India in Space: A Strategic Overview

  • Ajey LeleEmail author
Living reference work entry


India could be said to have begun its space program during early 1960s by undertaking launching of sounding rockets. A structured approach towards evolving the space agenda for the nation could be said to have begun with the establishment of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) on August 15, 1969. The prime objective of ISRO is to develop space technologies to cater for various societal needs. Subsequently, the Department of Space (DOS) and the Space Commission were set up in 1972 which oversee planning and implementation of India space agenda. India launched its first satellite during 1975 and earned the space-faring nation status during 1980. Over the years ISRO’s program has matured significantly and at present Indian space program is regarded as one of the important space programs in the world. From launching small satellites to undertaking a successful mission to Moon and Mars, India has excelled in almost all areas of space experimentations. India is also proposing to undertake its first human space mission by 2022. India is a nuclear weapon state and has made significant investments towards establishing its military architecture owing to its strategic needs. Space technologies are finding increasing relevance towards strengthening this architecture, essentially as a force multiplier. This chapter analyzes various significant aspects of India’s space program.


The word “strategic,” broadly gets identified as long-term and is mostly associated with the broad purposes and interests of an organization on enduring basis. The progression of strategic planning, generally involves establishing the definite purpose behind planning for a particular mission, the strategy for achieving the desired objective, and various processes involved towards that. The processes involve setting up of the priorities and allocation of resources accordingly. This chapter undertakes a strategic overview of India’s space program. For long, the word strategic has established semblance to the military domain and gets often used linking to the realization of overall or long-term military policies and strategies. This chapter also specifically critically focuses on these aspects of India’s space program too.

India’s Space Architecture

India launched its first sounding rocket on November 21, 1963. This launch took place from a location called Thumba in the southern parts of India. A church building at a place called Thumba village (in the Kerala province which is at the southern tip of Indian peninsula) is the place of birth of India’s space program. This particular location was selected since the geomagnetic equator passes through Thumba and the church was selected because it was the only properly constructed building in that village (Das 2007). The sounding rocket launch was assisted by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which provided Nike-Apache rocket along with other required equipment. These were early days and India had limitations in regards to both financial and technological resources. During last five to six decades India has made a significant progress in the space domain and has also successfully conducted missions in deep space, to Moon and Mars.

During 1962, Indian government established Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR). Subsequently, during 1969 INCOSPAR was superseded and Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) was established. Presently, this organization is the torchbearer of India space program and has brought many laurels to the country by undertaking various successful programs. In the changing world ISRO did realize the need for opening up their expertise for business. This led to the institution of Antrix Corporation Limited (ANTRIX) during 1992 a government of India Company. Both ISRO and ANTRIX are under the administrative control of Department of Space (DOS) which got established during 1972. At the same time a space commission was also setup. The department of space and the space commission directly reports to the Prime Minister of India. Few public sector organizations like the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) also play an important role towards assisting ISRO’s various programs. The private industry also plays its role towards assisting ISRO in various projects. However, their involvement is more at subsystem level. India is under the process of establishing a full-grown eco system for private space industry. Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) also plays some role essentially assisting India’s defense establishment in the area of space.

Two scientists deserve a credit for conceptualizing and executing India’s space vision in the early years. They are Dr Vikram Sarabhai (12 August 1919–30 December 1971) and Prof Satish Dhawan (25 September 1920–3 January 2002). It was Dr Sarabhai who gave the initial vision which was implemented and expended upon by Prof Dhawan. In simple terms, the articulated vision then was “to use space for socioeconomic development” which continues to remain relevant in the twenty-first century too.

India launched its first satellite in 1975 with assistance from the erstwhile USSR. Within 5 years after the launch of first satellite with the outside assistance, India became a spacefaring state during the 1980 by launching made-in-India satellite with the Indian rocket. Since then, India has made significant progress in the space domain and today India has earned a reputation of a committed and serious space player. Till date India has sent a range of satellites to different orbits. However, particularly to launch satellites into the geostationary Earth orbit (GEO) India is required to take the assistance from other agencies. This dependence is seen reducing by 2018 with India successfully developing a launch vehicle to send heavy (say 4–6-t category) satellites to GEO.

ISRO has come a long way from the Sounding Rockets (1963) to having capability launch heavy satellites with geostationary satellite launch vehicle (GSLV) Mark III (2018). Initially, ISRO began with Satellite Launch Vehicle-3 (SLV-3) program as India’s first experimental satellite launch vehicle. India became the sixth spacefaring state in the world on July 18, 1980 when Rohini, a 40-kg satellite was placed in the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) by SLV-3. The successful culmination of the SLV-3 project showed the way for various advanced future launch vehicle projects. The next vehicle for ISRO was the Augmented Satellite Launch Vehicle (ASLV), which was followed by the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV).

