India’s satellite launchers and missiles are ‘first cousins’ in space

It has been a hand-in-hand walk for India’s military and space research

Chandrayaan-3 travels after it was launched from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota | AP Chandrayaan-3 travels after it was launched from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota | AP

Unlike the dark side and extremely cold South Pole of the moon where Chandrayaan-3 soft-landed its ‘Vikram’ landing vehicle, from where the ‘Pragyan’ rover wheeled out, it was brightness and joy unbounded at the ISRO Telemetry Tracking and Command Network at Bengaluru’s Peenya—as India burst into raptures on Wednesday afternoon.

But it may also have been in the corridors of India’s military power in New Delhi’s South Block that the nation’s imagination of military possibilities would have been fired. A hundred dreams may have well begun to take shape even as India announced its huge power projection with the Chandrayaan-3 success.

South Block houses the Ministry of Defence.

It was India’s ‘missile man’ and former President of India Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam who succinctly underlined the umbilical link between space and military technologies: “SLVs (satellite launch vehicles) and missiles can be called first cousins: they are different in concept and purpose, but come from the same bloodline of rocketry.”

It was as if India’s space effort was blessed from the beginning. As if the Gods willed it too. The year was 1962 when the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR)—the predecessor of ISRO—decided to set up the Equatorial Rocket Launching Station. The location was in a big St. Mary Magdalene church in the sleepy fishing village in Thumba, not far away from the Kerala state capital Thiruvananthapuram.

The selected site stretched for about 600 acres and lay between a railway line and the sea coast. It was from the church that India began her journey in rocket research.

Kalam wrote: “The prayer room (of the church) was my first laboratory, the Bishop’s room was my design and drawing office.”

Now the St. Mary Magdalene church houses the Indian Space Museum.

As if by intention and design, the twin research verticals of space launch vehicles (SLV) and missiles in India have always developed in tandem albeit separately. The missile programmes have been developed under the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), SLVs and rockets have been the domain of ISRO.

Lieutenant General A.K. Bhatt (retd), director-general of the Indian Space Association, told THE WEEK: “ISRO as a policy has primarily maintained a civilian space programme with a focus on serving the common man. Services from space were extended to the military when satellites were launched for other civilian purposes. That said, a few military satellites, like the CartoSat series and GSAT series communication satellites for the Navy and Air Force, have been ISRO-led.”

Bhatt had earlier served as the commander of the XV Corps and also as the Director General Military Operations (DGMO).

While a SLV places a satellite in an orbit, the missile has to hit targets. What is intrinsically common to both are the terminal velocity, onboard guidance and control. Therefore, technological developments and progress in one feeds the other.

India’s space odyssey began with sounding rockets that are one or two stage solid propellant rockets sent to the upper atmospheric regions. These were followed by the Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV) and the Augmented Satellite Launch Vehicle (ASLV) with every successive progression based on the propellants, the range of the rocket, the payload capacity and other technological parameters.

But the ones in operation now are the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV), and the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mark III (LVM3). These three SLVs have between them launched 431 satellites for 36 countries till July 2023—becoming a major money-spinner for India’s 61-year-old space programme. Interestingly, the developments in rocketry contributed hugely to the development of India’s missile systems.

For example, it was the Re-entry Experiment (REX) which became the Agni later on. It was the air-breathing Ramjet rocket engine that paved the way for the advanced variants of the Agni and the Prithvi missiles.

Several other launch vehicles are under various stages of development which include the Human Rated Launch Vehicle (HRLV), Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV), Reusable Launch Vehicle-Technology Demonstrator (RLV-TD) and the Scramjet Engine TD.

Notably, the HRLV is the launch vehicle for the ‘Gaganyaan’ mission with three stages—solid, liquid and cryogenic—that will showcase India’s first indigenously-developed human spaceflight capability by sending a crew of three members to an orbit of 400 km for a three-day-long mission before bringing them back safely to earth.

Like most other top Indian scientists who tutored him like Vikram Sarabhai, Satish Dhawan and Brahm Prakash, Kalam too made his mark in aeronautics and space science. His changeover to things military seemed but a natural progression.

After a promising start at ISRO, Kalam kick-started the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP) on July 27, 1983.

