Sunday, July 14, 2024

Space Domain Utilisation By IAF

By Air Vice Marshal Makarand Ranade

AVM M Ranade
AVM M Ranade ACAS-Space, IAF

Over the past century, aircraft have been used extensively in modern military operations ranging from global wars to peacekeeping missions. The rapid growth in aerospace technology has added more capabilities to air and space forces over the years. Supersonic speeds, stealth capability and rapid mobility are a few of the many capabilities incorporated in airpower utilisation in the recent past. Space systems have also shown their worth with their ability to enhance terrestrial applications involving communications, navigation, weather forecasting, intelligence and early warning as well as the ability to provide other key information for a war fighter.

Information warfare (IW) and its connection with space systems has truly changed the face of aerospace power. Operations in air and space have led to many discussions about the resources, values, strategies and ideas about the youngest form of warfare. Advances in satellite communications and information applications have added new dimensions to the definition of aerospace power. These capabilities are key to military aerospace power’s future and need to be addressed comprehensively. During the past three decades, exploitation of the space domain has increased manifold.

 Current Utilisation Of Space Domain By IAF

The role of the Indian Airforce (IAF) is closely linked to the space domain. Activities through the medium of air and space can never be separated and conducted in isolation. It has always aligned its operational priorities keeping the space domain in focus, with due attention to the rapid advancements in that field. Currently, IAF is utilising the space domain for Satellite Communications (SATCOM), Position Navigation Timing (PNT) and Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR).

SATCOM: In the late 90s, IAF’s Beyond Line of Sight (BLoS) communication, especially in inhospitable terrains, was enabled through SATCOM by hiring services from the INSAT series of satellites. In the 2000s, IAF had set up dedicated SATCOM networks as a backup to its Optical Fiber Communication (OFC) networks. These networks have been operating from hired bandwidth of available satellites. During the past decade, airborne sensors like Airborne Warning And Control System (AWACS) and Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) have also been exploiting space resources for Beyond Line of Sight (BLoS) operations. Considering the increase in demand for bandwidth and the requirement of sharing near real time information by the airborne sensors with the forces on ground, a dedicated IAF satellite, GSAT-7A, became operational in 2019. Just last year, Acceptance of Necessity (AoN) for another dedicated satellite for enabling BLoS communication with airborne elements has been accorded by the Government of India (GoI).

PNT: IAF has been utilising GPS and GLONASS based PNT services for air and ground operations. With operationalisation of Navigation with Indian Constellation (NavIC), IAF is actively pursuing implementation of NavIC Restricted Services (RS) in its assets for satellite based PNT.

ISR: Satellite based images for planning air operations by IAF and to enhance situational awareness has been in vogue for a while. Operational requirements for space based intelligence are being conveyed to the coordinating agency. Minimising Circular Error Probable (CEP) and Spherical Error Probable (SEP) has been a major focus area. It is envisaged that sub-metric resolution of objects on ground, by ISR satellites on a near real time basis, if not in real time, will be the way forward.

In terms of Safety of Life (SoL) applications, IAF has already equipped its airborne platforms with space based search and rescue services. Also, space based weather data is being collated and near real time weather information/forecast is disseminated to the operators.

Roadmap For The Future

IAF intends to delve into various avenues indicated in succeeding paragraphs through deliberations with Defence Space Agency (DSA) and experts from academia, research and development (R&D) and civil agencies.

Defensive Capabilities: Integration of dual use capabilities (ie civil and military) in all space based assets will enable redundancies against any act directed towards denial of space resources. The focus areas are:-

  • Interoperability with military platforms and inclusion of security architecture for specific military use.
  • Seamless integration and switching over from one resource to another in a ‘denial’ environment.
  • Incorporation of advanced encryption systems to enable specific military use and activated on demand.
  • Redundancies in space and ready-to-launch systems on ground.
  • Develop capability for quick launch of space based assets in case of contingencies/as augmentation.

Offensive Capabilities: Options for soft and hard kill are being developed. Expertise in the field of Directed Energy Weapons (DEW) is being enhanced. Hard kill options can be paired with present missile development projects to optimise the available resources. Electronic/cyber-attacks at the tactical level for localised effect is another work in progress.

Additional Aspects: Certain additional aspects would provide the required thrust to the Indian space industry and eventually aid in meeting IAF’s space based requirements. These are:-

  • Spin-off technologies from the Indian space programme could be used to boost military space requirements.
  • Encourage greater participation of academic institutions, Public Sector Undertakings (PSU) and private industry in military space programmes.
  • Co-operation and agreements with like-minded space faring nations and Friendly Foreign Countries (FFC) for sharing of space programmes, assets and related technologies.
  • Set up mutual use of space infrastructure in strategic locations.
  • Hardening of space infrastructure against cyber-attacks. This could be through better encryption (such as quantum encryption) and shielding from Electro Magnetic Pulse (EMP)/Directed Energy Weapons (DEW).
  • Invest in development of space surveillance capabilities such as long range tracking radars, optical telescopes, integrated SSA network and command suites.


IAF has been focused on the exploitation of space based assets. This domain will continue to see enhanced usage during peace or otherwise. Space domain exploitation needs niche technologies to be developed and deployed. Prima facie, this is a capital intensive proposition. However, with growing utilisation of space based assets by multiple users, the demand will only go up. This is a good opportunity for the private industry to enhance its participation in this niche field and contribute towards indigenous development and deployment of technology. The IAF will handhold and support all such endeavours.

AVM M Ranade is a senior IAF officer presently serving as Assistant Chief of Air Staff Operations (Space)

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