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India beyond Earth: India’s status in space military race

The Indian defence establishment has historically been plagued by various interrelated issues, such as a sluggish procurement system, poor civil-military relations, and challenging inter-service integration. Space warfare requires a solid foundation of collaboration between military and civilian institutions, but if done well, it can enable close integration and even fusion between military and intelligence services. India’s efforts to acquire space capabilities should therefore be closely examined.

Since the 1960s, India’s military and civilian space activities have been coordinated by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), a civilian organization. However, India made significant institutional and scientific progress in 2019 toward assembling a globally competitive space warfare capability.

In March 2019, India successfully tested an anti-satellite weapon. There were some 400 fragments left after the satellite was destroyed, many of which stayed in low earth orbit for some time, despite the Indian government’s efforts to reduce the size of the debris field. In fielding an effective anti-satellite capability, the test put India in the same league as China, Russia, and the United States.

Perhaps more significantly, India established two new space agencies in 2019: the Defense Space Agency (DSA) and the Defense Space Research Organization (DSRO) (DSA). While the latter performs duties akin to those of a fighter command in the United States, integrating space assets from the army, navy, and air force and developing strategy, the former is a research organization geared toward facilitating the development of civilian space technology for military purposes. The Defense Satellite Agency (DSA), headed by an air force commander, assumed control of several existing military organizations, such as the Defense Imagery Processing and Analysis Center and the Defense Satellite Control Center, and started out with a staff of 200 officers from the three services.

In July 2019, all military members participated in India’s first combined space warfare exercise. The exercise demonstrated an evident appreciation of the importance of having access to space by focusing on leveraging communications and reconnaissance satellites to integrate intelligence and firepower across the range of Indian military capabilities.

Some in the Indian defence community have advocated for more drastic changes, such as creating a military space service akin to the Space Force in the United States. This would make protecting India’s expanding satellite network easier and set the stage for coercive measures against adversary networks. India is still well-positioned to benefit from its positive relations with Russia and the United States, the two most developed space powers in the world, even though it is still unclear whether India has the long-term technological and financial foundations required to support a separate space force.


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