Sunday, June 23, 2024

Space Domain: An Opportunity For India

By Lieutenant General VG Khandare (r) 

The geopolitical and economic dynamism, along with the technological competition, has created a surge for a new global order. Post World War II and post the end of the Cold War, United States supremacy is constantly being challenged. The outer space race between the United States of America (USA) and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) saw the disintegration of the latter by 1991 due to multiple reasons, the fundamental reasons being economic burnout and weak political leadership amongst these were the enormous financial burden generated by the space and arms race. 

Great powers in the past have competed in technological, economic and political domains since the dawn of civilisation. USSR, the erstwhile competitor to the USA, has now been replaced by China in the great race for global supremacy. However, the simultaneous quest for multipolarity brings in more than two players in the game. The spillover of turmoil and turbulence in Asia is evident in land, sea, air, space and cyber domain.

For decades due to the perceived threat from the USSR to West Europe, the US-led North Atlantic Organisation (NATO) forces continued preparing to repel Soviet and Warsaw Pact armies pouring through the Fulda Gap. Fall out of 9/11 changed the warfighting focus of NATO, which pivoted sharply. The Cold War era of strategic competition gave way to the global war on terrorism. Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Iran, and Iraq kept the Western powers busy trying to battle actual terrorism or even perceived terrorism. Now, the focus of nations is shifting again; great-power competition has returned. 

While the mission to defeat global terrorism remains, growing threats from near-peer competitors demand attention to diverse and complex issues both in the military and non-military spheres. These threats manifest globally and in every warfighting domain with increasing intensity. Russia – Ukraine Conflict has demonstrated the relevance of multiple dimensions of conventional and unconventional capabilities. Many preconceived notions and myths have been busted. There are multiple lessons for every nation, especially for India. These lessons are in the military and non-military domains.

The military power struggle has moved from the land, sea and air domain to the space and cyber domain. It has ramifications in the non-military domains as well. The pace and spread of technological growth are phenomenal. Decision-makers have to be mentally agile and non-linear in their thinking and functioning. Time is of the essence; the usual pace of deliberations and decisions would result in getting outdated equipment and inadequately skilled human resources. The opportunities are in each domain and would be available to the first movers. 

Exclusively, in the space domain, there are opportunities which can be utilised by the already established powers and also by the revisionist powers to gain prominence and dominance in the security as well as the economic development or growth sector. The synergy of these two sectors enables strategic leveraging for political and diplomatic dominance. The human mind has discovered numerous space applications for daily life as well as for relief during crises. 

Space exploration in outer space will continue rapidly, and more applications and solutions will be forthcoming to resolve complex problems. The debate whether military research solutions would help civilian entities or vice versa is now a futile debate. The entire approach has to be a comprehensive national approach with effective and efficient civil-military collaboration and fusion. 

Theoretically, space war threats were considered fiction, but not anymore. There are real-life challenges and threats, including but not limited to rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO), destructive anti-satellite (ASAT) possibilities, electronic warfare, and cyber and futuristic space-based weapon systems. The possibilities are endless. 

Post World War the nuclear arms race posed to be an existential threat to humankind, especially after seeing the devastation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is a matter of time before cyber and space wars could soon be in the same category of posing existential threats to humankind. The greatest threat could thereafter come from simple misperceptions of actions in space by different actors. 

Anti-satellite weapons have been around almost as long as satellites themselves(Image credit: Getty Images)

Actions in space cannot be separated from dynamics on Earth. The human mind will correlate capabilities and activities on Earth and in space to decide on the use of resources comprehensively; with some mature proactive deliberations, there might be some room for space-specific confidence-building, risk reduction and even arms control measures. Therefore, at a global level, legal-diplomatic initiatives are needed to channelise the growth in space and cyberspace towards growth and development. Every space-faring nation would want to be self-reliant, i.e. Atmanirbhar, and contemporary or even ahead of the identified and potential adversaries. 

