By Staff Correspondent
In a major revelation during the first week of May 2023, LeoLabs, a leading global company in space situational awareness (SSA), detected an unusual event in Earth’s orbit. A Chinese spacecraft, thought to be a spy spaceplane, was caught performing a series of extraordinary manoeuvres. The ability to manage such spaceplanes is believed to be exclusive to just two countries: the US and China. The often-tense diplomatic relations between the two superpowers make such activities a potential source of global concern.
According to LeoLabs, the spaceplane demonstrated the ability to propel itself in orbit, alter altitudes, and fly in formation with a smaller accompanying craft, even docking with it. The implications of these activities are far-reaching and varied, depending on the observer’s perspective.
Commercial space entities will likely see the financial potential in rendezvous proximity operations (RPO). They could leverage these capabilities for de-orbiting obsolete satellites, mitigating space debris, performing in-orbit repairs, and other non-threatening applications. On the other hand, civilian space agencies would be interested in the research and development (R&D) possibilities of improving RPO capabilities. This interest could lead to a more significant regulatory role for civilian agencies overseeing commercial space activities.
However, a critical question arises: do civilian space agencies have the authority to regulate military space operations? If they do not, how long will it be before we see intrusive or potentially offensive RPOs, where one satellite intentionally gets too close to another?
The relentless SSA provided by companies like LeoLabs has considerably reduced the possibility of denying offensive or intrusive RPOs. Yet, the real question remains whether the operator of a targeted or mishandled satellite will or can identify the attacker. Such incidents may never become public knowledge, and the attacked nation may retaliate covertly if they possess RPO capabilities, making both the initial and retaliatory attacks hidden from the global view.
Commercial SSA companies may gather data and share this sensitive information with select subscribers and customers, leaving others in the dark. Considering the circumstances, the United States and China may be currently involved in a type of grey-zone conflict within space.
The genuine concern, however, is the risk to other countries that may be unaware of these activities. What if non-US and non-Chinese satellites, including Indian satellites, are potential targets of RPO operations? What if these satellite operators cannot access SSA datasets to identify the RPO spacecraft and its origins and create a deterrent?
Currently, both SSA and spaceplane research and operations in India are under the jurisdiction of the civilian Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). While ISRO has a storied history of achievements, its role as a non-military entity means it is unlikely to engage in technology development for military operations.
For example, can ISRO’s System for Safe and Sustainable Space Operations Management (IS4OM), design to ensure the safety and sustainability of Indian space activities, protect Indian satellites from intrusive RPOs? Can it ensure the safety of Indian satellites if they are subjected to in-orbit electronic, electromagnetic, and directed energy attacks?
In addition, India’s Network for space object Tracking and Analysis (NETRA) has been established to track, warn, and mitigate space debris. But does NETRA have the ability to report RPO around India’s strategic assets in outer space, especially military satellites? Can it differentiate between debris impacts and deliberate non-direct ascent orbital anti-satellite attacks?
Looking to Japan for a potential solution, India could follow its example of integrating data from various sources to provide space domain awareness. In May 2020, Japan established the Space Operations Squadron, integrating data from the US Space Force and Japan’s civilian space agency, JAXA. For India to ensure its space defence, the integration of SSA data from ISRO and commercial players should be handled by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), specifically the Indian Space Force.
Without a deterrent from the Indian Space Force, India’s space-based C4ISR capabilities could be vulnerable during a short-duration conflict. Even during periods of relative peace, significant socioeconomic damage could be inflicted if adversaries feel emboldened to interfere with Indian satellites due to the absence of an Indian Space Force.
In light of this, space-sector watchers believe that New Delhi must establish a space deterrence strategy that extends beyond direct-ascent anti-satellite weapons, which have fallen out of political favour due to voluntary prohibitions enacted by many countries.
The effectiveness of deterrence often rests not only on the technology a nation develops but also on who deploys and operates it. ISRO’s strength lies in its non-military expertise and does not equate to a military space force. In most nations, SSAs and spaceplanes are primarily the purviews of their respective military institutions. Therefore, New Delhi should promptly transfer these capabilities from ISRO to meet its defence needs and establish an effective Space Domain Awareness (SDA) framework.
ISRO’s SSA could form part of India’s space-defence SDA, as the latter would collate SSA data from various sources to facilitate tactical and strategic decision-making for the Indian Space Force. It is vital to remember that the space reforms of 2020 are not the final changes needed to secure India’s interests in the increasingly contested domain of space.