The ongoing discussion centres around the emerging need for an Aerospace Command. Our aerial platforms rely heavily on space assets for their operational functions. As space assets become more integral, the prospect of consolidating the Air and Space domains into a unified architecture is gaining traction for enhanced optimisation. As space assets become increasingly intertwined with elements in other domains, a necessity for space awareness arises. It involves safeguarding our assets in space and preventing hostile forces from exploiting space resources.
Transformational technologies in the recent past have increased congestion, contestation, and conflict in the space domain. It has been further exacerbated by the fact that these technologies are dual-use and could be utilised against space-faring nations by adversaries when needed. Rendezvous and Proximity Operations (RPO) have resulted in spin-offs that enable On-Orbit Servicing (OOS), refuelling, and inspection, activities that facilitate operations in close proximity to any satellite and pose a security threat. Active debris removal is another technology that could also be exploited for military use.
The increasing use of reusable and flexible launch capability, space planes like X 37B, quantum communications, laser satellites, mega-constellations and manoeuvring satellites have all ensured that freedom of operations in space is critical for military functioning, which also necessitates the security of these assets in space.
The space domain, therefore, performs an enabling function for services and applications and a securing function with the assistance of the technologies mentioned above. The securing function has to be performed by an aerospace force that is well-trained and equipped to ensure the security of its assets in space. Space services are essential, not only for military functioning but also for the socio-economic well-being of the nation, and therefore securing our national interests in space comes under the ambit of ‘space security’ and the onus of ensuring space security rests with the armed forces.
Space defence strategies, which form the basis of counter-space techniques, involve protecting space infrastructure and space-based assets from disruption or damage by an adversary or any other agency, knowingly or otherwise. It comprises three major components: space protection, space denial and space situational awareness. Space situational awareness should be a prerequisite for any space operation or mission, more so for space defence. Space protection, space denial and space situational awareness are, therefore, primary requirements towards space security through military means, which need to be adopted by an aerospace force and need a doctrinal approach for planning, training and execution.
Space denial, however, is an active space defence option that needs to be achieved by denying the use of space to the adversary while simultaneously having an acceptable degree of freedom of operation in space. Space denial could be achieved through hard kill as well as soft kill measures and could involve disruption, degradation, denial and destruction in sequence.
The expanding space domain has diminished the boundary between airspace and outer space. As is the case with most modern air forces, efficient space exploitation is critical to IAF operations at all levels. At closer orbital ranges, satellites are being positioned for Very Low Earth Orbits (VLEO), and high-altitude pseudo Satellites (HAPS), along with high-altitude drones, are being used to exploit the near-space region.
The ambiguity between airspace and near space is even more predominant with the proliferation of aerial platforms in the near space region, which could be in an adversary’s airspace and yet would not violate its sovereignty. It could be operating in the region of ambiguity, i.e., near space, where detection and targeting capabilities are yet to mature. This domain is well within the operating jurisdiction of an aerospace force, and the IAF must develop capabilities to operate in the near space region for ISR, communications, real-time data links and radar tracking of aircraft. The near-space region is very lucrative as it encompasses the best of both worlds, with no regulations presently being imposed upon its use.
An increasingly large component of IAF operations is conducted using a net-centric architecture that exploits space-based assets. These critical assets include the Integrated Air Command and Control System (IACCS), Operational Data Link (ODL) and Air Force Net or AFNET. Collectively, these systems form the backbone of the IAF’s net-centric approach to warfare. Space-linked capabilities like C4I2SR, PNTT, SatMet, etc., further exploit this backbone. Space has become critical for warfighting as C4I2SR gives information dominance, satellites with navigation provide precision targeting, weather forecast gives mission go/no go criteria, battle damage assessment provides mission success/failure details and real-time targeting is enabled by space-based C4I2SR.
In addition, space-based assets enable UAV/AWACS data relay and strategic communications for command and control overseas. Any conflict over the traditional air, sea, or land domains, including the cyber domain, will invariably spill over into space. Air defence, which is the IAF’s responsibility, has to expand beyond traditional boundaries into sub-orbital space. Higher missile ranges and higher altitudes of aircraft would lead to higher detection ranges of radars and intercepts, including BMD, necessitating the transition of air defence to aerospace defence.
Merging air and space systems would provide a comprehensive view of the aerospace domain. It will facilitate resource decisions based on capabilities that produce the desired military effects regardless of the platform’s domain. The IAF strategy, therefore, should be to fully integrate the air and space capabilities to have a common picture of the aerospace medium. The IAF is primarily responsible for air defence. In addition to integrating the use of satellite services and applications into its overall strategy, which is a common goal for all three services, the IAF also needs to integrate space defence strategies with air defence to ensure a seamless transition between the air and space mediums for all physical platforms transiting between the mediums, including the tracking of space-based objects and earthbound objects as well as for missile defence requirements.
The establishment of the Defence Space Agency in 2019 and the articulation of the Indian Space Policy earlier this year are steps that need to be followed up with a Military Space Strategy and the formation of an Aerospace Command that would comprise all stakeholders in the space domain, military and civil, to ensure a whole of government approach. Forming an Aerospace Command with the necessary architecture and capabilities is considered more important than renaming the Indian Air Force. This evolution of an aerospace force would also be in keeping with the statement made by the Defence Minister, Rajnath Singh, during his keynote address delivered at the Air Chief Marshal PC Lal Memorial Lecture on 5 May 2022. While delivering this address, Singh exhorted the IAF to become an aerospace force and be prepared to protect the country from future challenges.
AVM Anil Golani (Retd)