ISRO’s recent launch of a Directorate of Space Situational Awareness and Management (DSSAM) bodes well for the Indian space programme. The space domain has become increasingly crowded and contested in recent years making Space Situational Awareness (SSA) capacities critical for all major space faring countries. Tracking debris in space, deorbiting objects satellites from space and ensuring the successful return and recovery of manned and unmanned payloads from space to earth can only happen with robust SSA capabilities.
The DDSAM is a control center which is primarily geared to collating all SSA related activity from range tracking facilities with a focus on “determination, correlation and catalogue generation.” To meet this effort, the ISRO has developed and established various facilities such as the Network for Space Object Tracking and Analysis (NETRA).
In addition, the Indian space programme leverages the inputs of foreign space agencies as well coordinates with as an extensive number of observational facilities that are part of the ISRO’s ground segment such the agency’s Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network (ISTRAC). The safety of India’s manned space flight mission for instance to avoid collision with space debris is one. While all these SSA elements are absolutely indispensable for the ISRO’s missions and those of the armed services, they are, however, insufficient as far as the latter’s missions are concerned. An exclusive or singular focus on debris tracking, cataloguing space objects and correlation detracts from the pressing requirements the Indian armed services are likely to need.
From a military standpoint, all traditional Space Situational Awareness (SSA) related tasks must extend to tactical, predictive and intelligence driven SSA that comes under an integrated Battle Management Command, Control, and Communications (BMC3) architecture.
What do the Indian services need? The Indian armed services need more than traditional SSA tasks stated in the aforementioned. Given that satellites that orbit the earth provide a range of services that militaries require such as precision in Position, Navigation and Timing (PNT), the SSA requirements for the Indian armed services will need to be augmented. Satellites are crucial for communications, missile warning, weather information, imagery and Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR). In addition, an SSA architecture that places an emphasis on tracking and identifying anti-satellite weapons, communications jammers and sensors that can overpower spacecraft with light. From a military standpoint, all the traditional SSA related tasks must extend to tactical, predictive and intelligence driven SSA that comes under an integrated Battle Management Command, Control, and Communications (BMC3) architecture. If an Indian BMC3 is to be effective it will need significantly more SSA sensors that support rapid tasking, processing, exploitation and dissemination across different levels of the chain of command. Tactical intelligence will need incorporation into the BMC3 in order to provide timely assessment and identification of threats that can help mitigate them. BMC3 requirements involves SSA technologies that include sensors and early warning systems capable of detecting threats and enabling the execution of time sensitive missions.
To be sure, the creation of capabilities that meets the SSA demands of the Indian military will not per say be the responsibility of the ISRO. Indeed, that task will have to be undertaken by the newly established Defence Space Research Agency (DSRA). The latter’s functional responsibility is to provide technical and scientific expertise as well as develop assets for the DSA. The Defence Space Agency (DSA) — a tri-service and parent organisation of the DSRA is responsible for commanding India’s space assets. The DSA will have to establish what the three services need. More importantly, the DSRA headed by a senior government scientist consisting of technical experts within its ranks is still a nascent organisation as it was set-up only last year. It will take a while before its capacities are built up and amidst the current COVID-19 pandemic it is hard to estimate the extent of the progress made during the last year. It would be surprising if ISRO, although a civilian space agency has no role to play in providing some guidance to the DSRA.
It will take a while before its capacities are built up, and amidst the current COVID-19 pandemic, it is hard to estimate the extent of the progress made during the last year.
Regardless, the ISRO and potentially some players from the private sector should be enlisted, unless it is already happening, to develop the requisite technology and help address the technical demands and necessities of the three forces. Push comes to shove the DSRA will need to leverage the ISRO’s expertise and possibly a few space start-ups that can undertake research, development and production.
India’s principal rival, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), has a range of counterspace capabilities that can disable India’s space-based assets dedicated to navigation, communications and intelligence collection. Consequently, the Indian armed services eyes and ears in space and the ground segment of India’s military space programme will suffer if there is no significant investment in SSA that is responsive to the operational requirements of the three services. Further, the Indian military’s Command and Control (C2) structure will need tight integration. The DSA should dedicate itself to conducting a comprehensive analysis of all the technological needs, ISR requirements, procedural changes and operational concepts. In addition, the DSA in concert with other space related entities, which have now presumably merged with the DSA such as the Defence Imagery Processing and Analysis Centre (DIPAC) in New Delhi and the Defence Satellite Control Centre (DSCC) in Bhopal will need to be tightly integrated into the communications network of the armed services.
All these entities which are now part of the DSA should be required to develop an operational picture in space about on-orbit events whether it is a satellite collision or a possible attack. The latter will require a response which will be heavily conditioned by compressed timelines. Although the establishment of the DSSAM is necessary and welcome, the current SSA mandate of cataloguing, monitoring, correlating and determining of the ISRO is insufficient to service the operational, communications and command related necessities of the Indian armed services nor can it robustly and effectively defend India’s space assets.