The Augmented Satellite Launch Vehicle (ASLV) Program was designed to augment the payload capacity to 150 kg, thrice that of SLV-3, for Low Earth Orbits (LEO). While building upon the experience gained from the SLV-3 missions, ASLV proved to be a low-cost intermediate vehicle to demonstrate and validate critical technologies for the future launch vehicle development projects like strap-on technology, inertial navigation, heat shield, vertical integration, and closed-loop guidance.

Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) is the third generation launch vehicle of India. It is the first Indian launch vehicle to be equipped with liquid stages. The PSLV-C45 mission on April 01, 2019 was its 47th mission and the PSLV rocket has witnessed only two failures till date since its first successful launch in October 1994. The rocket is fondly known as the most reliable workhorse of ISRO. Till April 01, 2019, PSLV has launched 46 Indian satellites, 10 satellites built by students from Indian Universities and 297 international customer satellites. Even India has used this rocket for its first mission to moon, the Chandrayaan-1 in 2008 and for the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) in 2013.

The PSLV mission configuration constitutes four stages using solid and liquid propulsion systems alternately. The first stage carries solid propellant, and the second stage uses the indigenously developed Vikas Engine which carries liquid propellant. The third stage is a solid stage and the fourth stage is a liquid stage with a twin-engine configuration. PSLV can take up to 1,850 kg of payload to Sun-Synchronous Polar Orbits of 600 km altitude. It has also carried payload of 1,425 kg to Sub GTO. Due to its unmatched reliability, PSLV has also been used to launch various satellites into Geosynchronous and Geostationary orbits, like satellites from the IRNSS (NAVIC) constellation. There are different variants of PSLV depending on the nature of the mission and the weight of the payload to be carried. Four to six ground-lit strap-on boosters are added (attached) to the rocket based on the requirement.

The flexibility of the PSLV system is amazing. This one rocket which ISRO is using for multiple orbit launches in a single mission. Also, ISRO has successfully started using the fourth stage of the rocket for carrying out scientific experiments. It is important to take note of two new features of the PSLV system which ISRO has started experimenting with since 2015. One, single mission undertaking two/three orbit launches and two, using the fourth stage of the rocket as a platform for experimentation. Developing capabilities to launch satellites into different orbits in a single mission gives ISRO more flexibility to manage their commercial interests. ISRO has developed and aptly demonstrated its capability to launch multiple satellites in a single mission. The PSLV-C37 mission on February 15, 2017 created a world record by successfully launching 104 satellites in single mission (during May 1999, with PSLV-C2 mission ISRO had launched more than one satellite in a single mission). Now, this added capability of launching satellites in differ orbits in one mission could attract more international customers.

Another less debated but a significant feature is about ISRO demonstrating its capability to convert the fourth stage of the rocket into an experimentation platform. Space is a medium where scientific and strategic communities are keen to undertake various experimentations for many decades for various purposes. Mainly such experiments are important since they are carried out in (almost) zero-gravity atmosphere. Such experiments are useful also from the point of view of learning for the futuristic space (both manned and unmanned) missions.

The International Space Station (ISS), a station with 16 member states, is known to serve as a microgravity and space environment research laboratory. This station has been inhabited continuously since the year 2000. Here the astronauts from the member states are conducting experiments in biology, physics, astronomy, meteorology, and few other fields. Now, China is also going to establish its own space station in near future. Against the backdrop of this, India’s efforts to conduct experiments in space could look infinitesimal. ISRO is expending the fourth state of the PSLV, as a laboratory for conduct of experiments. Here there is no human element involved towards the conduct of such experiments, but still that in no respect reduces the relevance of such unique experimentation. The maturing of the UAV technology has demonstrated that to a certain extent and for specific purposes an alternative on a manned flying platform is feasible and available. Today, India may not have its own space station, but the innovation of ISRO indicates that developing such techniques (extremely cost effective) of converting the fourth stage of the rocket into a laboratory could definitely offer India a moderate alternative to the space station.

For many years, the major success achieved by ISRO towards developing a reliable launch vehicle for LEO to carry around 2-t verity satellites could not be repeated for geostationary orbit. ISRO struggled for many years to fully establish its Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) program. There has been significant amount of dependence of ISRO on outside agencies for launching 4–6-t verity of satellites in the geostationary orbit. The first launch of GSLV mission was launched during April 2001 with a payload mass of 1,540 kg. Till date, the maximum lift-off mass of 3,423 kg has been put in Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO, GSLV Mk III-D2/GSAT-29 Mission, November 14, 2018) by ISRO. GSLV is a three-stage system with solid, liquid, and cryogenic stage.

