How are the great powers of the Indo-Pacific managing the military problem of space? In 2020 the United States stood up the U.S. Space Force, an independent service dedicated to the military aspects of space. This represents one institutional solution to space, but hardly the only one. Beginning with India, this series explores how several countries have determined to solve their military space problems through institutional reform.
Historically, the Indian defense establishment has been bedeviled by a set of interconnected problems, including a sclerotic procurement system, poor civil-military relations, and difficult inter-service integration. Space warfare depends on a foundation of cooperation between civilian and military institutions, but if done successfully can facilitate tight integration and even fusion between military and intelligence services. Consequently, India’s efforts at developing space capabilities deserve close scrutiny. The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), a civilian agency, has coordinated India’s military and civilian space programs since the 1960s. However, in 2019 India took major technological and institutional steps toward marshaling a globally competitive space warfare capability.
India conducted a successful anti-satellite test in March 2019. Although Indian authorities took steps to limit the extent of the debris field caused by the destruction of the satellite, it nevertheless resulted in some 400 fragments, many of which remained in low earth orbit for some time. The test placed India in the company of China, Russia, and the United States in terms of fielding a practical anti-satellite capability.
Perhaps more importantly, in 2019 India established two new bureaucracies for space, the Defense Space Research Organization (DSRO) and the Defense Space Agency (DSA). The former is a research organization geared toward facilitating the development of civilian space technology for military purposes, while the latter plays a role similar to that of a combatant command in the United States, integrating space assets from the army, navy, and air force and formulating strategy. The DSA, commanded by an air force officer, began with a staff of some 200 officers drawn from the three services, and took over the duties of some existing military organs, including the Defense Imagery Processing and Analysis Center and the Defense Satellite Control Center.
India conducted its first integrated space warfare exercise in July 2019, bringing together personnel from across the services. The exercise focused on using communications and reconnaissance satellites to integrate intelligence and fires across the range of Indian military assets, indicating a firm understanding of the necessity of access to space.
Some within the Indian defense community have argued for more aggressive reforms, including the establishment of a military space service similar to the U.S. Space Force. This would facilitate the defense of India’s growing satellite network, while also laying the groundwork for coercive action against enemy networks. It remains unclear whether India has the technological and financial foundations necessary to support a separate space force in the long term, but India nevertheless remains poised to take advantage of good relations with both Russia and the United States, the world’s two most advanced space powers.