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October 23, 2016
  • India’s Aerospace Command: Challenges and Prospects
  • Aug 2 2013 7:31PM
  • by Kapil Kak
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     Kapil Kak

    New Delhi: Inaugurating the Centre for Joint Warfare Studies on August 27, 2007 Army Chief JJ Singh foresaw “the Aerospace Command taking shape in a short space of time.” Later the same year, Air Chief Fali Major averred, “We are talking to the Army and the Navy for the joint use of Aerospace Command, it is going to take time”, adding, “the responsibilities of the Air Force have not only increased tremendously but the area of operations of the Force might go up to the South China Sea... and having sensors in the sky gives us a lot of strength.”Earlier that year on March 8, two months after China’s ASAT test, President APJ Abdul Kalam, stated, “I visualise the IAF of 2025 to be based on our scientific and technological competence in the development of communication satellites, high precision resource mapping satellites, missile systems...” thus foregrounding air power and space as constituting a continuum.

    The concept of Aerospace Command resonated in India following the Kargil conflict, founded on the huge successes the Americans achieved in leveraging their space capabilities for prosecuting military operations in the Gulf and Kosovo campaigns with decisive outcomes. China’s thrust towards space could also be ascribed to the lessons it drew from these conflicts, and the subsequent ones in Afghanistan and Iraq. Unsurprisingly, given India’s fabled bureaucratic red tape, its Aerospace Command continues to work in progress.

    The rationale for Aerospace Command is anchored in the necessity for a nodal agency to oversee and coordinate national efforts towards development of military-focussed assets in space. Their modernisation, protection, and integration with military capabilities, in myriad applications, would significantly enhance the combat potential of the Armed Forces.

    Criticality of Space

    There is a school of thought that development of a variety of affordable military assets, in timelines laid down by users, should have far greater traction than the organisation for their command and control. This emphasis on “capabilities” rather than “structures” is valid until the balance tilts towards the latter. For India that inflection point has arrived. A related question is: what are the tools of trade in “God’s eye-view of space, in capabilities and assets that make for their criticality in national strategy and defence. Perhaps the answer lies in the 21st Century Knowledge Age of today. With nature of war-fighting far removed from the past, and technologies driving doctrines, air and space power—‘aerospace’ power, a term first coined by the American Air Chief, Gen Thomas White in 1958—inhabits awesome capabilities.

    Dedicated military space platforms store and transfer to multiple military units, information and data considered crucial for disparate forces operating across a large expanse in India’s diverse terrain. This can take place jointly or singly in a combined arms mode. Satellite based communications, surveillance and imagery on adversary’s vulnerable areas/points, navigation and precision targeting, including guidance for cruise missiles through geodesic means, serve as game changers. These greatly widen choices for the politico-military leadership, and war-fighters in the air, on ground and at sea, to attain higher levels of situational awareness, lethality and precision in weapon delivery. Decisive politico-military outcomes follow, with minimal blood-letting and fewer weapons expended.

    Combination of space assets and conventional military capabilities helps eliminate prospects of surprise, and in turn, helps deter the opponent from engaging in conventional warfare. Equally importantly, space base assets facilitate delivery of ordnance through strategic platforms of higher trajectories like ballistic missiles and provide the critical missile early warning to enhance ballistic missile defences. An Aerospace Command that effectively develops, employs, and exercises command and control of space assets, serves both as “space sword” and a “space shield” in conventional as also nuclear deterrence. It would be instructive to draw upon the experience of major powers for an Indian Space Command construct.

    Space Commands: Major Powers

    In the United States, its Air Force (USAF) spearheaded the evolution and development of military space capabilities that eventually led to the formation of its Air Force Space Command. Operating in the higher reaches of the atmosphere with conventional aircraft (U2 and SR71) as also ICBMs, USAF was later seen as a logical choice to also head the united defence department on space. Space Commands for the Army and Navy were also established to meet their organic requirements, along with a Joint Space Command, that was later amalgamated with the US Strategic Command. But the Air Force Space Command vastly dwarfs the combined capabilities of all American military Space Commands. Recent data validates this conclusion: 86.65 percent of the military space budget and 79.35 percent of military space personnel are with the Air Force.

    Russia’s Space Command is one of the four components of its Aerospace Defence Forces (Russian Air Force and Russian Space Forces merged in 2001). The other three are: Air and Missile Defence Command, Cosmonaut Launch Base and the Arsenal. The Space Command 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.

    In contrast to the well-conceived American and Russian Space Commands, the Chinese space structure appears highly amorphous and distributive. This is despite its Air Force, having reportedly projected a case in 2004, to the Central Military Commission, on the need for an integrated Aerospace Command. As a consequence, China’s PLA-dominated military space control structure is quadric-distributive: one, the Air Force, Navy and Second Artillery project their respective operational requirements (ORs); two, PLA’s General Staff Department (GSD) develops Joint ORs for space based and counter space systems; three, PLA’s General Armaments Department (GAD) oversees acquisition of space systems, technological designs, R&D, manufacture and launches; and, four, the control of space based assets vests with the GSD and GAD, through the space-scientist dominated China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation.

    Aside from variations, other major powers like the UK and France, as also Israel have dedicated Military Space Commands. Turkey is expected to establish one by 2023.Japan’s Upper House passed a law in 2012 to shift space policy and budget to open the door for military space development, initially focussed on space based missile warning.