The major challenge which India had faced was about mastering the art of cryogenic technology. In fact, a Cryogenic Study Team was set up at ISRO as early as 1982; however, this idea got neglected. Finally, around 1990s when the need arose, India got in the technology transfer agreement with Soviet Union/Russia. However, this arrangement could not work owing to the international (read the US) pressure. The USA and its partners in the then 18-member Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) contend that the Indo-Russian deal is inconsistent with the MTCR, which was set up in 1987 to prevent the transfer of missile technology to non-member countries. The Russian republic was not a signatory to the accord but has agreed in principle to abide by its guidelines since it had applied for what is called “adherent” status (Russia joined MTCR during 1995). Also, the National Defense Authorization Act of the USA (1991) had provisions for penalties for such transfers. Thus, both Glavkosmos of Russia and the ISRO would have got blacklisted if the deal had gone through. At the hindsight it could be said that the Russian leadership then (Boris Yeltsin) capitulated to the US pressure and the transfer of cryogenic engine technology deal was cancelled. Finally, Russia was allowed to supply only seven cryogenic engines to India.

Broadly, it could be argued that Cryogenic engines and associated technological knowledge has almost no relevance for missile launches in war. This is because the procedure of fueling this system requires few months’ time. Even missile system with liquid fuel stages are not preferable since the crucial time gets wasted and particularly the process of fueling requires to be undertaken at the launch site (almost close to the battlefield). However, the major powers appear to have taken the advantage of MTRC provisions by undertaking selective (mis)interpretation. Finally, India decided to develop these engines on its own, but it took considerable amount of time for the development. However, the development of the indigenous cryogenic engine took much time (almost three decades) and only on June 05, 2017 GSLV Mk III-D1 launched GSAT-19, a 3,136 kg bird (ISRO 2017a; Chengappa 2013; Krishnan Simha 2013). For all these years the basic limitation of India’s space program has been its inability to develop a cryogenic engine, but now that challenge has been overcome.

Keeping an eye on the future commercial market for launch of small satellites, ISRO is also developing a Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (or SSLV) for an approximate payload capacity of 500 kg and expected to undertake the first flight by mid of 2019.

Satellite technology development is a complicated task. Also, satellites once launched are required to survive in space for number of years. Hence, their manufacturing requires components and systems with very high reliability. India understood the need of outside assistance in this field, if they have to make progress. During its formative years India took significant foreign inputs to build threshold capabilities in complex systems. Initially, ISRO took assistance from developed space powers to build different kinds of payloads for sounding rocket experiments (Baskaran 2001). Over the years India has acquired good capability to build very complex and world-class satellites for remote sensing, weather, and communications. India has also developed good capability in other sectors like navigation and various categories of small satellites.

The first important structure established by India towards working on satellite technology was the Experimental Satellite Communication Earth Station (ESCES) at the city of Ahmedabad in 1967. During 1970s, Indian engineers got trained in France. ISRO started developing sensors for airborne remote-sensing surveys and processing of imageries provided by NASA. Subsequently, few satellites were built and launched. This was basically an experimental phase for the scientists. This was followed by the conceptualization of two major projects which actually would be viewed as the beginning of a very systematic and organized space agenda. The socioeconomic focus articulated earlier was evident. These two satellite programs included: the Indian Remote Sensing Satellite system (IRS) and the Indian National Satellite system (INSAT), for commercial operations. Probably, ISRO was confident about their capabilities in the remote sensing arena but not that much about the telecommunication field which incidentally was also a high priority area. Hence, after a realistic appraisal of its capabilities, it was decided that the IRS–1 series would be indigenously built and the INSAT–1 series would be brought from abroad. It was also decided that the INSAT–2 series would be built indigenously. There were reasons behind these decisions. As INSATs were communications satellites, they were more complex and ISRO needed longer development time. INSAT is a unique experiment which has not been replicated elsewhere. During 1977, ISRO defined INSAT as a multipurpose system consisting of telecommunication, meteorological, and TV broadcasting elements. It was the world’s first geo-stationary satellite system to combine these three elements (Baskaran 2001). That was the period when India was not in a position to afford specific satellites for specific purposes, hence decided to have one satellite which could be multipurpose.

Today, India has a technologically mature remote sensing satellite program. There is an array of Indian Earth observation (EO) satellites with imaging capabilities in visible, infrared, thermal, and microwave regions of the electromagnetic spectrum, including hyper-spectral sensors. The imaging sensors have been providing spatial resolution ranging from 1 km to less than 1 m. India has launched various other satellites for communication, education, meteorology, astronomy, and navigation purposes. India’s own navigational system is a regional system with seven satellites. All satellites have already been placed in orbit and the system is expected to become fully operational in the near future. A ground network of several nodes for data gathering has been set up under various collaborative mechanisms to establish a global chain of command and control for its space assets.

