Militarization of Space – India’s Imperatives

militarisation of space, indian military news, anil chopra

China has just launched the last of the satellites (35th) on 23 June 2020, a part of the “BeiDou” BDS-3 constellation. The deployment is fully complete now. BDS-3 satellites also include SBAS and SAR capabilities. When declared fully operational, BeiDou will provide an alternative to global navigation satellite system like the United States-owned Global Positioning System (GPS), the Russian GLONASS, or European Galileo systems. In July 2019, India had concluded the first table-top joint war game called “IndSpaceEx”. Run by the military and the space scientists, it was a logical next step after India had tested its anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defence systems and achieved many other key milestones pertaining to space including the demonstration of India’s anti-satellite (ASAT) capability and the establishment of the new tri-service Defence Space Agency (DSA). Though the Chandrayaan 2 missed the landing on Lunar surface by just two kilometers on 07 September 2019, the attempt itself gave India a ticket to the extraterrestrial game. India plans an orbiter to Venus ‘Shukrayaan-1’ in 2023. India has consistently supported peaceful exploitation of space, but with erstwhile super powers USA and Russia having made significant advances, and with China quickly moving ahead, India had no choice but to accelerate its operational capability in Space. Space is also becoming a great economic  enabler and is influencing and supporting every activity on planet earth. The thin line dividing the earth’s atmosphere and space is fast shrinking with more platforms transiting between earth and terrestrial locations. Greater space presence requires capability to launch heavy satellites, increase number of launches per year, have ability to launch satellites at short notice, position high accuracy sensors, have advanced electronic and cyber capabilities, and develop kinetic and non-kinetic means to defend India’s assets and interests in space. Space based military, and counter-space operations will allow own use of space while denying the adversary to use space offensively against Indian space or earth based assets. ‘Space Wars’ are no more in the domain of Ski-Fi movies or video games, but a reality facing the world. Is India prepared and what are the imperatives needs understanding?  

China’s BeiDou” BDS-3 constellation. Image Credit:

Space and Military Interest 

In very simple terms, ‘Space’ is the vast 3-dimensional region that begins where the earth’s atmosphere thins down considerably. Space is usually thought to begin at the lowest altitude at which satellites can maintain orbits for a reasonable time without falling into the atmosphere. This is approximately 160 kilometers (100 miles) above the surface. The two separate entities are considered as a single-domain for activities of launching, guidance and control of vehicles that travel in both entities. Astronomers may speak of interplanetary, interstellar, and  intergalactic space, but of immediate military interest is the region up to the Moon and subsequently the Solar system. The ultimate desire of a space-power is to dominate the use of space and have space-based systems that allow destruction of enemy targets in space and on earth, and deny the enemy full access to space including preventing the enemy from launching satellites and destroying or degrading enemy satellites in space. The term ‘Space War’ however is restricted to where the target is in the space and is attacked from space or from ground. While weapons are still to be official positioned in space, scientific research is in advanced stage to act as an enabler. Space is thus going to be the force multiplier for military operations.

Space Wars. Image Credit:

Space Weapon – Cold War

By late 1960s, Soviet Union and USA had both deployed military satellites for communications, imaging, reconnaissance and monitoring ballistic weapons. Ballistic missile transit through space was tested and soon became a capability with many nations. The United States and the Soviet Union began developing anti-satellite weapons in early 1960s. They were in the form of directed-energy lasers to decapitate; kamikaze satellites for hard-kill; and possible orbital nuclear weapons. In 1983 US President Reagan proposed a space-based Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to protect the United States from attack by strategic nuclear missiles. In the 1960s Soviets developed a “co-orbital” system that would approach the space target using radar guidance, and then explode shrapnel warhead close enough to kill it. Russia too has historically relied on co-orbital ASAT weapons to counter adversary space assets. The U.S. Space Force stated on 10 February 2020, that there have been several recent instances of Russian satellites maneuvering into similar orbital paths as known U.S. spy satellites, specifically USA-245. Soviets evolved a low-earth orbit Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS) for earth targets. It would de-orbit for the attack. The SALT II agreement of 1979 prohibited the deployment of FOBS systems. The Soviets also experimented with large, ground-based Anti-Satellite (ASAT) lasers with a number of US spy-satellites reportedly being temporarily ‘blinded’. Soviets also used a modified MiG-31 as an ASAT launch platform. There were many other initiatives.

