Countering the Dragon: A Perspective on Strategic Space Capabilities
Pushpinder Bath, Senior Fellow, VIF

The successive standoffs between India and China on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) have highlighted the requirement of enhancing our strategic space capabilities. Space assets are primary facilitators of a country’s strategic surveillance needs. The requirement of space-based surveillance was realised by India during the Kargil conflict in 1999. One of the major observations of the Kargil Review Committee (KRC) constituted post this conflict, was the inadequacy of space based surveillance capabilities for gaining strategic intelligence. KRC had recommended that “every effort must be made and adequate funds provided to ensure that a capability of world standards is developed indigenously and put in place in the shortest possible time1.” In future, the medium of space will be the key enabler for fighting Network Centric Warfare (NCW), which will be fluid, intense and short.

Space dominance and the full exploitation for space systems are vital for achieving accurate navigation, combat situational awareness, information dominance, Post Strike Damage Assessment (PSDA) and C4ISR (Command, Control, Communication, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) capability. These are essential for execution of responsive full spectrum, distributed operations in a NCW environment. Space based capability will enable implementation of these concepts particularly with respect to achieving information superiority, creating situational awareness and non-contiguous operations with high tempo. Space based capabilities and services can provide assured and timely support all the way down to the tactical level commanders if they are fully integrated with other battlefield systems.

Comparative Potential

India made initial foraysin the development of strategic space capabilities with the launch of the CARTOSAT series of satellites. However, it has made a slow progress due to various constraints. Whilst the RISAT series of satellites, which are equipped with Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR)2 that can provide higher revisits as compared to the CARTOSAT series of panchromatic satellites, but for any meaningful interpretation of SAR imagery, these need to be compared with high resolution panchromatic images. China on the other hand has leaped ahead in the domain of space-based surveillance and is expected to be possessing military grade persistent surveillance capability with multiple sensors. In the domain of space based Electronic Intelligence (ELINT), we are at a nascent stage with EMISAT3, our first ELINT satellite launched in April 2019. It is common knowledge that a constellation of minimum three ELINT satellites is required for attaining a reasonable accuracy in target fixation.

China has at least two dozen Yaogan ELINT satellites, which adequately cover its entire areas of interest between 35 degrees North and South latitudes4. Satellite communication (SATCOM) is an important facet of the C4ISR matrix. China has about half a dozen dedicated military communication satellites to support its strategic and tactical communication networks, while we have very limited dedicated SATCOM assets for the military.

Another space domain that supports military operations is Satellite Navigation (SATNAV). SATNAV imparts precision targeting and navigation capabilities to the armed forces. China has achieved complete self reliance in this domain with the completion of its Beidou-3 satellite navigation system comprising 35 satellites5, which provide global coverage to facilitate the operations of People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Whereas, there have been inordinate delays in the operationalisation of the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS), which drew the ire of the Comptroller and Auditor General in its report tabled in Parliament in March 20186.

In the domain of Anti-Satellite (ASAT) weapons technology, while India successfully conducted a direct ascent ASAT test in March 20197, China had attained this capability in 20078. Ever since, China is reported to be focusing its research towards the development of Directed Energy Weapons (DEW) for disruption of services of adversary satellites9.

Recalibrating Priorities

Whilst it is easy to pinpoint intelligence failures in the standoffs as witnessed at Galwan, it is equally important to comprehend that intelligence pertaining to China is primarily based on sensors and space surveillance is a vital component of the intelligence gathering mechanism. SATCOM and SATNAV on the other hand, contribute towards planning and executing the operational response of the armed forces. Therefore, it is time to pause and recalibrate our priorities in order to correct our quaint and awry approach towards the development of military space capabilities. Further, procrastination in the development of these niche capabilities will widen the gap with China to an extent, which will become difficult to overcome in future. While, mega ticket programmes like Chandrayaan and Gaganyaan have high visibility, prestige and mass appeal, yet these do not contribute in any manner towards the enhancement our military operational capabilities.