India has also put in place a well-articulated Deep Space agenda. India’s first Moon mission, Chandrayaan-1 (2008–2009), was successful. This mission was instrumental towards the discovery of water on the Moon. The second lunar mission encountered delays, given uncertainties in Russia, which was assisting India with a rover and lander system for this mission. Presently, India is undertaking this mission with an indigenously designed and developed rover and lander system and is expected to get launched during the second half of 2019. India’s first mission to Mars, Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), was also successful. MOM which was designed for 6 months of stay, has been orbiting Mars since September 2014. India is the only country in the world till date which had successfully entered into the Martian orbit in the first attempt. India proposes to undertake its first human space mission by 2022.

There has been some amount of criticism with respect to India, as a developing state for having made investments in the programs like Moon and Mars. However, one of the chief architects of India’s space program Prof S Dhawan (1996) had argued to the effect that, “it is moral to planets and stars in spite of having hunger, poverty and misery on earth because various programs which explore the planets enhance human’s capacity to face the unknown and severe to survive in any environment. Humans reach to space for solving problems on earth” (In a lecture delivered at Astronomical society of India at the city of Bangalore on September 6, 1996).

Space and National Power

Normally, it has been observed that space programs of various states are born out of their ballistic missile programs. However, that is not the case with India. Since initiation of its space program it has been witnessed that India is having a focused attention on developing and using space for societal purposes. Satellite systems used for the purposes like meteorology, remote sensing, and communications were seen exclusively used for the purposes like weather forecasting, TV, education, resources mapping, and medicine.

It is also important to factor in the strategic milieu at global level during the formative years of India’s space program. It was a period of Cold War and mostly the world was divided into two power blocks. India was one of the few countries which were not under the influence of any superpower. Since independence (1947), the then political leadership had taken significant amount of interest towards investing in science and technology. Political leadership, policy makers, and scientific community were found working in unison. It was a considered view that if India has to progress, then investments in science and technology are a must. There is no evidence to show that Indian state had any interest to use their investments in technology as a tool to display power. At the same time, it needs to be acknowledged that immediately after independence both from economic and strategic perspective India was not in a position to project power.

Satellite technology is inherently dual-use in nature and in a limited way could even be used for military requirement by any power which has control over it. During Cold War period, space technology could be seen as a currency of that of force (technology) projection. Subsequently, the 1991 Gulf War ended up showcasing the importance of space technologies in the warfare. Actually, this war was an eye-catcher for many states in respect of utility of space systems in the warfare and India was no exception. At the same time, it is important to put in context the level of proficiency achieved by India in the space domain then.

ISRO was established on August 15, 1969, while a month before that on July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 had already landed on the moon. On August 29, 1991, India has launched IRS 1-B, a 975 kg satellite from the Baikanur Cosmodrome Kazakhstan using Launch vehicle Vostok. This remote sensing satellite had three solid state Push Broom Cameras with resolutions ranging from 72.5 to 36.25 m. During the 1991 Gulf War, the USA and allied forces had range of remote sensing satellites like SPOT (France) with 10 m resolution and other satellites KH 11 (Block I and Block II) and few Landsat series satellites (Marcia and Smith 1991). During the year 1991, NASA had undertaken six human missions to space by using the Space Shuttles (models used Atlantis, Discovery, and Columbia) while India yet to undertake its first human mission to space (could happen by 2022). The USA had fully operational GPS satellite navigational system during the 1991 Gulf War and India is yet to (by April 2019) operationalize its regional satellite navigational system. All this indicated that the use of space technologies during 1991 Gulf War could have been much learn for countries like India; however, technologically India was nowhere close to the capabilities of the allied forces in the space domain. More importantly Indian policy makers were fully aware that any military investments in space from their side should be threat specific and there is no requirement to raise the ante just because the demonstration of technologies have happened some other theatre of war.

It is well understood that national power and aspects of national security is not only about military influence but is also about political and economic influence. The core of national power is also about national performance and management of natural resources. The realization of national performance involves ensuring socioeconomic development. Under such framework, there has been major and continuing focus by India towards using space for communication, meteorology, education, tele-medicine, disaster management, linking of cities and villages, scientific research, and navigation. One of the major utilities of the satellites for India has been in the field of meteorology essentially because India is an agricultural economy and timely weather information is critical. Also, remote sensing satellites have much of utility for resources planning and management. Such satellites also provide useful information on range of issues from forest cover to inputs for river and ground water management. Education and telemedicine are two important areas where India is known to be using space technologies very effectively. In addition, various communication satellites are catering for the needs of television broadcasting and other sectors. India is also looking at space as a tool for foreign policy. On May 05, 2017, India has launched a communication satellite (GSAT-9) which is providing assistance to the South Asian states, namely, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and Maldives. Space is an important part of India’s various multilateral and bilateral arrangements for many years.