MiG-31 with new missile (ASAT?). Image Credit:

Non-Weapon Space Enablers

Military requires to use space for Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR), for networked warfare. Satellites are also used to provide early warning of missile launches, locate nuclear detonations, and detect preparations for otherwise clandestine or surprise nuclear tests. Global Positioning Systems (GPS) are an important military application in space. US GPS, Russian GLONASS, European Galileo, Chinese Beidou and Indian Regional Navigational satellite System ‘NAVIC’ are some such examples. The GPS system is in operation since February, 1989. It also facilitates accurate targeting by smart bombs and cruise missiles. The military doctrine of network-centric warfare also relies heavily on the use of high speed satellite enabled communications to improve real-time situational awareness. Satellite imagery of enemy position with accurate coordinates of target can be transferred to bombers and cruise missiles through the military internet connected through satellite communications. Modern military forces, including India, have such secure information grids. 

The “SPICE” (Smart, Precise Impact, Cost-Effective) is an Israeli-developed, EO/GPS-guided guidance kit. Picture Credit:

Weaponisation of Space

A 2006 draft of the US National Space Policy clearly formulated the opposition to arms control and aspiration to dominate in space. “Space superiority is not our birthright, but it is our destiny. Space supremacy is our vision for the future,” General Lance Lord, then head of US Air Force Space Command said in 2005. The Russian ASAT Research has reported resumed under President Putin to counter the renewed US strategic defence efforts post ABM Treaty. US has also pullout of the bilateral Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty with Russia. The US meanwhile continues working on a number of programs which could be basis for a space-based ASAT. International space treaties limit or regulate positioning of weapons or conflicts in space. To date, there have been no human casualties resulting from conflict in space, nor has any ground target been successfully neutralized from orbit. Control and denial of space-based assets is a key part of the PLA doctrine. There is currently no war in space, but many experts to include the Chief of Staff of the US Air Force, General David Goldfein, believes a war in space is imminent

Ground Based Space Weapons

During tests in 1962 the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) from a 1.4 Mt nuclear warhead detonated over the Pacific damaged three satellites. Another area of research was into directed energy weapons, including a nuclear-explosion powered X-ray laser. AGM-69 SRAM carried on a modified F-15 Eagle was successfully tested in September 1985 targeting a satellite orbiting at 555 km. In February 2008 US Navy fired a standard ABM to act as an ASAT weapon to destroy an ageing hydrazine laden US satellite. Russia has reportedly restarted development of a prototype laser system ‘Sokol Exhelon’. Israel’s Arrow 3 (Hetz 3) anti-ballistic missile, with exo-atmospheric interception capability became operational in January 2017. It intercepts ballistic missiles during the space-flight portion of their trajectory. In January 2007, China successfully destroyed a defunct Chinese weather satellite in polar orbit at an altitude of about 865 km using a kinetic warhead of SC-19 Anti-Satellite (ASAT) missile. The warhead destroyed the satellite in a head-on collision at an extremely high relative velocity. In May 2013, the Chinese government announced the launch of a suborbital rocket carrying a scientific payload to study the upper ionosphere. US government suspects it as the first test of a new ground-based ASAT system. The NASA space plane X-37, now with US Department of Defense is akin to a space version of Uninhabited Aerial Vehicle and its employability is evolving. US National Missile Defense (NMD) program has no weapon stations in space, but is designed to intercept incoming warheads at a very high altitude where the interceptor travels into space to achieve the intercept. In June 2019, China became the third country to launch a satellite using Long March 11 rocket that lifted off from a floating launch pad in the Yellow Sea.  

Modified F-15 Eagle Used for ASAT Test. Picture Credit:

Indian ASAT Test

On 27 March 2019, India destroyed a ‘live satellite’ in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The interceptor struck a test satellite at a 283-kilometre altitude, 168 seconds after launch. The system was developed by Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). With this test, India became the fourth nation with ASAT missile capabilities. As per DRDO, missile was capable of shooting down enemy targets moving at a speed of 10 km per second at an altitude as high as 1200 km. However, in order to minimize the threat of debris, the interception was performed against an object moving at 7.4 km per second at an altitude below 300 km. It gave India a great capability for a possible war in space.

