The Platform


The 1999 Kargil War helped India realise the importance of space for intelligence gathering, reconnaissance, and mapping.

Chinese space capabilities are one of the primary drivers of India’s space programme. While China might be competing with the U.S., India and other Asian powers are shaping their space efforts according to their calculations of growing security-driven considerations.

China’s military space capabilities were given political thrust after assessments of the importance of space technologies over 20 years ago. Since then, China has developed space capabilities to deny GPS signals, overhead sensing, long-term over-the-horizon communication, and missile warnings. India and China have conventional space technologies, however, where they differ is in their ambitions and outlays. Unlike India, China conspicuously aims to surpass the U.S. and Russia in advanced technologies such as quantum communications, robotics, and artificial intelligence.

Since its inception, China’s space programme functions directly under the PLA. Recent space-military reforms like the creation of the PLA Strategic Support Force, and strengthening network infrastructure helped in conducting space launches in 2018, 2019, and 2020. China recently sent the Chang’e 5 moon lander to the far side of the moon which was quickly followed by the Tianwen-1 into Mars orbit. With the development of their second station, the Tiangong-2, the Chinese are close to having their own crewed space station. They also have plans to establish a lunar moon base mission by 2029. These steps will catapult space militarisation into a different league altogether.

American and Russian capabilities are not the principal influencers of Indian strategic thinking on space. However, it must be noted that they possess a significantly higher number of military satellites. They also have the leading number of space-based intelligence technologies, command infrastructure, counter-space capabilities, and space protection.

India currently has bilateral space security dialogues with the U.S., Japan, and France. It could begin such conversations with other like-minded partners like Australia and the United Kingdom. The rapid expansion of Chinese space capabilities along with Beijing’s professed goal to dominate outer space has created a new impetus for democratic issue-based coalitions like the QUAD to intensify cooperation. The recent bonhomie between Russia and China also remains an issue to be closely monitored. Intelligence collection and space domain awareness in areas like the early warning of potential nuclear-missile strikes could be potential areas of cooperation for the QUAD.

All the three primary space powers: the U.S., Russia, and China have weaknesses in space protection which leaves their space assets vulnerable to attacks. Weak defence systems incentivise states to adopt the strategy of offense being the best defence, in the near term. Keeping in mind the China factor, such possibilities make cooperation an imperative for states with growing space assets like India.

With murmurs about potential developing links between India and the Five Eyes, the Combined Space Operations initiative gains significance for India. It includes all members of the Five Eyes along with France and Germany. One of the motivations behind this initiative was to optimise resources for enhanced mission assurance and resilience. Such initiatives suggest some emerging characteristics of space alliances: a small core of countries with high levels of mutual trust, coupled with the military cyber aspect that will be indistinguishable from the space element.

Some have called for India to join the International Space Station or alternatively leading the formation of an Asian space station along with Japan, Israel, South Korea, Vietnam, and other interested partners.

India’s military space doctrine needs to be rooted in deterrence. It requires capabilities of offensive and defensive nature aligned with national security objectives, the external environment, and evolving technologies. This includes space forces that have non-kinetic and kinetic capabilities, providing early warning of imminent attacks or attributing ongoing attacks along with enforcing adequate countermeasures. India also needs to accelerate its work on technologies like lasers, electromagnetic pulse, co-orbital weapons, and direct energy weapons. India could further develop terrestrial forces that can act as temporary substitutes for their counterparts in space. All these measures could be initiated under a full-fledged Space Command.

Ved Shinde is studying Political Science and Economics at St. Stephens College, Delhi University.