India need to expand its space capabilities to counter China

There is growing demand for India to enhance its space force structure to meet military needs.

The security implications of China’s growing capabilities and investment in space are causing serious apprehension in India.

Chinese space militarisation directly impacts Indian security. Such geopolitical concerns have led the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), essentially a civil space agency, to expand over the years into a military role.

Shakti anti satellite missile of India
Shakti anti satellite missile of India

In a move to integrate space assets of the three services – the army, navy and air force – the Defence Space Agency (DSA) became operational in November 2019.

India is yet to take steps to beef up the DSA, Ajey Lele, senior fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, told Shephard.

There is an urgent need to evolve from a DSA to an Indian space force along the lines of the US Space Force (USSF), he added.

The task of the US Space Force (USSF) is unambiguous. John Roth, Acting Secretary of the USAF, on 7 May told a US congressional subcommittee that both the air force and USSF are moving decisively to confront new and emerging threats, including those from China and Russia, while also devoting resources ‘to rid our ranks of corrosive elements and injustices’.

With theatre commands for the three Indian armed services imminent, space influences their surveillance and communication. A senior Indian Air Force official said on condition of anonymity: ‘This will bring in better synergy among the three forces.’

Lele pointed out: ‘The infrastructure needs to be greatly improved. The ISRO’s satellites play an important role in reconnaissance, navigation and communications systems for the military, ones that the DSA can handle. The time has come to make a clear distinction between India’s military and civil space programmes. Airspace warfare, an emerging threat, needs special attention that a small agency like the DSA cannot handle.’

An Indian demonstration of anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities in 2019 showed the emerging requirement for space deterrence. Lele added: ‘It is important for India to realise that by conducting this test, it has redefined its strategic stance in the military space domain. The ASAT test is the beginning of that process, not the end.’

The ISRO’s Technology Experiment Satellite, launched with a camera resolution of 1m two decades ago, was its first foray for use by defence. This was followed by a dual-use constellation of cartographic satellites, Earth observation satellites, military-specific communication satellites and an Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System.

‘Now the ISRO should become a vendor to the client, the military,’ Lele urged.

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