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India Goes to War in Space

June 20, 2008

By Sudha Ramachandran
Asia Times
June 18, 2008

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 in 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 Cell.

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 applications."

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 defend them.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.
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