Space is now identified as a crucial warfighting domain.
While US-China competition in space is intensifying against a backdrop of rapid advances in technology, China is heavily focusing on building space capabilities.
Recently, a top military commander with the US Space Force warned that China’s military technology could become more advanced than America’s, as the service branch continues to gear up for competition in outer space. Lt. General Nina M. Armagno, the director of staff for the U.S. Space Force, further warns that China’s improvements in military satellites and reusable technology are examples of how American advantage isn’t guaranteed.
While the ‘American advantage’ has an edge over China in advancing space tech in many critical areas, the question also warrants greater scrutiny and comparison with the Indian space programme and its military applications.
Space is now at the heart of modern warfare amid unprecedented technological advancement. Especially, the space domain has become the ground for testing kinetic energy direct ascent anti-satellite weapons.
Space war is now based on the full spectrum of land, sea, air and even cyberspace.
China is a factor in all three of these space activities. Importantly, the exponential growth in the Chinese civil space programme also translates into military applications in all aspects.
It is essential that India competes and fights in the space domain. However, gaps are visible.
China’s military-civil fusion (MCF)
China has not only prioritized space capabilities under its national goal but strived to dominate the space race since it watched Moscow and Washington race for an advantage in outer space beginning in the 1950s.
In fact, in 2016, on the first China ‘Space Day’, Chinese President Xi Jinping directed his government and the military to become the “foremost global space power by 2045”.
Although China is encouraging the development of privately capitalized space companies, China’s space activities are principally conducted by its military through state-owned enterprises focused on defence. Its space administration, the CNSA, falls under the State Administration for Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defence.
In parallel, beginning with its various civil space program, China harnessed its technological and operational capacity in the civilian arena into its military capabilities through what it currently calls “military-civil fusion” (MCF).
To begin with, Chinese accomplishment in space infrastructure is complete with the launch of BeiDou Navigation Satellite System, the completion of the high-resolution earth observation system, the serviceability of satellite communications and broadcasting and the conclusion of the last step of the three-step lunar exploration program.
In 2020, it completed its BeiDou Navigation Satellite System, giving China global navigational autonomy, essential in a global conflict.
Interestingly, BeiDou has also enabled China to include, as a dimension of its Belt and Road Initiative diplomacy, access to a “Space Silk Road” through the BeiDou satellite network.
Counteroffensive in space: Jammers and lasers
China is developing and fielding a wide range of technology such as jammers and lasers that could harm India’s satellites.
China has managed to achieve a higher- level of offensive capabilities in space, especially, to kill satellites by hacking into them, manipulating their outcomes, and sending orbital interceptors. The Chinese military space programme includes capability which can attack the satellites, and deploy ‘parasitic microsatellites’ released from another satellite, which can smash into the adversary’s satellite.
Further, China’s BeiDou satellite navigation system is based on 35 satellites in orbit with wider global coverage, while India’s Navigation with the Indian Constellation (NavIC), which is working with eight satellites and has a regional coverage of up to 1,500 km from its borders.
As far as China’s offensive counterspace capabilities are concerned, it has scaled up electronic warfare through a variety of jamming techniques, offensive cyberspace capabilities, directed energy weapons, and direct engagement of adversary satellites.
In addition to kinetic energy DA-ASAT weapons, China has developed capabilities to execute remote proximity operations — physically interacting with a target satellite to repair or refuel the satellite or to damage or destroy it—a true dual-use capability.
How does it fare with the Indian space programme? As we take a look at some of the recent launches, for example, the Chinese launch vehicle (Chinese Long March 5 rocket) is capable of carrying five times more payload than India’s heavy lifter GSLV-Mk3. In 2021, China launched a total of 55 satellites.
India: Defence in space
While India takes pride in its ability to launch vehicles, there are areas in space which need greater focus, tech infusion and budgetary allocation.
A lot of thrusts are needed in building a functional system for position, navigation, and timing, including the development of the next-generation operational control systems, explains Ankit Bhateja, Founder & Director of Xovian Aerospace.
One of the key areas is the alternative to position, navigation, and timing (PNT) environment.
“What is also needed is an alternative technology in the space environment for the PNT-denial scenarios,” highlights Bhateja. He cites the recent Russia-Ukraine war where in many cases the dominant GPS-based warheads were either jammed or denied by locking them out through ground-based systems.
On another front, where the Indian space mission should focus is the broadening of its coverage area through an independent navigation satellite system — IRNSS. According to the experts, the IRNSS must go global. The IRNSS is being designed and developed by India to provide accurate position information service to users in India as well as the region extending up to 1500 km from its boundary, which is its primary service area.
“That is the futuristic area— that is required for possible counter-offensive measures using our space assets,” asserts Bhateja.
Besides, India needs to address the miniaturisation of satellites and reusable launch platforms to reduce costs and augment its space capabilities.
Indian space ecosystem also needs to focus on developing advanced materials indigenously which are then used in the main structure of aircraft, helicopters and spacecraft as well as aero-engines.
China’s production capacity for rare-earth functional materials, advanced energy storage materials, photovoltaic materials, ultra-hard materials, special non-rusting steels, glass fiber and their associated composite materials ranks amongst the top in the world.
In addition to the propulsion systems for its launch vehicles, materials have extraordinary properties, such as aluminium and beryllium alloys and carbon nanotubes. These are needed for the upcoming high-profile national missions such as the Human Space Programme (HSP), the Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV), re-entering crew capsules, fuel-saving scramjet missions and distant single-stage launchers.
Last but not least is the higher budgetary allocation for the Indian military space program. In a nutshell, China’s space programme gets a whopping $ 13 billion which dwarfs the Indian space budget of $1.6 billion.
That needs correction.