India’s Defence Space Agency: The Way Forward

Soon after conducting the ASAT test in April this year, the Indian government announced that it will set up a new agency called the  Defence Space Agency (DSA) comprising of members from the Army, Navy and Air Force,  and supported by a new research organization known as the Defence Space Research Agency (DSRO).

This not only marks India’s drift from the peaceful use of space, but it is also a new journey for the Indian defence establishment. Despite having announced plans establish dedicated organizations to move forward with India’s military space program, establishing the organization will come with several hurdles. Space is no longer a domain used for peaceful purposes, but has drifted into the territory of strategic competitiveness. This article highlights some of the challenges that India may face in establishing an organizational infrastructure for its military space program.

What kind of a space agency?

Before anything, the Indian government and the national security establishment must decide on what role the DSA and the DSRO will play in conducting space operations. China’s Strategic Support Force, for example, is responsible for handling space, cyber and electronic warfare missions and provides strategic information and operational support to the PLA.

Space operations, in a broad sense, could simply involve monitoring and tracking of satellites and India’s own space assets. On the other hand, it could also involve handling surveillance and shadowing the adversary’s assets, as well as carrying out offensive cyber operations.On the more extreme end, the DSA could serve its purpose by commanding and controlling India’s ASAT and offensive space capabilities, thus becoming a fully functional space force.

If India’s long-term national interest is to protect its assets and commercial operations in space, as well as defend against counterspace threats, then the DSA must be capable of taking on the role of maintaining deterrence in space through the use of offensive capabilities as well as providing support to India’s armed forces on land, sea and air. 

Hence, for India to fully meet its strategic objectives in space, the DSA must have a clearly defined role  to function as an independent body in the national security architecture.

Capacity-building

Unlike other major space powers such as the United States, Russia and China, whose space programs have clear military origins, India’s space program, on the other hand, began as a civilian project. Hence, the country has little experience in the military dimensions of space organizations. Because of this reason, India’s Defence Space Agency faces two major challenges in terms of capacity-building.

First, the DSA and the DSRO face the acute danger of falling into the arms race spiral in space, as innovation in this domain is rapid, with a wide array of weapon-systems available at a country’s disposal.. Despite having tested the anti-satellite missile, ASAT system — which offer limited strategic benefits — it only acts as weapons of last resort as the threat of creating an enormous amount of debris by shooting a satellite may be seen as a less credible threat. Given that the military space program faces severe financial constraints, India must first build the capability to monitor and track assets in space, operant command and control systems for having an effective space situational awareness  — which act as a prerequisite for harnessing military space power. At the same time, India should also focus only on those space systems such as co-orbital weapon-systems and offensive cyber capabilities that provide a credible minimum deterrence against an adversary’s threats to avoid spiraling into an arms race. Since the DSA and the DSRO will be based out of Bangalore, efforts must be made to innovate by tapping into the vast private sector operating in the city.

The second challenge that both the DSA and DSRO will face is organizational in nature. Space as a military domain has largely remained an unfamiliar ground for the Indian armed forces, thus making it imperative that members of the new institutions are fully familiar with the new domain, and rope-in academics and civilian-experts to provide valuable inputs. Operating in  the space domain in certainly expensive and technology-driven, which means the DSO must be fully capable of adopting these new innovations for effectively operating in space. As scholar Michael Horowitz has pointed out, military innovation spreads only if a state has the financial and organizational capacity to fully absorb a new technology, hence making organizational capacity-building a high point in setting up a new military space agency.

A space doctrine?

Operating in space will be unlike operating in any other domain, involving three dimensions, spanning across the globe with no territorial borders. While sace warfare can be conceptualized as using offensive capabilities in space against other space-based weapons, it is also intrinsically linked engaging in combat on the ground, making it vital for armed forces on the ground to be interoperable with the space force, creating a new dimension of cross-domain interaction in a conflict situation.

Because of this reason, simply having a doctrine focusing on space-to-space engagement or ground-support engagement will not be enough to meet India’s strategic interests. The DSA and DSRO must approach the space doctrine with the view of interoperability with the Army, Navy and Air Force. In 2017, the Integrated Defence Staff published the first joint doctrine. This publication, however, created further doubts about the jointness among the three services. Inadequate integratedness has remained a roadblock for India’s military modernization.

In order to remain relevant in today’s informationized domains, and be fully integrated into India’s defence force structure, the DSA must lead the way in devising a new doctrine that fully integrates the three services of the armed forces, while at the same time having a long-term vision of India’s interests in space. Such a doctrine will remain the backbone of India’s military space operations in the coming years.

Conclusion

The move towards creating a dedicated military space agency is indeed a right one, as the United States, Russia, China and more recently, France have expressed the necessity to protect their assets and interests in space, and expand as the next arena for geopolitical competition.

In such an environment, the DSA and DSRO will certainly face both technical as well as bureaucratic challenges. However, these challenges must be thought through at the earliest by politicians, bureaucrats, members of the armed services as well as academics in order to remain competitive and relevant in the future.