India’s Military Space Program
Vol 11 Issue 5 Nov - Dec 2017
The article outlines the development of military space programmes and development of space weapons across the globe
Monday, December 4, 2017
On 15 February 2017, Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) launched 104 satellites in a single rocket, PSLV C-37, and created a world record. ISRO launched its heaviest rocket, Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle-Mark III (GSLV-Mk III), on 5 June 2017 and placed a communications satellite GSAT-19 in orbit. With this launch, ISRO became capable of launching 4 ton heavy satellites. ISRO has come a long way since India launched its first satellite Aryabhata from the Russian Rocket launch site at Kapustin Yar.
In 1980, Rohini became the first satellite to be placed in orbit by an Indian-made launch vehicle, SLV-3. ISRO subsequently developed the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) for placing satellites into geostationary orbits. Satellite navigation systems GAGAN and IRNSS were deployed.
In January 2014. ISRO successfully used an indigenous cryogenic engine in GSLV-D5 launch of the GSAT-14.
ISRO sent one lunar orbiter ‘Chandrayaan-1’ on 22 October 2008, and a Mars orbiter mission which successfully entered Mars orbit on 24 September 2014, making India the first nation to succeed on its first attempt. ISRO thus became the fourth space agency in the world as well as the first in Asia to successfully reach Mars orbit.
India’s Space program though overtly for peaceful exploitation of space has military off-shoots. These include remote sensing satellites of IRS series with some having spatial resolution of one meter or below. There are others with panchromatic cameras, synthetic aperture radars, satellites providing scene-specific spot imagery for cartographic/military
Evolution of Space Weapons
The United States and the Soviet Union began developing anti-satellite weapons in early 1960s. They were in the form of directed-energy lasers to decapitate; kamikaze satellites for hard-kill; and possible orbital nuclear weapons. The very long range Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) spends significant time in sub-orbital flight and was therefore best intercepted in space. The initial US ‘Nike-Zeus’ program envisaged firing Nike nuclear missiles against incoming ICBMs. Project ‘Defender’ was to destroy Soviet ICBMs at launch with satellite weapon platforms that were to orbit over Russia. Both programs were abandoned later. The ‘Sentinel’ and ‘Safeguard’ programs were to use Anti-Ballistic Missiles (ABM) to shoot down incoming ICBMs. Initial plan was to use a nuclear tipped interceptor missile but as accuracy improved, hit-to-kill ABMs evolved. In 1983 US President Reagan proposed a space-based Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to protect the United States from attack by strategic nuclear missiles.
In the 1960s Soviets developed a “co-orbital” system that would approach the space target using radar guidance, and then explode shrapnel warhead close enough to kill it. Soviets also evolved a low-earth orbit Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS) for earth targets. It would de-orbit for the attack. The SALT II agreement of 1979 prohibited the deployment of FOBS systems. Polyus orbital weapons system was an anti-satellite weapon with nuclear space mines and a self-defence canon. Soviets also considered the space Shuttle as a single-orbit weapon that could maneuver to avoid existing anti-ballistic missile sites, and then bomb the target and land. The Soviets also experimented with large, ground-based Anti-Satellite (ASAT) lasers with a number of US spy-satellites reportedly being temporarily ‘blinded’. Soviets also used a modified MiG-31 as an ASAT launch platform. End of the Cold War saw new players like China, Japan, European Union and India create own space systems. Spy satellites continue to perform C4ISR missions. Satellites are also used to provide early warning of missile launches, locate nuclear detonations, and detect preparations for otherwise clandestine or surprise nuclear tests. Early-warning satellites were used to detect tactical missile launches, in Operation Desert Storm.
Weaponisation of Space
Space weapons can be categorized as those that attack targets in space (anti-satellite); or attack targets on ground from space; or attack targets transiting through space (anti-ballistic missile). It is technically possible to position conventional or nuclear missile in space which could reach targets on the ground, but the same could be expensive and difficult to maintain and service. Also carrying heavy missiles would be a logistic nightmare and have only small advantage of saving time vis-a-vis aircraft and submarine launched weapons. The Russian ASAT Research is reported to have resumed under President Putin to counter the renewed US strategic defence efforts post the ABM Treaty. The NASA space plane X-37, now with US Department of Defense is akin to a space version of Uninhabited Aerial Vehicle and its employability is evolving. International space treaties limit or regulate positioning of weapons or conflicts in space. To date, there have been no human casualties resulting from conflict in space, nor has any ground target been successfully neutralized from orbit.
