The policy drift and creeping paralysis over the modernisation and equipping of the defence forces with latest genre combat systems in the past one decade have undoubtedly taken a heavy toll of the combat capabilities of the eight decades plus old Indian Air Force (IAF). Buffeted with a gradual depletion of squadron strength and shortage of combat pilots, the IAF is struggling it out to remain battle ready for a full scale war on one front and holding action on the other. There is no denying the point that to be well equipped to fight a credible two front war, IAF would need to have under its wings a strength of at least sixty squadrons. Hopefully for the IAF the commitment of Narendra Modi led Government to equip the defence forces with the advanced technology fighting platforms sourced from within the country and through imports would imply a major game changer in so far as augmenting its fighting capability is concerned.
But going beyond procuring fighting platforms and transport aircraft, helicopters and UAVs meant to boost the combat capabilities of IAF, the Indian Government should give serious attention to the issue of giving clearance for the long pending and long deferred proposal for the creation of a tri service aerospace command that could give IAF a new edge to face the threat from China and Pakistan. Indeed, a well-endowed aerospace command could transform IAF into an inter-continental aerospace power with formidable defensive and offensive capabilities. It is unfortunate that the two successive UPA (United Progressive Alliance) regimes led by Manmohan Singh could hardly take any decision on giving a practical shape to the proposal for the formation of an Indian tri-service aerospace command. For quite some time now, Indian strategic analysts have been driving home the point that with India facing serious multiple threats to its territorial integrity, the need to put in place a well-equipped aerospace command has become all the more pronounced. As it is, for more than five years now, there have been animated discussions and passionate deliberations on the challenges and impediments involved in the creation of a tri service aerospace command that would make extensive and intensive use of the satellite resources built up by the country.
Against this backdrop, the Narendra Modi led government should not lose time in giving a green signal to the formation of an Indian aerospace command which makes for an evolutionary and dynamic process. Of course, India should make a bold beginning towards giving a shape to the much needed aerospace command. The formation of an aerospace command would need a massive investment and acquisition of many technologies and systems that are difficult to source from within the country. But then on account of these factors, India cannot simply afford to postpone the creation of a tri service aerospace command that would make for an enhanced situational awareness to monitor threats emanating from diverse directions and a variety sources. In the ultimate analysis, a continuously evolving Indian tri service aerospace command, fully supported by ground based resources and space based platforms could help keep a constant surveillance on the machinations of the forces inimical to the county.
The Integrated Space Cell formed as part of the Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) in New Delhi could very well serve as the resource base and nucleus for the setting up of a full-fledged Indian aerospace command. The south central Indian city of Hyderabad which boasts of a large IAF base could be an ideal location for the setting up of the headquarters of Indian aerospace command. For Hyderabad boasts of a string of facilities of both the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) as well as Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). Further, Hyderabad is also a home to a facility of the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) in addition to the units of a large number of private aerospace enterprises. By all means, an active involvement of ISRO and DRDO is quite vital for the setting up and operationalization of the Indian aerospace command. While the participation of DRDO in the quest to set up the Indian aerospace command could not pose any problem, roping in ISRO, a civilian space agency committed to the peaceful uses of outer space, in the exercise of creating the aerospace command, could pose a serious challenge. For the open association of ISRO with a patently militaristic facility like aerospace command could attract international censure leading to sanctions. As such, ways and means should be devised to bring in ISRO on-board the platform for creating the aerospace command.
Significantly, ISRO had come under US sanctions and technology embargo on more than one occasion for its alleged role in the perfection of dual use technology. In early 1990s, ISRO came under US sanction for its efforts to acquire cryogenic engine technology from Russia for the three stage Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV). And in the late 1990s, US had exerted pressure on India to drop its Agni ballistic missile development project which formed a part of the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme(IGMDP)spearheaded by DRDO. For the perception in USA was that the solid fuel technology developed for India’s basic civilian launcher SLV-3 was used for propelling Agni series of ballistic missiles.
