Indian space war exercise aims to curb armaments race in space

The space technologies have military utility related to communication, reconnaissance and navigation. Representative purpose only. Photo: ISRO

India’s first ever space war exercise designated IndSpaceEx scheduled for July 2019, highlights the need to checkmate adversarial space-faring nations from the militarisation of space.

Space technologies have military utility related to communication, reconnaissance and navigation. The 1991 Gulf War and thereafter, the military campaign over Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated that space technologies have significant military utility.

While the use of space assets is known as “militarization of space,” which is now globally accepted the, “weaponisation of space” involves insertion of weapons into space to target and damage the space assets of other states through the use of Anti Satellite (ASAT) or technologies to cripple a rival countries satellites, which is considered a hostile act and to that extent is universally unacceptable. Space weapons are those which hit satellites in space and also those space-based systems that can strike targets on earth.

Military satellites would enable the armed forces to: build real-time situational awareness through space communication and space sensors, link radar and other communications networks over the entire length and breadth of the country, assist in Ballistic Missile Defence, gather real-time intelligence on enemy aircraft, missiles and space-borne threats, prevent the enemy from use of its space assets through jamming.

China’s emergence as major global space power

In January 2007, China destroyed its own aging weather satellite (FY1C) by firing a rocket towards it. This 750 kg satellite was orbiting at an altitude of 850 kms and was attacked with a KT-2 missile with a non-explosive payload called kinetic kill vehicle (KKV)—a metal piece mounted on top of the missile, which destroyed its target simply by colliding with it. This Chinese act has created sufficient strategic anxiety about China’s intentions over weaponisation of space.

China has emerged as a major global space power while Pakistan’s space ambitions are still nascent. China celebrated the 50th anniversary of its space program in 2006. Its space program is a sweeping plan for lofting Earth orbiting satellites for a large number of duties, expanding its human space flight abilities, and executing a multi-step program of lunar exploration and mission to explore Mars.

Today, five of China’s different operational systems are in service namely, telecommunications, meteorological, Earth remote sensing, recoverable satellites, and technology demonstration spacecraft.

China also has plans to establish a space-based laboratory to create a permanent space station. All these efforts seem guided to promote the diplomatic interests of the state and its national security concerns, as also to garner greater prestige. In April 2019, China and Pakistan signed an agreement to cooperate on space technology soon after the Indian ASAT test.

Earlier this year India shot down one of its own satellites in Low-Earth orbit with a ground-to-space missile in March, which is the country’s first test of such weaponry and a breakthrough to establish it as a military space power. It makes India the fourth country to have used such an anti-satellite weapon after the United States, Russia and China.

Shortly after the ASAT weapon test, the Indian foreign secretary met some envoys of P5 countries, including US and China, and explained to them that the test was meant to enhance India’s security and it did not in any way suggest that India was entering into an arms race in outer space. While India is a signatory to the Outer Space Treaty and ratified it in 1982, the government said the Treaty only prohibited weapons of mass destruction in outer space and not ordinary weapons.

The Revolution in Military Affairs

The dependence of the Indian armed forces on technology has increased in the post-Cold War era. The Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) has become a reality for India’s military establishment.

The concept of RMA transcends technology and centers around intelligent use of information and communication technology. It involves an amalgam of various high-tech sensors, ruggedized information systems and stealth technologies to drive the C4ISR (command, control, communication, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) structures of the armed forces that have made RMA possible. Besides, RMA also includes the induction of other state-of-the-art weapons and weapon delivery platform technologies.

India’s geographic borders include some failed or failing states with unstable governance structure where the rule of law is weak, like Afghanistan and Pakistan which generate serious security concerns.

Terrorism remains a significant threat for India, but other asymmetric threats like the use of weapons of mass destruction, cyber terrorism and information warfare also loom large. Clearly satellite technology could be tasked to tackle these threats, besides those that arise from management of porous land borders and coastal security concerns.

Technology Experiment Satellite

India launched its first satellite in 1975 which was for almost 25 years devoted to development of satellite technology primarily for social purposes. The first indication of India’s attempts to develop satellite technology for military requirements began with the launch of the 1108 kgs Technology Experiment Satellite (TES), in October 2001. This made India the only country after the US to offer images with one-meter resolution commercially. The TES, however, is a dual-use system which reportedly helped the US Army with high-resolution images during the 9/11 counter-insurgency against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Today the Indian military is in transition from total dependence on dual-use satellite technology to have dedicated defence satellites. Over the past couple of years, the Indian Army, Indian Air Force and the Indian Navy have articulated their requirement to acquire dedicated satellites.

The Indian Navy is the first Service among the military to possess a dedicated satellite to facilitate its communication- and network-centric warfare requirements. The ISRO launched this satellite into geostationary orbit in 2011. With a dedicated satellite at its command, the Indian Navy, like other major naval powers, will be in a position to network all its warships, submarines and aircraft with each other and operational centers on shore with the help of high-speed data links, allowing for maritime threat detection and sharing of real-time data to enable swift reaction.

Now the Indian armed forces would have to coordinate seamlessly with the Defence Research & Development Organization and Indian Space Research Organization to make IndSpaceEx a solid success.

Such exercises are aimed to iron out glitches that could arise among inter-agency channels and prepare better for operational realities or war-like hostile situations.

Therefore, the time has come to establish the proposed Tri-Service Aerospace Command that would be the nodal agency to simulate war through such exercises. Unless the military exercises during peace time to evolve Standard Operating Procedures it cannot cope correctly with hostile situations.

(The writer is a Professor of International Relations and Strategic Studies at Christ Deemed to University, Bengaluru)