Written by Prof. S. Chandrashekar.
The Indian Space Programme spearheaded by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has largely focused on civilian uses of space technology. The major thrust areas are satellite communications, remote sensing, weather and navigation services. More recently ISRO has ventured into the realms of inter planetary probes with high profile missions to the Moon and Mars. As a consequence there is growing international recognition of India’s emergence as a space power. The civilian focus of the programme has also enabled India to further its development agenda through a very cost effective use of its space capabilities.
India also has to think about how space assets could be used to help conventional forces in safeguarding Indian interests in the region.
While these achievements are no doubt impressive, global geopolitics coupled with developments in technology are likely to raise a new set of challenges. These have been triggered by a US-China rivalry that is being increasingly seen in the space arena.
Control of the high ground of space for waging and deterring war has always engaged the minds of the military from the beginnings of the Space age. While a number of ASAT and BMD weapons were tested during the Cold War period they were not deployed since such restrictions suited both the superpowers. Military deployments in space were largely confined to using reconnaissance and communications satellites for carrying out verification functions. These were seen as capabilities that supported deterrence and the preservation of peace. The consequent emergence of a bipolar world order reflected the “peaceful uses of outer space”. Bilateral treaties between the superpowers as well as a number of multilateral treaties such as the Partial Test Ban Treaty and the Outer Space Treaty lent “international legal legitimacy” to this status quo.
The first Gulf War saw the United States use its space assets for waging and winning a conventional war. This was soon followed by the demise of the Soviet Union. These events brought an end to the sanctuary regime in space leaving the US as the dominant power.
The end of the Cold War also saw a revival of an adversarial relationship between the US and China. China’s concerns over US intervention in a Taiwan crisis forced it to come up with a new approach for dealing with a dominant adversary. Recognizing that the projection of US power over long distances was critically dependent on its space and naval assets, China formulated a new Anti Access Area Denial (A2AD) strategy.
This strategy involves the preemptive use of ASAT weapons to destroy US assets in space. It also involves the use of its own C4ISR constellation of satellites to identify and track US Aircraft Carriers in the high seas. Information from this constellation would then be used by weapons such as the Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM) to target, threaten and deter US and allied naval forces at a distance well away from its mainland.
These moves and counter moves that include clear demonstrations of respective space capabilities, have transformed space from a “peaceful” into a “contested and weaponized” domain. China has, in addition, introduced an element of risk and ambiguity into its theatre-level missile capabilities by making them carry both nuclear and conventional warheads. This raises the risk that a conventional war over Taiwan could escalate into a potential nuclear war with “space dimensions”.
This US-China dynamic that links conventional, nuclear and space war is likely to have a cascading effect on the space programmes of all space powers including India. The figure below provides an overview of the current world space order.
The US-China dynamic in space will have a major influence on the space activities of India. China and its close friend and ally Pakistan are major security threats that India has to address as it traverses the path to economic and industrial development.
As India’s economic and industrial capabilities grow, its space activities are bound to increase. Facing a situation in which space becomes contested and weaponized, India may have to take steps to protect its space assets. These would entail a significant increase in the scale and scope of the Indian space effort.
While the civilian focus of India’s space programme has created substantial capabilities, there are many areas that need strengthening. India does not possess a constellation of C4ISR satellites for real time monitoring of the region around it. Dedicated communications, reconnaissance, weather and Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) satellites for military use may be needed for performing the C4ISR function. India’s abilities to track objects and satellites in orbit around the earth also have to be enhanced in order to protect its satellites. Ground-based and space-based assets for Space Situational Awareness (SSA) have to be created for this purpose.
All of these can be viewed predominantly as defensive measures to safeguard space assets and represent the bare minimum that India has to do to protect itself. India also has to think about how space assets could be used to help conventional forces in safeguarding Indian interests in the region. These may not only involve additions to its space capabilities but also require a restructuring of its military. Such restructuring may have to be anchored around the space capabilities that are crucial for waging and deterring wars in the world of today.
Finally, given the current US-China dynamic, a reluctant India may want to hedge its bets and make minimal investments in the development of ASAT and BMD weapons. The available evidence suggests that India has aspirations to become a major global power. This will require significant enhancements to its military and space capabilities. India, however, still seems somewhat hesitant in translating aspiration into hard capabilities.
While India has made some incremental adjustments to these emergent challenges, it still lags behind the more advanced space powers in the military uses of space. The civilian focus of the programme and the successes of such an orientation may have inhibited Indian decision-makers from making the radical changes that are needed to cope with today’s realities.
Will India continue to pursue such a path of incremental change or will we see a radical restructuring of its space activities? This is the key question that Indian decision-makers will have to contend with, as they navigate the troubled waters of global geopolitics and their consequences for India.
Prof. S. Chandrashekar is the JRD Tata Chair in International Strategic and Security Studies, National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore. He spent more than 20 years working at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Image credit: CC by NASA Marshall Space Flight Centre/Flickr.