First step to credible space warfare capability

First step to credible space warfare capability

Sun, 06/16/2019 - 22:51
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By Dr Ajey Lele

In October 2018, the Cabinet Committee on Security gave approval to the formation of three agencies for the armed forces namely, Defence Cyber Agency, Defence Space Agency (DSA) and Special Operations Division. These agencies would directly serve under the command of the Chairman, Chief of Staff Committee. All three agencies would be headed by a two-star officer (Major General equivalent). Service personnel from the Army, Air Force and Navy would be posted in these agencies based on the requirement and qualifications.

Broadly, Special Operations Division would have an army officer in command and would have various commandos’ units from all the three services like the Paras and other army units like Ghatak Force, Marcos (Navy) and Garuds (Air Force). Cyber domain has a very large and distinctive footprint. At present various agencies are engaged to address issues related to cyber like the office of National Cyber Security Coordinator, Computer Emergency Response Team-India (CERT-In), and National Informatics Centre (NIC) etc. The Cyber Agency is expected to coordinate with such agencies as per the requirement. The Space Agency would have collaboration with some of these agencies and mainly with the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). It is expected that the Defence Imagery Processing and Analysis Centre (DIPAC), New Delhi and Bhopal based Defence Satellite Control Centre would be under the Space Agency. Interestingly, the government has very recently also approved the creation of the Defence Space Research Organisation (DSRO) which obviously would have a major role to play.

Now there is a requirement to evolve a ‘plan of action’ for taking the mandate of these agencies further. For this purpose, it is first essential to ‘define’ the problem correctly by identifying adversaries’ level of preparation. There is a need to identify the sectors where the skills of our armed forces are required to be improved. In short, it is vital to carry out a critical assessment of the present and possible future. Here simulation exercises offer a major advantage. A tabletop war-gaming could help monitoring and evaluation of capabilities in a cost-effective way by compressing the time.

Such simulation exercise could also be viewed as a quality assurance tool, which allows to test and evaluate emergency policies, plans and procedures. For Defence Cyber Agency, the Directorate of Indian Defence University (INDU) had organised a two-day Cyber Exercise (CyberEx) on April 29-30, 2019. Now, there is a proposal to conduct the exercise for the benefit of Defence Space Agency and it is expected to be carried out during July 2019 (IndSpaceEx).

At present, various speculations are found happening about the nature of the proposed exercise. Some undue hype is getting generated as if India is getting ready for Space Warfare. Based on only one news item it has been claimed that India is trying to test its space warfare capabilities by undertaking a tabletop exercise. However, it may be noted that there is no official confirmation of this news.  Looking at the broad rationale towards the development of these three agencies, it looks unlikely that the entire focus of DSA’s space simulation would be on Space Warfare. It needs to be appreciated that the issue of space warfare has come to the fore only after the conduct of the ASAT test on March 27. Actually, the demand for the establishment of these three agencies has been debated for many years. In fact, the government has not accepted the actual demand which was for the formation of three different Commands. Each Command would have been led by a three star officer. The actual demand was watered down from a three-star commanded to a two-star led system. It would be highly unlikely (and inappropriate) that the policymakers would put the responsibility of assessing various challenges associated with the Space Warfare (remember, it is a fifth-generation warfare and theoretically to fight such wars India needs to establish a separate force called Indian Space Force) to this new and relatively small agency like DSA. There is a possibility that in the absence of any specific agency, DSA could have been asked to look at only some aspects of space warfare which may help towards developing India’s counter-space capabilities.

Broadly, the DSA wargaming should involve the aspects of the use of satellite technologies for improving the performance of the armed forces.  It would be of interest to look at the mandate given to the Defence Cyber Agency for a two-day Cyber Exercise (CyberEx) held on April 29-30. This exercise was not about Cyber Warfare but was about incident reporting and response, data exchange, readiness and inter-agency coordination. The situation for DSA exercise cannot be much different. IndSpaceEx must test the gaps in India's space security. The team preparing various scenarios for this exercise need to stay away from making science fiction type scenarios.  The mandate for DSA should be to ensure that Indian armed forces get maximum benefits from its network of satellites employed for remote-sensing, weather monitoring, navigation and communications duties.

