According to recent comments by Air Marshal VR Chaudhari, Chief of the Indian Air Force, India is slowly but surely militarising its space sector. He mentioned the German V-2 rocket example to illustrate that space has historically been used for military and commercial objectives. The Indian Air Force was no longer the Air Force alone but was the “Indian Air and Space Force”, quite akin to its French equivalent.
The German V-2 rocket, also known as the Vergeltungswaffe-2, or Vengeance Weapon-2, was a ballistic missile developed by Nazi Germany during World War II. It was the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile and targeted Allied cities, primarily London and Antwerp, towards the war’s end. The V-2 was a significant technological advancement in rocketry and laid the foundation for subsequent developments in space exploration and missile technology.
General Anil Chauhan, Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) of India, remarked on similar lines recently while discussing how Indian combat was evolving. Chauhan has advocated for the advancement of dual-use technology and the augmentation of India’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities by increasing the number of Navigation with Indian Constellation (NavIC) satellites.
Earlier, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a speech at the Indian Defence Expo, 2022, held in Gujarat, emphasised the space industry’s value and equated it to the country’s future security.
According to these assertions, space has become securitised and militarised within the Indian strategic discourse—ongoing discussions, debates and conversations within India’s strategic and geopolitical community—with technology, assets and other infrastructure used for military ends. The militarisation of the Indian space sector is occurring at several levels, including establishing specialised institutions and regulations that enable militarisation and the private sector to bolster defence capabilities within the space sector.
Establishing Policies & Frameworks
In the period that Modi has been in charge, the country’s government marked a perceptible shift in how it conceived its space priorities when it did a direct ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) test in March 2019 under the code name Mission Shakti. This test was carried out as a means of ‘space deterrence’ following China’s direct ascent ASAT test in 2007, which resulted in the generation of a significant amount of space debris. ‘Space deterrence’ implies employing military capabilities and strategies to discourage potential adversaries from engaging in aggressive or harmful activities in space.
Following this test, the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO), India’s top military research agency, stated that they were actively developing programmes related to directed energy weapons (DEWs), electromagnetic pulse (EMP) and co-orbital weapons for ASAT purposes.
In 2019, the Defence Space Agency (DSA) and Defence Space Research Organization (DSRO) were established as dedicated government agencies responsible for integrating military space assets, including military satellites, primarily focusing on enhancing India’s ISR capabilities. In a similar context, introducing Mission Defence Space during the Indian Defence Expo 2022 event in Gujarat provided a significant impetus to defence technology and space diplomacy, opening the doors for the private sector to contribute additional innovations to the defence sector.
In line with this objective, India’s ambitious Space Policy, 2023, while not explicitly referring to the military domain, has endorsed enhancing space capabilities to benefit the ‘nation’s security and socio-economic advancement.” The policy further highlights the government’s intent to adopt a comprehensive strategy by nurturing and facilitating deeper involvement of the private sector across the entire spectrum of the space economy, encompassing the development of both space and ground-based assets.
Likewise, the policy also specifies a preference for non-government entities to take on comprehensive tasks within the space sector, including endeavours related to “disseminating satellite-based remote-sensing data” and “advancing space situational awareness capabilities for improved observation, modelling and analyses”. Given that all these technologies possess applications that can be used in both the civilian and military context, the technologies developed by the Indian space sector may have dual-use capabilities.
Dual-Use Technology in Private Sector
The involvement of the private sector in the space domain has significantly boosted defence manufacturing, leading to a convergence of private enterprises with a heightened commercial interest in a sector that was once out of bounds for them. India is striving to achieve self-reliance (aatmanirbharta) in space, aligning with the broader economic strategy under the leadership of Modi.
For example, a prominent communications company actively engages in comprehensive satellite system integration projects for the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force. This company is also strongly interested in providing satellite broadband services to enhance defence communications. As India prepares for space-based spectrum allocation, either through administrative allocation or the spectrum route, the utilisation of satellites for communication can enhance the armed forces’ operational capabilities.
Likewise, one of India’s prominent business conglomerates, the Adani Group, has expanded its range of business interests to encompass the aerospace and defence sectors. This includes cabin and interior refurbishment, avionics upgrades and maintenance training. The company produces unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and corner drone systems.
A prominent startup, GalaxEye, has made synthetic aperture radar (SAR) technology available for integration into its forthcoming satellite systems designed for aerial drones. Additionally, a company based in Hyderabad has ventured into manufacturing aerospace equipment to support the growth of the aerospace and defence sectors.
Collaboration Between India and the US
A series of successive bilateral statements between India and the US, including the space domain within the context of ‘defence’, signifies significant expansion in this sector on multiple fronts. While India historically sourced around 85% of its weapon systems from the Soviet Union and Russia, India’s defence imports have diversified since 2010.
Indeed, US military sales to India have surged to $7.93 billion during 2010-’17, a substantial increase compared to the modest $1.39 billion in the previous decade. With the forthcoming GE-F414 engine agreement to power the indigenous Tejas Mk2 fighter aircraft and the sale of 31 MQ-9B drones to India, it is anticipated that bilateral defence trade between India and the US could reach a substantial $25 billion.
Dialogue between India and the US on the issue of space will energise the growth of defence industrial ecosystems, subsequently strengthening the economic partnership between the two nations. As the US emerges as India’s largest trade partner—with bilateral trade reaching $128.6 billion and surpassing China-India trade at $113.8 billion—and with India reconfiguring its supply chains to reduce reliance on China and Russia, there is a strong likelihood of a significant boost to the defence industrial ecosystem.
Matching the Dragon’s Giant Strides
The trend of militarising space is not exclusive to India. Globally, the space domain is becoming increasingly securitised alongside such traditional theatres of conflict as land, air and sea. China, in particular, has acknowledged the importance of space as a potential arena of conflict, and India must address this growing challenge.
For example, the launch of the Ceres-1 rocket and the Tianqi-4 satellites—in what was termed “the world’s first hot launch on a land transport launch vehicle at sea”—showcases China’s efforts to integrate capabilities between the maritime and space domains. Given that the Tianqi-4 satellites are designed to aid marine communications, ecological monitoring and battlefield situational awareness, their contribution to military operations is evident.
“The world’s first hot launch on a land transport launch vehicle at sea” refers to the successful deployment of a rocket from a land-based mobile launcher onto a sea platform in a way that allows for a rapid and efficient launch. This achievement represents an innovative approach to launching rockets from land-based vehicles while at sea, potentially offering advantages in terms of flexibility and mobility for space launch operations.
As the Indian Navy lacks a sea-based missile defence capability for intercepting satellite targets, the Indian defence sector is exploring possibilities for integrating the space and maritime domains. Progress in this area is underway through such initiatives as the Indo-US Defence Acceleration Ecosystem (INDUS-X), which plans to create an undersea communication infrastructure and enhance maritime ISR capabilities.
India could expand its military satellite constellation, including the existing GSAT series, to enhance its command, control, communications, computer, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities. Additionally, there may be efforts to develop more small satellites to increase manoeuvrability. Lastly, India might invest in developing kinetic energy weapons (KEWs) and space-based directed energy weapons (DEWs) to bolster the defence of its existing space assets.
In the coming years, the space domain, aligning with other domains of warfare, is expected to experience an increased emphasis on security and militarisation.