Warfare relies on three essential elements: observation, positioning and communication, which play a crucial role in every aspect of military operations, whether on a tactical battlefield—either immediate and specific situations, battles that are typically on a smaller scale, or in the broader strategic theatre spanning various domains.
Due to its distinctive characteristics, space has become the most effective force enhancer, surpassing the inherent limitations of land, sea and air-based systems in providing worldwide coverage, continuous surveillance, unbroken communication, swift response and global navigation. It also provides versatile integration, meaning the ability to smoothly combine different things into one adaptable system that can do many tasks effectively.
WWII and German V2 Rockets
During World War II, in 1945, towards the end of the war, the German military developed and deployed V2 rockets. These rockets were fired into space, re-entering Earth’s atmosphere to strike targets, particularly in London and other cities of the Allied forces. This marked one of the early instances of humans reaching out into space for military purposes. The mention of the “desperate Germans” highlights the urgency and desperation of their actions as they tried to turn the tide of the war.
The V2 rockets were not intentionally fired into space by the Germans but instead used as ballistic missiles. They were launched into the upper atmosphere and then followed a suborbital trajectory, re-entering Earth’s atmosphere to strike targets on the ground. The goal was to use these rockets as long-range weapons to target cities and military installations in allied countries, particularly London. The rockets reached the edge of space during their flight, which is why the term ‘space’ is mentioned when referring to their trajectory. However, their primary purpose was not to explore space but to deliver destructive payloads to distant targets.
It is important to ensure that our current military space capabilities work well together and use future space technology best. This means creating a clear plan that includes everything we can see and things we cannot to guide us in the right direction. Besides developing and making better use of India’s space capabilities, which include not only the satellites in orbit but also the necessary ground infrastructure and user tools, there is a requirement to skilfully combine specialised technological advancements to achieve specific defence goals, both in times of peace and during wartime.
Matrix for Defence in Space
Over the past 20 years, space has become an integral part of global defence efforts, including to some extent in India. There are two key aspects to consider when it comes to ‘Space for Security’. One is improving the military’s capabilities using space, and the other is protecting space assets, which includes Space Situational Awareness (SSA) and counter-space operations. Space has the potential to connect land, air and sea platforms for various military operations, including conventional warfare, asymmetric threats, disaster response and operations outside of the usual areas. Asymmetric threats often involve tactics and strategies that weaker or non-state actors use to offset the strength of more powerful adversaries.
Space-based Command, Control, Communications, Computers (C4) Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), or C4ISR, systems play a crucial role in enhancing the readiness and efficiency of the defence forces in combat situations. C4ISR is a term used in the military to talk about systems and technologies that help make decisions, talk to each other, analyse information and understand what is happening around them.
The use of space-based technology in weather forecasting, secure communication, intelligence collection, continuous surveillance, thorough reconnaissance, precise location determination, accurate navigation, target identification and missile warning—all combined with cyberspace and Artificial Intelligence (AI)—empower every soldier to become a highly effective asset in wartime.
Space offers the opportunity for defence strategies to achieve victory without direct conflict. Consequently, India should strengthen its capabilities in space and invest in systems outside traditional space activities to uncover innovative advantages. Innovative technologies with the potential to significantly impact warfare have emerged, leading to diverse theories about the evolving nature of future conflicts.
In different types of wars, such as regular battles or modern multi-domain conflicts, people use C4ISR systems to help them make decisions faster. Modern multi-domain conflicts refer to situations where military actions happen not just in one area, such as land, but across multiple domains, such as land, sea, air, space—and even the cyber realm. In these complex conflicts, using advanced communication and information systems helps commanders make decisions quickly and effectively.
Transforming Military Operations
Nowadays, while other groundbreaking military technologies have advanced considerably, space technology is rapidly progressing. It explores new developments such as super-fast glide vehicles, reusable rockets, refuelling and maintenance in space, satellite applications, IoT networks in low-Earth orbit, lunar exploration, quantum communications, multiple payload constellations, and powerful laser weapons. All of these are transforming the way the military operates.
‘Multiple payload constellations’ refer to deploying multiple satellites or spacecraft in space that work together as a coordinated group to perform various tasks or functions. These satellites can carry different types of payloads—such as sensors, cameras, communication equipment, or scientific instruments and collaborate to achieve specific objectives, often in a networked fashion.
Quantum communication is a form of secure data transmission based on quantum mechanical concepts. It uses the peculiar characteristics of quantum particles like photons to encrypt and transfer information, making it nearly impossible to intercept or eavesdrop on. This technology offers the potential for highly secure and unbreakable communication channels, which is particularly valuable for such sensitive applications as military and government communications.