There are ample opportunities for research and development (R&D) in outer space in every field which needs zero gravity experimentation opportunities, e.g.material research, manufacturing, medicine and surgery, agriculture etc. To achieve a decisive edge over others, there is an opportunity to improve educational systems by providing awareness and orientation to students very early in schools and colleges as a part of formal education. The informal education aspect will continue for meritorious and keen students. Therefore, in the education sector too, there are tremendous opportunities for the education imparters as also for the education recipients. 

Tremendous economic losses occur due to a lack of timely information and time-wasting processes and mechanisms. Space technology-enabled solutions introduced in governance and future planning will transform the economics and governance of the change-initiating country and community. Nations have incorporated geo-spatial imaging and data-based Artificial Intelligence (AI) solutions for tax calculation, online tax recovery and redressal mechanisms. 

The database creation and utilisation by synergising space, Information Technology (IT) capabilities and AI would result in rapid growth and enhanced security for interested and committed nations. The development of an entire ecosystem for getting into the genre of smart governance also has opportunities to many segments within the government and outside the government.

Growth and security should be based on the optimisation of resources to have cost-effective and sustainable solutions. Space-based solutions can offer optimum solutions which can overcome constraints and restraints posed by challenges like difficult terrain, harsh climatic realities and complex disaster situations. Space technology, applied intelligently, can overcome, prevent or mitigate many hardships for humankind. 

Opportunities are endless to do good to our future generations by adopting space technology to improve the current situation, predict future troubles and resolve them. Visionaries and innovators have to offer solutions. This also provides opportunities to enable simulations, enhancing the potency of unmanned autonomous systems and many such creative applications. 

India’s defence needs from the Indian space sector for efficient and effective all-weather round the clock appropriate resolution remote sensing, positioning-navigation and timing for well-coordinated intelligence, operational and logistical activities; satellite-based secure and reliable communication systems, comprehensive coverage of ‘areas of interest’ within and beyond national boundaries on land and sea; multiple payloads for varied specific requirements of each service; high-end computing and highly automated sharp results to be fused with other intelligence inputs well forward delivered to the practitioners. 

The requirements will keep evolving, and solutions are expected to be designed, developed, manufactured and utilised before the technology cycle makes the new products and solutions outdated even before introduction. The need to have cost-effective and affordable solutions are to be understood and adhered to. It is pertinent for the Services to create a fraternity capable of visualising and utilising space technology to become a smart armed force. Human resource transformation to be space tech-savvy is mandatory. 

It is heartening to see a flurry of activity in India in the field of space. The public and private sectors are both energised, especially to make a mark in the next 25 years as India proceeds to its 100 years of independence from British rule. Academia and think tanks seem to have taken the cue that it is no more the conventional era; the winds of change are blowing, and transformations need fresh solutions. 

Seminars, studies, closed-door sessions and consultations are propelling the nation in the space domain as never before. The governmenets intent is clearly visible – to become a leading space faring and space technology empowered nation. Resultantly, the mentors and the mentees are rapidly striding to be the preferred partners in the world of space technology and its applications. 

The recently held Indian Space Congress 2022, in New Delhi from 26-28 October 2022, was one such notable initiative. The span of coverage had multiple stakeholders from India and abroad. The event attracted the experienced and the youth who mutually benefited from each other’s strengths to provide a winning solution to a growing nation like India. A carefully chosen cross-section of scientists, ministers, bureaucrats, diplomats, legal luminaries, defence experts, students, professors, investors, business tycoons, corporates, Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) and start-ups were put together to brainstorm on multiple issues which are vital for India’s growth and security by harnessing space technology. 

The organisers did a yeoman’s service in nation-building which will be yet another milestone in a long but interesting journey of a common goal and a commitment for the next generation. Such initiatives and their follow-up will ensure India’s progression in the space domain and in space technology enabled domain by leapfrogging or by pole vaulting to reduce the existing differential between the already developed or other rapidly developing nations. 

SIA India will go down in Indian space history as a major catalyst for the much-needed success in India’s aspirations for a bright future. 

The article is authored by Lt Gen VG Khandare, PVSM, AVSM, SM, who is a military veteran who has been at the helm of defence space activities, including the future roadmap creation and crystal ball gazing for the promotion of national interests. The views in the article are his own and do not belong to any organisation, establishment or any government

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