Shaping Strategies for Space Encounters - An Assessment
Lt Gen (Dr) V K Saxena (Retd), PVSM, AVSM, VSM
Brief Premise

This article flows out from the following three developments that took place in the recent past”:-

  1. On 27 Mar 2019, India conducted Mission Shakti, an anti satellite missile test destroying a live satellite in Low earth Orbit (LEO).1
  2. In Apr 2019, the Govt established the Defence Space Agency (DSA) to command the space assets of the Army, Navy and Air Force, including the military's anti satellite capability2.
  3. It was reported on 08 Jun 2019 that India is planning to conduct its first-ever simulated space war game named IndSpaceEx sometime in end Jul 20193.

In the context of the above developments, this article addresses the following questions:-

  1. What are our assets in space?
  2. What threats these face from our potential adversaries?
  3. What steps are being taken by India to safeguard our national interests in space?
  4. What are the imperatives in the near future?
Our Assets in Space

Starting from its humble beginning in Nov 1963, when India launched its first sounding rocket from the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS)4 till 27 Mar 2019 when it joined the elite group of only four nations in the world that possess indigenous ASAT capability, it has been a glorious journey of six decades (and counting) for which the country can be truly proud.

This story of growth and achievement has been the story of Indian Space Research Organisation or ISRO formed on 15 Aug 1969 under the Department of Space, Govt of India. Marking its first milestone on 18 Jul 1980 by launching its first satellite (Rohini 1) on a Satellite launch Vehicle from the Sriharikota Launch Site, till the launch of Chandrayaan -2, on 22 Jul 20195, ISRO has done itself and the country proud numerous number of times catapulting the nation to the front ranks of the space-faring nations and rubbing shoulders with the elite three of the space giants - US, Russia and China.

Going back to 1975 when on Apr 19 it launched its first Indian satellite Aryabhata from USSR launch site, today ISRO prides to have launched 239 satellites from 28 different countries. In Jan 2017, it achieved an unprecedented feat of launching a whopping 104 satellites in a single mission. Only four of these were Indian, the balance 96 were of US, Netherlands, Kazakhstan, Israel and UAE. The Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) made history when it entered the Martian orbit on Sep 24, 2014.

Talking of the future, ISRO has planned seven inter-planetary missions in the next 10 years. These include Xposat in 2020 to study cosmic radiations, Aditya L1, to Sun in 2021 to study solar corona in visible and IR bands, Mars Orbiter Mission-2 in 2022, Shukrayaan the Venus orbiter in 2023, Lunar Polar Exploration or Chandrayaan-3 in 2024 and Exoworlds, for exploration outside the solar system in 2028.6,7,8. Besides exploratory space missions, ISRO with over 100 space craft missions and 69 launch missions is currently orbiting some 47 satellites covering the entire spectrum from communications to navigation to electro-optics to radar imaging to a host of defence applications. So to say 'making life possible' in the digital age, this is a 'critical mass' of the space assets which is vulnerable.

Talking of space assets brings to focus multiple category of satellites serving the diverse needs of the nation both in the civilian sector, as well as, the defence sector. A brief account of these assets is attempted here.

In the category of multi-purpose geo-stationary satellites serving the needs of telecommunications, broadcasting, meteorological services, search and rescue operations and more, the most prominent series of satellites are the INSAT series. INSAT 1A, 1B, 1C, 1D.... Incidentally, the INSAT series of satellites have the distinction of being the largest domestic communication satellite series in the entire Asia Pacific region. Besides the INSAT, there are 11 other satellites grouped under the Indian Remote Sensing or the IRS series. IRS basically includes remote mapping, imaging, still, video and panoramic outputs etc. All of these are currently in orbit. The significance of their quantum and impact can be estimated from the fact that the IRS series is the largest constellation of remote sensing satellites in the whole world.

In order to build the capability of having a standard positioning system of our own, a series of Indian Regional Navigational Satellite System or IRNSS for short, was progressively launched from 2013 to 2016 providing positioning coverage of 1500 km from our borders with high accuracy. For the all important function of air traffic control, ISRO has built GPS Aided Geo Augmented Navigation Satellites called the GAGAN series. GAGAN is a part of the space-based augmentation system which provides eight Indian Reference Systems on which rests the architecture of our air traffic control and management system9.

