India needs a dedicated Space Force for the foreseeable future

by Cdr Sandeep Dhawan (Retd)

Indian Defence Minister, Rajnath Singh, delivered a keynote address for the 37th Air Chief Marshal P.C. Lal Memorial Lecture on 5th May 2022, in New Delhi. He stated that the Ukrainian conflict has lessons for future wars and the Indian Air Force must gear up for those challenges. He further urged the Indian Air Force to become an “Aerospace Force” and be prepared to protect the country from the challenges of the future.

This was further emphasized by Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) Gen Anil Chauhan in his address at the Indian DefSpace Symposium in April 2023. He stated that India should build offensive and defensive capabilities in the space domain. Looks like the Indian Air Force (IAF) got the drift and presented a case to the Indian government to be renamed, the Indian Air and Space Force (IASF).

A news portal known to take a contrarian stand immediately grabbed the opportunity to bring out that the IAF veterans were unhappy with the move and called the renaming somewhat excessive and needless. I agree, as well as disagree with them. If the move is cosmetic, then it is an effort in vain, but if it brings about the structural changes to strengthen the planned military reforms, i.e. Theaterisation, then it is a welcome move. I would go one step further and suggest an independent “Space Force”. This would not only demolish the unnecessary expenditure argument but also have long-term benefits.

Why Do We Need A Space Force?

One explanation is that China, France, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, all have a Space Force. So why should India be left behind? The answer is not that simple, but not complicated either. Why do seafaring nations want a Navy? The Navy secures that domain for all activities and deters threats in that domain. A Space Force would be replicating the same in space.

American company SpaceX has launched over 5,500 satellites by the end of November 2023. Elon Musk’s company has plans to create a constellation of 42,000 satellites. Amazon also launched two prototype satellites in November. They aim to launch 3,236 satellites under Project Kuiper. China plans to deploy a “State Network” (Guowang or GW) mega-constellation of almost 13,000 low-orbit satellites to provide services to China, spy on rival networks, and even carry out sabotage missions.

India, which was lagging behind has seen good momentum in the last five years. The number of Indian space start-ups has more than doubled, from 21 to 47 since 2020. They also received a whopping $233 million in funding. India recorded a historic moment in 2022 with its first private rocket launch by Skyroot. It is amply clear that sooner than later space will be a crowded domain. More and more nations would be jostling for a limited space. Just like SpaceX, Amazon, and Chinese agencies, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and Indian companies would also need a safe environment and security for their assets in space.

On the military front, we have recent examples of the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the Israel-Hamas war. Both these conflicts have displayed that space should be viewed as a critical enabler. During these ongoing wars, we have witnessed both sides attacking SATCOM capabilities to degrade command and control, and effort to interfere with GPS to reduce its effectiveness in the region.

Russian cyber-attack against commercial satellite communication networks used by the Ukrainian military draws a clear connection between space and cyber domains. However, Ukraine augmented the capability of its systems by integrating SpaceX’s Starlink SATCOM system. This exercise improved the Ukrainian command and control structure and proved much harder to target and degrade.

Coming to India’s immediate neighbour China. With 290 Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) satellites, 49 precision-navigation-and-timing satellites, a growing number of rapid-response launch capabilities, multiple ground-based lasers, numerous jammers targeting wide swaths of SATCOM frequencies and GPS, China has become a clear and present danger.

The importance of establishing and protecting defensive and offensive capabilities should be India’s immediate priority. Nothing exemplifies this more than memories of how the U.S. denied GPS support to the Indian armed forces during the Kargil War in 1999. It didn’t stop there. In 2012, the U.S. once again shut off its GPS satellites causing the BrahMos missile tests to fail.

Today, India has seven satellite constellations, Navigation with Indian Constellation (NavIC). This is an Indian version of the U.S. GPS, an autonomous regional satellite navigation system that provides accurate and real-time navigation and timing service. Its present reach is limited to 1,500 km. However, ISRO plans to extend the range to 3,000 km, which will take the NavIC services beyond the Indian borders. Responsibility for securing these essential and critical satellites would also rest with the Space Force.

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Noteworthy Developments

In October 2023, during the 11th China Command and Control Conference, a paper was submitted. The paper discussed the establishment of a new type of force believed to be a near-space command. Near-space is defined as a 20 to 100 km zone above the surface of the Earth. If this information is correct, then this would be the fifth Chinese force after the People’s Liberation Army, Navy, Air Force, and Rocket Force. As per the paper, this force would be equipped with hypersonic weapons for attacks on critical enemy infrastructure, and global high-altitude surveillance using solar-powered automated drones and spy balloons.

It would be other nations’ naiveté if they underestimated China. China demonstrated its mal intent very clearly in October 2021, when it tested a system that incorporated a glide body into a Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS). The system placed in low-earth orbit was capable of delivering a nuclear warhead.

The present situation is akin to the pre-World War Two days, when every Western leader was mollycoddling Hitler, ignoring all the war preparations Führer’s forces were making. The establishment of the Chinese near-space command could be the last wake-up call to the world.

An Independent Space Force

Only the availability of the best military equipment wouldn’t ensure success on the battleground. A modern military needs a well-trained force, well-rehearsed multi-domain operations, effective tactics, and a robust logistics supply chain. The creation of the Indian Space Force is more than overdue, and its importance cannot be overemphasized. India’s space assets, including the ground facilities, are worth $40 billion and expanding. The Indian military satellite network alone would expand to over 100 satellites in less than a decade. If ISRO and civilian companies need a Space Force for safe passage and security then the Indian Army, Navy, Air Force, and the future Rocket Force would need its assistance to get ISR inputs and safeguard their communication links to operate in a hostile environment.

Keeping the Space Force a part of IAF would also raise the question of staffing and budgeting. Would the present Defence Space Agency (DSA) merge into the IAF or continue working as it is? In all likelihood, the younger service, i.e. the space component of IASF would suffer as the air requirements would take priority. Even in the United States, there was endless opposition to a separate Space Force. But, in times to come, it would deliver dividends. Therefore, a dedicated Indian Space Force would be a better choice than burdening the existing IAF ecosystem.