Future Military Space for India

Any future conflict will start and have key stakes in the space domain and this is one area where India must not falter. The priority should be to establish an architecture of space warfare units covering the entire gamut from hard kill to soft kill and denial options

By Col R Ralli


While the militarisation of space is being led by the Big Three – US, China and Russia, most nations are developing military space-based capabilities for support to operations on ground. In the context of India, space domain activities need to be pursued on the following fronts.

  • Development of strategy/roadmap for the future space—will need to address issues of economy, military and collaborations
  • Military space-based capabilities for the Armed Forces
  • Preparation for space warfare—defensive and offensive
  • Buildup of a military civil integrated space capability
  • Technology development in the space field

Roadmap for the Future Space

Peculiarities of space domain such as dual use of technology and space assets—necessitate a complex roadmap including both military and the civil/commercial side. A long-term plan will need to include both civilian/commercial and military needs, development of a military civil integrated industrial space complex and an R&D effort to support the proposed growth in the space sector.
Purely from the economic point of view/ heavy investment needs, collaborations with other countries in certain spheres like technology development, SSA (Space Situational Awareness) will have to form a part of this initiative and will need to be factored in while drawing out a roadmap.

Military Space-Based Capabilities for the Armed Forces

Military space capabilities can broadly be divided into two operational contexts i.e., space support to military operations and space warfare. Space Support to Military Operations: Space domain offers capabilities of the high ground to military operations encompassing the field of communication, navigation, surveillance, reconnaissance, intelligence gathering (ELINT & SIGINT included). Today, militaries cannot fight without space support, the non-availability of which raises the risk of military defeat.

The underlying factor to achieving these capabilities would be the man behind the machine and there is a strong need to create specialists

Space Warfare: Militarization of space which involves the placement and development of weaponry and military technology in outer space has led to the issue of space domain warfare. The US and China have already established independent forces to address space domain warfare.

While China established the Strategic Support Force in 2015, which handles the fields of space, cyber, and the electromagnetic spectrum, the US established the Space Force in December 2019.

Given the existing geopolitical situation, in the Indian context, of immediate concern is the development of capabilities pertaining to space support to military operations with the peripheral focus on developing space warfare capabilities—more focused on defensive capabilities (in the near future) so as to retain the space support function in face of adversarial action. Offensive space domain capabilities need to be developed as a deterrent. These will be heavily technology-dependent and should be our long term aim.

Space Support to Military Operations: Space support to military operations capabilities include intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), launch detection, environmental monitoring, satellite communications, and positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT). Enumerated below are broad contours of the desired capability under each function:

Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR)

Space-based sensors perform ISR that contribute to battlespace awareness in all domains. Options for sensors range from electro-optical, IR, SAR, Hyperspectral to ELINT/COMINT, providing an opportunity to address a wide EM spectrum and provide inputs unhindered by weather, sunlight conditions or operations on ground.

Satellite Constellations for ISR need to be based on a layered architecture akin to the US Space Force. These layers could be persistent surveillance, broad area coverage and a high resolution layer. Design characteristics need to ensure capability for both tactical and strategic ISR functions.

Certain key points for planning the space segment could be:

  • Sub metric resolution for the High Resolution layer and viable military resolutions for the broad area coverage and persistent surveillance layers
  • Varied local times of satellite passes
  • Inclined orbits for better coverage at certain latitudes
  • Number of constellations to ensure revisit capability to meet operational imperatives
  • Multi sensor satellites to economise on numbers
  • Use of small satellite constellations to build in redundancy against adversary’s counter-space ops
  • Develop a quick launch capability with an aim to fill in voids or meet surge requirements guided by operational requirements
  • A demand to delivery cycle of not more than 04 hours; commercially, Capella Space, a US firm, is promising 90 mins
  • A data relay system based on Geostationary satellites for quick transmission of acquired data from satellites to the ground earth stations. If this capability is achieved in the reverse loop, it will facilitate the commanding function of satellites too
  • Cyber security hardening against cyber measures

The ground segment which consists of ground earth stations, data processing, transmission of data to analysis centres, satellite control, analysis centres, would need detailed attention to ensure detailed ISR function and military payoffs from the capability proposed to be developed. To facilitate efficient exploitation of the space segment, key ground segment infrastructure needed is enumerated below:

  • Multiple geographically spread out ground earth stations in adequate numbers to ensure redundancy and simultaneous data download capability.
  • 2-3 data processing centres based on high-end computing so as to deliver products to the troops on ground with least amount of delay
  • A sound, fast and secure communication system to transfer data to the relevant Command and Control Centres
  • Cyber security hardening of all channels involved in transmission of data

Given the quantum of data generated; Artificial Intelligence support to detect and analyse the needed information will be operationally critical

Launch Detection

Launch detection is accomplished by space-based sensors to provide real-time intelligence and post-launch analysis to determine orbital characteristics and evaluate threat to own assets enabling timely countermeasures. This capability will need to be based on a geostationary asset, data fusion along with a robust Command and Control system based on secure communications will be critical in operationalising this capability.