    India’s Aerospace Command

    Vision and Asset Development

    In 2010, India’s Defence Minister AK Antony announced the formation of an Integrated Space Cell, under the aegis of HQ Integrated Defence Staff as an intermediate initiative towards the establishment of an Aerospace Command. To their credit, the three Service Chiefs had already evolved a consensus for a Joint Space Command. Meanwhile, the IAF had outlined the Defence Space Vision 2020 to harness satellite resources to significantly boost India’s defence preparedness. But only an Aerospace Command with requisite space expertise and authority can transform the space vision into tangible operational outcomes. The foremost question is what would be the objectives of such an entity, and the myriad range of issues with which it must grapple, including diverse challenges? These are briefly addressed below.

    The principal consideration for military space asset planning and its overarching command and control structure is that both must be rooted in the unique Indian force use matrix, affordability, and technological expertise available indigenously and abroad. China’s space programme must justifiably represent a key factor in India’s space security planning. Integration of civil space technological capabilities with military force architecture is another vital dimension. This is because impressive capabilities developed by ISRO, over the years, have yet to be integrated seamlessly with air-, surface- and sea-based systems of the Armed Forces. Communications for network centric information sharing across multiple levels of command and control within India and for operations in the strategic neighbourhood form a key dimension. Imagery intelligence, electronics/signals intelligence, and in due course, the highly investment-hungry oceanic surveillance must form up other elements.

    To meet China’s awesome challenge, the utmost need is to build up robust military satellite capabilities in coordination with ISRO, through doctrine-driven, time-sensitive and mutually-determined outcomes sought. India’s military access to space was initially restricted to procurement of imagery (1 metre spatial resolution) from the indigenous experimental TES satellite. But the military-dedicated highly-agile Cartosat-2A then offering scene-specific spot imagery with the facility of more frequent imaging of a selected area, and later RISAT-2, with Israeli X Band synthetic aperture radar, that could see through clouds and foliage were indeed a quantum leap.

    To be sure, challenges abound. Many military satellites on the anvil are behind schedule.GSAT-4— long delayed due to denial of cryogenic technology by the Americans—would be the first Indian satellite to offer a Ka Band transponder. ISRO is reportedly confident of its launch by end 2013.The Naval GSAT-7 (for enhanced communication coverage in Indian Ocean) along with the Air Force and Army satellites are expected to be launched in 2014-15.IAF should also soon have access to a constellation of seven satellites for its exclusive navigation and targeting needs, along with the lion’s share of the transponder capacity in three commercial satellites. That the Aerospace Command would need to closely synergise the military Space Vision with ISRO’s decadal plan is a no brainer, as this would facilitate a phased and time bound build up of military space capacities.

    Space Deterrence

    Robust space systems, having the potential to neutralise adversary’s assets, help attain space deterrence. Testing influences adversary’s psychological perceptions as much as fortification of military space assets. Equally, joint military exercises that involve space support also have an impact. The ultimate form of space deterrence with maximum psychological impact is actual employment of space forces to disrupt assets, as was evidenced by the Chinese ASAT test in 2007. Further, enhanced situational awareness and ability to monitor adversary’s missile launches contribute substantially to space deterrence.

    Space Asset Protection

    Aerospace Command has to initiate and implement measures to secure space assets so vital for comprehensive national development, and conventional and nuclear deterrence. The objective would be to ensure own free access to space, while denying the advantage of space platforms to the adversary during conflict. Credible ‘hard kill’ and ‘soft kill’ systems—within the capabilities of ISRO and DRDO— would require to be developed. Likewise, national technological capabilities would be needed to ensure successful short-notice launch of ready-to-use military satellites in crisis situations when own key military assets get disabled during a conflict situation

    Dedicated Military Space Cadre

    India’s Aerospace Command would need to redress the limitations in strategic military space orientation and techno-operational expertise at all military leadership levels. The absence of a military space cadre could turn into a serious shortcoming given that international relations, security, air and space power today constitute one continuum. The instance of code of conduct for space on its militarisation and weaponisation is a case in point. Need exists for the early establishment of a nucleus of a military space operational-technological training centre, which could eventually turn into a national level military space institution.

    Interaction between the military space planning entities and groves of academe requires to be strengthened. The example of the USAF Space Command signing a Memorandum of Understanding in 2004 with a consortium of Universities which will support the Command’s educational and research needs, and develop a future space cadre for it is worthy of emulation. Such an arrangement with an Indian University could be configured to suit India’s military space expertise need over the coming decades.

    Concluding Words

    Early establishment of Aerospace Command offers enormous prospects to leverage space for comprehensive national development and serve as “space sword” and “space shield” for conventional and nuclear deterrence. Military satellite based assets for space situational awareness; communications, surveillance and imagery; navigation and precision targeting inclusive of ballistic and cruise missiles; and, missile warning for ballistic missile defences serve as game changers in military force application. Space Command models of major powers could be gainfully configured to evolve a command and control architecture suited to India’s needs.

    India’s Aerospace Command would, however, need to grapple with the formidable challenges of integrating civilian space capabilities with Armed Forces’ systems, successful and time-bound development of robust military space capabilities in satellites and associated ground infrastructure, protection of space based assets, establishing credible and effective space deterrence, and in creating a  dedicated cadre of technological-operational military space professionals at multiple levels of military leadership.

    (Air Vice Marshal (retd) Kapil Kak is an independent analyst on strategic, security and air power issues.)

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