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Should India pursue a Space Force?

Now that India has demonstrated its ASAT capabilities, it its time for the country to provide military space the attention, and organization structure, needed for any major space power. (credit: DRDO)

On March 27, India successfully conducted an anti-satellite (ASAT) test. India received both praise and flak for undertaking this test. Many nations recognized the rationale for India conducting this test, but some assessments indicated that a few debris pieces reached higher altitudes and would remain there for longer than the government initially claimed.

India’s focus for space technology development has always been to use space for societal and commercial purposes. It is well understood that space is vital for human survival and progress. Hence, it is unlikely that India would ever take the space weaponization path. India’s test appears to be about sending a message and a demonstration of deterrence capability and its space technology capabilities. Now India needs to take an initiative towards starting a debate and convincing likeminded countries to commit for the formulation of globally acceptable, verifiable, and legally binding space treaty mechanism.

Simultaneously, it is important for India to realize 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 most obvious question is whether India needs to conduct more ASAT tests. It does not. A Kinetic Kill Vehicle (KKV) like that used for the ASAT test is not a great technology for the purposes of disabling a satellite. Owing the problem of space debris, it is definitely not a useable technology. KKV is great for “optics” and it has already served that purpose for India. With the success of the ASAT test, India has elevated its space capabilities. Now, it is important for India to evolve its strategic vision in space with this “new normal.”

Space power is not only about development of offensive and defensive space strategies. It is about a nation’s capabilities to influence various activities. Such influence would be at strategic, political, and economic levels. For attaining economic influence, India needs to use ISRO and its commercial arm and also India’s private space industry. There is a need for of additional policy mandates for wielding strategic and geopolitical influence in the post ASAT era.

Now, India needs to act quickly and plan the next steps. First and foremost, there is a need for a nuanced differentiation by associating the ASAT test more with India’s military policies than with the space policies. Some parallels from the nuclear field could be pertinent. Various issues concerning nuclear energy are mainly associated with the country’s energy policies, while nuclear weapons are an entirely different ballgame.

Similarly, ASAT development is about the strategic capabilities of the country. In the nuclear arena, the nuclear triad is about having weapon delivery systems which involves using missile silos, submarines, or aerial platforms. Hence, for the nuclear warfare domain there is a direct role for the army, navy, and air force. However, this is not the case in respect of handling strategic issues associated with space, including the development of counterspace capabilities like lasers and jamming. Broadly, counterspace capabilities is more about the strategic technologies, vision, and deterrence. This is not to say that counterspace capabilities has no relevance when it comes to arms control and disarmament aspects in the space domain. The shadow of counterspace capabilities on space policy-making would always remain. Aspects like satellite-hardening technologies and space debris removal techniques, on-orbit servicing, space tourism would always be at the part of any counterspace debate. Hence, ASAT development is about military policies with a shade of space policy.

With this backdrop, it is important for India to recalibrate both its military policies and space policies. It is important to evolve specific policy and administrative structures. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has been the sole guardian of India’s space program since its inception (1960s). In general, they are able to fulfil some of the military requirements by launching dual-use Earth observation satellites and few military-specific communication satellites. Recently, India has decided to upgrade its present administrative structure dealing with military aspects of space, called the Space Cell, to a Defence Space Agency, a step short of establishing a Space Command. This structure is suitable when satellite technologies are viewed as valuable additions to the existing military architecture. But, with the ASAT test, India has raised the bar further and needs to focus more on strategic aspects associated with space.

ISRO’s basic mandate is to ensure space is used for socioeconomic developments. They have established excellent relationships with various global space agencies operating in the civilian domain. Now, with India being an ASAT-capable state, the time has come to divide the overall Indian space agenda into civilian and military spheres. To cater to India’s military interests and strategic interests in space, it is important to establish a separate policy and organizational architecture. India needs to look seriously towards the possibility of establishing a separate military service after the Indian Army, Indian Navy, and Indian Air Force, called the Indian Space Force.

The idea of establishment of a separate military arm called Indian Space Force prompts two key questions: the need for it, and its cost. There could be a view that India is merely seeking to copy other nations, notably the US, since it is proposing to form a Space Force as the sixth branch of their armed forces. In addition, it also could be argued that since, India has already in place the Strategic Forces Command (SFC), which is responsible for tactical and strategic nuclear issues, why not use the same structure for space?

India’s economy gets dubbed as a developing economy and there is mostly a major global focus on the poverty and social disparities. However, India is today the third largest economy in the world by purchasing power parity (PPP). India topped the World Bank’s growth outlook in fiscal year 2015–16, during which the economy grew at 7.6 percent. For next five to ten years India’s economy is expected to grow approximately in the range of 6.5 to 7.5 percent. Hence, cost should not be a factor if India decides to form a new force.

Identification of the need for a Space Force is a very subjective matter and could be argued from both sides. For years, India was looking at the use of space technologies to support military operations. But, by demonstrating its ASAT capabilities, now India is actually showcasing its strategic intent. Now India needs to develop suitable structures for implementing their strategic agenda.

For the US, to have a Space Force is actually about asserting its domination is space. India’s Space Force would have more operational tasks at hand since it has to start almost from scratch, unlike the US or any other major player. Obviously, SFC cannot handle such a mammoth additional task. The Indian army, navy, and air force should have their independent space agencies that identify their military requirements and collaborating with Space Force.

Apart from military requirements, there are multiple reasons for India to establish a Space Force. First and foremost, such a force would offer protection for all types of satellites, would address vulnerabilities in space, and identify the strategic issues in the military space domain. For example, while India has a very successful remote sensing program however, from a defense perspective the small number of satellites makes the ability to timely revisit the same place an issue. Hence, India needs to add a significant number of such satellites, as well as military communication satellites, to its inventory. The primary mandate for India’s Defence Research Organisation (DRDO) is not about satellite development, hence, there is a significant dependence on ISRO for development of military systems. But, ISRO also cannot fulfil the needs of the armed forces because of its other important commitments. The Indian Space Force needs to have its own research, development, and production ecosystem. ISRO’s assistance could be provided for launching the satellites. Also, there is a need to appreciate that, in the current era, state-controlled innovation and development has limited relevance. Thus, the Space Force should seek assistance from private space industry as well as from global space players. This could also lead to the development of norms and rules for engaging such agencies.

At present, only limited work is underway on various space aspects associated with the country’s strategic and military needs. There is an urgent need to holistically address issues like launch on demand, space situational awareness (SSA), advanced communications, and many more. There will also be a need for the launch of military-specific satellites, including space systems for various types of intelligence gathering, from time to time.

One challenge will be the universal reality of turf wars. It is obvious that there will be internal debates and opposition to the idea of establishing a separate Space Force in India. In order to minimize those disputes, the country’s political, military, and technological leadership must act astutely.

India’s ASAT test has provided an opportunity for the country to recalibrate its defense structures. It’s now clear that India needs to establish the fourth arm of its defense structure, the Indian Space Force.

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