It is paramount to boost India’s defence space capabilities as part of 'militarisation of space'. This includes sending up more satellites, getting better sensors, high-speed communication, efficient, reusable rockets, along with linked infrastructure and counterspace capabilities

The defence ministry’s move to grant an Acceptance of Necessity (AoN) to the Army in March to get the indigenous satellite GSAT-7B was long-awaited.

It’s just that it came too late.

The AoN is only the first step in the long and arduous defence procurement process which may or may not necessarily culminate in an order.

If and when the final order is placed, this will be the first-ever dedicated communications satellite for the 13-lakh-strong Indian Army. The force did not have a dedicated satellite of its own; it shared the services of the GSAT-7A for the Indian Air Force (IAF) launched in 2018 by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

The primary communication satellite for the Navy, GSAT-7, was launched in 2013. The Navy has already placed an order to procure the GSAT-7R satellite as a replacement for the existing GSAT-7. In November last year, the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) approved the proposal to procure the GSAT-7C satellite for the IAF.

In the last three years, India’s efforts in the space sector for the military include setting up the tri-service Defence Space Agency for the command and control of the military’s space assets and the Defence Space Research Organisation (DSRO) in 2019. In the same year, India also conducted a simulated space warfare exercise called IndSpaceEx.

In 2020, the government had approved the creation of IN-SPACe—an independent nodal agency under the Department of Space to encourage private participation in the domain—but it is yet to fully take shape. In the works is also a separate space policy that would take into account the Indian military’s needs in the domain.

However, even if one avoids a comparison with China—which has been heavily investing in establishing space dominance in the last two decades—it is high time that India’s space reforms gather greater pace.

This is because India needs to use space better for uninterrupted and seamless communication over large geographical areas, navigational purposes, ballistic missile warnings and superior Intelligence-Surveillance-Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities among others while being self-reliant enough for these.

While these capabilities will act as a force multiplier for India in case its forces engage in a conventional military operation, it is equally critical for the country to develop potential to curb its adversaries’ coercive actions in space which might be detrimental to its interests.

Why India Needs To Augment Space Capabilities

India currently has over a dozen satellites for military use.

The Indian military also hires the services of a range of commercial satellites and of those operated by friendly foreign countries. Much of these come at an exorbitant cost and with the risk of interruption of services in instances of contingencies.

With India working towards rationalising defence expenditure and establishing self-reliance in the sector, it is paramount to aggressively augment defence space capabilities—including sending up additional satellites, getting better sensors, high-speed communication, efficient and reusable ones, along with linked infrastructure—as part of “militarisation of space”.

India also needs to procure high-tech jammers for rogue satellites and also protect its own satellites from electronic attacks.

Encouraging Private Space Industry

Since early 2000, ISRO has carried out substantial work in developing space-based military assets and systems. But the need of the hour is to significantly involve and encourage the private space industry towards designing and developing niche technologies in this domain.

The formation of the Indian Space Association comprising 43 companies as an industry body last year is a step in this direction. However, the government needs to do much more to encourage and nurture this nascent industry and space start-ups by providing them adequate orders as well as ensuring their ease of doing business by simplifying the licensing processes and cutting down the number of permissions required for tests.

There also exists a need to increasingly sensitise government departments on the use and adoption of space technologies for better transparency in processes and carve out separate budgets for this.

It is not possible to develop specific niche space technologies for military use overnight. But as civil uses of space assets increase and the industry grows significantly, the military can then put forth their specific requirements to the industry which might be capable enough to meet them within strict timelines.

China’s Focus On Space

With the rising asymmetry in the space domain in its neighbourhood, India should also emphasise building defensive capabilities to carry out counterspace operations.

Over the last two decades, China has made substantial progress in space programs with the aim of getting into space, exploiting and controlling it to establish regional hegemony in this domain. This would invariably be critical to its future military operations, as that would encompass an information dominance achieved with the help of its space assets.

As early as 2007, China carried out an anti-satellite missile test, which first exposed to the world its growing interest in the space domain.

This was further evident after China’s 2015 defence white paper designated space as part of its military domain, followed by the subsequent raising of the People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force to integrate the country’s space, cyber and electronic warfare capabilities and the testing of a quantum communications satellite in 2016.

As per some estimates, around 150 military satellites are in use by China, most of which are for ISR purposes.

What also needs to be taken into account is China’s space cooperation with Russia providing the former with a bigger bouquet of options in case of any damage to its space assets.

With India focusing on cutting military expenditure, establishing self-reliance in defence and developing deterrence against China’s growing space assets, it is turning out to be an existential requirement for the country to work towards expanding its military capabilities in the space domain so that it is able to assert itself as a formidable regional power in the future while aiming to be a global power.

However, the investments—whether monetary or policy reforms—have to be done against the backdrop of space being a high-expenditure sector, which would give slow, bite-sized but steady returns.