The IGMDP yielded for India a rich bounty of five indigenous missile systems—‘Prithvi’ (short range surface-to- surface), ‘Agni’ (surface-to-surface ballistic), ‘Akash’ (medium range surface-to- air), ‘Trishul’ (short range surface-to-air missile) and ‘Nag’ (anti-tank). Later the ‘Agni’ system was separated from the IGMDP because of its strategic capabilities and implications even as the number of its variants multiplied.

Globally, among the first indicators of the change in warfare was the Gulf War of 1991 when the US led a 42-country coalition that rained missiles on Saddam Hussein-led Iraq.

It was the first time that space-based capabilities were put to maximum effect and Iraq was simply no match. The space-based capabilities included the Global Positioning System (GPS), precision-guided weapons, use of satellite-based communications for the command and control system, satellite surveillance and intelligence data, etc. were extensively used by the US-led forces. It was all done by space-based assets.

The satellites would detect and locate targets, relay the information, alert ground-based weapon systems and then direct the missiles to home on to the targets. And the missiles would be fired from air, land and sea from faraway places. Technology enabled the Gulf War to be a wholly one-sided affair as Iraq lay overwhelmed.

The ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict that began with a Russian Special Forces foray into Ukraine on February 24, 2022 had begun with a Russian miscalculation that Ukraine would be rendered defenceless after the imminent destruction of its satellite-based communications systems.

Russia had not taken into account that the maverick billionaire businessman Elon Musk would step in with SpaceX’s Starlink internet access service to replace the degraded internet services in Ukraine. Starlink services guided Ukrainian drones that became the scourge for Russian forces.

Unsurprisingly, the Starlink constellation has about 3,500 satellites or half of the world’s active satellites. Continued Russian attempts to degrade the Starlink network in Ukraine have failed.

Easily, space is the new frontier and the new high ground. The Ukraine conflict is just one indicator of how modern wars will be fought. With space being critical to security, there are two aspects to the relationship between space and the military. First, the assistance rendered by space-based assets to wars or to what is happening on earth. Second, the merging military domain that is space itself.

In that context, the race to the moon and the cis-lunar space or the region stretching from the earth to the moon’s surface, is very relevant.

Major countries and military powers have already devised strategies and doctrines.

In a sense, no space missions are a failure because of the payoffs which are aplenty. There is something new from every mission—failed or otherwise—that adds to the domain knowledge.

A serving military official involved with the space programmes told THE WEEK: “Whatever is going up to space, be it satellites, the launches, the communication systems, the various sensors which are put up in the satellites, almost 99 per cent is of dual use that have both civilian and military applications. For example, if you have hyper-spectral sensors that are meant to see and understand agriculture or the soil better, it will have military applications which will enable you to find out what kind of military equipment is hidden under camouflage, whether they are dummies or the real thing.”

“If India can track the Chandrayaan-3 or any other moving object so far away in space, and maintain communications too, then satellites of other countries as well as projectiles and missiles can also be detected and tracked,” the official added.

But unlike the US and China, in the Indian space experience, it was civilian space technology that was first developed before technology transfer for military use. For example, the original V2 rocket technology—developed by the Germans during World War II—was instrumental in the development of early launch vehicles such as the US’ Saturn-I.

So what can the Indian military glean from the Chandrayaan-3 mission?

First, the communication matrix and the process of downloading real-time data will be of very significant military value. Second, the navigational aspect of cruising along a fixed path in outer space. Third, and more importantly, the domain awareness. The ability to find out who or what lies in the vicinity.

From time immemorial, in warfare, men have always sought to occupy the high grounds or dominating positions. Besides safety, the heights offer a commanding view of the surroundings which is a big military advantage. Control of space, which is the emerging domain of modern warfare, accords unmatched battlefield benefits.

With the Indian government keen to see more spinoffs for the military from the space industry including from the private companies, the Indian Space Association was created in October 2021.

On recent initiatives, Bhatt said: “In 2022, the defence ministry launched a new initiative, which manifested through the announcement of 75 DefSpace Challenges by the PM during the DefExpo in October 2022.”

“These 75 DefSpace Challenges in different verticals were introduced under the iDEX model. They are aimed at fostering research and development by private players and startups in the realm of defence-space technology, culminating in the private space industry also becoming suppliers to the military,” he added.

On April 6, 2023, the government announced the Indian Space Policy for the much-required clarity in space reforms. Undoubtedly, with the proliferation of space technology, the high ground has shifted to space which is the new military frontier. 

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