In addition to addressing gaps in various technological capabilities, a significant challenge for an emerging space power like India is effectively combining space and utilising joint C4ISR systems as a unified entity. Organisations responsible for using space for national security should reconsider their capability development by improving collaboration between agencies, implementing more efficient structural changes, changing their perspective and applying these changes to create well-planned roadmaps.
Detailed Analytical Network
Since the beginning of the space age, when Russia placed the first surveillance satellite in Earth’s orbit in 1957, the purpose of military involvement in subsequent satellite launches by major space nations, such as the United States, Russia and China, was evident. However, India took a different approach by launching its first dual-use satellite for Earth observation, Rohini-I, in 1980. India currently has 64 working satellites out of 115 launched, with its initial satellite sent into space in 1975. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) secured the sixth position worldwide for the number of satellites in 2018. At that time, China surpassed Russia, which was earlier the second-largest, by operating a massive 645 satellites, while Russia had 230.
China has achieved numerous milestones that cover a wide range of achievements, such as demonstrating various advanced technologies for space warfare—both offensive and defensive. They have also launched a series of Earth observation constellations, such as Yaogan, Gaofen, Jilin, Shiyan and Jiangbing, with military applications. China is home to the Micius, the world’s only quantum communication satellite. They have the Beidou Global Navigation Satellite System, which is larger and of higher quality than the GPS. Additionally, they have various platforms for launching things into space—air, sea and land. China is close to completing its own space station, and they are also part of the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) collaboration with Russia, which is seen as a competitor to the US Artemis Accord in terms of lunar exploration.
India and China both started their space programs in the 1960s. But today, they are not equal in terms of quality and quantity. China’s yearly satellite launches since 2020 are nearly as many as the total number of operational satellites currently owned by India. China has gained significant capabilities, such as quickly scanning the world, super-precise location data, and secure quantum technology. The gap between the two rivals is significant in various space-related aspects and can be described as a ’10-time’ difference. This includes their yearly budgets, the number of satellite launches, research and training efforts, academic resources, involvement of private companies and displays of space capabilities.
India’s Limitations in Approach
India has made good use of space technology for civilian purposes and exploring space, but it has not fully optimised its potential for national security. The budget has been a significant limitation, but the approach to using space for defence has also faced problems. It has been mainly reactive and supportive, focusing on gradually meeting the basic defence needs and keeping older assets going. Even though this approach did not fully utilise space for defence, it seemed reasonable given the country’s economic, social and security conditions. However, it is noticed that the focus on building defence capabilities in space has often been a response to external security risks after they have emerged.
For instance, it was not by chance that such projects as the NavIC (Indian satellite navigation), the PNT Restricted Service (a precise positioning service) and the Strategic Space-Based Surveillance (SBS) programmes began after the Kargil crisis. The same was the case with the RISAT satellite. Although both the dual-use projects are running, their strategic applications face problems due to a lack of high-quality end products and the lengthy time it takes to develop both the user and space segments together. There is an urgent need for careful preparation in defence space policy, guidelines, strategies, organisational structure, technical support, and infrastructure to reduce reliance on crisis-driven actions.
Recent developments in military space usage show that major space-focused nations have established or upgraded their defence space organisations over the past 5-7 years. Examples include Russia’s Aerospace Forces (2015), China’s Strategic Support Force (2016), the US Space Force (2019), France’s Space Command (2019), the UK’s Space Command (2021) and Australia’s Defense Space Command (2022).
Recognising this need, India also created its own Defence Space Agency under the HQ Integrated Defence Staff (HQ IDS), along with its technical counterpart, the Directorate of Special Projects under the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) in October 2018 and it became operational in June 2019. These efforts, which show a strong commitment to advancing the defence space sector and involving the private space industry since 2020, need to have clear goals and a coordinated plan to achieve the best results.
Optimising the use of space assets for defence requires a comprehensive plan considering established practices and new opportunities. India needs to adapt its use of space technology to handle challenges and make the most of opportunities in defence. By adopting such qualities as resilience, working well with others and being adaptable, India can ensure its defence space systems work well, respond effectively, and last long.
Working with partners and private companies can strengthen India’s space capabilities and help with national security goals. As India grows its space activities, it can benefit from the progress in the commercial space industry to succeed in the evolving space field. Given the ongoing development in defence operations, exploring how space can meet India’s defence needs is the right moment.