Space-based assets can be applied for military force, says Air Force Chief

Chief of Air Force Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari said on Tuesday that anti-satellite tests by major countries, including India, point towards the need for a comprehensive Space Situational Awareness, and “evolution of space capabilities has resulted in these assets growing well beyond mere force enhancement roles, and it is possible to use these assets to apply military force in, from and through space”.

Speaking at the 12th Annual Conference and Exhibition on Geospatial Intelligence organised by the Space Association of India, Chaudhari said that the “increased exploitation of the space domain will lead to increased contestation” and as “reliance on space grows, space-based assets will become centres of gravity that are likely to be targeted in war and less than war situations.”

“This is leading to evolution of concepts of force projection, protection and targeting in space. Anti-Satellite tests by major nations are an indication of the onset of this contestation and militarisation of outer space. While our Mission Shakti operation in 2019 highlighted our ASAT capability to deter adversaries from resorting to escalatory space conflict, it also brought to fore the need for Comprehensive Space Situational Awareness (SSA) through a robust Space Surveillance Network (SSN).”

The availability of comprehensive SSA, he said, enables a complete “defensive counter space stance” as well as usage of our ASAT capability, if and when required. “The key areas for the armed forces would be the development of Missile Defence Radars for SSA, space-based sensors and optical telescopes to track adversarial objects,” he said, adding that ISRO and DRDO’s existing capabilities would need to be “integrated into the Air Surveillance picture” of the Air Force, beyond the present 100 km altitude.

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“This integration would provide a gradual progression to a Space Surveillance Network. Collaboration with other countries for sharing of information would also be essential to enhance SSA,” the Air Force Chief added.

“In recent times, the increased focus on military space application has been accelerated by two key factors; firstly the increased geo-political churnings which have aggravated the threat scenario in this region. Secondly, the growing realisation that the boundaries that separate civil and military space assets are getting blurred and most of the applications are dual use cases.”

Advocating for a civil-military fusion in the domain, he said that while “capability enhancement in multiple domains of space application is the way forward,” this evolution “can only be fast tracked if we increase civil-military fusion”. He said that the Defence Space Agency (DSA), the lead agency for aggregating the requirements of Armed Forces “would play a key role in synergising civil-military space cooperation to achieve the desired capabilities” and it would “mandate an increased inter-play with both government and commercial space agencies.”

Space-based assets “significantly enhance the potency of air power as these assets provide increased battlefield transparency which is extremely helpful in discerning the enemy’s intentions,” Chaudhari said, adding that the Air Force’s strategy is to “fully integrate the air and space capabilities to have a common picture of the aerospace medium, reduce the sensor to shooter time and enable optimum force application.”

Space, he said, is a “natural extension of the air medium and reaffirm our need to adapt to this new environment rapidly,” and mentioned that the Air Force needs to “transcend to an air and space force in the years to come and we are working on this vision.”

The doctrinal imperative to gain the higher ground for tactical advantage, in the military domain, he said, “has manifested in us seeking capabilities in air and now in space” and utilisation of “space-based assets “has revolutionised warfare by enhancing our capacities in intelligence gathering, surveillance and reconnaissance, communications, early warning, weather forecasting and navigation.”

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