Realizing the importance of commercial facets of space sector, way bank during 1982 India had established the commercial arm of ISRO called ANTRIX for promoting products, services, and technologies developed by ISRO. However, India has not been able to make a significant dent to global commercial space sector, yet. One of the key commercial focuses for ISRO has been to provide satellite launching services to the foreign customers. ISRO could be said to have a specialization in the field of small satellites (mini, micro, and nano) launching. However, for all these years ISRO has launched just about 300 satellites for the international customer (till Apr 2019, it had launched 297 satellites). The market size of launch services currently is about $5.5–6 billion globally and India has some 7% of this market share. However, ISRO is keen to increase its overall market share significantly. Currently, the revenue of ANTRIX is Rs 20 billion (20 billion INR is equal to 288,400,000 USD) and the company expects to double it within next 5 years (Sun, September 092018). ISRO is also working towards privatizing its launch services. As the name suggests, it is but obvious that the main business of ISRO is not business but to undertake research and development. Hence, presently ISRO is working towards commercializing the PSLV launching services. It is expected that as and when the small satellite launch vehicle becomes operational, it would also be fully commercialized. Apart from launch services, ANTRIX also provides other services like data, imagery, and ground infrastructure construction.

Space for National Security

It is important to highlight broad security challenges which India is facing before identifying the military-related investments made by India in the military domain. India has two advisories in the region, namely, China and Pakistan with whom conventional wars have been fought in past. Basically, the differences are owing to the unresolved boundary disputes with these states. They exist since India got independence from the British power during 1947. China and India share a border of over 4,000 km, with nearly all of it founded on colonial-era settlements and surveys and much of it still under dispute. China has certain claims over Indian Territory and India has some on the territory under the Chinese control. India shares more than 3,300 km land border with Pakistan and have some unresolved border issues. Kashmir dispute is the key security challenge which India is facing presently. Owing to this problem, continuous bloodshed is happening in the region for last few decades. One of the recent confrontations witnessed between India and China was the crisis of Doklam from June to August 2017. However, luckily in the last 40 years, not a single bullet has been fired because of the border issue. There are few other differences amongst these three states, like water issues and China’s new economic/security project called Belt and Road (BRI) initiative. India has a major objection to the part of the BRI project called the CPEC, the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor. Here, China is trying to advance this project without concerns for India’s unresolved border problems with Pakistan.

Essentially, India could be said to have saddled in a typical security scenario with unresolved border issues for more than seven decades. At the same time, India also faces few internal security challenges owing to both inter and intra state security problems. India’s paramilitary forces play an important role to address such challenges and it is important to note that they also require (and want) assistance from the satellite systems.

India has fought four wars with neighbors since independence. British government during 1947 divided the then united India which they were ruling into two differ states: one remained as India and a portion of India was declared as Pakistan. Immediately, after that the first war was fought between India and Pakistan over the Kashmir issue. Owing to the differences with China on boundary issue, a war was fought during 1962. Subsequently, India and Pakistan have fought two more wars during 1965 and 1971. The last conflict fought between these two powers in the Kargil conflict (May and July 1999), few consider this conflict as a half-war. Since Pakistan was not able to win any of the wars/conflicts against India for last few decades, they are found using Terrorism as a tool for possible conflict resolution (!).

China conducted its first nuclear test during 1964, and by 1967 they have also conducted their hydrogen bomb test. India and Pakistan became nuclear weapon states by 1998. All these three states have advanced missile programs and various types of missiles in their inventory. These states also have made investments into different category of missiles which could be launched from land, air, and submarine-based platforms. China has Nuclear Triad in place while India is almost there. Pakistan could take some more time to establish a Nuclear Triad. China and India have Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) in their inventory. China has tested multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle (MIRV) missiles while Pakistan is known to be developing this technology. China has developed hypersonic weapons and India is also known to have interest in MIRV and hypersonic technologies. Both China and India have Russian made S-400 Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) systems. India is developing its own missile defense architecture.

India’s strategic area of interest is not restricted to Pakistan-China. Geographically, India’s location at the base of continental Asia along the Indian Ocean places the state at a vintage point in relation to maritime trade. India has a strong stake in the security and stability of these waters since a large percentage of Asian oil and gas supplies is shipped through the Indian Ocean. (From the speech delivered by Mr. Pallaim Raju in the PC Lal Memorial Lecture on March 19, 2007, at New Delhi. Mr. Raju was then the minister of state for Defence in the government of India) As per the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA 2017) report (UN DESA 2017), India has one of the largest diaspora populations in the world with over 15.6 million. A major part of Indian diaspora mainly constituting of unskilled or semiskilled workers is largely found employed in Middle East and African region. India feels responsible for security and safety of this population. India has conducted more than 30 evacuation operations across Africa, Asia, and Europe, including its largest-ever civilian airlift of 110,000 people from the Persian Gulf in 1990 (Constantino 2017). During 2015 in one of the major evacuation operations (Op Raahat) by sea, India evacuated 5,600 people, including 4,640 Indian nationals and 960 nationals from 41 countries, from Yemen (Ians 2015). Indian Air Force and Indian Navy have played a crucial role in these operations. For major natural disasters help of Indian armed forces is always sought. During 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, particularly Indian Navy have played a major role towards search and rescue operations and had helped many affected countries. Even naval amphibious warfare vessels and landing craft were put in use. All these indicate that the role of the Indian armed forces is not restricted only towards guarding the state. Also, on various occasions Indian troops are deployed for contributing towards the United Nations peacekeeping missions. In conduct of all such operations space technologies have an important role.

