Aerospace Beckons the Indian Air Force but Not Sans a National Space Policy

India’s current military-specific space assets are slim and considerable funding and resources are imperative.

4 min read
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India’s aerospace power is the flavour of the month and it is understood that the Indian Air Force (IAF) may soon be re-christened as the IASF – Indian Air and Space Force. Media reports have referred to remarks made by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh at a memorial lecture in May 2022, where he had encouraged the IAF to keep abreast of the latest technological changes impacting warfare and drew attention to space warfare.

Singh, at the time, had cautioned: “Steps are being taken by our adversaries towards military use of space. This is likely to have an adverse effect on our interests. We, therefore, need to identify and be fully prepared for the evolving security challenges.”

Given that the forum was the annual Air Chief Marshal PC Lal memorial lecture, one presumes that the Air Force would have provided professional inputs to the minister’s address, for what may be termed as 'political endorsement' of a policy issue – and this is unexceptionable in the Indian context.

Ex Chief: 'India’s Space Warfare Must Match Global Standards’

More recently, the Chief of the Air Staff – Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari addressing senior commanders of the IAF’s Western Air Command on Dec 12 dwelt on the need for the air warriors to keep pace with the global technological developments, especially in the newer domains of space, cyber, and electronic warfare.

He added that it was important to "ensure that operations are undertaken in an environment of denial, to bolster the IAF’s aim to become a truly agile and adaptable air force that provides decisive aerospace power in furtherance of our national interests.”

The relevance of space as a domain that can act as a force multiplier in warfare came to the fore in the 1991 war for Kuwait in a dramatic manner, when the US military demonstrated the potential of this capability. Over the last three decades, the military applications of space have increased dramatically, particularly for surveillance and precision guidance of ordnance.

In its offensive mode, the shooting down of satellites in space represents the more lethal use of this technologically-enabled capability.

India’s Space Power Prowess

For the record, only four nations have demonstrated such a capability. The USA and former USSR acquired this capability during the Cold War decades and Russia carried out an ASAT (anti-satellite) test in 2021. China and India demonstrated such capability in 2007 and 2019 respectively.

India is a recognised space power with modest but proven capability and the ISRO (Indian Space Research Organization) has made a valuable contribution since the days when rockets were transported by bullock carts and bicycles!

However, these activities are largely in the civilian sector and the constellation of satellites that India operates (50 plus) are used primarily for communication and weather forecasting purposes. Currently, India has only two dedicated military communication satellites – one for the Navy and the other for the Air Force. In addition, a cluster of dual-use remote sensing satellites provide communications facilities for the military.

In 2019, the government created the DSA (Defence Space Agency) which amalgamated the erstwhile DIPAC (Defence Imagery Processing and Analysis Centre) and the DSCC (Defence Satellite Control Centre). Concurrently the Defence Cyber Agency was also established.

To that extent, India’s current military-specific space assets are slim and considerable funding support, as also nurturing qualified human resources is imperative – for enhancing national space capability.

Given that the two domains are part of a seamless continuum above the earth’s surface – how is power in relation to air and space different?

A technical thumb rule is that "Air assets are governed by the laws of aerodynamics and tend to be more flexible and more responsive. Space assets are governed by orbital mechanics and tend to cover wider areas of the earth and provide a more continuous presence.” (Major Carl Baner, USAF). Thus, while fighter aircraft represent one element of air power, satellites and space stations represent space power – and melding the two could be classified as aerospace power.


Aerospace Power Critical For Armed Forces 

The USA is the leading space power in the world currently and has a budget of USD 40 billion to sustain its space forces. Russia and China are also credible space powers with considerable military orientation and India is now seeking to acquire space capability that is both adequate and affordable.

The presence of private entities in the space domain is considerable and the war in Ukraine has shown how a nation with little or no national space assets can utilise what is available commercially to enhance its military capability.

In its Space Vision 2047 document, the IAF envisions India having over 100 military satellites, both large and small, within the next seven to eight years, with active participation from the private sector and this is an ambitious objective which will need sustained funding.

This kind of fiscal support appears elusive currently and the IAF’s predicament in not being able to acquire an adequate number of combat aircraft is illustrative.

Currently, the DSA is the lead agency for national aerospace assets and it is expected that it will evolve into a full-fledged command at a later date as a tri-service organisation.

Aerospace power is a capability that will be critical for all the armed forces in the years ahead and how this asset will be nurtured and managed needs objective review, both for optimum inter-service, as also civil-military harmonisation and evolution of a national policy.

India released its new Indian Space Policy in April 2023 and while the objective is to enable ISRO to transition from manufacturing operational space systems and focus its energies on research and development in advanced technologies with private sector participation – the strategic and security imperatives are yet to be adequately addressed.


A National Space Policy Is Imperative

What is required after due deliberation in parliament and with domain experts is an overarching national space policy that would address all the techno-strategic, legal, ethical, and commercial aspects and which would also be compatible with international norms and practices.

Thus, while the aspiration of the Air Force to acquire suitable aerospace capability is to be encouraged, prioritising the renaming of the service even before the policy building blocks are in place and a minimum dedicated military capability is acquired may be premature.

(Commodore C Uday Bhaskar, Director, Society for Policy Studies, has the rare distinction of having headed three think tanks. He tweets @theUdayB. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Indian Military   IAF   Indian Air Force 

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