by Kartik Bommakanti

India’s premier defence research organisation, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) said in early September that it was developing on Directed Energy Weapons (DEW). This announcement was important but unsurprising as it was evident from at least 2017 that DRDO had been working on DEWs. However, what is left unsaid is whether the current DRDO DEW program can cater and serve India’s space warfare needs. India’s DEW program is rationalised because China too is pursuing the development and eventual deployment of DEWs, which per se is not an unreasonable assumption. Nevertheless, the program as of now does not reveal much whether the DEWs would extend to the space domain.

Most of the DEWs under the DRDO’s development are confined largely to terrestrial warfare. Here, the author is using terrestrial expansively to include ground, sea and air warfare or DEWs operable and effective within the earth’s atmosphere. The laser weapons strength under development currently would at best, following the satisfactory of completion testing benchmarks and operationalisation, be effective only against terrestrial targets over short distances. They are unlikely to be effective against distant space targets and assets. DEWs generally would cover all weapons systems including electronic jammers to lasers. As G. Satheesh Reddy who heads the Department of Defence’s Research and Development observed, “DEWs are extremely important today. The world is moving towards them. In the country too, we are doing a lot of experiments. We have been working in this area for the past three to four years to develop 10-20 KW [weapons].”

The larger question is whether the DRDO has an active DEW program for use against in-orbit spacecraft. These DEW systems can include co-orbital DEWs that strike in-orbit targets or space borne DEWs to strike ground or terrestrial targets and ground-based DEWs geared for strikes against space borne targets. As of today, as Reddy’s statement suggests, there is indeed nothing in the public domain to suggest that India has a very expansive space weapons program that includes DEWs. It is entirely possible for reasons of secrecy the DRDO’s space weapons effort is a highly classified undertaking and therefore the agency and the government think it wise to maintain secrecy. Generally, the DRDO does run two subset programs – one that is visible and a second set that are not fully visible or deemed “black” or highly classified projects. It is entirely possible; India’s leading defence science and engineering agency is pursuing the clandestine development of a more ambitious program that extend to lasers and microwave weapons directed at space targets. Indeed, the public would only know once the DRDO believes the technology matures. There are antecedents – take the case of the Indian nuclear submarine program, which was widely speculated to exist, yet no clear evidence to suggest so for decades. Nevertheless, the whole of India and the world came to know of its existence when then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh inaugurated the commissioning the INS Arihant in July 2009 at Vishakhapatnam.

However, as the current National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval conceded last year that while India faced new and growing national security threats and challenges and that they had become more demanding and complex over the decades, the imperative for the country as he observed was to pursue the acquisition and development of “need-based” defence technologies. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh too reinforced this view stating that defence technologies and weapons system development had to be “cost-effective and time-efficient”. At one level Singh and Doval are right that India and the DRDO cannot sustain the research and development of military technologies that are innovative and cutting edge for their own sake. Here too history is instructive. For instance, the German pursuit of the V-2 rocket program during World War II at Peenemunde happened at considerable expense to the German exchequer and was of little value. Its real lack of value to Germany was because the number of V-2 rockets actually produced while at first glance were significant in numbers, were at best four times more than the ordnance the Royal Air Force (RAF) dropped over Peenemunde to destroy the rocket facility in a single air raid. At least relative to the amount of ordnance dropped over Peenemunde, the volume of V-2 rockets produced simply had no bearing on the outcome of the war. Indeed, it is estimated Germany spent 500 million marks on the research, development and production of the V-2 rockets, despite the returns on the investment being inadequate. The exertion to produce these projectiles is again illustrative of the folly of pursuing military technologies especially in times of budgetary austerity as we face today. Also, as the foregoing reveals, there are considerable dangers in allowing technology to singularly propel the development of weapons systems, which may become wasteful expenditure if they are not related to or serve the wider defence needs of the country.

To be sure, currently the DRDO’s mandate and resource allocations might not be exclusively or at least overwhelmingly geared to developing and eventually fielding DEWs that are restricted to terrestrial missions. Consequently, India might not be able to undertake the development of the entire gamut of DEWs. Nevertheless, the DRDO and the government will need to prioritise which space weapons are worthy of pursuit, despite their limited technological ambitions today. Are co-orbital DEW systems more relevant to India’s defence needs or ground-based DEWs directed at striking space-borne assets? Choices made in either direction will need to overcome budgetary as well as technical hurdles. Military space missions require both defensive and offensive capabilities. The defensive side involves protecting Indian space assets from adversary interference and destruction and offensive side involves doing the same by India against the adversary. The Chinese are moving rapidly to develop and field DEWs for space and counterspace missions. India does not have the luxury of purely pursuing defensive capabilities to protect and defend space assets, it will need offensive DEW capabilities, which may be relatively modest, but will need active and serious consideration.