ISRO's satellite-based support to the armed forces started sometime in the seventies. In the period 1970-80 armed forces in general looked at satellite support as a spin-off from the ISRO's orbiting satellites serving the civilian domain; basically INSAT and IRS series. One big development of which the defence forces reaped huge benefits until many years later was the Integrated Guided Missiles Development Programme (IGMDP), whose first director Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, was the originally the Project Direcor of Satellite Launch Vehicle-3 programme and who brought his knowledge and experience of solid fuel technology to IGDMP. As is known, IGMDP gave the defence forces a whole series of missiles - Prithvi, Akash, Trishul, Nag, Agni, to name a few10.

The era of dedicated satellite support started in Aug 2013 when GSAT 7, 'Rukmini' (INSAT 4F in the ongoing series) was launched. This multi-band communication satellite is meeting the real-time communication and networking needs of the Indian Navy. In the Theatre Level Readiness and Operational Exercise TROPEX, GSAT 7 networked some 60 ships and 75 aircrafts over an area of 2000 nautical miles. On 11 Jun 2019 Indian Navy placed an order for a new satellite GSAT R with ISRO at a cost of 1589 crore. The likely launch time will be 2022. GSAT 7R will complement GSAT 7 in monitoring the critical Indian Ocean Region and network all its warships, submarines and aircrafts with operational centres ashore11.

Similarly, ISRO has GSAT 6 satellite launched in Aug 2015 which addresses the surveillance, defence communication and network centric warfare needs of the Indian Army. GSAT 7A launched in Nov 2018 looks after the specific needs of command , control, communication and imaging of the Indian Air Force (IAF). In future, launches of GSAT 7,11,17,19 are planned in this series12.

Another vulnerable asset of the ISRO is the cartographic series of earth observation satellites (CARTOSAT 1, 2, 2A, 2B, 2C, 2D, 2E, 2F). These are meant for accurate imaging of high precision targets relevant to armed forces. Besides providing high resolution images to the armed forces (of sub-metre accuracy; CARTOSAT 2C resolution is 65 cm), these are also dual use satellites serving a host of civilian needs13. On 1st Apr 2019, ISRO added another asset to its satellites called EMISAT14 or Electronic Military Intelligence Satellite launched on board PSLV C -45. This satellite is capable of detecting electronic signals on ground, search out hidden enemy radars and do a host of other signal intelligence tasks.

Other state-of-the-art satellites in imaging series are the Radar Imaging Satellites or RISAT15,16 capable of precision earth observation and imaging. Four new RISAT satellites and one advanced CARTOSAT (3 series) is planned for launch in 2019 for enhancing the surveillance capability of armed forces in space. In Sep 2019, Geo Imaging satellites (GISAT 1 and 2) are planned17. These will vastly improve the time of re-visit of an area from the current 20-22 days to every other day.

So much for the kind of assets we have in space.

Threats to Our Space Assets

Multiple threats to our body of space assets can originate from our potential adversaries. In this context, an attempt has been made to track the Chinese counter-space capabilities.

While the much publicised Chinese Anti Satellite (ASAT) test took place on 11 Jan 2007 when China used a modified HQ 19 missile with KT 1 rocket booster as a kinetic kill ASAT vehicle to destroy its ageing weather satellite FY1C in the polar orbit at an altitude of 865 km18, the ASAT development actually started in China around 2000. In 2004 and 2005, China experimented to achieve direct accent ASAT capability using the SC 19 anti-ballistic missile interceptor, but the tests were not successful19. Success was achieved two years later with HQ 19. Jan 2007 ASAT test was not a one-time event but just a milestone in an ongoing development programme. For instance in May 2013, a new type of ASAT system was developed by China in which the weapon had the capability of reaching up to 10,000 km in deep space.

Probably in response to the world-wide outcry over the high quantum of debris generated by Jan 2007 ASAT test (150,000 medium and 2000 large particles that will remain in space up to 2035), in Oct 2015, China tested DN 3 interceptor as a non-debris generating ASAT20. Following this, different types of ASAT systems have been developed and tested by China in Dec 2016, Aug 2017 and Feb 2018 (and counting?). This shows the pace of activity in China for a continuous capability building in the ASAT domain21.

Besides the ASATs, China is reported to be developing different other kinds of space warfare weapons. A brief summary of these is attempted here22.

