Rising to the New Frontier

As China is systematically expanding its counterspace capability, with other countries following suit, the time has come for India to start planning for establishment of a separate vertical in its military establishment called Indian Space Force (ISF)

By Dr Ajey Lele

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For last couple of years, India is witnessing a push given to the process of defence reforms in the country. These reforms are found happening at the multiple levels. Actually, there is a long history of defence reforms in the country. Post-1999 Kargil war, the Kargil Review Committee (KRC) was set up with a main focus towards examining the overall national security system in the country.

Over the years, various changes in the military structures and polices have been caried out based on the Kargil committee and few other committee reports. Appointment of first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) on December 30, 2019 could be viewed as a major reform undertaken in recent times. Subsequently, there has been a major push for indigenisation with an announcement of a big defence items for which there is an import embargo. Also, there is an increasing focus on promotion of export of Indian defence products. The recent announcement of Agnipath recruitment scheme for the induction of the soldiers could be viewed as a next step in the reforms process.

In order to continue with the process of changes in the military organisation, there was a demand from the armed forces for the entablement of three different commands for special forces and for conduct of space and cyber activities. During November 2019, this demand was met by establishing three tri-service agencies. This step could be viewed as a major reform, in regard to deciding on the military cyber and military space policies of the country. As a first step, the government has established agencies which are headed by two-star officers. However, this process has to be dynamic and much more is required to be done, particularly in the space domain to address the emerging challenges.

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The 1991 Gulf War gets viewed as the first satellite war where satellite technologies were used for assisting the allied force in the conduct of war for the purposes of commutations, navigation and for collection of intelligence inputs and weather information. This war actually showcased the relevance of space technologies in the warfare. At present, many countries are found investing in this sector. At the same time, during last few years, the expanse of the idea of using satellite technologies in the warfare has evolved in a different direction too. Presently, apart from using satellite technology as a ‘force multiplier’ for military needs, there is also an angle of ‘space warfare’ becoming increasingly apparent. China’s conduct of Anti-satellite Test (ASAT) during 2007 could be viewed as a ‘seed’ of such a change in thinking.

By conduct of ASAT test, China demonstrated to the rest of the world (read US and India) that, if need arises then they can disable the military satellite systems of their advisories. This one reckless action by China has made their adversaries to recalibrate their military and space policies. The US, immediately responded by conducting an ASAT test during 2008. This Operation Burnt Frost, conducted by the US was a military operation to intercept and destroy their non-functioning satellite USA-193. Subsequently, the US has established a separate military space service (one of the eight uniformed services) called the US Space Force during December 2019. Currently, this world’s only independent space force is found undergoing massive expansion. The US is also fully aware about the possible threat posed by Russia (they have conducted an ASAT test on 15 November 2021) in the space domain.

The 1991 Gulf War gets viewed as the first satellite war where satellite technologies were used for assisting the allied force in the conduct of war for the purposes of commu-tations, navigation and for collection of intelligence inputs and weather information

It is important to note that post-2007 ASAT test, China is systematically investing into expanding its counterspace capability matrix. It is but obvious that China is not keen to allow the US to have any asymmetric advantage in the domain of space. China is keen to ensure that, in case of any military tensions in the Asia Pacific region, the US should not be in a position to dictate the terms in space. They have already established (and tested) a capability to jam the US satellites, if they try to pick-up any information over Taiwan, Hong Kong region. Post-2007 ASAT China has conducted various other tests to check the feasibility of expanding their ASAT programme in low, medium and even geostationary orbits.

China has made important investments towards developing various kinetic and non-kinetic options to challenge the adversary’s assets in the space. Beyond kinetic-kill space weapons (KKV), they are known to possess cyber and laser satellite jamming technologies and other weaponries like directed energy weapons (DEW).

China has also made commendable progress in the civilian (dual-use) domain of space. They possess important satellite systems meant for commutations and navigational purposes. Their earth-observation/remote sensing satellite systems (spy satellites) have much use for intelligence gathering too. Presently, they are giving final touches towards fully operationalising their space station. Also, their Moon and Mars programme have made much progress in short time. This development of expertise in the so-called non-military domain of space allows China to quickly reconfigure the technologies for military means, if requirement arises.

China has made rapid progress in the field of science and technology during last few decades. There is a big question mark in minds of many strategic thinkers with regard to China’s capabilities, investments and intentions in the domain of space. China’s space programme is known to be an important part of PLA’s strategic mandate. Obviously, to address a threat of this nature and for creating own space deterrence mechanism, the US has gone ahead and established a separate military space vertical.

Over the years, India has made significant investment in the space domain. Also, Indian armed forces are getting assistance from satellite technologies. On 27 March 2019, India successfully conducted an ASAT test. Obviously, one of the most important reasons for the conduct of this test was sending across a message to China. By conducting this test, India has now defined its strategic stance in the space domain and has elevated its own ‘space envelope’. Now, it is important for India to evolve its strategic vision in space domain analytically. Looking at the existing and futuristic military challenges in the domain of space now the time has come for India to start planning for establishment of separate vertical in its military establishment called Indian Space Force (ISF). As and when (and if) such defence reform happens, then it is expected to be viewed as ‘mother of all defence reforms in India’!

– The writer is a Consultant with MP-IDSA, New Delhi. The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda