Space-based assets likely to be targeted by adversaries to influence outcome of future wars, warns Air Chief Marshal Chaudhari

The Chief of the Indian Air Force (IAF) has made a strong case for the IAF to be given the mandate of a Space force in addition to its responsibility of securing Indian interests in the Air.

“I would reiterate that we see Space as a natural extension of the air medium and reaffirm our need to adapt to this new environment rapidly. Hon’ble RM (Defence Minister Rajnath Singh) recently mentioned in a talk that IAF does need to transcend to an air and space force in the years to come and we are working on this vision,” Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari said in his address at the 12th Annual Conference and Exhibition on Geospatial Intelligence in New Delhi on June 14.

“The IAF strategy is to fully integrate the Air and Space capabilities to have a common picture of the aerospace medium, reduce the sensor to shooter time and enable optimum force application,” he said. The theme of his address was ‘Shaping Indigenous Comprehensive National Space Capability’.

The IAF’s strong pitch for transitioning to an Air and Space Force comes at a time when the impending Theaterisation of India’s combat forces portends to make the Air Force an ancillary to Army and Navy-led Theatre commands and threatens its relevance as an independent, lead strategic force which shapes the battlefield.

In his address, Air Chief Marshal Chaudhari depicted Space as a highly contested battlefield which will be characterised by application of military force “in, from and through Space”. Outcomes in the aerospace domain will probably decide the eventual victor in future conflicts, he wagered.

Stakes in space are also illustrated by the sharp increase in the number of satellites. “Today there are around 4900 satellites in operation which are owned by approximately 80 countries. Astonishingly, around 605 of these satellites were launched in 2021 alone,” he observed.

“As reliance on space grows, Space-based assets will become centres of gravity that are likely to be targeted in war and ‘less than war’ situations. This is leading to evolution of concepts of force projection, protection and targeting in Space,” the IAF Chief said.

Anti-Satellite tests (ASATs) by major nations are an indication of the onset of this contestation and militarization of outer space, he pointed out.

“While our Mission Shakti operation in 2019 highlighted our ASAT capability to deter adversaries from resorting to escalatory space conflict, it also brought to fore, the need for Comprehensive Space Situational Awareness (SSA) through a robust Space Surveillance Network (SSN),” the Air Chief Marshal said.

He strongly urged preparation for facing threats emerging from the militarisation of Space, listing some requirements. “Availability of comprehensive SSA enables a complete ‘Defensive Counter Space’ stance as well as usage of our ASAT capability, if and when required. The key areas for the armed forces would be the development of Missile Defence Radars for SSA, Space-Based Sensors and optical telescopes to track adversarial objects. The existing capabilities of ISRO and DRDO would thus need to be integrated into the Air Surveillance picture of the IAF, well beyond the present 100 km altitude. This integration would provide a gradual progression to a Space Surveillance Network,” he said.

The Air Chief spoke of civil-military fusion in the development of Space capability, with the Defence Space Agency playing a lead role in synergising civil-military space cooperation. “This would mandate an increased inter-play with both Govt and Commercial space agencies,” he said, while acknowledging the pre-eminence of ISRO in Space-related competence and assets.

He elaborated on the synergies in developing Space-based network centric capability for the IAF, and also listed out requirements to face future challenges. The armed forces have been exploiting the capabilities of ISRO’s Earth observation satellites under the Space Based Surveillance (SBS) programme like Cartosat-2 series with sub-metre resolution and RISAT-2 for SAR imagery.

“As far as space communications are concerned, our requirements were primarily met by dual use INSAT and GSAT series satellites until 2018. From 2018 onwards, IAF has been provided a dedicated communication satellite GSAT 7A for its airborne and terrestrial communication. However, the current and envisaged operational and strategic requirements 4 of the services call for enhanced bandwidth in UHF, L and S bands to cover the stipulated area of interest,” he said.

“IAF is already in the process of finalising its GSAT- 7C UHF communication satellite which would meet the SDR SATCOM requirements. Additional transponders are also planned in the ‘Ku’ band in GSAT -7C to meet our increasing bandwidth requirement, he announced.

Air Chief Marshal Chaudhari also called for ending dependence on the GPS constellation for navigation and targeting and made a case for the early development of the indigenous IRNSS. “It is expected to provide sub 10 metre accuracy and it is important to ensure that the entire complement including satellites, ground stations and receivers are put in place at the earliest to reduce our reliance on other systems,” he said.

“Satellite-based Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) has emerged as a critical element of intelligence gathering especially with respect to to identifying and locating enemy radar systems. India has the requisite expertise to develop satellite-based ELINT payloads and the same needs to be accelerated,” the IAF Chief added.

Referring to the role Space-X’s Starlink satellites have played in the Ukraine War, the Air Chief Marshal pointed towards the challenges and opportunities of a highly Proliferated Low Earth Orbit.

“Another changing paradigm in space application is the growing ubiquity of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites in domains which were historically in the realm of Geo synchronous satellites…Communication satellites in low and medium earth orbit have their own advantages with multiple commercial players entering this segment. I am sure that in due course, this technology will evolve and we shall see reduced manufacturing and launching costs which could favour the shift towards this concept,” he said.