By Radhakrishna Rao
The early 2007 anti-satellite test carried out by China, besides sending shock waves across the world, seriously jolted the Indian defence establishment into thinking about strategies required to blunt the edge of Chinese space war endeavours. The protection of Indian space assets from rogue satellites and space-based killer devices deployed by adversaries have become the most serious issue for both the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) and Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). As it is, both ISRO and DRDO have made it clear that it is well within India’s capability to engineer anti-satellite systems and related destructive devices for deployment in space even while pointing out that India is committed to the peaceful use of outer space. As things stand, the biggest challenge for India is to integrate its space assets into the defence architecture in a seamless fashion, to prepare for a space war if India is pushed to exercise the option.
Against this backdrop, the Indian Air Force (IAF) has identified outer space as an area of intense focus to sustain India’s strategic lead and to counter the possibility of a surprise attack from space. The clamour for the setting up of a tri-service aerospace command articulated by IAF is for India to exploit the ‘final frontiers’ and sharpen the country’s combat edge. Incidentally, IAF’s ‘Defence Space Vision 2020‘ outlines the need to harness satellite resources in a big way to buttress Indian defence preparedness. Sensing the mood of the Indian defence forces, Defence Minister AK Antony announced the formation of an Integrated Space Cell under the aegis of the Integrated Defence Services Headquarters, presumably as a first step towards the setting up of a full fledged tri-service aerospace command.
What would be the shape of the proposed Indian aerospace command and what would be its objectives? What are the impediments in the way of setting up the Indian aerospace command? There is no standard formula or definition for the structure of an aerospace command even as it is widely recognized that enhancing situational awareness is one of the key goals of an aerospace command. Moreover, an aerospace command is a dynamic entity that needs to be regularly strengthened by the induction of ‘advanced technology elements’ on a sustained basis.
Of course, IAF has already made a study of the issues related to the structure and functions of aerospace commands as existing in other countries. However, the kind of aerospace command that India would put in place – after getting the green signal from the political leadership of the country – would reflect the needs specific to the Indian situation, extent of funds available, as well as technology and expertise within the country and abroad. The objectives, however, of the Indian aerospace command will be similar to aerospace commands in other countries: ensuring free access to space while denying the adversary the advantage of using space platforms in the event of a war. Other well identified goals of the proposed Indian aerospace command could include giving out missile launch warnings and monitoring the launch of enemy satellites.
Perhaps the biggest impediment in the way of an Indian aerospace command is its enormous cost. This may be the reason why the Indian Government is taking time to give the green signal to the proposal. Moreover India is a long way off from realizing an infrastructure sturdy enough to build and launch a large number of satellites – meant for a variety of uses – at frequent intervals to support the aerospace command. The fact that India’s solitary spaceport at Sriharikota island on India’s eastern coast could hardly handle around four to five space missions a year can come in the way of supporting the Indian aerospace command. This implies that India would need to build not only new launch centres but also bolster its industrial capability to build and deliver satellites and launch vehicles in a ready-to-use condition.
Yet another major challenge would be involving ISRO, a civilian space agency committed to the ‘peaceful uses of outer space’ in the exercise of setting up the aerospace command. The involvement of ISRO could easily attract international censure. As it is, ISRO had come under US sanctions and technology embargos on more than one occasion for its alleged role in the perfection of dual-use technology. In fact, in the late 1990s, the US had exerted pressure on India to drop its Agni ballistic missile development programme which was part of India’s Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP). US think-tanks had alleged that the solid fuel technology developed for India’s first civilian space vehicle SLV-3 was exploited to speed up the development of the Agni series of missiles.
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