India needs to craft a strategic space policy and doctrine without which it will not be possible to shift the focus from civil to military use of space

Imagine This: Indian spy satellites intercept enemy signals indicating imminent land, sea, air and cyber-attacks on the country’s defence installations. The commander-in-chief holds a four-way conversation with ground, sea and air units thousands of miles apart by bouncing his voice off a high orbiting satellite. Low-flying photo-reconnaissance spacecraft survey enemy targets, locate battle formations and count and identify individual missiles and combat units massing on the borders. Using navigation satellites, aircraft and nuclear submarines get into missile firing positions.

This is one of the scenarios played out in India’s first simulated space warfare drill, IndSpaceEx, conducted last month by the armed forces.

From all accounts, the two-day-long virtual war games reminded India’s defence planners that they have homework to do before the country’s space assets are secured. “The exercise was a valuable learning experience for all stakeholders,” a senior Indian Air Force (IAF) officer told this author “We could take a closer look at the emerging space security challenges which will help in acquiring appropriate defence capabilities in space.”

Space is increasingly being militarised with three quarters of all satellites launched by space agencies going khaki to act as the eyes, ears and voice of the modern military commander. Today, almost every phase of military planning and execution depends on space-based systems and every aspect of warfare — from strategic targeting of nuclear missiles to covert operations by special forces — has an essential space link. Realising that future wars will be controlled by the electromagnetic spectrum, nations are eager to gain an edge in space: the definitive ‘high ground’ where tomorrow’s wars may be won or lost.

Systems such as the anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon that India tested last March can attack low orbiting satellites used for reconnaissance and ocean surveillance. The ASAT test enabled India to join an elite group of nations — the US, Russia and China — with ASAT capability. However, merely possessing such deterrence against adversaries is no guarantee for the country’s long-term national interests. The US and Russia are far ahead in the ASAT game having launched ‘space mines’ capable of crippling even spacecraft in higher geostationary orbits.

Another important takeaway from IndSpaceEx is the need for India to craft a strategic space policy and doctrine without which it will not be possible to shift the focus from civil to military use of space. After all, civilian and military satellite systems are dual-use technologies indistinguishable from one another. The run-of-the-mill communications satellites become indispensable during war time while orbital imagers double as spy satellites.

Compared to other space-faring nations, India faces a bigger challenge in acquiring space warfare capabilities, however modest. Unlike the US, Russia, China and Europe that exclusively developed their space efforts for military purposes and put the technologies to civilian use afterwards, New Delhi always advocated the preservation of outer space as a ‘sanctuary’ from weapons.

Accordingly, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) was tasked with realising the scientific and commercial potential of space, scrupulously avoiding the debate on space militarisation. India’s integrated guided missile development programme time and again drew heavily from ISRO’s rocket stables starting from the 1980s when the Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV) 3’s solid fuel engine was used in the Agni ballistic missile. Only in the last 10 years has ISRO tacitly tweaked its satellite programme to meet the needs of the armed forces such as battlefield communications and cross-border surveillance.

It is inarguable that India’s investment in space technology — both civilian and military — is crucial to its rise as a major global power. New Delhi has acknowledged this by setting up a research and development platform called the Defence Space Research Agency (DSRO) for the tri-services Defence Space Agency (DSA) based in Bangalore. The DSA builds space warfare capabilities and is an integral part of the exclusive space command that India seeks to establish eventually.

The big challenge for ISRO now is to maintain its credentials as a dependable international partner in developing civilian space applications and launching satellites while supplying the armed forces with space warfare weapon systems and technologies. In other words, ISRO must tread a fine line as it expands its horizons in space exploration and collaborates with agencies such as the DRDO to secure India’s space assets.

For instance, the key role of satellites in network-centric warfare makes them vulnerable to many threats — from space weather and space debris strikes to attacks by adversaries. Monitoring this requires space situational awareness (SSA) capabilities which ISRO must develop.

Having said that, India need not give up its support for a sustainable and secure outer space just to safeguard its assets in space. New Delhi should simultaneously work with countries to build international legal regimes to limit the weaponisation of space. The technology of space systems and weaponry cannot be wished away. Nevertheless, there is an urgent need to restrain the use of that technology with sensible controls, at least for averting a new space-based arms race.