not new to Space. Our Indian Space Research Organisation( ISRO) was set up as early as 1969 when only a handful of countries had their own Space set up (NASA of the US was set up in 1958). But unlike others Indian ISRO was strictly a civil setup directly under the PMO. ISRO’s main purpose was to use space as a tool for India’s developmental activities and it did so by providing applications with the help of satellites for broadcasts, communications, weather forecasts, disaster management, Geographic Information Systems, cartography, navigation, telemedicine, dedicated distance education etc. In addition, it also went in for deep space expeditions like the Moon probe with Chandrayaan-1&2 in 2008 & 2019 respectively and Mangalyaan to Mars in 2014. Over time it developed its launch capabilities which at that time and still only a handful of countries have. It can presently proudly boast of three launch sites. In addition to its own launches it has undertaken 320 satellite launches for 33 countries including for commercial companies  earning a sizeable amount in foreign exchange through its commercial arm called Antrix Corporation which coordinates such activities.

India’s nuclear explosions of 1974 and 1998 in the Pokhran desert of  Rajasthan brought India under sanctions of US and few other countries which led to India being denied technology. However, it was a blessing in disguise as India was forced to develop its own technological capability. The leading example of it is the indigenous development of cryogenic engine.  A shining example of India’s technological prowess.

Besides the usual civil initiatives mentioned above two more need special mention. These are GAGAN and INRSS both navigation satellites. GAGAN (GPS- aided GEO Augmented Navigation) is an augmentation satellite made by ISRO for Airports Authority of India and launched in 2008. This satellite augments GPS signals over the Indian sub- continent and is similar to WAAS over US, GALELEO over Europe and MSAT over Japan.  IRNSS (Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System) or NavIC is an independent regional navigation system developed by ISRO reportedly after India was denied GPS during Kargil conflict. It consists of a cluster of seven satellites over India in low earth orbit and has greater accuracy than GPS. While both have dual use capability, the former is dependent upon GPS while the latter is independent of GPS.

Space as a military domain

The Outer Space Treaty (OST)1967 is the main international Treaty on Space activities ratified by all spacefaring countries and others. The Treaty bans the stationing of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in outer space, prohibits military activities on celestial bodies, and details legally binding rules governing the peaceful exploration and use of space. Further, it bans placement of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies or stationing them in outer space in any other manner. However, it does not ban use of space assets in warfare like Global Positioning Systems like GPS or even Anti-Satellite destruction from earth. This vacuum in wording of the OST has allowed countries to use their Space assets like Global Navigation Satellite System

(GNSS) to be used for military purposes. Other military satellites provide military intelligence over adversaries movements. While Air Space is sovereign territory over a country’s land mass, satellites move in Outer Space, which is not, thereby providing legal intelligence unlike the days when countries undertook secret flights over another country to gather intelligence.

It was the Gulf War 1( 1990-91) which awakened the world to the importance of Space for high accuracy military operations. Operation. Desert Storm involved the combat debut of stealth technology, GPS for navigation, missile warning systems, more advanced surveillance plane radar, and large amounts of precision-focused laser-guided bombs. Further, due to heavy casualties US ARMY announced  that its reliance on satellites rather than ground stations makes the system more precise than conventional navigation technology. After the Gulf War, the U.S. Army announced it would install GPS in all armoured vehicles to help minimise its own casualties because of ‘ friendly fire incidents’   which became a major source of casualties in Operation Desert Storm.

During the ongoing  military conflict in Ukraine, Elon Musk, a private operator of StarX, a commercial company, came to the help of Ukraine in an unusual way. Russian military just an hour before their full-scale assault in the early hours of 24 February 2022, successfully hacked Viasat, an American satellite provider whose network was used by the Ukrainian military to communicate with front-line troops.  The Ukrainian vice prime minister who doubles as the country’s digital minister tweeted directly to Musk to urgently help him with  Starlink , his satellites that provide internet . Musk immediately started sending his ground equipment and the internet  got restored. In a matter of few days 500 ground terminals were installed in Ukraine providing real-time data which helped Ukraine from getting overrun by the Russian army. Russian military was also not able to jam it. It is further reported that Musk was able to divert the Russian missiles by bring in inaccuracies in their signals.

Additionally, it has been reported in that Russia is building a giant laser-based anti-satellite weapon near Zelenchukskaya in the southwest part of the country which will enable it to soft-kill a satellite of an adversary. Space is vulnerable. Space weather is still very much an under-studied subject. GNSS is also vulnerable to deliberate human interference as well as natural causes. It is still very much a work in progress.

Space domain for military activities has been picking up in the past decade or so. While India was initially a little hesitant in use of this domain,  it finally set up its own  Defense Space Agency( DSA) as well as a Defense Space Research Organisation (DSRO) in 2019. Although it had launched two dedicated military satellites known as GSAT-7 and GSAT-7A called Rukmini in 2013, India still needs a lot of catching up to do as its chief adversary  China has reportedly set up a Space domain or aerospace force which will focus on military operations  in space. While GSAT-7  and GSAT-7A are India’s only known  dedicated military satellites made for the Navy and IAF respectively, the Defence Ministry  approved  another   GSAT-7B satellite in 2022 which is likely to be used by the Indian Army for communications. It is also rumoured that India possesses about a dozen satellites with military features. Further in 2019, India successfully tested an anti-satellite weapon, something done only by US, China and Russia. It shows the capability of our space engineers.