The first in the series of counter space weapons are the co-orbital weapons. As the name suggests, these weapons are placed in the same orbit as the target to be destroyed. The kill is affected by the weapon getting close to the target and either releasing the kill device or achieving the kill through a catastrophic collision with the target. In Oct 2008 China, after its then successful spacewalk and safe return of three of its taikonauts, reportedly released a micro satellite BX1 also referred to as CompanionSat . This satellite was just a small cube of 40 cm side, that had the capability to inspect orbital modules and conduct some limited proximity operations. BX1 not only took close images of the Chinese Shenzhou (SH-7) capsule but also passed as close as 25 km from the US International Space Station (ISS). Observers believed that BX1 was actually a test of some of the capabilities required for co-orbital ASAT test23.

In 15 Jun 2010 China launched SJ 12 (Shi Jian 12) in its series of scientific research and technological experiments. This satellite carried out remote proximity manoeuvres with respect to its mother satellite showing jamming and counter-space capabilities remaining co-orbital with the mother satellite24. In Jun 2016, China launched a small satellite Aolong- 1 'The Roaming Dragon' aboard the Long March 7 Rocket. Aolong -1 has the capability of grabbing debris pieces from the space using a robotic arm and launching them towards the atmosphere. China has asserted that it is her effort towards space debris mitigation. Aolong -1 also has a small sub-satellite that can be released at some point in the mission and again grabbed back by the robotic arm. Experts have opined that such a technology during wartime could also be used to approach foreign satellites (in co-orbital mode) and deliberately disable them to eliminate vital space based assets for communication, image reconnaissance and intelligence gathering25.

It has been reported in Feb 2019 that Chinese military is expected to deploy laser-based weapons capable of destroying or damaging US military satellites in low earth orbit26. Blinding or damaging the space based optical sensors and remote sensing devices of the adversary is a part of Chinese missile defence strategy. In addition to the lasers, China has also worked on other directed energy kill options. These include high power microwave, radio frequency, rail-gun and particle beam weapons for their possible application in the counter- space scenario27. In 2017, China developed a small HPM weapon for a ship based application. More work was reportedly underway for adaption of technology in counter-space scenario28

In addition to space-based weaponry, ground based satellite jammers are also under development. In Feb 2019 it was reported that China by 2020 is likely to field a ground-based laser weapon that can counter space-based sensors in low earth orbits. By mid to late 2020s it may field higher power systems that are likely extend the threat to the structure of non-optical satellites29.

China emphasises offensive cyberspace capabilities as key assets for integrated warfare. It could employ its cyber attack capacities to establish information dominance in early stages of war, constrain adversary's actions and slow down his mobilisation and deployment by targeting his command control communication, computers, intelligence and surveillance networks controlled by satellites.

Hacking and taking control of adversary's satellite is another capability that Chinese have shown their hand way back in 2007-08 when they reportedly took control of NASA's satellites for 11 minutes. It was reported that NASA had the control of their satellite Terra Earth Observation Satellite disrupted for 2 minutes in Jun 2008 and for another 9 minutes in Oct 2008. A second similar attack happened on their Landsat 7 Satellite on two occasions.30

So much for the counter-space capability of China and its dynamic growth over time.

Threat has two components, namely, capability and intention. While it is evident that in the journey of its capability building China has US at its cross wires, but the intention? That can change given the dynamic rise of its southern neighbour as regards space assets, space capabilities and space achievements. This is where lies the genesis of Chinese threat to India's space assets.

Efforts by India to Safeguard its Space Assets

In the context of the captioned heading, three major developments are highlighted.

Sword for Sword - India's ASAT Test

On 27 Mar 2019 India crossed a major milestone in building its counter-space capability when it conducted its first ASAT test appropriately codenamed, Mission Shakti.

As is well known through the extensive media coverage of the event and its aftermath, India employed a 19 tonne interceptor missile to destroy a 740 kg micro-satellite (Microsat-R) moving at a speed of 7.4 km/sec in low earth orbit at 283 km. This feat straightaway put India in the list of just four nations of the world that have indigenous ASAT capability. The capability as developed could take on a target up to 10 km/sec up to an altitude of 1200 km.

For the DRDO, getting to the ASAT capability was a incremental development taking off from the mother Project - The Indian Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) Programme, codenamed Project AD. This programme aimed to develop BMD capabilities in two phases. Phase I was to build a shield against an incoming ballistic missile threat of ranges up to 2000 km while Phase 2 extended this capability to cover the missile threat from 2000-5000 km. In both the phases, the interceptor were designed to destroy the target in the endo, as well as, the exo-atmospheric region. One of the interceptors in Phase 2 for the exo-atmospheric operation in mid-course was Prithvi Design Vehicle or PDV. This interceptor was modified with higher range and altitude capability (PDV Mk II) and was used as an ASAT interceptor. The impact of the ASAT does not lie in the physical reality of the event or its technical details, it lies in the strategic message it coveys. 'If you have the capability, you can have the intention when the need arises', is the point being made.

