BANGALORE - India's defense forces will be keeping an eye on yet another
frontier - outer space. An Integrated Space Cell, which will be jointly
operated by the country's three armed forces, the civilian Department of Space
and the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has been set up to utilize
more effectively the country's space-based assets for military purposes and to
look into threats to these assets.
Announcing the setting up of the Integrated Space Cell, India's Defense
Minister Arackaparambil Kurian Antony said last week that it was being
established because of "the growing threat" to India's space assets. "Offensive
counter-space systems like anti-satellite weaponry, new classes of heavy-lift
and small boosters and an improved array of military space systems have emerged
our neighborhood," the defense minister pointed out, stressing that these need
to be countered.
Although its existence was announced only recently, the Integrated Space Cell
has apparently been operational for several months. It functions under the
Integrated Defense Services headquarters of India's Ministry of Defense.
Unlike an aerospace command, which is service-specific, that is, where the air
force controls most of its activities, the Integrated Space Cell envisages
cooperation and coordination between the three services as well as civilian
agencies dealing with space.
India's army, air force and navy will work together in the Integrated Space
Cell, coordinating with each other in utilizing space-based assets. "What the
Ministry of Defense is aiming at is 'jointness of operations'," Lawrence
Prabhakar, associate professor of political science at the Madras Christian
College in Chennai told Asia Times Online.
The defense minister's announcement comes about 16 months after India's then
chief of air staff, Air Chief Marshal Shashi Tyagi, told the media that India
was "in the process of setting up an aerospace command to exploit outer space
by integrating its capabilities". Training of "a core group of people for the
aerospace command" had started, he said.
That announcement came less than a month after China used a medium-range
ballistic missile to shoot down one of its own aging satellites, a Chinese Feng
Yun 1C polar orbit weather satellite that it had launched into orbit in 1999.
With that, China displayed to the world that it had the technology to knock out
a satellite in space, expertise that only two other countries - Russia and the
United States - have.
While the idea of an aerospace command was mooted by the Indian Air Force in
the late 1990s, it does seem that the growing display of Chinese military might
in space prompted India to act towards taking the first steps to dealing with
the looming threat. Antony's reference to the threat posed by "military space
systems in the neighborhood" to India's space assets indicates that the China
factor was an important consideration in Delhi setting up the Integrated Space
While the China factor might have hastened the decision, there are broader
reasons behind its setting up. "With the army, the air force and the navy
relying on space-based communication satellites for reconnaissance,
surveillance or operations and the Indian armed forces adopting a joint
doctrine that enhances greater lateral integration between the three services,
an Integrated Space Cell has become a necessity," Prabhakar said. Besides,
"Such a cell is an organizational initiative, essential to the operational
requirements of space-based assets for dual civilian-military operations and
India's assets in space are considerable. Its space program has extended beyond
launching satellites to plans to send unmanned and manned missions to space and
then to the moon. Its space scientists are even eyeing Mars. Its achievements
in launching satellites are formidable. In March this year, ISRO set a world
record when it placed 10 satellites in orbit in a single mission.
India's expertise in building and launching satellites, and that too at a
fraction of the price offered by other countries - India's satellites are 40%
cheaper than its European and US competitors - has propelled it into a major
commercial player. Its satellites bring in big money. Antrix, ISRO's commercial
arm, earned more than US$153 million for the year ended March and it expects to
corner 10% of the world market in the next few years.
Besides the foreign exchange, Indian satellites have contributed considerably
to India's development objectives, including mass education, weather
forecasting, disaster management and communications.
The satellites are a vital link in its defense as well. "The country's defense
operations involve space-based sensors that would enhance force-multiplier
effects of defense systems and are pivotal to guidance of India's ballistic
missiles," Prabhakar said.
Its communication network would be broken, its security severely jeopardized
and its capacity to defend itself against aggression damaged immeasurably if
its satellites were to be knocked out. "India needs to protect or shield these
satellites against killer satellites which Russia, China and the US possess."
And it is not just the hostile intentions of other countries that pose a threat
to India's space assets and therefore its security. Debris in space is as
lethal as an attack.
It is to look into the kind of threats and challenges that India's space assets
face that the government has set up the Integrated Space Cell. "A long-term
goal of the cell would be to robustly integrate space and ground operations for
civilian and military objectives," said Prabhakar.
India's expression of its intentions to set up an aerospace command and its
announcement of the Integrated Space Cell has raised concern in some quarters
that India is entering the arms race in space.
Such fears might be premature, given that the Integrated Space Cell is at a
very rudimentary stage. "India is just putting in place a very minimal budget
initiative that will take several years to develop," argued Prabhakar.
"Besides satellites in space, India's space architecture of offensive and
defensive systems are yet to be conceived, built and deployed," said Prabhakar,
pointing to the different kinds of satellites, space-based laser systems, space
stations and ground-based laser stations for offensive space operations that
the "space superpowers" - the United States, Russia and China - have.
In the event of their satellites being knocked out by enemy action during a
crisis, the US, Russia and China have the capability to launch substitute
satellites into space at short notice. The US can move its satellites from one
orbit level to another, higher level to escape being taken out by an enemy
anti-satellite system (ASAT).
India can program a satellite launch only on a programmed sequence basis and
not on short notice for rapid launches to replenish lost satellites, Prabhakar
said. "India doesn't have even preliminary capability to defend its
satellites," he said, adding "it will take another 15 to 20 years or more
before India can put these systems in place."
For all its impressive achievements in building and launching satellites, India
is decades away from establishing a fully-operational aerospace command. It has
formidable capability in building satellites. It is now trying to find a way to
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in