The once tranquil expanse of outer space is slowly but inexorably emerging as the fourth dimension of the ancient business of warfare. Taking into account the evolving dynamics of the future battlefield scenario, USA, Russia and China are all keen on strengthening their space defence systems. The “stunning success” with which US led allied forces were able to extensively use space assets to pull off their intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq has highlighted the importance of “birds in outer space” in determining the outcome of a war.
In fact, warfare experts contend that that since and success of military and strategic operations on the ground depends on “alert space birds,” whoever knocks down the largest number of enemy satellites stands to gain a strategic lead. Meteorological satellites predicting weather to facilitate bombing raids, navigation satellites guiding lethal weapons to designated locations, reconnaissance satellites locating the exact geographic position of military targets, electronic ferret satellites gathering data on radar frequencies, communications satellites providing real time secure links between defence forces scattered over a vast geographic stretch for a coordinated strategy and ocean watch satellites snooping on naval movement of adversaries have all become necessities in modern day warfare.
Against this backdrop, the Indian Air Force(IAF) has, for more than five years now, been clamouring for the creation of an integrated aerospace command to bolster the tactical edge and strategic capability of all the wings of the three services .Further, IAF is confident that a full fledged tri-service aerospace command would go a long way in ensuring the safety of Indian space assets and guarding the Indian air space with a heightened vigil. The IAF’s “Defence Space Vision 2020” outlines the need to evolve a strategy for the optimum utilization of space assets for sharpening its combat preparedness. On its part, IAF is clear that the proposed tri-service aerospace command, which is yet to get clearance from the Government of India, will require well planned coordination between all three services in order to function with a high degree of precision.
Former IAF Chief SP Tyagi had driven home the point that the Indian tri-service aerospace command would need to seek the active participation of Defence Research and Development Organisation(DRDO) and Indian Space Research Organisation(ISRO). Since DRDO is closely associated with India’s defence set up it may not face much of a problem in participating in India’s aerospace command. But ISRO, being a civilian space agency committed to the “peaceful utilization of the fruits of space technology for national development” will find it more difficult to associate itself with India’s aerospace command. This is in sharp contrast with the Chinese situation where the dividing line between space activities and military preparedness is as thin as it is tenuous. Not surprisingly then, ISRO Chairman G Madhavan Nair has been avoiding the question on the possible role that ISRO would play in the creation of India’s tri-service aerospace command. His cryptic answer is that setting up an aerospace command is the concern of India’s defence establishment.
Incidentally, Nair has his own reason to distance ISRO, at least in the public perception, from India’s defence set up. ISRO has come under US sanctions and technology embargoes on more than one occasion for its alleged role in perfecting the so called dual-use technology that can be exploited for defence purposes. The Americans have long been suspicious of the ISRO’s stated commitment to “peaceful use of outer space”. Many think tanks in the US hold the view that India’s long range missile development program has benefited enormously from the technologies developed by ISRO for its satellite launch vehicles. “If ISRO says that the satellite can be used for intelligence, it might lose international support for its activities and future progress would suffer,” says Ajay Lele of the New Delhi based Institute for Defence Studies and Strategic Aanalysis (IDSA).
It was precisely for this reason that Nair had denied the suggestion that the Risat-II microwave imaging satellite, developed by ISRO in cooperation with Israel Aerospace Industries(IAI), is capable of providing data of military and intelligence importance. “In our agenda, there is no such thing as a spy satellite,” Nair has stated. Risat-II was launched in April this year by means of the four stage Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle(PSLV). Since the massive intelligence failure that preceded the Kargil skirmish, Indian defence forces have been clamouring for high resolution satellite data along with an increased access to satellite systems configured for multiple end uses.
IAF is well aware of the fact that space based devices hold the key to fine tuning “net-centric warfare.” A core groups of experts set up by IAF is now studying all the issues related to the structure and function of aerospace commands as existing in other countries. Incidentally, the long term strategy of the American space command forming part of United States Air Force (USAF) includes the plan to destroy the space assets of adversaries to deny them the advantage of using space platforms in case of war.