Military force projection is deeply interlinked to strategy and tactics. It applies to both since the precise distinction between strategy and tactics is getting increasingly blurred. A strategic mission can yield tactical effects, strategic manoeuvres may enable fulfilment of tactical objectives also and vice versa, strategic forces also enable tactical gains, and so on and so forth. Both impact each other to an extent and a certain amount of overlap is normally expected. The issue by itself is contentious as well as complex and the intent herein is not to address the same but to address the aspect of leveraging space for military force enhancement and projection within the scope of our existing and foreseen capabilities and limitations.

This paper argues that space capabilities are critical to military modernisation for the present and the future. Space capabilities apply across the board and yet this paper aims at being grounded in the realities of our extant space capabilities and looking for options within the same. The intent is to explore the best means of using space to complement the nation’s risingCaveats to Leveraging Space Before rushing headlong into the subject proper, certain caveats would have to be taken into account since the subject needs to be treated within a uniquely Indian context. Some of these caveats are unique to our context and some are not.

The first is that unlike most other nations ranging from the US, the former Soviet Union and China, whose space programmes began primarily for supporting strategic military missions, India’s space programme was designed primarily for civilian needs and most of our capabilities for military purposes, strategic or otherwise are accrued as a by-product rather than as the primary product. Aspiring earnestly for capabilities is the easier part, attaining them is another matter. The overall attempt hence would be to balance (or temper) aspirations and judiciously leverage space within the broader context of extant realities.

The second is that while India’s rise in the prevailing geo-economic and geo-politic scenario has been meteoric, the challenges to national security have also been rising exponentially. And on the other hand, the security resourcesto meet the challenges continue to be scarce and costly. The challenges have also evolved beyond air onto the realm of space and now encompass the entire vertical dimension of aerospace. We need to prepare in our own unique balanced manner.

The third caveat is that going by combat experiences of the past, the military attributes of space are largely strategic in nature. Strategic capabilities accrue mostly by default and tactical capabilities accrue by precise design. For example, while a single observation satellite enables strategic intelligence, it would need constellation of precisely designed satellites to enable tactical intelligence. Contrast the lack of tactical intelligence on Osama with the role of a KH-11satellite on the Osirak strike and the uses become pretty obvious. The need for balance is again paramount.

Prevailing Military Uses of Space

The most important missions of space are of force enhancement ranging from observation, navigation, communication, weather, geodesy and search and rescue.The uses are largely pacific and affairs dealing with space based offence and defence are mired in controversy and hence comprehensively elaborating on the same is presently dispensed with. Secondly, the Indian stand is to continue with the internationally accepted norm of ‘peaceful uses of outer space’, which enables us to use space for military force enhancement rather than war-fighting in space. The attempt herein is restricted to what is legally possible and practicable.

Military Utility of Space in the Indian Context

The extent to which India’s strategic foot print lies is fairly well known and needs no repetitive articulation. What is more important is the fact that the foot print may not be sacrosanct, it may also change in future. Thus, there exists a need to configure force structures which are not only capable of meeting the demands of extended reach but are also flexible enough to shift their focus onto new areas rapidly. A few decades hence, the areas of aspired strategic interest may wax or wane; they may shrink or expand in particular areas. The future can only be predicted with limited certainty and hence the attribute of flexibility would have to be implicit when focussing on reach. And such rapid reach and flexibility can be attained only by elements drawn from the entire realm of air and space. Basically, both have to be judiciously matched to compensate for each others deficiencies and to bolster strength. Primarily, in keeping with our unique requirements, legalities and capabilities, the following areas need emphasis.

With the acquisition of long range assets, the prevailing national reach and potential for a fast response has expanded as never before. The expanding reach implies a vast number of targets from which to select priorities in keeping with operational goals. This demands precise Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities which could only be augmented and made more efficient by both air and space based assets. Political air space restrictions would restrict acquisition of targeting intelligence and hence to match strategic reach with adequate intelligence and targeting information, the availability of space-based assets would be imperative.

In view of the enormously expanding reach of national airpower, these capabilities would enable precise navigation, targeting and delivery of scarce and costly platforms, munitions, personnel, humanitarian assistance etc well beyond national borders thereby increasing the contingency support as well as contingency management options of the Government in keeping with our rise as a global power.

India’s stated nuclear doctrine would demand availability of survivable communication links for a retaliatory strike by elements of the nuclear triad that could be provided only by spacebased systems. In the present and in our unique context, for credible deterrence, integrating survivable space based communications is essential.

The enormous strategic reach and mobility of airpower enables rapid response and insertion of military force at long distances and the same would demand extensive coordination, command and control etc that could be addressed only by space based communications. The same logic would also apply to national maritime forces. In case of the land forces connectivity problems in mountains and other far flung inaccessible hostile terrains could best be served by satellite communications.

Thus, in view of the prevailing changed geo-politics as also altered conflict dynamics, it is imperative that we harness space for exploiting our existing and envisaged capabilities better. Notwithstanding the unique caveats inhibiting our acquisition and development of these capabilities, we are evolving and can make optimal use of our extant capabilities.

Wing Commander Kiran Krishnan Nair is the Joint Director Operations (Space) at Air HQ, New Delhi. He has been dealing with space issues for the last 15 years and has also served on a variety of Space Committees and projects of the Government of India. An LL.B and PG Diploma in Air and Space Law from the WB National University of Juridical Sciences, he is also a M. Phil in International Relations from Jawaharlal Nehru University. His writings have been published in leading national and international magazines and journals and he also lectures on the subject at numerous national and international forums. Since 2012, he has been posted to work with the Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS), New Delhi on issues related to sustainable development of space and space security.

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