Indian ASAT Test. Picture Source:

Complexities of Satellite Intercepts

The ease of shooting down orbiting satellites and their effects on operations has been questioned by some. Tracking of military satellites with inbuilt defensive measure like inclination changes, among others, will not be so easy. The interceptor would have to pre-determine the point of impact while compensating for the satellite’s lateral movement and the time for the interceptor to climb and move. Military satellites orbit at about 800 km high and move at 7.5 km/s and are difficult to intercept. Even if an ISR satellite is knocked out, all countries possess an extensive array of manned and unmanned ISR aircraft that could perform mission. GPS and communications satellites orbit at much higher altitudes of 20,000 to 36,000 km putting them out of range of solid-fuelled ICBMs. The constellation of many GPS satellites provides redundancy where at least four satellites can be received in six orbital planes at any one time, so an attacker would need to disable at least six satellites to disrupt the network. Yey U.S. is working on Orbital Red Tails, the use of escort satellites to defend national intelligence satellites.

Satellite Interception. Image Credit:

Anti-Space Weaponisation Treaties

During the Cold War, to avoid extending the threat of nuclear weapons to space, the Partial Nuclear Test Ban treaty of 1963 and Outer Space Treaty of 1967 prevented detonating nuclear devices in space. However, by then both the United States and the Soviet Union had performed several high altitude nuclear explosions in space. The salient features of the treaties were the exploration and use of outer space for the benefit of all mankind, and not to place weapons in orbit or on celestial bodies. In 1981, a UN General Assembly proposed a Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) treaty to preserve space for peaceful uses by prohibiting the use of space weapons. China and the US prevented consensus. The proposed Space Preservation Treaty of 2006 against all space weapons, and 2008 Treaty on Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space were vetoed by USA despite the treaty explicitly affirming a State’s inherent right of self-defence. December 2014, the General Assembly of the UN passed two resolutions on preventing an arms race in outer space, both of which were opposed by USA among a few others

Image Credit:

Space Command Structures

United States Space Command (USSPACECOM) was created as a Unified Combatant Command in 1985 to coordinate the use of outer space by the United States Armed Forces. After the reorganization in 2002, it was placed under US Strategic Command. In December 2011, the Russian Space Forces became the Aerospace Defence Forces, fusing all space and some air defence components into one joint service. In August 2015, they were merged with the Russian Air Force to form the Russian Aerospace Forces. As part of the reforms in December 2015 the People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force was created. It is understood that it includes high-tech operations forces such as space, cyberspace and electronic warfare. The major mission of the PLA Strategic Support Force is to give support to the combat operations so that the PLA can gain regional advantages in the astronautic, space, network, and electromagnetic wars. In 2012, Indian Armed Forces Chief of Staff Committee had recommended the formation of three commands for cyber, space and special operations. In April 2019 India created the tri-services Defence Space Agency (DSA) based in Bangalore for better utilization and integration of space resources. It will combine key functions performed by the Defence Imagery Processing and Analysis Centre (DIPAC) in Delhi and the Defence Satellite Control Centre (DSCC) in Bhopal. It will also evolve space doctrines and support suitable military action in space. The DSA will work closely with the ISRO and DRDO. 

Logo Source: Wikipedia

Indian launch and Satellite Capabilities

ISRO main launch vehicles are the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV). In January 2014. ISRO successfully used an indigenous cryogenic engine in GSLV-D5 launch of the GSAT-14. ISRO sent one lunar orbiter ‘Chandrayaan-1’ on 22 October 2008, and a Mars orbiter mission (MOM) which successfully entered Mars orbit on 24 September 2014, making India the first nation to succeed on its first attempt. India’s Space program though overtly for peaceful exploitation of space has military off-shoots. These include remote sensing satellites of IRS series with some having spatial resolution of one meter or below. There are others with panchromatic cameras, synthetic aperture radars, satellites providing scene-specific spot imagery for cartographic/military applications. ISRO used its heaviest rocket, GSLV-Mk III, on 5 June 2017 to launch the 4 ton GSAT-19. Soon the capacity will increase to launch up to 5,000 Kg satellite payload. As of 4 December 2019, ISRO has launched 319 foreign satellites belonging to 33 countries. It has had 117 Spacecraft missions, 77 launch missions, 10 student satellites, and two re-entry missions. India will send its first manned mission to space by December 2021 says ISRO chief Kailasavadivoo Sivan.