Private sector involvement in Space activities in India

While ISRO made great strides in its objectives and achieved great heights, it kept the Space domain restricted to its organisation. It developed a large number of small and medium sized vendors to whom they would give orders for components/equipment and also transfer technology, developed in-house. Even large companies like Tata, Mahindra, L&T, Godrej etc were involved. There was a demand that ISRO should open up the Space activities to private sector in a much bigger way like it’s happening in the US or Europe so that untapped talent of both big companies and small Start-ups get their due place. This has since happened with the announcement by the Prime Minister of Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Center i.e. IN-SPACe on 10th June 2022. The press note issued on this occasion states (English rendering of PM’s address at inauguration of IN-SPACe Headquarters).

“For decades, the private industry associated with the space sector in India was seen only as a vendor. The government itself used to work on all the space missions and projects. Only a handful of parts and equipment were bought from the private sector. The growth of the private sector was blocked by reducing it to just vendor status. A wall was created. The scientists or the youth could not work on their ideas related to the space sector because they were not part of the government system. And who suffered the most? The country was suffering. It is proof that big ideas make winners. The country is launching a campaign today to make winners by reforming the space sector, freeing it from all restrictions and by supporting the private industry through IN-SPACe. Now the private sector will not remain just a vendor but will play the role of big winners in the space sector. When the power of India’s government space institutions and the passion of India’s private sector come together, the sky will also fall short of it. ‘Even the sky is not the limit’! As the world is watching the strength of India’s IT sector today, the strength of India’s space sector will reach new heights in the near future. IN-SPACe will also work to facilitate the transfer of technology between the space industry, Start-ups and ISRO. It is also being ensured that the private sector can also use the resources of ISRO and work together with ISRO…….I am proud that our private industry colleagues have moved rapidly in the areas of launch vehicle, satellite, grounds segment and space applications. Private players from India have also come forward to manufacture PSLV rockets. Moreover, many private companies have even designed their own rockets. This is a glimpse of the limitless possibilities of India’s space sector.”

Already there is excitement in the business enthusiasts in India. Big companies in India are looking at Space domain as an additionality to their existing portfolio of activities. However, it is the smaller Start-ups. with high talent but low funds and engineers, some of whom were migrating to the west where business climate is better, who are feeling more assured now with the improved environment for them  in India.  IN-SPACe has been headquartered in Ahmedabad as an independent nodal agency under Department of Space for allowing space activities and usage of Department of Space owned facilities by Non Governmental Private Entities (NGPEs).  A well known and highly regarded business executive Mr Pawan Goenka, a former Managing Director of Mahindra and Mahindra Limited has been appointed as its chairman.  He is an IIT-Kanpur graduate with an PhD. from Cornell University of United States. Goenka is also a graduate of Advanced Management Program from Harvard Business School. While he has no previous experience in Space activities, he has vast experience in business management and will, surely, bring great advantage  to this newly set up body to leverage the strengths of the private sector for the Space sector.

IN-SPACe and New Space India ltd(NSIL) are now the  two commercial arms of ISRO as Antrix Corporation has gone into a decline. NSIL, a public sector enterprise of ISRO set up in 2019, will be responsible to commercialise what ISRO does.  IN-SPACe, on the other hand, would facilitate the private sector  for all their needs in the Space sector, whether it is government owned technology or facilities. Basically IN-SPACe is creating a single window for the private sector to approach the government for any space-related activity.  As a result of these new developments there is a new and fresh hope amongst the young entrepreneurs as well as established companies that not only is this sector open to them but that the government is also keen to encourage and invite private sector to set up their own independent Space enterprises for both manufacturing and even launching and that they  need not work in a subordinate capacity to ISRO as a vendor only.

Of late we have seen a flurry of young entrepreneurs entering the Space industry. To give a few examples there is Agnikul Cosmos whose Agnibaan is a highly customisable, 2 stage launch vehicle capable of taking upto 100 kg to orbit around 700 km high. Agnibaan can access both low and high inclination orbits and is completely mobile – designed for accessing more than 10 launch-ports. Driven by LOX/Kerosene engines in all its stages, Agnibaan is configurable by the customer. Then there is Digantara – world’s first space based active orbital  surveillance platform. It provides comprehensive space situational awareness which involves keeping an eye on client’s satellites and warning them of any possible conflict  with a space object or debris. Dhruva Space, another Start-up, is working on lunar and Mars communications network. It hopes to play an important role in India’s human space programme including in human health in space and space medicine. It has been presenting scientific papers in space conferences abroad also.

With India’s vast capability in civil use of Space and its large pool of civil skilled manpower available in this domain, the military must leverage the potential rather than depend upon normal recruitment in the services. For example, it should go in for campus recruitment from Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology, an autonomous institute under Department of Space or other Engineering colleges for a special cadre of combatant/non-combatants. Military Engineering Colleges must reorient their courses to include Space engineering. As modern wars are going to be fought through Space Domain, it is imperative that Indian armed forces give greater emphasis to it and leverage the potential available within the country.