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Absence of a space force huge gap in India’s security cover, must be filled on priority

Adversaries like Pakistan and China can impact India’s space capabilities through jamming, lazing, hacking, or spoofing.

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In the 21st century, dominance over space, as modern strategic thinkers will tell you, will define any nation’s survival. For defence, economic growth or offense, space capabilities are increasingly becoming more critical for nation states. Satellites will run the future of our economy. They are the basis of the fourth wave of industrialisation. The global space economy’s value reached $424 billion in 2020, having expanded 70 per cent since 2010. India’s share in the global space economy stood at approximately two per cent in 2019. Morgan Stanley estimates that the global space industry could generate revenue of more than $1 trillion or more by 2040, so one can imagine the potential for overall economic growth if a country is able to develop a vibrant space sector. With such potential, it is indeed unsurprising that every country is working to get a piece of the pie. As agriculture, banking, communications, and even scientific testing are getting increasingly dependent on space assets, those who have the force to protect their own shall thrive. Therefore, the space sector would play a huge role in India’s bid to become the foremost global power, and to safeguard the space sector, we would need a dedicated armed force – the Indian Space Force.

We can learn from history here. The reason why the commercial and political power of the United Kingdom became dominant over all other powers in the 19th century was because of their naval superiority. Similarly, from the mid-20th century until now, the airpower of the United States has made it the global hegemon. In times ahead, it would be armed superiority in space that will define whether a nation can grow economically, without being harassed by adversaries.

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The capability gap

India still lacks a military space service akin to the Space Force in the United States (US Space Force), Russia (Russian Aerospace Forces), and even Iran (The Revolutionary Guard Corps Aerospace Force). The military doctrine is that a nation must have a force for each dimension of conflict. Beyond the traditional conflict dimensions such as land (Army), sky (Air Force), and water (Navy), there is an imperative to develop capabilities for non-traditional and hybrid warfare in the dimensions of space, cyber, and information warfare, given the changing nature of the great power competition. The US Space Force’s first combat operations as a new service included providing early warning of Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Aerospace Force missile strikes against US troops at Al Asad Airbase on 7 January 2020 and also monitored Russian Space Forces spacecraft, which had been tailing US government satellites. Such challenges will, in time, also emerge for India and we will need a dedicated force to deal with them.

Currently, while India is a space-faring nation, it is still considered a lightweight in the global space sector. The Indian Space Force will put us right in the top brass of the global space superpowers, and in general, among the top global military powers. Adversaries like Pakistan and China can impact India’s space capabilities through jamming, lazing, hacking, or spoofing, and they now also have an additional weapon in the form of anti-satellite weapons (ASAT), which can be destructive in space and to the economy on the ground. India conducted its first ASAT test in 2019, dubbed Mission Shakti, becoming the fourth country after US, Russia, and China. It was a direct kinetic attack on its defunct satellite, at 300 km in the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) – a great achievement but still more than a decade behind China, which conducted its ASAT test at an altitude of 865 km.

Beyond ASATs, there is always the looming threat of a rogue State placing weapons of mass destruction in space, flouting international agreements. Given the breakdown of the global power hierarchy, there is always the possibility of a nation-State or even a non-State actor, planting a weapon of mass destruction in space that might go undetected for a long period of time – until it’s too late.

Further, according to experts such as James Clay Moltz, leading advisor to the US military on space defence, we are entering a new phase where space conflict will be one of the most defining aspects of global security but the game will be defined by “deterrence by denial strategies” rather than by simple offensive strategies. Deterrence by denial strategies means that “a state may, over time, create a resilient constellation of hundreds of networked satellites (national, commercial, and allied) that may be able to convince an adversary that its forces will not be able to accomplish their objective  of denying space-derived information” (Moltz).

The USA leads the constellation of satellites with 1,878, followed by China (405), Russia (174), the UK (166), Japan (82) and India (60). As of February 2022, India had only 53 operational satellites in space. This means that we fall behind the others, and China meanwhile is embarking on the creation of a “Space Silk Road” supported by BeiDou (the Chinese satellite navigation system), which as of January 2022 has 44 satellites operational consisting of two separate satellite constellations. China plans to extend BeiDou services to all the BRI countries and as per the analysis paper of IDSA, Analysing China’s Digital And Space Belt And Road Initiative, it eyes the Middle Eastern countries to be integrated into its Space Silk Road. This would mean greater political and economic integration of the Middle East and China, to the detriment of India, given the geopolitical and geoeconomic importance of the Middle Eastern countries for India. India has nothing to match the Chinese expansionary space ambitions and can do little to arrest the Chinese progress.

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The non-State threat

In addition to adversary States, non-state actors, such as terrorist groups are a consistent threat for our national security and with terrorists getting even more sophisticated at mounting stealth attacks, there is a looming danger of critical services and space assets being under terrorist attacks or what some scholars have termed as “space pirates”. Todd Zackman of Centre for Strategic and International Studies has rightly commented: “One of the policy implications of the second space age is that the availability of advanced space capabilities on the commercial market can potentially bring  the advantages of space within the reach of rogue nations and non-state actors.” An Indian Space Force will not only be able to guard and swiftly respond to such non-terrestrial terrorists, it will also prove to be an edge in more conventional counter-terrorism measures. India’s space capabilities helped armed forces acquire actionable intelligence on the terrorist launch pads during the surgical strikes. These counter-terrorism capabilities will be exponentially enhanced by having a dedicated space force.

We established two new space agencies in 2019: the Defense Space Agency (DSA) to integrate space-based assets from different military forces and the Defense Space Research Organization (DSRO) research organisation geared toward facilitating the development of civilian space  technology for military purposes. The next logical step to realise the full potential of these agencies is an Indian Space Force as part of the Indian Armed Forces. Over time, indeed, the Space Force may develop the kinds of institutions of its own “to develop and test theories of space power and space  warfare” as the future of international conflict would need new ways of thinking about war.

Also read: After INS Vikrant, India’s next steps should be new carrier, submarines

The funding

Where is the money for it one may ask? This is a good question, with four answers.

First is that if we don’t have our own security infrastructure, we would not be economically competitive anymore – so we simply find the budgets for it. Second, even the US Space Force currently is their smallest armed forces with 8,400 personnel, which have moved from the airforce to the space force – the idea is less to pile less on additional infrastructure and more about smart and focused budgetary allocations with a much greater payoff in increasing India’s gradient of control.

Third, in the face of inefficient utilisation of military funds, we would do well by smart outsourcing from the private sector along with less bureaucratic control over defence procurements, which leads to inefficiencies, as has also been argued by many defence experts, most recently by Tara Kartha, former director National  Security Council Secretariat. Kartha even argues that “India must allow armed forces to raise  own finances. Defence budget will never be enough”. Our space entrepreneurs, despite over-regulation by the government have increased their funding by 198.6 per cent last year. The increase in space-based commercial enterprises have the potential to grow the national economy and the budget, which could in due course, be earmarked for strategic investments, such as in the Indian Space Force.

We must look at space defence as if our lives depend on it – our nation’s future indeed does. The Indian Space Force would go a long way in making India a formidable global space power. 

K Kavitha Rao is a member of Telangana Rashtra Samithi and an MLC from Kamareddy & Nizamabad. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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