China’s move to weaponise space domain is bringing newer threats, says Air Force Chief

Recent moves by China have weaponised the space domain, Indian Air Force Chief Air Chief Marshal V R Chaudhari said on Thursday, as he stated that terrestrial, space and aerial domains are losing their “individual identities” and the spectrum extends from small drones to hypersonic ballistic missiles.

Space-based assets could become essential for the conduct of operations in a networked scenario in the future, the Air Chief Marshal said.

Speaking at the Jumbo Majumdar International Seminar about the Future Challenges of Aerospace Power, Chaudhari said, “China’s latest demonstration of physically moving one of its disabled satellites into the graveyard orbit is bringing in newer threats in the race to weaponise the space domain, a domain hitherto considered relatively safe.”

“The spectrum that we are looking at stretches from kinetic to non-kinetic, lethal to non-lethal and from small drones to hypersonic ballistic missiles. This vast and ever-changing continuum will pose significant challenges for the armed forces of the future.”

Speaking about hypersonic missiles, which China tested last year, Chaudhari said, it is “launched from the surface of the earth, flies through the atmosphere into space and returns to a target on the earth with velocities far higher than any land and aerial platform. Similarly, as space-based assets become hubs for controlling terrestrial, underwater and aerial combat, they would also become centres of gravity which an adversary would like to target.”

He asserted that “armed forces across the world have realised that the control of this vast continuum should rest with the air force.”

Drones and miniature aerial vehicles and their proliferation “will pose a significant challenge for conventional air space control” and in the future, he said, “there would be teaming of manned and unmanned combat systems.”

He said that space travel “has already become a reality” and “exponential growth in the civil aviation sector coupled with future developments in terrestrial travel will pose a huge problem in terms of air space control.” This “conundrum” he said, should be addressed “before we get overtaken by technology.”

Terrestrial, aerial and space-based systems, he said, “have now become a single entity bound by a common network and therefore also vulnerable to attacks” and while traditional land, sea and aerial warfare will always take place, “unconventional and hybrid means to disrupt conventional capability will need to be countered.”

Chaudhari said that the growth of aviation over the last century “has been unparalleled and has revolutionised the character of warfare” and control of air “has become a prerequisite for the conduct of operations at all levels.”

“Aerospace power continues to evolve and mutate, primarily fuelled by induction of new technology, the emergence of new threats and evolution of new paradigms for warfighting.”

Talking about future challenges, he said that the foremost is technology and keeping pace with it, as “no other field has seen such a rapid transformation in technology as airpower has seen in the last 120 years of its existence.” The technology in this domain is “niche, proprietary and often under tight state control” Chaudhari said, adding that “an associated challenge is to develop the capability for indigenous design, development and production of future capability.”

He called for an “all of nation approach” as “no single entity will have the resources or the knowledge base to develop future battle-ready technology.”

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