Environmental Monitoring

While India’s KE capability (ASAT test) has been showcased to the world, there is a need to develop and operation-alise the soft kill options

Environmental monitoring includes both for space (SSA-Space Situational Awareness) and from space i.e meteorological and oceanographic data. From space provides data on meteorological, oceanographic, and environmental factors that may affect military operations.

SSA: Monitoring the space domain provides data and warnings on space environmental factors including adversary actions that may affect space assets and space operations. Inputs From space environmental monitoring are critical for military operations especially Naval operations; in this field, we have achieved adequate capability which needs to be constantly upgraded to support military ops. SSA, on the other hand, is not limited to a particular geographical area on ground and would be highly resource intensive.

The US and China and other major countries have adopted a collaborative approach to achieve this capability; a similar approach is recommended in our context as well.

Satellite Communications

SATCOM capability is a critical component of providing command and control to military forces. Secure SATCOM would mitigate the disruption, denial or exploitation attempts of communication services by adversaries.

Positioning, Navigation, and Timing

Space-based positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) is a utility with multi-use services from navigation by troops to weapon guidance.

The underlying factor to achieving these capabilities would be the man behind the machine and there is a strong need to create specialists in the Armed Forces to lead this growth in capability.

Space Warfare The ASAT test—Mission Shakti in March 2019 did announce to the world of India’s counterspace capability, being the fourth such country in the world to possess such tech. While we focus on Offensive measures it will be difficult to catch up with the Chinese as the growing Chinese counterspace threat, although aimed primarily at the US, nonetheless threatens India. Defensive measures in the near term are essential while the resource and technology intensive offensive measures could continue to be pursued.

Preparation for Space Warfare – Defensive and Offensive

Threat: India primarily faces counterspace threat from China as the Chinese counterspace capabilities are wide-ranging, spanning the entire gamut from lethal to silent means.

  • China has operationalised Units equipped with ASAT missiles the SC-19 and its successor the DN-3, in order to be able to threaten high-value space platforms
  • China is developing co-orbital satellites that are designed to either manipulate trajectory or physically damage satellites through interference by mechanical means such as robotic arms, thereby rendering the spacecraft ineffective (without causing any debris)
  • Directed Energy Weapons. Ground based lasers andspace-based high power microwave systems are being developed as more usable alternatives to KE weapons which risk space debris.
  • Softer options developed by China include the capacity to mount cyber-attacks directed at ground stations which carry out Command and Control of various spacecraft on orbit, ground/air/space-based radio frequency jammers that target the uplinks, downlinks involved in either the control of space systems or the transmission of data.

Chinese counterspace threats, although at varying levels of maturity, are not notional or long term; rather, present a clear danger already.

Defensive Measures. The best deterrent against the Chinese is to develop a resilient and responsive space eco system that enhances India’s capacity to use space despite hostile Chinese operations. Defensive measures would include:

  • Effective SSA (space situational awareness).
  • Operationally responsive quick space launch capabilities.
  • Small satellite constellations to bring in redundancy.
  • Cyber hardening of all systems of the space and ground segment.
  • Integration of military space activities with the civilian space infrastructure for real time operations.
  • Cooperation with friendly countries to meet technology requirements and SSA.

Offensive Measures: While India’s KE capability (ASAT test) has been showcased to the world, there is a need to develop and operationalise the soft kill options of jamming, spoofing, Directed Energy Weapons and cyber measures, primarily as a deterrence to Chinese threat to India’s space assets.

Buildup of a Military Civil Integrated Space Capability

Given the scope of utilization of space-based capability—space capability today cannot be exclusively built for either military or civilian purposes. This aspect has been incorporated by both the US and the Chinese. The Chinese concept of MCF (Military Civil Fusion) is a part of their national strategy driven at the highest levels and includes space as a major component to ensure growth of its military in the space domain.

