By Anil Prakash
Space is emerging as the 4th frontier for defence. It is already a known fact that defence capabilities can be augmented with satellite capabilities, for which space and defence sectors need to work inter-se and provide complementary support to each other.
India’s space sector liberalisation has a lot of potential to add strategic depth to the defence capabilities, adding a significant heft towards defence self-sufficiency and creating a technology-enabled innovative ecosystem for defence manufacturing.
The space sector has been undergoing rapid growth since the liberalisation of the sector, with entrepreneurs with increased risk-appetite venturing into the sector. The private space sector is no more limited to component manufacturers but is involved in end-to-end system design integration and launch.
With military and defence organisations worldwide steadily increasing their reliance on critical space assets, the private sector is the best bet to meet the growing sophisticated and state-of-the-art technological support.
Hon’ble Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, is launching Mission DefSpace with Defence Space Challenges. The government has classified the challenges into – launch systems, satellite systems, communication and payload systems, ground systems, and software systems. The aim is to synergise Defence Public Sector Undertakings (DPSUs) with the private sector and start-ups for developing a next-generation space and defence offering. Dual-use tech will provide a boost to civilian and military applications.
The space ecosystem is generating new disruptive applications to keep pace with modern defence needs; critical areas where space assets meet defence needs include applications ranging from satellite communication, high-res imagery (optical and radar), navigation, Artificial Intelligence (AI), cloud computing, robotics, intelligence, geospatial data centres, early warning and meteorology across a wide range of satellite sizes, constellations and orbits.
The Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) made it possible that the Positioning, Navigation and Timing (PNT) services are available regionally. ISRO’s successful space programmes and the Defence Research and Development Organisation’s (DRDO) missile programmes/technology combined provide a capable springboard for the country’s defence capabilities.
The defence sector’s increased reliance on space assets for data command and control makes securing the space assets and their applications a topmost priority. Space is the next frontier for cyber threats, both kinetic and non-kinetic.
India has achieved military deterrence, but technology deterrence continues to be a distant dream. Space tech provides abundant AI-driven data that is being used by defence and civil both, which inadvertently puts a threat to space and ground communications and sensors, as we recently saw during the Russia-Ukraine war.
To address the emerging space security challenges and acquire appropriate defence capabilities in space, India established two new organisations for space, the Defence Space Research Agency (DSRA) and the Defence Space Agency (DSA). The DSA formulates strategies integrating space assets from the Indian Army, Navy, and Air Force to protect India’s interests in space, including addressing space-based threats and is supported by the DSRA, whose functional responsibility is to provide technical and scientific expertise.
Satellites in the geopolitical web have been targeted through electronic warfare (jamming and spoofing), microwave weapons, laser dazzling, and cyberattacks for a long time. Weak encryption, where the uplinks and downlinks are often transmitted through open protocols, can easily be accessed by cyber attackers. Other issues are inconsistent software patching and the use of long-range telemetry for communication with ground stations.
Therefore, India needs to prioritise securing its space assets and address them on priority. Cyber technologies and anti-satellite tests were some of the critical areas where indigenous production has taken place, but we need to speed up and accelerate our hold in this further with the support from Private sector technologies.
It is time for India to bring together space infrastructure stakeholders to discuss and deliberate on how to improve the security and resilience of space systems to effectively manage all present and probable risks to space-based assets and critical functions. India Space Congress held in New Delhi in Oct 2022 focused on the importance of cyber solutions securing the space frontier that directly impacts all critical infrastructure. Cyber protection and Electronic Warfare hardening are the immediate requirements where the defence and space sectors need to work together and create the most resilient architecture.
Space Situational Awareness (SSA) is another sector where the private space industry can offer a great deal of support to protect civil and defence space assets in India. India has been dependent on international organisations for data; for instance, India has been sourcing data from North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) and others available in the public domain. However, the private sector is marching ahead in this area in full swing; the country’s first SSA observatory was opened this year which would help in the creation of an indigenous data pool that will not only utilised for civilian purposes but also be a crucial step towards attaining self-reliance in military applications for SSA.