Space technologies have an inherent duel use character. Obviously, various Indian satellite systems could be viewed to have some utility for the Indian armed forces. It is also important to note that modern-day warfare is about remaining ready to address various types of contests. Such tasks could involve remaining ready for conventional warfare, nuclear warfare, asymmetric warfare, and hybrid warfare. Modernizing the armed forces in terms of technology, weapon platforms, and weapon system is a dynamic process. Present day conceptualization of Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) demands changes in doctrines to suit new technologies, equipment, and tactics. For a state like India, to bring radical changes in equipment and arms inventory is not possible essentially owing to financial issues. India is expected to follow a hybrid RMA approach were at any given point in time both old and new weapon systems and fighting platforms would be available. Investments in space would be from a point of view of a “force multiplier” to the existing military architecture.

Military Specific Space Systems

So far India has launched few military specific satellites. Essentially, it is found that officially such satellite systems are identified more as systems with strategic utility than actually calling them as military satellites. India has been launching remote sensing satellites for many years. On October 22, 2001 ISRO had launched a Technology Experiment Satellite (TES), weighing 1,108 kg in 572 km Sun Synchronous orbit. This satellite gets recognized as one of the first satellites launched for experimental as well as strategic purposes.

The first satellite exclusively claimed by the Indian establishment as a satellite for military purposes is the communications satellite (GSAT 7) launched for Indian Navy during 2013. This satellite is also known as Rukmini and has nearly 2,000 nm “footprint” over the Indian Ocean region and provides significant assistance to Indian Navy. Another communications satellite was launched during 2018 called GSAT-7A for Indian Air Force. This satellite is used to interlink ground radars, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) airbases, and Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS).

During 2015, a communication satellite GSAT-6 got launched which has been also described as a system for strategic use. Owing to topographical challenges (India has various features from oceans, deserts, snow to thickly vegetated jungles), soldiers on many occasions encounter breaks in commutations. This geostationary satellite with S-Band antenna is used for gathering information over Indian mainland and very small handheld devices are used for data, video, or voice transfer.

It is expected that few more satellites would be launched to cater for the requirements of India army and other agencies. GSAT 7B is expected to be launched for Indian Army in near future. There are some proposals like development of GSAT 7D and 7E. But this is no official confirmation in this regard. Also, it is expected that some E/O satellites would be launched in the future.

India’s expertise in the remote-sensing arena is coming handy to establish a network of reconnaissance satellites. This activity could be said to have started with the TES launch during 2001. Now India has satellites with sub-meter resolution which essentially are dual-purpose satellites. India has also launched (with Israeli assistance) two Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellites called RISAT II (2009) and RISAT I (2011) essentially to address terrorism-related threats. Also, a Hyper-Spectral Imaging Satellite (HysIS) was launched during 2018. Following table provides details about Cartographic satellites:

Name of satellite

Launch date




5 May 2005

2.5 m



10 Jan 2007

Less than 1 m



28 Apr 2008

80 cm

Perceived to be for the Indian armed forces


12 Jul 2010

Less than 80 cm



22 Jun 2016

Used for weather mapping too


15 Feb 2017



23 Jun 2017



12 Jan 2018

Could be less than 50 cm

For mapping, enhance disaster monitoring & damage assessment

These satellites are proving very useful for the Indian Armed Forces. However, there is very less real-time data availability. Particularly, owing to cross-border terrorism, India is forced to have a continuous vigilance of its border. Existing space-based resources are not adequate to cater for various security challenges. India requires a major space-based surveillance network. As per the assessment carried out by experts, India would require a constellation of 24 small satellites in LEO for meeting ISR needs during times of crises. Also, this report identifies the need for a constellation of 40 satellites in LEO that provide Internet services for the military (Chandrashekar 2015).

In the field of navigation, India has developed an Indian Regional Navigation System (IRNSS/NavIC) (ISRO 2017a). The space segment of this system consists of the constellation of eight satellites: three satellites in suitable orbital slots in the geostationary orbit and the remaining four in geosynchronous orbits with the required inclination and equatorial crossings in two different planes. Currently, all these satellites have been positioned in their respective locations and the system is expected to become operational shortly.