There was much talk of the debris with NASA calling the Indian ASAT test a 'terrible thing' whose fallout (debris) endangers other satellites including the International Space Station. DRDO with several other experts have however held the view that the debris will clear soon. It was minimal since the collision was firstly in low earth orbit where most of the debris will fall back to the earth in weeks and secondly, the same was not designed head-on but at an upward angle thus minimising debris.

Be that as it may, with our kind of stakes and their vulnerability status in outer space, this capability had to be demonstrated for its precipitate deterrent effect - costs notwithstanding, debris notwithstanding. Offence is the best form of defence.31,32,33

Putting the House in Order - Setting up of Defence Space Agency (DSA)

Till very recently, the Defence Imagery Processing and Analysis Centre (DIPAC) under the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) was the sole agency that controlled India's satellite based image acquisition capabilities. Also ISRO has two Master Control Facilities (MCFs) one in Hassan (Karnataka) and the other in Bhopal (MP). MCFs are responsible for monitoring and control of all Geostationary/ Geosynchronous satellites (INSAT, GSAT, IRNSS etc). Tasks like orbit raising of satellites, in-orbit payload testing, and on-orbit operations throughout the life of satellites are undertaken by MCFs. These also interact with various user agencies for effective utilisation of satellite payloads and minimise service disturbances during special operations34.

In Apr 2019, Govt of India established the Defence Space Agency (DSA) which was tasked to command the space assets of Army, Navy and Air Force including the military's anti satellite capability. Both the DIPAC as well as the MCF at Bhopal (also called the Satellite Control Centre) have been put under DSA. On 11 Jun 2019 the Govt. finalised the broad contours of the tasks assigned to DSA. In essence, the agency has been tasked to develop capabilities to protect India's interests in outer space as also to deal with the threats of space wars. In order to accomplish the above broad task, DSA will guide the development of various capabilities and platforms including co-orbital weapons to protect our assets in space and build a credible deterrence capability.

One more task of the DSA was to set up a Defence Space Research Organisation (DSRO). This task got completed in Jun 2019 with the Govt approving the creation of DSRO. This organisation is tasked to provide technical and research support to its parent organisation, DSA. While the DSA will be headed by an Air Vice Marshal of the Air Force, the DSRO will be headed by a senior scientist who will lead a team of other scientists. 35,36

Building Strategies for Space Encounters - Indian Space War Game

Complementing the first two developments as mentioned above, Indian armed forces were to conduct their first ever simulated space warfare exercise on 24-25 Jul 2019. This exercise was codenamed 'INDSPACE EX'. It was a tri-service war game to be conducted under the aegis if HQ Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) under the Ministry of Defence (MoD). In this two day exercise, the military and the scientific community were likely to address the following major issues:-

  • To assess the requisite space and counter-space capabilities needed by India to protect its national security interests in outer space.
  • To achieve a better grasp of the strategic challenges in space.
  • Understand the possible challenges in a scenario of space warfare
  • Build strategies to counter China's growing influence in the outer space.

These may be baby steps but these are 'right steps in the right direction' keeping in mind our assets and vulnerabilities in space.

Some Imperatives for the Future

These are happening times in the arena of space and counter-space. While the ISRO, as always, will continue to climb the ladder of more and more achievements in the future, it is for the newly formed organisations to take stock and deliver. To this end, some imperatives are stated.
At the outset, the DSA must not become a mere collating and summating agency on behalf of DIPAC and MCF, it must take charge and drive development of capabilities. In that, it must utilise the DSRO optimally and deliver on the specific tasks of building the space and counter-space capabilities in response to the likely threats the nation faces in the outer space.

One of the foremost tasks of the DSA is to weave a National Space Doctrine. This document of national importance must find connectivity with a lot of work already done in this field like the formulation of India's Space Vision 2025 by the Integrated Space Cell at HQ Integrated Defence Staff (IDS), work done on draft doctrine by think tanks like Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), Centre for Joint Warfare Studies (CENJOWS) and Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS). Obviously such a doctrine must get the approval of the highest levels in the Govt. (CCS, PMO, NSA). In essence the doctrine must state the national position on the following core issues:-

  • Our national interests in Space.
  • The strategic relationship between various space-faring nations, past, present and future.
  • The threats we face and the defensive and offensive capabilities required to address the same in a time-bound manner.
  • The direction in which the R&D in space affairs should proceed in the immediate, short and long term.
  • International treaties, and India's position therein.
  • Direction and pace of space education in the country.
  • Budgetary support.
  • Miscellaneous issues.

