Formation of Space Command

A well-equipped and adequately manned Aerospace Command, with inter-continental reach and the wherewithal to mount offensive missions as well as provide defensive capability, is what is required by the nation

Issue: 09-2017By Group Captain A.K. Sachdev (Retd)Photo(s): By ISRO
The fully integrated GSLV Mk-II-D1 carrying GSAT-19 at the second launch pad

Outer space was considered as one of the Global Commons, equitably accessible to all venturing nations as a common heritage until technology distended the war-making potential of mankind into the outer reaches of space. Consequently, the ‘air’ part of concepts like air superiority, command of the air and air dominance et al has been replaced by ‘aerospace’ to indicate the inclusion of space into the military arena of the war supporting medium above the surface of the earth. ‘Battlefield’, with the inclusion of space and cyber space, is now ‘battlespace’ and the obvious ‘high ground’ advantage of superiority in aerospace has meant the inexorable militarisation and weaponisation of space. The US Air Force Space Command was established in 1982 while India, claiming to be the fourth largest air force in the world, is yet to establish a Space or Aerospace Command.

Raison De Etre for Space Command

In industrial and military arenas, India is truly an aerospace power. The term ‘aerospace’ was first iterated in 1958 by General Thomas White, the US Air Force Chief, but since then it has acquired more subtle nuances. As far as the non-military uses of space are concerned, India has carved for itself, largely due to the commendable endeavours of Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), a niche amongst the top most handful of space-faring nations of the world. India is now a world leader in satellite launch facilities, has established itself in satellite communications, remote sensing, weather and navigation services and more recently, it has ventured into interplanetary probes starting with the Moon and Mars. India’s space assets, almost entirely non-military in nature, are vulnerable up there in space to the gradually accelerating weaponisation of space which complements rapidly proliferating soft-kill options aimed at debilitating space assets (using electronic and cyber space arsenal) without physically damaging them. For this part of the discussion, one struggles to grapple with the fact that the national instrument of aerospace power, the Indian Air Force, is facing an acute shortfall of aircraft even to fight an air war, leave alone looking at space. The ongoing Doklam episode has pinpricked the establishment; but not viciously enough to rouse it fully. So the allocation of fresh assets (hard and soft-kill capabilities for offence and defence), manpower and infrastructure (new spaceports et al) for a Space Command remain chimerical. However, the rationale for establishing one remains robust, supported by arguments and critical to national security. Unarguably, there is a need to have a nodal agency to coordinate and control national, military-focussed assets in space as also the ground infrastructure that supports these assets.


The US, as a leader in space, blazed the trail in 1982 with the establishment of its Air Force Space Command. For the sake of completing the picture, it must be mentioned here that a US Naval Space Command was established a year later, a tri-service US Space Command in 1985 and the US Army Space Command in 1988. While the other Space Commands had stunted growth, the Air Force Space Command has grown steadily and currently has 90% of the total per cent Department of Defence (DoD) space personnel and 85 per cent of the DoD space budget. Perhaps there is a lesson there for India inasmuch as any plan to have more than one Space Command in the future is concerned.

The missions of the US Air Force Space Command are: Space Forces Support, involving the launching of satellites and other high-value payloads into space using a variety of expendable launch vehicles and operating those satellites once in space; Space Control, ensuring the friendly use of space through the conduct of counter-space operations encompassing surveillance, negation, protection and space intelligence analysis and Force Enhancement, providing satellite-based weather, communications intelligence, missile warning, and navigation; force enhancement for direct support to the war-fighter. A recent development is that in August this year, the USAF has set up a Space Operations Directorate as a part of its effort to adapt its operations and organisational structure to reflect that space is considered a war-fighting domain. Russia has a Space Command which, along with the Air and Missile Defence Command, Cosmonaut Launch base and the Arsenal, is a part of the Aerospace Defence Forces. It exercises command and control over three crucial military space entities: Centre for Space Surveillance, Centre for Missile Attack Warning and Centre for Testing and Control. China has been toying with the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) proposal for a Space Command since 2014; but is yet to set one up.

The Progress So Far

As far as India is concerned, perhaps the first seedling of the concept of a Space Command was sown by Air Commodore Jasjit Singh, one of India’s leading strategic thinkers. However, the first step in this direction was taken in 2010 when the then Minister of Defence A.K. Antony declared the formation of an Integrated Space Cell to work under the Headquarters Integrated Defence Staff, as an interim step towards the establishment of an Aerospace Command based on a consensus amongst the three Service Chiefs for a tri-service Joint Space Command. A well equipped and adequately manned Aerospace Command, with intercontinental reach and the wherewithal to mount offensive missions as well as provide a fair degree of assurance in terms of defensive capability is what is required by the nation. Our capability in building satellites and launch vehicles permits such an entity to be thus endowed. The Doklam episode has served to underscore what several military and strategic analysts have been making about Chinese and Pakistani threats to India’s territorial integrity. The need to put in place a well-equipped aerospace command has become all the more pronounced. Over the past decade or so, there have been, with varying sense of urgency, deliberations on the formation of such a command; but the challenges of humungous investments, the need to acquire some technologies not yet within our grasp and the conjuring up of adequate skilled and trained personnel to man it, have meant that consummation has eluded attempts by the Indian Air Force to set up the Command. The hope that the NDA government under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi would back the proposal was strong; but the Doklam issue has diverted attention more towards bolstering up land forces and resources.


India is already using space for military purposes and the need to have a Space Command in place is self evident. While financial constraints can be expected to impede and defer its establishment, one hopes that inter-service rivalry will not raise its ugly head in this critical domain. The advances made by China in space and its intimidation techniques a la Doklam, should serve as motivating stimuli in this direction.