India is also leveraging its goodwill among foreign countries and developing soft power in the region and globally. As part of strengthening its space cooperation, India handed over Dornier maritime surveillance aircraft to Sri Lanka Navy as a gift to enhance the country’s maritime surveillance capabilities and bolster the bilateral defence ties.
The private sector is developing low-cost satellites and Reusable Launch Vehicles, which can drastically reduce the project cost. The defence sector can rely on Indian private players for full system integration and launch. The core technologies can also be provided to the defence sector at an affordable cost. Both Space and Defence sectors can together gain immensely from cross-industry collaborative policies here.
The emergence of the commercial space sector and deep tech start-ups in India have immense potential to leverage their capabilities, throwing up some attractive possibilities for the country’s defence requirements. Leveraging the synergies between defence and space industries would not only help foreign OEMs in discharging their obligations by opening up new avenues for the discharge of their defence offset obligation. It will also significantly boost the manufacturing sector and exports, as well as cut down on heavy import bills.
India, therefore, needs to craft a strategic space defence policy where the strengths of both sectors can mutually benefit each other.
Defence procurement in India acknowledges the need to adopt a mix of procurement avenues in which indigenous solutions, foreign equipment and futuristic R&D continue together, and a healthy balance is struck between them. It is important to incentivise indigenous procurement and encourage futuristic R&D while continuing to fill the critical voids with available equipment, technologies and capabilities.
Another area of cooperation is in the adoption of battery technology in drones. Niti Aayog has recommended the use of battery technologies for both defence and civilian applications. ISRO and DRDO were already developing batteries for use in satellite launch vehicles, missiles and torpedoes, which have a short life. They are now in the process of developing batteries for long-duration use where private players can be leveraged.
Research and Development (R&D) are the need of the hour for both space and defence sectors in India. The country needs extensive fund allocation for education and research and development (R&D) as it is way behind its contemporaries. A stark example, Israel provided 5% of its GDP for R&D; South Korea (4.8 %), whereas India spent only 0.7% on R&D.
A remarkable stride is seen in the rise in the number of start-ups in India in the last few years.
Several start-ups have come up since the liberalisation of the Indian space sector, especially in the fields of drone manufacturing and space technologies. This led the Union government to come up with a separate drone policy to support them. Geospatial policy too has been liberalised in the year 2021, where the new reforms make geospatial data freely and commonly available to Indian entities, speeding up innovation and production of up-to-date geospatial data, potentially unlocking a 1-lakh crore domestic market.
ISRO has set an ambitious target for the space economy of India to capture 50% of the global space economy by 2047, stating that the growth would be leveraged by private players and young engineers. More than 60% development of Gaganyaan is expected to be contributed by the Indian private sector, creating additional demand for nearly 13000 fresh talent in the private industry. This is a very important step that should continue to build up capabilities among private aerospace and defence companies.
There is a vast scope for the youth to work on research and innovation in both space and defence sectors. More than 300 higher education institutes are working with DRDO, and it has earmarked a fund close to Rs 1,200 crore for academic research in defence.
As India’s space sector activities take full speed, it is important that the efforts of the Ministry of Defence to bolster the Indigenous Industrial capability towards ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ for defence procurements be extended to space-based capabilities.
The government has set the defence production target at $25 Billion by 2025, and the space sector in India aspires to become a $50 Billion market by 2030; the targets are ambitious and need a timely facilitating policy decision.
A liberalised Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) regime would attract companies to establish manufacturing plants in India. Both space and defence industries will play complementary roles in the upstream and downstream sectors. The stakeholders will have common goals, and the government will have to draft common overarching policy measures so that the sectors grow in tandem and benefit from each other.
The space sector in India is all set to take its rightful place beyond the troposphere!
Anil Prakash is the Director General of SatCom Industry Association India