GSLV-Mk III launch. Picture Source: Wikipedia

Indian Military Application Satellites

India currently has 15 operational Indian Remote Sensing (IRS) satellites. All these are placed in polar sun-synchronous orbit and provide data in a variety of spatial, spectral and temporal resolutions. India also commercially offers images with one meter resolution. Radar Imaging Satellite 2 (RISAT-2) has synthetic aperture radar (SAR) from Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). It has a day-night, all-weather monitoring capability with one meter resolution. The CARTOSAT-2 carries a state-of-the-art panchromatic (PAN) camera that takes black and white pictures of the earth in the visible region of the electromagnetic spectrum. CARTOSAT-2A is a dedicated satellite for the Indian Armed Forces. Because of high agility, it can be steered to facilitate imaging of any area more frequently. CARTOSAT-2B offers multiple spot scene imagery. CARTOSAT-2E was launched in June 2017. GSAT-6 is the second strategic satellite mainly for use by the armed forces for quality and secure communication. Indian Navy uses GSAT-7 for real-time communication among its warships, submarines, aircraft and land systems. GSAT-7A ‘angry bird’ an advanced military communications satellite exclusively for the Indian Air Force (IAF) was launched in December 2018. It will enhance network-centric warfare capabilities by interlinking with IAF ground radar network and Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircraft. GSAT-7A will also be used by Indian Army Aviation Corps. India has 13 satellites with military applications. India is also planning a laser based weapon system to destroy a ballistic missile in its boost phase.

The 2,250-kg GSAT 7A ‘angry bird’ military communications satellite of the Indian Air Force. Photo: Reuters

China and Pakistan Space Programs 

The first Chinese manned spaceflight was in 2003. In January 2007 China used an anti-satellite missile to destroy an aging Chinese weather satellite. China’s ASAT program includes land-based missiles, experimental lasers, and signal jammers. China has successfully performed soft landing of a rover on the moon, including on the only ones to land on the dark side. China has long term ambitions to exploit Earth-Moon space for industrial development. China plans to have a habitable space station Tiangong2online by 2022 and put Chinese astronauts on the moon in the mid-2020s. They also have Mars lander mission coming up. China has launched ‘DAMPE’ the most capable dark matter explorer to date in 2015, and world’s first quantum communication satellite ‘QUESS’ in 2016. China is averaging 20 space missions a year.The Long March 9 or Changzheng 9, is a Chinese super-heavy carrier rocket concept that is currently in study. It is planned for a maximum payload capacity of 140,000 kg to LEO, 50,000 kg to Lunar Transfer Orbit or 44,000 kg to Mars. Its first flight is expected in 2030 in preparation for a lunar landing sometime in the 2030s 

Super Heavy Space Lift. Image Source: Wikipedia

Pakistan’s Karachi based Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO) is more of a bureaucratic agency with little to show as end products. It is a part of the Strategic Plans Division (SPD) of Pakistani Armed Forces under control of Pakistan Air Force (PAF). Pakistan’s very fledgling space program has Chinese support and stamp. Pakistan takes Chinese support for satellite launch. They have also joined the Chinese satellite navigation system Beidou. Main concentration has been to develop a series of nuclear capable ballistic missiles for the Pakistan Army. The Pakistan Remote Sensing Satellite (PRSS), commercially known as Remote Sensing Satellite System (RSSS), is a dual-purpose earth observation and optical satellite. Pakistan Remote Sensing Satellite-1 (PRSS-1) was launched from China’s Jiuquan Satellite Centre on 9 July 2018.