It is worthy to note that while China has continued with its launches even during the current pandemic, ISRO has not executed a single launch post January 2020. The events which have unfolded at Doklam and Galwan are a sharp reminder that we need to ramp up the development of our military space capabilities as these have direct operational ramifications. Needless to mention that even with complete backing from the government, strategic space capabilities cannot be built up overnight. Hence, collaboration is the way forward. We need to pursue the route of strategic collaboration with advanced space powers like USA, Israel or Japan in order to meet our emergent requirements related to military space applications. Augmenting and sharing space capabilities through collaborations with strategic allies would make it difficult for the adversary to disrupt these capabilities.


The role of space assets in enhancing the effectiveness of ground operations has been proven conclusively in all conflict scenarios. China has developed high resolution remote sensing satellites, high bandwidth multi-band communication satellites and a satellite navigation constellation providing global coverage. Similarly, our future military modernisation efforts are bound to focus on network centricity and precision targeting, which will rely upon robust strategic space capabilities. These capabilities are not only force multipliers but also enable success in an electronically controlled modern battlefield. Over a period of time India has developed a modest capability in space based remote sensing, communication and navigation. It is necessary to integrate the inputs from space assets into operational plans. Concurrently, this requires doctrinal and organisational changes at tactical, operational and strategic levels, in order to optimally harness the space potentialin the planning and conduct of military operations.

For India, space capabilities need to be developed with a command and control system capable of functioning in a joint operational environment, as these capabilities need to be operated and managed by the three services and the intelligence agencies. The creation of Defence Space Agency (DSA) is a step in theright direction10. Space is a facilitator for acquisition of strategic capabilities and India needs to see it no differently. A well conceived and planned development of strategic space capabilities can integrate different aspects of space applications with war-fighting doctrines and can foster jointness in military operations. Whilst the development of strategic space capabilities is essential and inescapable, the need to safeguard critical space assets by creation of redundancies and instituting defensive as well as offensive counter-space measures should constantly remain on our radar.

  1. “The Kargil Review Committee Report.” Accessed 01 July 2020.
  2. D.S., Madhumathi. “With RISAT-2B, India Resumes Radar Imaging Space Fleet.” The Hindu, 20 May 2019, Accessed 01 July 2020.
  3. “PSLV-C45/EMISAT MISSION - ISRO.” ISRO, Accessed 01 July 2020.
  4. Chandrashekar, S. “China’s Space Power & Military Strategy – The Role of the Yaogan Satellites.” International Strategic and Security Studies Programme | NIAS | India, 31 July 2018, Accessed 01 July 2020.
  5. Messier, Doug. “China Completes Beidou Satellite Navigation System – Parabolic Arc.” Parabolic Arc, 28 June 2020, Accessed 01 July 2020.
  6. Online, FE. “Indigenous GPS System: ISRO Chief Passes Buck to Industry as CAG Report Flags Delay.” The Financial Express, 14 Mar. 2018, 02 July 2020.
  7. Pubby, Manu. “India Tests First Anti-Satellite Missile System, Codenamed Mission Shakti.” The Economic Times, 28 Mar. 2019, politics-and-nation/pm-modis-big-announcement-india-successfully-tests-anti-satellite-weapon/articleshow/68592702.cms. Accessed 02 July 2020.
  8. Zissis, Carin. “China’s Anti-Satellite Test.” Council on Foreign Relations, 22 Feb. 2007, 02 July 2020.
  9. Hitchens, Theresa. “Shanahan: China Is Deploying Directed Energy Weapons.” Breaking Defense, 17 June 2019, 03 July 2020.
  10. Singh, Sushant. “Coming Soon: Ministry of Defence’s Cyber, Space, Special Operations Divisions.” The Indian Express, 16 Oct. 2017, Accessed 03 July 2020.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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