Earth Based Space Weapons
Research is on into directed energy weapons, including a nuclear-explosion powered X-ray laser. AGM-69 SRAM carried on a modified F-15 Eagle was successfully tested in September 1985 targeting a satellite orbiting at 555 km. In February 2008 US Navy fired a standard ABM to act as an ASAT weapon to destroy an ageing hydrazine laden US satellite. Russia has reportedly restarted development of a prototype laser system ‘SokolEshelon’. Israel’s Arrow 3 (Hetz 3) anti-ballistic missile, with exo-atmospheric interception capability is in advanced stage of development. In January 2007, China successfully destroyed a defunct Chinese weather satellite in polar orbit at an altitude of about 865 km using a kinetic warhead of SC-19 Anti-Satellite (ASAT) missile. The warhead destroyed the satellite in a head-on collision at an extremely high relative velocity. US National Missile Defense (NMD) program has no weapon stations in space, but is designed to intercept incoming warheads at a very high altitude where the interceptor travels into space to achieve the intercept.
China and Pakistan Space Realities
For years shrouded in secrecy, China’s ambitious space program is now well publicized. Lunar and Mars missions, a permanent space station, and ASAT are part of it. Increasing number of Chinese rockets have been launched in the past few years. The first launch this year of the new Long March-7 rocket designed to help the Chinese place a multi-module space station in orbit is a significant step. China is working on hack-proof satellites. China is also preparing to launch new rocket designs, an X-ray telescope and a crewed mission shortly. China is estimated to spend around $6 billion a year on its space program, albeit still a fraction of American US$ 40 billion budget. By 2020 the large manned space station, Tiangong, should be in place.
In December 2015, China launched the Dark Matter Particle Explorer. It soon plans to launch the Hard X-ray Modulation Telescope to look for black holes. Twelve Chinese astronauts have now been into space, including Liu Yang who became the first Chinese woman in space. Chinese Satellite Aolong 1 (Roaming Dragon), has a robotic arm that can grab another satellite and guide it to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere. Officially, it is to remove space debris from orbit but it could be used as a weapon, bringing down a rival’s satellite. China continues to develop a formidable arsenal of launch vehicles. Long March 7 in June 2017 was capable of lifting about 13 ton into low Earth orbit. Long March 5 has capability of lifting 25 ton into low Earth orbit, rivaling anything the Americans, Russians or Europeans currently have. China plans a second lunar landing in 2018 and the Chinese Mars mission in 2020. Designs for a Long March 9 rocket are currently being studied. With the first launch for the Long March 9 due in 2025, China could very well be in a position to land astronauts on the moon by 2030.
Pakistan takes Chinese support for satellite launch. They have also joined the Chinese satellite navigation system Beidou. Main concentration has been to develop a series of nuclear capable ballistic missiles for the Pakistan Army with payloads up to 1200 kilograms and ranges of 2500 kilometers. In January 2017, they tested the Abadeel, a development of the Shaheen-III with multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRV). The intention of the system is to counteract the Indian Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD).
Indian Military Application Satellites
India today has 11 operational Indian Remote Sensing (IRS) satellites. All these are placed in polar sun-synchronous orbit and provide data in a variety of spatial, spectral and temporal resolutions. Though most are civil satellites, some have a spatial resolution of 1 meter or below which can be also used for military applications. Technology Experimental Satellite (TES) is an experimental satellite to validate, in orbit, technologies. It has panchromatic camera capable of producing images of 1 meter resolution. India also commercially offers images with one meter resolution. Radar Imaging Satellite 2 (RISAT-2) has synthetic aperture radar (SAR) from Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). It has a day-night, all-weather monitoring capability and has a resolution of one meter. Potential applications include tracking hostile ships at sea. The CARTOSAT-2 carries a state-of-the-art panchromatic (PAN) camera that takes black and white pictures of the earth in the visible region of the electromagnetic spectrum. The swath covered by these high resolution PAN cameras is 9.6 km and their spatial resolution is 80 centimeters. The satellite can be steered up to 45 degrees along as well as across the track. It is capable of providing scene-specific spot imagery. The data from the satellite is used for detailed mapping and Geographical Information System (GIS).
CARTOSAT-2A is a dedicated satellite for the Indian Armed Forces. The highly agile Cartosat-2A can be steered to facilitate imaging of any area more frequently. CARTOSAT-2B offers multiple spot scene imagery. With successful launch of CARTOSAT-2E in June 2017, India now has 13 satellites with military applications. Most of these remote-sensing satellites are placed in the near-earth polar orbit. GSAT-6 is the second strategic satellite mainly for use by the armed forces for quality and secure communication. Indian Navy uses GSAT-7 for real-time communication among its warships, submarines, aircraft and land systems.