NavIC is designed to provide accurate position information service (primary service area) to users in India and the region extending up to 1,500 km from its boundary. There is also an Extended Service Area covering more area. NavIC would provide two types of services: Standard Positioning Service (SPS) and Restricted Service (RS), which is an encrypted service provided only to the authorized users. This IRNSS System is expected to provide a position accuracy of better than 20 m in the primary service area. Possibly for military users the accuracy could be 10 m or less.

India’s ASAT Test (Lele 2019)

On March 27, India conducted Mission Shakti, an anti-satellite missile test. This was a technological mission carried out by the Defence Research and Development (DRDO). During this test, India targeted one of its own satellites with a ground-based missile. With this successful demonstration, India becomes the fourth country to test an ASAT after China, Russia, and the United States.

The satellite used in the mission was one of India’s existing satellites, Microsat-R, operating in a low orbit about 300 km high. Such tests require an extremely high degree of precision and technical capability and, with the success of the test, India has demonstrated such capabilities. This test also demonstrates the maturation of India’s missile defense program.

Looking at the types of missile interceptors being used for these tests broadly, it could be argued that such tests are the offshoot of ballistic missile defense programs of the respective nations.

ASAT testing is not a new phenomenon. During the Cold War period, the United States and former Soviet Union conducted a number of such tests. More recently there have been two ASAT tests. In January 2007 China conducted an ASAT test, the first such test conducted in the post-Cold War era. This test was followed by the US test in February 2008 when they destroyed an out-of-control intelligence satellite at an approximate altitude of 250 km.

These two tests and the test conducted by India were essentially hit-to-kill or direct ascent systems or a KKV (Kinetic Kill Vehicle) missions. Here the warhead of a missile is not an explosive but rather a piece of metal. This metal warhead hits the satellite and, owing to the impact velocity and the kinetic energy thus generated, the satellite is broken up. The Indian test used DRDO’s Ballistic Missile Defence interceptor, which is a part of India’s ongoing ballistic missile defense program. Reports indicate the test has generated at least 250–300 pieces of trackable debris. Such debris is expected to re-enter the atmosphere within next 1–2 months because of the low altitude of the satellite struck by the ASAT.

The 2007 Chinese test involved the destruction of an old weather satellite. This 750-kg satellite was orbiting at altitude of about 850 km. China used ground-based midcourse missile interception technology in that test. The problem with the Chinese test was that since it was conducted at higher altitudes, much of the debris created remains in orbit today. Moreover, it is even increasing in numbers as debris strikes each other or other objects in orbit. The US test a year later was conducted by using a modified Standard Missile-3 interceptor, essentially designed to counter short to intermediate-range ballistic missiles. This missile was launched from a ship-based platform. The debris created by this test re-entered, mostly within weeks of the test.

Looking at the types of missile interceptors being used for these tests broadly, it could be argued that such tests are the offshoot of ballistic missile defense programs of the respective nations. ASAT weapons of the KKV variety are useful only for hitting targets in low Earth orbit, up to about 2,000 km. DRDO is confident that they can hit a satellite by a ground-based interceptor up to a distance of 1,000 km. There is no authentic information available with regard to capabilities of countries like Russia, the USA, and China about the orbits they could reach with their missile interceptors. Some reports indicate that China is testing kinetic interceptors that can reach satellites in the geostationary orbit, 36,000 km high.

Over last two decades India has steadily and thoughtfully increased its investments in the space domain. At present, India has about 50 operational satellites in different orbits. Most of satellites are communications (19) and Earth observation (17). Obviously, India needs to ensure that their satellites are safe. India’s space research organization has been working on satellite hardening technologies, while scientists and policymakers are trying to ensure that redundancy would be built-in in various systems as such. Possibly, owing to geostrategic compulsions, India’s government felt the need to display the technological capabilities related to anti-satellite weapons.

One important geopolitical aspect of this test was that there was an official announcement of the test by Indian prime minister. This implies that India wants to be transparent in all activities it wants to undertake in space. Space security is an important issue for India and the highest level of decision-making structure is handling the issues concerning space.

There are differing opinions globally regarding the rationale behind this test. There is a need to situate Indian test in the overall security matrix of the region. India shares borders with China and Pakistan and there are some unresolved import border issues. Terrorism is a major challenge for the region. Unfortunately, no immediate solution to this problem appears to be in sight. All three nations are nuclear power states and have various missile systems in their inventory. The last classical war that this region witnessed was the 1971 war between India and Pakistan. At that time both the states were non-nuclear weapon states. India and Pakistan became nuclear weapon states by 1998. There have been various major security-related disagreements in the region over the years, but luckily no major war has broken out. Hence, there is a case to argue that nuclear deterrence has delivered.

