A piece of big news broke on the internet in the first week of May 2023. The tracking radars of the global ground-based space situational awareness (SSA) company, LeoLabs, detected a Chinese spy spaceplane carrying out extraordinary manoeuvrers and sorties in the Earth’s orbits. The capability to operate such spaceplanes perhaps is limited to only two countries – the US and China, which do not really share cordial relations, thereby making such spaceplane sorties and manoeuvrers mistrustful. According to LeoLabs, the spaceplane has shown capabilities of in-orbit propulsion, change in altitudes, formation flying with an accompanying smaller spacecraft and docking with the same satellite. These capabilities have immense consequences.
Commercial players, civilian space agencies, and military space commands and forces will likely perceive these capabilities differently. Of the three, commercial players would want to encash on such rendezvous proximity operations (RPO) capabilities from the standpoint of de-orbiting defunct satellites from their orbits, space debris mitigation, in-orbit repairs and overhauls and other such benign use cases. Civilian space agencies would want to be part of R&D that adds finesse to such RPO capabilities, and given the new penchant all over the world, civilian agencies would regulate and want to be rule-makers for the commercial companies. But then, in the darkness of outer space, there is a grey area: do the civilian space agencies have the powers to regulate military space commands and forces? And if not, how many months or weeks away are we from an intrusive and offensive RPO – where one satellite gets uncomfortable close to the other deliberately?
With incessant ground-based SSA created by LeoLabs and similar companies, the scope for plausibly denying an offensive or intrusive RPO has shrunk drastically. The radars catch them all. However, what matters is whether the operator of an intruded or mishandled satellite can or does call out the attacker. The incident may often not come out in the open, and an attacked country, if capable of RPO, may want to retaliate – making the first strike and the second strike both surreptitious to the rest of the world. Commercial SSA companies would gather data and share the sensitive data only with select subscribers and customers, whereas for others nothing would have happened. That being the case, the US and China are likely to engage in grey-zone warfare or are already engaging in it. But the real deal is snooping on other countries and for them ignorance is not bliss. What if non-US and non-Chinese satellites, including Indian satellites, are targets of RPO operations? What if these satellite operators cannot access SSA datasets to identify the RPO spacecraft and its origins and create a deterrence? Without undermining India’s known and unknown capabilities, one can presume that our satellites may vulnerable to such RPO operations. And the vulnerability may persist, given that both SSA and spaceplane R&D and operations are currently with the civilian Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO).
ISRO, despite its many glowing achievements, is not an agency that would contemplate tech development to carry out or deter military operations. Take, for instance, the ISRO System for Safe and Sustainable Space Operations Management (IS4OM), ensures that Indian space activities are conducted safely, sustainably and responsibly. But can IS4OM ensure that Indian satellites are not subjected to intrusive RPO? Can it ensure the safety of Indian satellites if they are subjected to in-orbit electronic, electromagnetic and directed energy attacks?
The Network for space object Tracking and Analysis (NETRA), established as India’s SSA, is said to track, warn and mitigate space debris. Does NETRA have a mechanism to report RPO around India’s strategic assets in outer space, especially the military satellites? Can it distinguish cascade debris impacts from deliberate non-direct ascent orbital anti-satellite attacks? NETRA is an instrument of India’s space diplomacy. India wants to plug it as its contribution to the Transparency and Confidence Building Measures (TCBMs) and international cooperation for sustainable use of outer space. But what happens if existing space treaties and TCBMs become redundant and leading space-faring countries have already begun subverting them and are engaging in a non-direct ascent and non-kinetic ‘anti-satellite arms race’?
It is obvious that ISRO’s civilian nature, its global standing, and it being an instrument of India’s soft space diplomacy will not allow it to play hardball. It may build satellites for India’s defence purposes, but it won’t defend these satellites. It may launch satellites but never engage in grey-zone tactics with plausible deniability. ISRO may have its own SSA data integration protocols and deliverables, but these would not fit with India’s space defence requirements.
Take a simple example of Japan, which in May 2020, established the Space Operations Squadron. The squadron provides space domain awareness by integrating data from the Delta-2 of the US Space Force, Japan’s civilian space agency JAXA and likely from commercial space players blessed mainly by the Pentagon. India, too, for its space defence, needs to source SSA data from ISRO and commercial players, but for any defensive or offensive action to be taken, the SSA-data integration to create a Space Domain Awareness (SDA) framework, needs to be with the Ministry of Defence, particularly with the Indian Space Force.
In absence of a deterrence by Indian Space Force, during a short-duration hot conflict, adversaries could knock off its space-based C4ISR capability. Even during cold wars, India may incur tremendous socio-economic losses if the adversary is undeterred to meddle with Indian satellites if an Indian Space Force does not come into being. New Delhi needs to create a space-deterrence, a detterence that goes well beyond direct-ascent anti-satellite weapons, which have anyways become politically outcast thanks to the voluntary prohibitions announced by many countries.
Deterrence sometimes does not lie with what sort of technology a nation develops; it is more effective who deploys and operates it. ISRO has its strengths but has no equivalence with the military space forces. SSA’s and spaceplanes in most countries are contraptions of their respective military establishments. New Delhi should carve out these capabilities from ISRO for its defence needs immediately and create a SDA framework. ISRO’s SSA will be part of India’s space-defence SDA, as the latter will fuse SSA data from various sources and ensure tactical and strategic decision-making for the Indian Space Force. Remember, the space reforms of 2020 are not the last reforms to happen.