While it is heartening to note a tangible forward movement in all matters space and counter-space, it is a long road ahead. Keeping a noticeable forward pace on this road is our national requirement given the status of our growing space assets and threats these face from our potential adversaries.

References :
  1. "10 things you need to know about ASAT, India's new Space slayer," at www.economic Accessed on 14 Jul 2019.
  2. "India to launch a defence-based space research agency," at Accessed on 14 Jul 2019.
  3. " "ASAT Missile : India to hold first simulated space warfare exercise next month," at
  4. " "Space faring India- History in Space," at Accessed on 14 Jul 2019.
  5. "India all set for 52-day trip to Moon, backpacker style," at Accessed on 14 Jul 2019.
  6. U Tejonmayam, "How the scientists made lunar spacecraft think and act." Times of India 23 Jul 2019.
  7. Ibid.
  8. "isro"at Accessed on 14 Jul 2019.
  9. "A step towards initial satellite based navigation services in India: GAGAN and IRNSS- IRSRO," at Accessed on 20 Jul 2019.
  10. "Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme," at www.en.m.wikipedia. Accessed on 20 Jul 2019.
  11. "Isro to build 2nd dedicated satellite to interlink warships and aircraft," at www. times of Accessed on 20 Jul 2019.
  12. "GSAT 7- Wikipedia," at www. Accessed on 20 Jul 2019.
  13. "Cartosat 2, 2A, 2B, 2C, 2D, 2E, 2F-Gunter's space page," at>doc_sdat>ca.. Accessed on 20 Jul 2019.
  14. "EMISAT-ISRO," at Accessed on 20 Jul 2019.
  15. "RISAT-1eoPortalDictionary," at
  16. ISRO launches radar imaging observation satellite RISAT 2-B," at Accessed on 20 Jul 2019.
  17. "GISAT 1, 2- Gunter's Space Page," at www.wmp-sat-info>oscar>view..," Accessed on 20 Jul 2019.
  18. 2007 Chinese anti satellite missile test," at Accessed on 20 Jul 2019.
  19. "SC19 Anti Ballistic Missile Interceptor," at Accessed on 20 Jul 2019.
  20. "US official ; china turned to debris free ASAT tests following 2007 outcry. Accessed on 20 Jul 2019.
  21. "ASAT Programme of China," at Accessed on 20 Jul 2019.
  22. "Space weapons," at Accessed on 23 Jul 2019.
  23. "The Space Review: China's BX1 microsatellite -a litmus test for space weaponisation,"at Accessed on 23 Jul 2019.
  24. China launch Shi Jian 12 satellite on research mission," at Accessed on 23 Jul 2019.
  25. "China's new Orbital Debris Clean-Up Satellite raises Space Militarisation Concerns," at www. Accessed on 23 Jul 2019.
  26. "China may deploy anti-satellite laser weapons next year that are able to destroy US Military satellites." at Accessed on 23 Jul 2019.
  27. Ibid.
  28. "China's progress with Directed Energy Weapons by Richard D, Fisher..," at www.>sites>files. Accessed on 23 Jul 2019.
  29. "DIA: China has Ground-Based ASAT Missile, Likely working on laser weapon ,"at Accessed on 23 Jul 2019.
  30. "Chinese hackers took control of NASA satellite for 11 minutes," at Accessed on 23 Jul 2019.
  31. "Indian Anti-Satellite Missile Test," at www. Accessed on 27 Jul 2019.
  32. 10 things you need to know about ASAT, India's new space slayer," at www. m. economic Accessed on 27 Jul 2019.
  33. "India's Anti Satellite Missile Test is a big deal , here is why," at www. Accessed on 27 Jul 2019.
  34. "Master Control Facility - ISRO." at www. Accessed on 31 Jul 2019.
  35. "Govt Sets up Defence Space Agency," at Accessed on 31 Jul 2019.
  36. "Defence space: Government finalises broad contours of defence space agency,"at www. Accessed on 31 Jul 2019.
  37. (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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