Way back in 2013, the then IAF Chief, NAK Browne, during his visit to Washington, had sought US support for the formation of the proposed Indian aerospace command. But then whether US is open to support the Indian move towards the formation of its tri service aerospace command, no one is sure as yet. For many of the Indo-US joint initiatives in defence have not moved beyond occasional pious statements issued in Washington. India should factor in this ground reality while initiating the process for the formation of the aerospace command.
By no stretch of imagination, an aerospace command is a static entity with a set of standard and generalised features with a concrete finish-line. It is a country specific exercise that takes into account the “unique and peculiar” needs of the country as well as its resources availability. From the Indian perspective, looking beyond the dynamics of the security threat, the Indian tri service aerospace command should showcase the Indian military might buttressed by the technological prowess that India has built up over the years. Moreover, the evolution and growth of the Indian aerospace command should not in any way be affected by the technology denial being spearheaded by US and its western allies. Clearly and apparently, India cannot afford to lose the opportunity of positioning itself as a military power of global standing with a robust aerospace command at its disposal.
It may be recalled that it was the shocking anti-satellite test carried out by China in early 2007 that nudged the Indian defence establishment to clamour for the formation of an Indian aerospace command that would also serve as a bulwark for ensuring the safety and security of the Indian space assets from the impending threat of rogue satellites and space based killer devices deployed by adversaries. Not surprisingly then, 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 outer space. Incidentally, IAF’s “Defence Space Vision 2020” outlines the need to harness the satellite resources in a big way to buttress Indian defence preparedness.
On its part, IAF has already made a detailed study of the issues related to the structure and functions of the aerospace commands as existing in other countries. Ensuring free access to outer space while denying the adversary the advantage of using space platforms in the event of a war could be one of the key goals of the Indian aerospace command. Other well identified goals of the proposed Indian aerospace command could include giving out missile launch warnings and monitoring the launch of satellites by the adversaries.
All said and done, the biggest impediment in the way of the formation of an Indian aerospace command is the absence of a national infrastructure sturdy enough to build and launch a large number of satellites—meant for a variety of end uses—at frequent intervals to support the Indian 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 could come in the way of supporting the Indian aerospace command. This lends support to the case for the setting up a second Indian launch complex. Similarly, India would need to support the evolution and formation of an industrial consortium capable of building and delivering satellites and launch vehicles in a ready to use condition.
Of course, the expertise that ISRO has built up in the area of designing and developing a range of state of the art satellites for a wide ranging applications could be a big plus point for the Indian tri service aerospace command. Former DRDO chief V.K.Saraswat had in fact spoken of a well-conceived plan to build and launch a series of home grown defence spacecraft for surveillance, reconnaissance, earth imaging , navigation and other applications. ”There will be a series of defence satellites. Each year, you will find one of the satellites going up. I cannot reveal you the numbers because they are classified,” noted Saraswat.
As it is, India’s first dedicated defence satellite GSAT-7 meant for the exclusive use of the Indian navy was launched in 2013.A follow on GSAT-7A to be launched during 2015-16 will serve as a dedicated IAF spacecraft. Indian army too will get its own dedicated spacecraft system in the years ahead.
Along with the satellites which serve as “ears”, “eyes” and “command posts” in outer space, the missile defence shield being put in place by DRDO could boost the defensive and offensive capabilities of the Indian tri service aerospace command. Equally important to the successful operationalization of the Indian aerospace command is the capability for network centric warfare based on a well-endowed C4ISR system. While the C4 components of the system—computer, command as well as communications and control—constitute the back end, ISR(Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) made up of orbital, airborne, maritime as well as fixed and mobile ground based sensor system help find, fix and track hostile targets and evaluate the damage to the enemy targets.
At the end of the day, there should not be any time lag in giving clearance to initiate the complex and time consuming process of forming the tri service aerospace command that could ward off the multi-dimensional security threat facing the country. Now is the time to take up the challenge of putting in place a well-equipped Indian tri service aerospace command.