India’s Anti-Satellite Ability
India also has the ASAT capability. Indian ballistic defence program is a multi-layered system consisting of two interceptor missiles, the Prithvi Air Defence (PAD) missile for high altitude, and the Advanced Air Defence (AAD) missile for lower altitude interception. It would be able to intercept incoming missile launched 5,000 kilometers away. PAD was tested in November 2006, and AAD in December 2007. India thus became the fifth country to have an ABM system, after United States, Russia, China and Israel. On 6 March 2009, India successfully tested its missile defence shield when an incoming missile was intercepted at an altitude of 75 km. The ‘Swordfish’ radar for the BMD system currently has a range of 800 km. It is planned to upgrade it to 1,500-2,000 km. Two new anti-ballistic missiles to intercept IRBMs are being developed to cover a range of up to 5,000 km. India is also planning a laser based weapon system to destroy a ballistic missile in its boost phase.
Integrated Space Cell
The Integrated Space Cell is the nodal agency within the government of India which oversees the security of its space based military and civilian hardware systems. It was formed in June 2010 in view of the growing threat to India’s space based assets. The announcement came as a response, when China used a medium-range ballistic missile to shoot down one of its own aging satellites. While India remains committed to weapons-free space, emergence of offensive counter space systems and anti-satellite weaponry posed new threats which had to be countered. The Cell is jointly operated by the three Armed Forces, Department of Space, and ISRO. The Cell has been set up to utilize more effectively the country’s space-based assets for military purposes and to look at threats to these assets. It functions under the Integrated Defense Services Headquarters of Ministry of Defence.
The US Space Command had earlier been an element of the United States Air Force (USAF). Without touching its internal structure, this has been placed under Tri-Service US Strategic Command. It has always been commanded by a USAF General. In December 2011, the Russian Space Forces became the Aerospace Defence Forces, fusing all space and some air defence components into one joint service. In August 2015, they were merged with the Russian Air Force to form the Russian Aerospace Forces. As part of the reforms in December 2015 the People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force was created. It is meant to give support to combat operations so that the PLA can gain regional advantages in the astronautic war, space war, network war and electromagnetic space war and ensure smooth operations.
Indian Air Force (IAF) had outlined the Defence Space Vision 2020 to harness satellite resources to significantly boost India’s defence preparedness. Only an Aerospace Command with requisite space expertise and authority can transform the space vision into tangible operational outcomes. Impressive capabilities developed by ISRO, need to be integrated seamlessly with air, surface and sea-based systems of the Armed Forces to leverage space both as a sword and a shield.
Satellites for Surgical Strike
Recently it was revealed that half a dozen ISRO satellites were used to obtain ground information for the surgical strike carried out by Indian Army in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK). The Cartosat 2C satellite launched on 22 June 2017, reportedly can count the number of cars in a parking lot from a distance of 562 km. It has 0.65 meter resolution and revisit the same spot every 90 minutes. It can give very accurate enemy location and strength.
India’s economic progress has accelerated the space program; conversely the satellites have greatly supported the economy due better communications, and imaging. Space exploration has also brought national pride and self-confidence. For some years now, India has been offering space launches to other countries. ISRO has a 12 year program for a manned space flight. Also, a large number of futuristic satellites are at different stages from drawing boards to manufacture. The nation is eagerly looking forward to the operationalization of GPS Aided Geo Augmented Navigation (GAGAN) and Indian Regional Navigational Satellite System (IRNSS)-1. Future plans include the development of the Unified Launch Vehicle (ULV) whose core objective is to design a modular architecture that could eventually replace the PSLV and GSLV with a single family of launchers. Also, development of a reusable launch vehicle, human space flight, controlled soft lunar landing, interplanetary probes, and a solar space mission. India has a nearly ready to deploy Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) system and all the building blocks necessary to integrate an anti-satellite weapon. India is known to be developing an exo-atmospheric kill vehicle that can be integrated with the missile to engage satellites.
Noted strategist GuilioDouhet had said “Victory smiles upon those who anticipate the changes in the character of war not upon those who wait to adapt themselves after the changes occur”. India needs early warning satellites to monitor ICBM launches and even tactical airspace as an important military asset and ground/space based lasers to disable enemy satellites or destroy/degrade attacking ICBM as part of ASAT capability. There is also a need to develop Directed Energy Weapons. India one-day needs a permanent space station.
Space is the future for all action and capabilities the real force multiplier. Time to invest and prepare is now. The establishment of tri-Services Space Command should not be deferred any further.