Pakistan Remote Sensing Satellite-1. Picture Credit:

Wargame IndSpaceEx

“IndSpaceEx” table-top exercise was conducted by the Ministry of Defence on July 25-26, 2019. The exercise assessed threats in space from a military perspective and India’s current capability. It took stock of the military space assets of the US, Russia and China. The country’s armed forces, along with DRDO, ISRO, academia including IIT-Mumbai, think-tanks like ORF and private industry were part of the table-top exercise. Within the community of strategic thinkers, Beijing poses a major threat to India’s security interest – satellites and other assets. This first of its kind exercise, at this level, was to help gain a better understand security issues related to space domain. The limited agenda was to give insight into vulnerabilities and the gaps in India’s space security and identifying areas for India to develop and strengthen in terms of technological capabilities in order to establish effective deterrence capabilities as the logical next step. 

Capability Building Attention 

Dr S.Chandrashekhar of National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru   looked into some of the important aspects of security related aspects utilization of space in his study “Space, War & Security – A Strategy for India”. The major space based components would be a robust Space Situational awareness (SSA) capability comprising radar, optical and laser tracking facilities that are able to operationally monitor the space environment. A constellation of advanced communications satellites in Geo Stationery Orbit (GSO) are required for carrying out vital C4 functions. A constellation of satellites in LEO that will provide Internet services for the military. Clusters of satellites for ELINT function. A constellation of Electro-Optical and SAR satellites in appropriate Sun Synchronous Orbits (SSO) for ISR. Small satellites on hot-standby to be launched at short notice into LEO for ISR needs during crises. Adequate Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System (TDRSS) satellites in GSO C4ISR capability. Satellites for meeting operational weather requirements. Satellites for navigation functions. To meet all these requirements India would need 16 PSLV, 7 GSLV and 7 Agni 5 based launchers every year. This would mean creating significant indigenous launch capacity.

In future India requires ‘Heavy’ (4200 – 5400 Kg) to very Heavy satellites (>5400 Kg). The use of Ion Propulsion for moving the satellite from GTO to GSO is an emerging trend. This approach will allow GSLV Mark 2 launcher to launch the equivalent of an intermediate class GSO satellite and the GSLV Mark 3 launcher can launch the equivalent of a heavy class satellite. The creation of an ELINT capability and a TDRSS capability are major gap areas that have to be bridged on priority. Indian capabilities for dealing with the infra-red (thermal) part of the spectrum are also limited. These need to be strengthened significantly. Antenna technology for meeting modern SSA, SAR and C4 needs national attention. Extending the IRNSS scheme for navigation via a MEO constellation to improve navigation accuracies and eventually providing for a completely indigenous solution to the navigation problem is required. 

Image source:

Space Strategy Ahead

Noted strategist Guilio Douhet had said “Victory smiles upon those who anticipate the changes in the character of war not upon those who wait to adapt themselves after the changes occur”. When Britain dominated the seas it ruled the world. The Americans have been leaders of the free world ever since they gained superiority in the air. Now the dominating position will belong to those who gain supremacy in outer space. The Sino-US dynamic will drive the other major powers to act to preserve and enhance their security and national power interests. Space assets will act as the force multipliers and will play a vital role in the formulation and implementation of the strategies. The entire National Security Complex would have to be reorganized and restructured keeping in mind this reality. The role of space-based C4ISR assets complemented by other ground based SSA components will be critical for deciding on the new national strategy for waging war and for preserving the peace. 

With space having emerged as the fourth medium for military operations, the IAF had brought out its blueprint titled ‘Defence Space Vision 2020’. Integrated Space Cell under the IDS headquarters in Delhi is working on furthering joint space strategy. The Defence Space Satellite Centre works closely with ISRO. Both will now be part of the DSA. India has developed all the building blocks necessary to integrate an anti-satellite weapon to neutralize hostile satellites in low earth and polar orbits. India needs early warning satellites to monitor ICBM launches and even tactical airspace as an important military asset. Ground/space based lasers to disable enemy satellites or destroy/degrade attacking ICBM as part of ASAT capability. There is also a need to develop Directed Energy Weapons. India one-day needs a permanent space station. The space-based systems have enabled dramatic improvement in military and intelligence operations thus enhancing its capability, accuracy and fire power. In the not so distant future, wars will again be fought like we read in Indian Epics. Space is the future for all action and capabilities the real force multiplier. India is doing well. Time to invest more and prepare is now. 

This article was first published in Indian Defence Review (IDR) and has since been updated considerably

Picture Credit:

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

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