India's Aerospace Command

14 Feb, 2007    ·   2205

Ashok Sharma posits that India's power can be augmented by the enhancement of its aerospace capabilities

The Indian Air Force (IAF) is planning to establish a tri-service Aerospace Command to protect both the territorial and space assets of India. This was confirmed at the International Aerospace Power Seminar held at New Delhi from 4-5 February 2007. Air Chief Marshal SP Tyagi called India an aerospace power with "trans-oceanic reach", making the exploitation of its outer space vital.

The immediate cause for this decision is believed to be the Chinese shooting down of a satellite with a missile fired from the ground, thus posing a possible threat for India. However, the idea for setting up an aerospace command was proposed by the IAF in the late 1990s. India's pronouncement for an aerospace command is also due to the massive growth of its space programme in recent years, with its ever-growing reliance on space-based communication satellites that sustain its information and communication technology assets.

Recent developments show that India is treading a thin line between current defence related use of space and its actual weaponisation. Despite having a strong civilian space programme, India has not been able to make proper use of space or space-related technologies for military purposes. While the focus on aerospace power is natural in present circumstances, it is in India's interest to preserve outer space from weapons. India has substantial assets in space that are poised to grow exponentially and with its ambitious programme expanding beyond launching satellites to putting an Indian on the moon in the coming decade, these assets need to be protected.

The security and safety of assets in outer space is of crucial importance for global economic and social development. India is striving to redouble efforts to strengthen the international legal regime for the peaceful uses of outer space and guard it as the common heritage. Since its inception, the Indian space programme has focused on developmental activities, with an ultimate target of having satellite launch capabilities for purposes of mass education, weather forecasting, disaster management, communications and navigation. India's space programme has been commercially viable too. In 2006, 'Antrix', the commercial arm of ISRO, brought in more than US$500 million. This is more than half the operating budget for all of ISRO. It is projected that within a decade it would corner up to 10 percent of the market.

The proposed aerospace capabilities of 'persistent surveillance and rapid response' would enable the tackling of diverse threats ranging from non-state actors to natural disasters. India's location at the base of continental Asia astride the Indian Ocean places it at a vantage point in relation to maritime trade in the Indian Ocean. India has a strong stake in the security and stability of these waters since a large percentage of Asian oil and gas supplies are shipped through the Indian Ocean. The Indian Air Force has the means and capability to operate in areas away from Indian shores and has been successfully playing its role alongside the Indian Navy in ensuring the security of these waters. In fact, many defence operations rely on space-based sensors and the option of having an Aerospace Defence Command would certainly help the forces in better surveillance, reconnaissance and tracking.

The risk of inter-state conflict is receding with the emergence of non-traditional threats that transcend borders and are difficult to tackle by nations on their own. As the traditional understanding of security and military use is giving way to a more comprehensive notion of security, India needs an elaborate international structure that would facilitate the tackling of the global nature of these non-traditional threats.

Though India's immediate priority is to develop countermeasures, it has a long way to go in developing a robust offensive capability. An offensive capability would require among other things, ground-based lasers to shoot down enemy assets in space and the possible launch of a vertical ascent anti-satellite weapon that would imply a huge outlay in resources and dedicated research technology. However, India's offensive capability in space may be a long way off and at present, India's aerospace command appears designed to concentrate on developing a defensive command.

With its growing economic and technological capabilities, India is ready to contribute significantly to cooperative measures to tackle shared challenges. India has been playing an 'active role' in discussions on the cooperative use of outer space through deployment of space-based disaster management capabilities and could play a key role in collaborative structures that tackle threats to the well being of a nation. The need of the hour is to share experiences, perceptions and knowledge for enhanced international peace and security.

With the nature of warfare changing more in last 15 years than in the previous 150 years, aerospace power has come to occupy the dominant position. In fact, the twenty first century would belong to aerospace power. Therefore, a robust programme is urgently required to transform the IAF into a dominant space power.