The Slow Militarization of India’s Space Sector

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The Slow Militarization of India’s Space Sector

Space has become securitized and militarized within the Indian strategic discourse, with technology, assets, and other infrastructure within the domain being used for military purposes.

The Slow Militarization of India’s Space Sector

A model of an anti-satellite weapon from Defense Research and Development Organization rolls out at Rajpath, the ceremonial boulevard, during the Republic Day parade in New Delhi, India, Jan. 26, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Manish Swarup

Indian Air Force Chief Air Marshal V.R. Chaudhari recently opined that the militarization of the Indian space sector was a reality. He stated that the domain of space was historically utilized for both civilian and military purposes, citing the example of the German V-2 rocket. He had also stated that the Indian Air Force was no longer the Air Force alone. but was the “Indian Air and Space Force,” much like its French counterpart.

This statement came close on the heels of Indian Chief of Defense Staff (CDS) General Anil Chauhan making a similar assertion  while deliberating on the changing nature of warfare in India.  Chauhan has called for the further development of dual-use technologies with an expansion in the number of Navigation with Indian Constellation (NavIC) satellites so that India’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities could be further augmented.

Earlier, during an address at the 2022 Indian Defense Expo in Gujarat, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself had reinforced the importance of the space sector, linking it to India’s future security.

These statements suggest that space has come to be securitized and militarized within the Indian strategic discourse, with technology, assets, and other infrastructure within the domain being used for military purposes. The militarization of the Indian space sector is taking place at multiple levels – through the creation of specialized institutions and policies that support militarization, and the incorporation of the private sector to strengthen defensive capabilities within the space sector.

Militarization of Space: Institutional Frameworks and Policies 

A tangible shift was noticed in the Modi-led Indian government’s orientation toward space when India conducted a direct ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) test in March 2019 under the codename Mission Shakti. This test was undertaken as a “space deterrence mechanism” after China conducted its direct ascent ASAT test in 2007, creating a massive amount of space debris in the process. This test was followed by assertions from the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) – India’s premier military research agency – that they were “working on programs involving directed energy weapons, electromagnetic pulse (EMP) and co-orbital weapons for ASAT roles.”

Similarly, the Defense Space Agency (DSA) and Defense Space Research Organization (DSRO) were inaugurated in 2019 as specialized governmental agencies for the integration of military space assets (including military satellites) that focus on India’s ISR capabilities. In this vein, the launch of Mission Defense Space along the sidelines of the DefExpo 2022 in Gujarat has given a boost to defense technology and space diplomacy, enabling the private sector to bring in further innovation in the defense sector.

To this effect, India’s ambitious Space Policy 2023, without overtly mentioning the military sector, has supported the augmentation of space capabilities for the “nation’s socio economic development and security.” The document also states that the “government seeks to pursue a holistic approach by encouraging and promoting greater private sector participation in the entire value chain of the Space Economy, including in the creation of space and ground based assets.”

In the same vein, the policy also elaborates that it prefers non-government entities to undertake end-to-end activities in the space sector – such as efforts to “disseminate satellite-based remote sensing data” and “develop space situational awareness capabilities for enhancing observation, modeling and analysis.” Considering that all these technologies have dual use applications, these technologies developed by the Indian space sector may be used for both civilian and military purposes.

Private Sector and Dual Use Technologies 

The incorporation of the private sector within the domain of space has given an impetus to defense manufacturing. The convergence of the private sector within defense manufacturing has increased the commercial interest of private players in a domain that was previously inaccessible to them. India is attempting to become aatmanirbhar (self-reliant) in the space domain, in sync with the Narendra Modi-led government’s overall economic strategy.

For instance, a leading communications company is working on “turnkey satellite system integration projects for the Indian Navy, Army and the Air Force.” The same company is also keen to deliver satellite broadband services to support defense communication. With India now readying itself for space-based spectrum allocation either through administrative allocation or the spectrum route, the use of satellites for communications could strengthen the functioning of the armed forces.

Similarly, one of India’s leading business conglomerates, the Adani Group, has diversified its portfolio to include aerospace and defense sectors like cabin and interior refurbishment, avionics upgrades, and maintenance training. The company is presently manufacturing unmanned aerial systems (UAVs) and corner drone systems as well.

A leading start-up, GalaxEye, has offered its synthetic aperture radars (SARs) for deployment on its under-development satellite systems for aerial drones. Finally, a Hyderabad based company has also undertaken aerospace gear manufacturing to facilitate the development of the aerospace and defense sector.

India-U.S. Cooperation

With successive bilateral statements between India and the United States – now explicitly referring to the space domain within the realm of “defense” – burgeoning growth in this sector will be seen on all fronts. Despite India traditionally importing approximately 85 percent of its weapon systems from the Soviets/Russia, since 2010, India has diversified its defense imports. In fact, U.S. military sales to India have increased to $7.93 billion between 2010-2017 as opposed to a mere $1.39 billion in the preceding decade. With the GE-F414 engines deal that will power the indigenous Tejas Mk2 coming through and the 31 MQ 9B drones being sold to India, the India-U.S. bilateral defense trade is likely to touch $25 billion. 

India-U.S. dialogues within the space domain will give an impetus to the development of defense industrial ecosystems, further driving the India-U.S. economic partnership. With the United States now becoming India’s largest trade partner – India-U.S. bilateral trade stands at $128.6 billion, surpassing China-India trade at $113.8 billion – and India altering its supply chains to move away from China and Russia, the “defense industrial ecosystem” is likely to get a boost.

Keeping Pace With China 

The militarization of space is not unique to India. Around the world, the space domain is becoming further securitized along with other conventional theaters of war such as the land, air, and sea. China in particular has recognized the significance of space as a theater of conflict, and India will have to counter that growing threat.

For instance, the launch of the Ceres 1 rocket and the Tianqi 4 satellites as part of “the world’s first hot launch on a land transport launch vehicle at sea” may have demonstrated how China is attempting to converge platforms within the maritime and the spatial domains. Since the Tianqi 4 satellites will support marine communications, ecological monitoring, and battlefield situation awareness, their role in supporting military operations is obvious.

Since the Indian Navy does not presently have a sea-based missile defense capability to intercept satellite targets, the Indian defense sector may also attempt to build convergence between the space and maritime domain. Steps in this domain are being taken with the India-U.S. Defense Acceleration Ecosystem (INDUS-X) proposing the development of “undersea communication” facilities and maritime ISR.

India may also construct more military satellites along with the existing GSAT series to ameliorate India’s command, control, communications, computer, (C4)ISR abilities. India may also construct more small satellites for greater maneuverability. Finally, it may construct more kinetic energy weapons and space-borne directed energy weapons to defend its existing space assets.

Overall, the space domain, in sync with other war domains, will see more securitization and militarization in the foreseeable future.