The Chief of the Indian Air Force (IAF), Air Chief Marshal Vivek Ram Chaudhari makes a compelling case for the IAF to evolve into an Air and Space Force, warning that space assets will be targeted by adversaries and foretelling that military outcomes in space will determine victory in future wars

While the importance of space domain was realised much earlier, it was in the 1991 Gulf War that the synergistic potential of air and space assets began to appear. These capabilities were quickly harnessed to define an air and space continuum rather than see them as two different segments. This aerospace combination provided the information dominance which was critical for force application by decision-makers. During the past three decades, exploitation of the space domain has grown manifold. Today, there are around 4,900 satellites in operation which are owned by approximately 80 countries. Astonishingly, around 605 of these satellites were launched in 2021 alone.

In recent times, the increased focus on military space application has been accelerated by two key factors: Firstly, the increased geo-political churnings which have aggravated the threat scenario in this region. Secondly, the growing realisation that the boundaries that separate civil and military space assets are getting blurred and most of the applications are “dual use” cases. The evolution of space capabilities has resulted in these assets growing well beyond mere force enhancement roles. It is now possible to use these assets to actually apply military force ‘in, from and through space’.

The Indian Progress So Far

To develop indigenous comprehensive national capability, in June 2020, the Union Cabinet decided to open up the space infrastructure of the country to the private sector. The government has also set up a new space board called the Indian National -- Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (IN-SPACe) under Department of Space (DoS). Such enhanced focus has enabled us to have one of the largest satellite constellations, comprising IRS series satellites for earth observation and oceanography, INSAT for communication and meteorology and IRNSS satellites for navigation. Recently, the government has decided to transfer 10-in-orbit communication satellites to M/s New Space India. This move would entail financial autonomy to the company as well as provide technology spin-offs and increase employment potential.

Our launch system has acquired maturity and is one of the best in the world in terms of its operational efficiency and cost effectiveness. However, we also need to acknowledge that there is a lot of scope for capability development in the realm of military satellite applications. Services are 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. Future programmes are expected to increase accuracy, reduce revisit time and increase capacity to download data of remote sensing satellites with multiple sensors on-board. Looking ahead, we need to push the envelope towards indigenous ‘launch on demand’ capability.

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, the 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 of the services call for enhanced bandwidth in UHF, L and S bands to cover the stipulated area of interest. The 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.

Satellite navigation services are an integral component for the armed forces. These are used by all platforms, be it on land, sea or air or on weapons. Today, we are reliant on the GPS constellation, but the indigenous IRNSS is growing fast. 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. It will also usher in a new area for civil applications across the eco-system. Satellite-based ELINT has emerged as a critical element of intelligence gathering.

Militarisation of Outer Space

It is also a fact that increased exploitation of the space domain will lead to increased contestation. 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. Anti-satellite tests by major nations are an indication of the onset of this contestation and militarisation of outer space. While our Mission Shakti operation in 2019 highlighted our ASAT capability to deter adversaries from resorting to escalatory space conflict, it also brought to the fore the need for Comprehensive Space Situational Awareness (SSA) through a robust Space Surveillance Network (SSN).

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. Collaboration with other countries for sharing of information would also be essential to enhance SSA.

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 geosynchronous satellites. An example is the Starlink satellites launched by Space-X which provide low latency, broadband internet to consumers across the globe.

The Defence Space Agency (DSA), which is the lead agency for aggregating the requirements of the armed forces, would play a key role in synergising civil-military space cooperation.

The Air-Space Continuum

Like air power’s effect on surface battles, aerospace power is fast emerging as the new paradigm which shall greatly influence all surface activities. The outcomes in the aerospace domain will probably decide the eventual victor in future conflicts.

Space-based assets significantly enhance the potency of air power as these assets provide increased battlefield transparency which is extremely helpful in discerning the enemy’s intentions. 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.

Before I conclude, 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 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. As the space version of Heartland Theory put forth by the US Maxwell AF Base states: “One who controls the earth orbits controls near-earth space; who controls near-earth space, controls the earth; and who dominates the earth is the custodian of the humankind.”