During 2013, the first military purposes communications satellite (GSAT 7/ Rukmini) was launched for the Indian Navy. This satellite has nearly 2,000 nm ‘footprint’ over the Indian Ocean region and provides significant assistance to the Indian Navy.  Another communications satellite was launched during 2018 called GSAT-7A for Indian Air Force.  This satellite is used in interlinking ground radars, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) airbases and Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS). During 2015, a communication satellite GSAT-6 got launched which has been also described as a system for strategic use. There are proposals for launching an exclusive satellite for the Indian Army (GSAT-7B) and few more satellites in the near future. Along with this, India’s navigational constellation (NavIC) is almost ready for use.  

India’s expertise in the remote-sensing arena is coming handy to establish a network of reconnaissance satellites. India has launched (with Israeli assistance) two Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellites called RISAT II (2009) and RISAT I (2011) essentially to address terrorism-related threats. Also, a Hyper-Spectral Imaging Satellite (HysIS) was launched during 2018. On May 22, 2019 RISAT-2B a radar imaging earth observation satellite has been launched by ISRO. Since, 2016 four Cartographic satellites having been launched with sub-metric resolution. 

The entire formulation of the IndSpaceEx should revolve around factoring these space assets. Efforts should be made to check the employability and utility of these satellites. Mostly, these assets are now being used by individual services. It is important to plug-in these assets into the joint warfare doctrine. The wargame should look at two major aspects: One, when the ‘red force’ launches an offensive, how successfully are we using these assets to assist our response mechanism. Two, if the ‘red force’ succeeds in making some of these satellites unusable then what are the alternative mechanisms available with us? Should we attack (and how) the ‘red forces’ satellite systems? Any offensive act in space by ‘blue forces’ is going open an altogether new dimension of warfare and possibly much beyond the mandate of DSA. In fact, this wargame could be used to identify the possible other military responses (which are not in space) to the attack on ‘blue forces’ space systems. It needs to be kept in mind that the Indian state is against the weaponization of space.

For some time now the Indian Forces (army, navy and air force) are getting assistance from various satellites. However, now with formation of DSA it is important to put all available space assets in use and formulate procedures so as to get maximum benefits for all the three forces. There is a need to critically assess the need for reconnaissance and how good the systems available with us are. Is there a possibility of tasking the satellites as per the requirement? How tactfully optical and SAR sensors could be used? For SIGINT, COMINT and ELINT what are our needs from the satellite systems? Is existing satellite imagery being helpful to provide the correct weather assessment of the tactical battle fields or we require upgraded systems? Overall for reconnaissance purposes is our own network sufficient or we need to purchase imagery/data from other sources? It is essential to construct the table-top game to get answers to such questions.

Any over-dependence on satellite systems could prove counterproductive. The inability of satellite systems to give inputs over Arunachal Pradesh could be a case in point. Weather and terrain are the two major factors which expose the limitations of the satellites in this region. In May 2011,  Arunachal Pradesh’s Chief Minister Dorjee Khandu died in a helicopter crash. However, the satellite images were cloud-covered and failed to spot the location of the accident. Similarly, satellites were of no assistant to the wreckage the Indian Air Force (IAF) An-32 transport aircraft which met an accident on June 3, in Arunachal Pradesh. There is a need to simulate such type of situations in the war game to understand any possible limitations of our existing systems. 

In general, such simulation exercises would prove to be relevant and constructive when the armed forces would be able to identify the strength and weaknesses of our existing space assets. Also, these drills would help the armed forces to understand their own capabilities and limitations towards using India’s military satellite network more effectively. Eventually, such exercise should lead to recommendations about the requirements for future space systems and ground infrastructure. It should also help the DSA to know and plan for the training and infrastructure requirements.            

*Senior Fellow, IDSA, New Delhi