India’s economic growth and technological stature present the opportunity for the IAF to push for creating an adequate military space capability as dictated by future projections
Occasionally, one reads about space becoming the battle ground of the future. Several exotic scenarios are painted, some of them mirroring popular arcade games. In his book The Next Hundred Years, George Friedman predicts the possibility of the next Great War being fought almost entirely in space. By about 2050, he suggests the US would operate huge space stations—which he calls “Battlestars” after the popular TV series—that would serve not only as weapon platforms but as command and control centres to manage conflicts on the Earth’s surface. There would be three “Battlestars” situated in geosynchronous orbit to cover almost the entire planet. Further, he proposes that an enemy would be able to strike at the “Battlestars” with stealth missiles launched by bases on the far side of the Moon. Such launches could be conducted in secret and placed on eccentric courses that would cause warheads to arrive at their targets days later. The missiles would be stealth, made to look like meteors or space junk. Thus, a decapitating blow could be inflicted on space assets owned by an enemy nation.
For now, the complexity of the technologies involved, their limitations vis-à-vis fratricide, the legalities (in terms of international law relating to use of space for civil and military purposes) and their extremely high price tags render these scenarios theoretical for most nations. From a purely economic point of view, India would rather not spend on initiatives that are aimed at erecting a military capability in space and, instead, spend that money on development of infrastructure. However, in future, the elevation of contests between contending air forces into near and outer space is a foregone conclusion. The Indian Air Force (IAF) is the fourth largest in the world and, like in the past, will engage inimical air forces in the future, too. In the coming decade, China and Pakistan are both likely to ensure the necessity for the IAF to be prepared for war—on the ground, at sea, in the air and, finally, in space. That brings us to the next question: what capabilities can the IAF aim to acquire in space in the near future? This article aims to answer that question but is restricted to practical initiatives in the near future rather than impractical dream projects.
IAF Strides Ahead
The acquisition of Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) and modern fighters by the IAF is somewhat assuring but its modernisation would not be consummated without the acquisition, integration, training and operationalisation of space capabilities. Considering that the IAF’s strategic role is predominant, given India’s geo-strategic location, the force’s space capabilities would consequently be strategic in nature—irrespective of the role these relate to. This is also on account of the fact that it is hardly likely that horribly expensive space-based systems would be used against tactical targets. That is not to say that it is not possible for the IAF to use space capabilities for tactical purposes, but just that such scenarios do not appear to be relevant in the near future. So where could the IAF go from here?
One of the key hurdles to the IAF acquiring space capabilities is the manner in which the Indian space programme has evolved. While nations with older space programmes kept in mind military and strategic missions when designing the blueprint for their programmes, Indian motivations were biased towards peaceful, civil uses of space vehicles; any strategic or military spin-offs were incidental. Given the economic implications of space programmes, it is unlikely that India is going to be able to afford development programmes aimed primarily at military use of space in the near future. Thus, what the IAF needs to look at is existing space capabilities, and improvise these to meet military purposes. In other words, the IAF would be better advised to look at what is on offer and grab those space capabilities immediately to its advantage while pursuing mission-related capabilities in the long run. If this premise be accepted, some military uses of extant space capabilities show up readily.
Foremost is the use of space for communications. Spacebased communications would undoubtedly enhance the flow of information and data for conventional purposes because of the inherent, lower level of vulnerability of spacebased communication systems to enemy action. Moreover, the much higher survivability of these systems would render them invaluable to the credibility of a second strike by our nuclear triad. Survivable communication links—stationed in the comparative safety of space—would strengthen the retaliatory aspect of the Indian nuclear doctrine.
Arguably, in certain scenarios, the IAF represents the most credible part of the retaliatory strike capability and hence, the need for the IAF to have survivable communication systems stationed in space. The IAF’s ambition to be a strategic air force and the matching capabilities in terms of aircraft, air-to-air refuelling and AWACS also dictate the need to have space-based communications so that when the IAF is deployed at its farthest reaches, communication overstretch does not pose a problem. This is where spacebased communications would complement strategic reach mobility and striking power of the IAF. Secure, broad band, reliable space-based satellites would serve to provide for real time transfer of data and information between variegated air-borne, sea-based and ground platforms—thus adding tangible value to not just the IAF operations but also joint operations.
As mentioned earlier, the acquisition of long range aircraft, air-to-air refuelling capabilities and AWACS have enhanced the IAF’s reach considerably. A larger geographical coverage would expand the number and type of targets, thereby demanding precise Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance capabilities which could only be augmented and made more efficient by space-based assets. Strike capability would be only as precise as the accuracy and timeliness of targeting inputs available. Political air-space restrictions would restrict acquisition of targeting intelligence and hence to match strategic reach with adequate intelligence and targeting information, the availability of space-based assets would be imperative. Permanent space-based Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) could compensate for the prevailing airborne capabilities, which are transitory and temporary in nature. For example, while the entire spectrum of aerial platforms, ranging from aircraft, UAVs, aerostats as well as balloons in near space, are of a transitory nature, satellites would enable safe, permanent presence and persistent watch over area of operations. In brief, the prevailing strategic breadth, reach and vertical depth of airpower would be more efficiently exploited for national security and defence goals by integrating space-based capabilities into the conventional airpower apparatus.
Air and space missions could do with space-based, accurate navigation systems. In view of the enormously expanding reach of national airpower, these capabilities would be necessary for enabling precise navigation, targeting and delivery of scarce and costly platforms, munitions, personnel and humanitarian assistance well beyond national borders. It is foreseeable and practicable within Indian capabilities to station in space satellites and systems which provide assistance for navigation to civil and military aircraft—manned and unmanned—and eventually permit the phasing out of radar based manual systems.