Militarisation of space India cannot afford to lag behind

INAUGURATING the Centre for Land Warfare Studies seminar on the “Indian Military in Space” on June 16, 2008, the Army Chief General Deepak Kapoor noted with concern the recent developments in India’s neighbourhood, including China’s ASAT (anti-satellite) test in January 2007, when it successfully shot down an ageing satellite with a ground-launched missile. 
The Army Chief said, “The Chinese space programme is expanding at an exponentially rapid pace in both offensive and defensive content… There is an imperative requirement to develop joint structures in the Indian armed forces for synergising employment of space assets.” 
Earlier in June, speaking at the Combined Commanders’ annual conference, Mr. A K Antony, the Defence Minister, had announced the setting up of an Integrated Space Cell at Headquarters Integrated Defence Staff to act as a planning and coordination centre for the military use and security of space resources. 
The military space cell is also expected to perform the role of providing an interface between the armed forces and the Department of Space and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). 
Clearly, the inescapable requirement of optimising the utilisation of India’s meagre assets in space, the need to synergise civilian and military applications of India’s satellites and the emerging military threats to these assets, have been well understood and necessary steps have now been initiated to overcome earlier shortcomings in this critical field of command and control, communications, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, usually referred to by the acronym C4I2SR. (The missing ‘C’ and ‘I’ stand for computers and information, respectively.) 
Modern armies, as well as navies and air forces, are heavily dependent on space for their C4I2SR systems. Space-based military applications such as communications, intelligence, surveillance (optical and infra-red photography and electronic eavesdropping), mapping and navigation through GPS-type systems are now commonplace and have played a dominant role in all recent conflicts. 
The precision guidance of missiles, rockets and, in future, perhaps even artillery shells is another application that is maturing quickly. However, it will become practicable in the Indian context only when the country launches dedicated military satellites in low-earth orbit (LEO) that carry tailor-made military applications suites on board as no foreign country, however friendly it might be, will provide such capabilities unless India is willing to enter into a military alliance - an option that India has rightly abjured so far. 
The most significant surveillance application is satellite photography. Militarily usable photos are obtained from satellites that provide resolutions of less than one metre. In simple terms this means that objects smaller than one metre across do not appear as mere blips among the background clutter, but can be distinguished clearly as recognisable military objects, for example jeeps, mortars and small bunkers. 
Tanks and guns being relatively larger in size are more easily picked up. For this, LEO satellites, which are placed in orbit a couple of hundred kilometres above the surface of the earth, are required to cover the areas on the home side as well as across India’s borders. The numbers required are a matter of fine calculation as there are usually large gaps between two ‘passes’ of any one satellite over the same point. 
These gaps must be covered by other satellites if continuous surveillance is considered necessary by day and night, for example during war or when hostilities are imminent. Also, adequate redundancy must be built in to allow for unforeseen eventualities such as enemy counter measures and technical down time. 
Similarly, while the armed forces can continue to use civilian communications satellite at present, in about 10 to 15 years their requirement of band width will outstrip the likely availability from the INSAT series of satellites. 
Also, though communications satellites are normally in geo-stationery orbit about 36,000 km above the earth and are therefore extremely difficult to shoot down, their ability to provide fail safe communications can be disrupted and degraded by other means. Hence, the armed forces will soon require their own communications satellites as well. 
ISRO’s upcoming Indian Regional Navigation System (IRNSS), based on seven satellites, which will establish an Indian-controlled GPS system will also need to provide military specifications (milspecs) that are more accurate than civilian ones. 
It emerges quite clearly that the armed forces are moving gradually but inexorably towards establishing their own space-based applications centres including ground control stations to control and, in due course, even manipulate military satellites in orbit. 
While the DRDO can build these satellites in partnership with the Indian defence industry, ISRO must continue to provide the launch vehicles as well as launch facilities as setting up dedicated launch facilities for military use only would be prohibitively expensive. 
Military launches will present ISRO with a new challenge as it will come into conflict with many Western governments and agencies that have nuclear proliferation concerns as most space technologies are dual-use technologies. 
India is a signatory to the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and has steadfastly opposed the weaponisation of space. However, a distinction must be made between weaponisation that involves the emplacement of weapons, which can attack surface targets from space, and the militarisation of space, which merely enables qualitatively better C4I2SR. 
Given the breathtaking advances that have taken place in developing military applications of space technology, the Indian armed forces will be severely handicapped if they do not also join the bandwagon and exploit space for enhancing their C4I2SR capabilities. The time has come for the Indian armed forces to move into space – the ultimate high ground. 
The writer is Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi