The Russia-Ukraine conflict has highlighted the growing requirement for armies across the world to be “space ready.” This conflict, which has seen commercial space facilities being used for the first time, has ensured detailed discussions among the military and civilian players on how India can become a space power in the modern age. Keeping this in mind, players from the industry, the military and other experts gathered for a three-day seminar organised by the Indian Space Association (ISpA) to brainstorm the challenges and opportunities that come in the light of the recently released Indian Space Policy 2023, which aims to boost privatisation to bring in much-needed investment and technical know-how to make India self-reliant in space.
Speaking about what privatisation would mean for the Indian space industry, Lt. Gen. Bhatt believes private space players have entered the Indian market, where they are already making a difference. Speaking about startups such as Skyroot Aerospace, which launched its first rocket despite having only come into operation in 2018, he says that private players would be essential to ensuring India’s space reliance, whether in the defence or civilian sector.
Questioned about the potential prospect of space wars, Lt. Gen. Bhatt pointed out that the world was already witnessing the significant role that space was playing in the unfolding Russia-Ukraine conflict. He said one of the main takeaways from this conflict “was communication where Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites will become an important domain. Starlink was able to access Ukraine and maintain their communications after jamming was done by the Russians. Similarly, the use of satellites by ISA was able to provide real-time information to the Forces. The importance of ISA and communication has come to the forefront in the Ukraine war.”
The role of satellites and how much and what kind India needs remains a hotly debated topic. According to Lt. General S.L. Narsimhan, India needed to diversify to meet all its defence needs. “There are a number of defence activities you need to ensure in space: to conserve your assets, defend your assets and facilitation your ground, air, and Navy forces. So, when you look at that, you need a combination of satellites: navigational satellites, surveillance satellites, optical sensors, and everything else,” he said.
Most space experts believe that India’s space rival will be China in the foreseeable future. They also raised concerns about China’s increasing number of space satellites over India. According to Lt Gen Narsimhan, the “increased number of satellites that China has over India is something that we need to address as there is a revisit time for every satellite. So, if something happens somewhere and you want that area to be covered, you should be able to redirect the nearest satellite. If you don’t have a satellite position nearby, even if you reroute a satellite, it will take time.”
Satellites aside, another growing concern in the international space community is the rise of ASAT tests. China delivered a surprise to India and the world with its ASAT test in 2007, to which India has now responded with ‘Mission Shakti’ in 2019. According to Air Vice Marshal Anil Golani, the Additional Director General of CAPS, the ASAT tests were the precursor to the Russia-Ukraine conflict and are likely to be used as a show of force by more countries. “Russia demonstrated its ASAT test even before the conflict started in February 2021 and tested a kinetic ASAT in November 2021. This was a political move by the Russians to show the Americans, and Nato forces its deterrence capability.”
The rising level of ASAT tests by nations is grounds for worry. Space lawyer Dr Ranjana Kaul admits it could undo the careful international legal framework put in place to safeguard space. Asked what could happen if one of the major international powers decided not to follow international protocols, she said that member countries would have to go through the UN charter, following which the country would then determine its course of action. Citing a recent example, she stated. “Russia had conducted an ASAT test in November 2021 against one of its own defunct satellites in orbit, leading to calls to ban ASAT tests and in December that year the UN passed a resolution banning it. But what might happen materially? I find it frightening to think about this. It would cause an indiscriminate attack.”