Mission Shakti ASAT test
The missile launched March 27 in India's anti-satellite test intercepted a satellite in a low orbit, but still created debris in orbits that go above the International Space Station. Credit: DRDO

India is setting up a military space agency called the Defence Space agency (DSA) that’s expected to command of all the space assets of India’s army, navy and air force.

For nearly the last decade, a debate has taken place in India highlighting the need to establish a Space Command to address military needs. For all these years, India has had a Military Space Cell, a tri-service organization under the aegis of the Integrated Defence Services, or IDS. Formation of this organization was announced on June 10 2008, by the then-defense minister.

The idea of DSA was mooted a few years back, possibly with a view to make an incremental increase in the space-related defense infrastructure. Hence, instead of having a Space Command headed by a three-star general, it was thought suitable to create a DSA headed by a two-star general. All these structures had a relevance when India was not a military power with anti-satellite (ASAT) capability. However, now that India successfully conducted its March 27 ASAT, can DSA take India’s military space agenda further, or there is a need to establish a separate ecosystem for this?

For all these years, military space — or, more specifically, usage of space assets to enhance military functioning — was the requisite which policymakers in India were required to address. However, today that is not the case. Now, by demonstrating an ASAT, India has added one more dimension to its military policy and this is about space deterrence. Over the years, the idea of nuclear deterrence has established itself objectively in the security realm. That may not be the case with the space deterrence and some haziness could exist. To ascertain the notion of space deterrence, it is important to develop a context. Theoretical postulations based on theories of international relations may take time to evolve. However, India could quickly establish a practical context for itself to situate its ASAT capability in the strategic domain. For this purpose, India needs to leapfrog from a Defence Space Agency to an Indian Space Force.

On Jan. 11, 2007, China conducted its first anti-satellite missile test by destroying one of its own satellites at an altitude of 865 kilometers. This test was not a transparent act announced in advance by China’s government. The world came to know about via U.S. space surveillance capacity to track the space debris generated by such tests. This test has polluted the orbital commons, posing a debris-strike threat to various satellite systems. China got severely criticized for conducting this test. S

ince 2007, China has continued with its counter-space technology program, but has refrained from carrying out additional debris-creating tests. It appears China had very little conceptual clarity about what should be their next steps after the 2007ASAT test. Additionally, global criticism could have made it difficult for China to think of any follow-up. China has yet to institutionalize any transparent space security architecture.

Luckily, India is in a diametrically opposite situation: India’s test has created much less debris, most of which is in lower altitude and likely to dissipate shortly. India has a transparent agenda for the conduct of activities in space and is totally against weaponization of outer space.

Today, with an ASAT test under its belt, India has clearly identified space as a strategic domain in its overall security architecture. Obviously, using satellite technology for military purposes becomes only one of the aspects of its overall space security architecture. For India, the time has come to make a clear distinction between its military and civil space programs.

For the foreseeable future, there is no need for India to conduct any debris-creating ASAT tests to further establish its space agenda in the strategic realm. However, from a space security perspective, it is important for India to evolve a mechanism for the generation of space situational awareness (SSA). Owing to the expense of such system, it is important for India to take initiative for the creation of a multilateral SSA mechanism.

For establishing a strategic space program, India needs to develop various counter-space capabilities like electromagnetic pulse systems, lasers, jamming techniques and cyber options. In addition, satellite-hardening technologies and space debris removal techniques are required to be mastered, too. Spaceplanes, satellite swarms and launch-on-demand services are required for network-centric warfare. India should also develop the ability for the human spacecraft to move from one orbit to another. New quantum-based communications systems and cells for studying space weather forecasting are the requirements of the present and the future.

Lastly, if India is ‘dreaming big’ with ASAT, then it has to also ‘think big’ to make its space security agenda more inclusive and an important constituent to this could be an establishment of Indian Space Force.

Ajey Lele is a senior fellow at the New Dehli-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.

Ajey Lele is a research fellow at India’s Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses and author of the book “Asian Space Race: Rhetoric or Reality?”