In the missile domain, in spite of all these nations conducting various tests, no untoward incident has happened so far. India and Pakistan have a treaty that requires both nations to give advance warning to each other in respect of their proposed ballistic missile tests. This arrangement is working well.

In the space arena, China has put in place a major space program. India also has reasonable capabilities in the space arena. In a relative sense, Pakistan’s investments are limited, but they have some sort of “space umbrella” from China. China demonstrated its ASAT capabilities more than a decade ago. The general notion that testing of military systems is destabilizing is found bit misplaced in this region. In fact, the acts of terrorism in the region have been more destabilizing that testing of any military systems. It is obvious that India’s ASAT would be criticized by both of its adversaries, but there is a space for such noise in international politics. However, in the longer run India’s ASAT testing is expected to emerge more as a stabilizing action for the region. Such a demonstration of technological capabilities is expected to deter potential adversaries.

More importantly, India’s test is unlikely to increase the space debris problem. Experts had mentioned that there is no threat to the International Space Station since the Indian test took place well below the station’s 400-km altitude. However, as per NASA’s assessment some part of the debris had reached to the higher orbit, but many calculations show that there is very less probability of ISS coming in the impact zone. Also, since the debris created by the 2008 US test disappeared within days after the test, the same is expected to happen in this case.

Interestingly, the US Strategic Command chief General John E. Hyten has defended India before members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, saying that the country had tested the anti-satellite missile because it needed the capability to defend itself in space. The general called for international norms of behavior in space to curtail the dangerous debris issue (Sputnik News 2019).

Also, there is a need to take a note that India is the only state that has officially announced its ASAT testing. This announcement was made by none other than the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself. Presently, India is in the grip of election fever. However, there is a need to look beyond domestic politics and assess the importance of the prime minister owing the test. With his announcement of this mission, it becomes clear that India wants to be transparent in all activities it wants to undertake in space. Space security is an important issue for India.

The possible weaponization of space is an issue of major concern for many nations, including India. Unfortunately, the space arena has very limited globally accepted multilateral treaty mechanisms, and such available mechanisms are mostly issue-centric and could not be viewed as all pervasive. For example, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST) is basically about the banning of testing of weapons of mass destructions in outer space. For last decade or so, some efforts have been made to address this issue, such as the European Union and its International Code of Conduct.

India fully supports the formulation of universal and nondiscriminatory transparency and confidence-building measure, although such measures have limited relevance since they typically are not legally binding. Nonetheless, India believes such mechanisms have a useful complementary role and could become an “appetizer” for formulation of any future treaty. India has participated actively in the consultations called by the EU since 2012 to discuss a draft Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities.

The possible weaponization of space is an issue of major concern for many nations, including India. Unfortunately, the space arena has very limited globally accepted multilateral treaty mechanisms.

Resolution 69/32, titled “No First Placement of Weapons on Outer Space” and adopted in the United Nations General Assembly on December 2, 2014, has the full support by India. However, India feels that there is a need to grow beyond such ideas and decide on a released and legally binding treaty. In this context, India is ready to give consideration to the revised PPWT (Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects) presented by Russia and China in the Conference on Disarmament. There has been a total rejection of this proposal by some major powers. However, India is of the opinion that such ideas need to be discussed under the UN umbrella.


India has made significant progress in the outer space area and has earned a global reputation for its professionalism. Since the inception of its space program, India has followed the policy of the use of space for socioeconomic development, and this agenda remains valid today. India is also keen to develop its space industry. ISRO has earned good reputation in the area of satellite launch market particularly in the small satellite sector and is keen to expand further. India is also effectively using space as tool for diplomacy.

India does not have a well-articulated Military Space Programbut has launched some space assets for the Military. It is known that satellites provide various benefits, but substantial vulnerabilities too, owing to both natural and man-made threats. Owing geopolitical realities, India needs to ensure that its assets in space are secure. Hence, to demonstrate that its defenses are ready, India has undertaken an ASAT test. It is expected that the way nuclear and missile deterrence has worked in the region, the ASAT deterrence would also deliver and weaponization of space would not happen.

India fully understands that space is an extremely important area for human survival and should not be tinkered with unnecessarily. Modern-day life is totally dependent on assets in space. India’s growth story, scientific and economic, also involves the contributions made by its space agency and space industry. Today, space offers a major soft-power potential for India, and India believes that it is in nobody’s interest to weaponize space. The need of the hour is to evolve a rule-based and transparent mechanism for protecting space.


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute for Defence Studies and AnalysesNew DelhiIndia

Section editors and affiliations

  • Jana Robinson
    • 1
  1. 1.Space Security ProgramThe Prague Security Studies InstitutePragueCzech Republic

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