Common areas for such an endeavor in the Indian context would include the following:

  • R&D base
  • Industrial & manufacturing facilities
  • Launch facilities
  • Cyber and software
  • Commercial utilization of civilian capacities in remote sensing
  • Packaging of civilian and military capabilities as a part of foreign diplomacy

Technological Development in the Space Field

The KPMG report on space 2030 has made 30 predictions that basically deal with five main issues:

  • Humans living in space
  • Deep space exploration
  • Space business models
  • Space based data and
  • Sustainability in space

This eco system enunciated in the report will be enabled by emerging technologies which would make it viable for sustained activities in the space. There will be a marked shift in human activities to space which will be accompanied by clash of interest and conflicts between nations forcing armed forces to prepare for space as an operational domain.

Conduct of military space operations are based on infrastructure which can broadly be divided into ground segment and space segment and the emerging technologies as the effect these two segments are enunciated below:

Ground Segment Emerging Technologies

  • Ground earth stations are established to communicate with the space-based assets in the present format where fixed antennas are used. Emerging technologies will facilitate direct downloading of the data by frontline troops.
  • Recent launch of the experimental satellite by China with 6G technologies indicates the capability of high-speed data download which would shift from the present GBPS to terabits per second. This again will contribute to availability of high resolution imagery in almost real-time at the field level.
  • Use of network of ground stations worldwide along with Geo stationary satellites will facilitate almost real-time download of data for the ISR functions. Availability of mobile data reception stations based on ships vehicles and even Manpack stations will provide the flexibility to overcome restrictions posed on fixed ground of stations due to orbital dynamics.
  • In the field of data processing, due to better electronics hardware and software we are likely to see reduction in the processing time of data from a few hours to just a few minutes.
  • Given the jump in the number of space-based assets there is going to be a voluminous increase data available which would be impossible to process manually. AI (Artificial Intelligence) will facilitate change detection and object identification leaving the image analyst for specialist tasks.
  • For the telemetry tracking and commanding function, use of a worldwide network of ground stations and geo satellites will facilitate cutting down the demand to delivery cycle which is presently ranging from a few hours to just about 90 odd minutes. Using the same technology, it would be feasible to execute real time maneuvering of satellites as a defensive measure as also reposition satellite orbits to meet operational requirements.
  • On the launch front, ship and aircraft-based launch of satellites will help in overcoming technical restrictions and delays of launching from geographically fixed locations.

Emerging Space Segment Technologies

  • In the field of satellites, the major game changer has been small satellites which provide operational redundancy and system resilience while reducing costs besides facilitating capability to simultaneously launch a constellation of satellites.
  • Better onboard propulsion systems based on ion and electric propulsion will lead to increase in satellite life.
  • Miniaturization of electronic components and consequently the satellite payloads will lead to the options of satellites with multiple payloads.
  • The demonstration shown by the US about a year back of carrying out in orbit satellite refueling will lead to life extension especially in the case of critical geostationary satellites.
  • On board processing in satellites will provide processed data ready for use by troops on ground.
  • Improvements in agility systems will provide satellites up to 60-degree agility increasing revisit capability.
  • In the field of data relay, the emerging laser based inter satellite communication technology will facilitate high speed data transfer and quicker downloading/uploading.
  • In the field of SSA (Space situational Awareness), availability of high precision telescopes based both on ground and space would facilitate better space awareness picture.
  • Technologies for defensive capabilities presently be pursued are in the field of maneuvering of satellites, quantum communication and cyber proofing.

With ISRO in the lead and participation of the private sector, the challenge for developing newer technologies will have to be vigorously pursued to take on the challenges that the space domain will offer. Initiatives will have to include the following:

  • An institutional mechanism of joint efforts with ISRO and private players for technology development supported by policy changes.
  • Provision of adequate funding for research efforts.
  • Mechanism for operationalizing developed technologies in a quicker time frame.
  • Cooperation with friendly countries for co-developing technologies/ acquiring critical technologies.


Military growth in the space domain is inevitable and we cannot afford to miss this bus. Militarily, space will transform from combat support role to war fighting domain. To sustain national interests in the space domain, there will be a need of offensive and defensive measures to retain ability to use the space domain while denying the same to our adversaries and to support this activity there would be a need of dedicated specialized men for space operations.

– The writer has a varied military experiences serving in organisations related to space and defence procurement. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda