Here's an Issue Brief of mine, articulating the need for an Indian aerospace command published by ORF.
The Indian Armed Forces have been mulling over the establishment of an aerospace command for close to a decade now. Over those years, international circumstances and geopolitics relating to outer space have changed, making it imperative for India to make decisions now. Though outer space is part of the global commons, it is increasingly getting
appropriated and fenced as powerful States are seen seeking to monopolise space.
The growing advanced military space capabilities of some nations, which include the development
of their anti-satellite missile capabilities, are also a worrying trend. With much of outer space having
been utilised by a small number of great powers and the increasing presence of non-state players in
the recent years, even a nominal increase in terms of space activity by some developing countries is
leading to issues related to overcrowding and access. In order to protect its interests, India must
institutionalise its own strengths in the form of an Aerospace Command.
For the full paper, click here.
While all the three services are becoming increasingly reliant on outer space assets, the Indian Air
Force (IAF) has taken the lead, at least going by open sources. Back in 2003, Indian Air Force Chief
Air Marshal S Krishnaswamy had already articulated the need for an aerospace command: “Any
country on the fringe of space technology like India has to work towards such a command as
advanced countries are already moving towards laser weapon platforms in space and killer satellites.”
Some years after that, in 2006, the IAF established a Directorate of Aerospace in
Thiruvananthapuram in South India, which can be referred to as the initial avatar of the Indian
aerospace command. What was visualised was a separate command with communications,
navigation and surveillance as major functionalities. The directorate was headed by an Air
Commodore-rank officer who reported to the Vice Chief's office through the Directorate of
Concepts and Doctrines at Air Headquarters. The government, however, refused to take decisive
action over the additional expenditure involved. It also feared that India might be accused of
militarising outer space.
India has come a long way since then. The government clearly recognises the need to have a triservice space command, particularly given the changing regional and global dynamics of security.
In June 2008, Defence Minister A. K. Antony announced the setting up of an Integrated Space Cell
under the aegis of the HQ Integrated Defence Staff. Outlining the background to the project, the
minister said: “Although we want to utilize space for peaceful purposes and remain committed to our
policy of non-weaponisation of space, offensive counter space systems like anti-satellite weaponry,
new classes of heavy-lift and small boosters and an improved array of Military Space Systems have
emerged in our neighbourhood.” Antony articulated the need for the cell which will operate as an
integrating window between the military, the Department of Space, and the Indian Space Research
The debate surrounding the creation of an aerospace command began to gather greater momentum
in the aftermath of the Chinese anti-satellite (ASAT) test in 2007. Two weeks after the test, then
Indian Air Force Chief Air Marshal S. P. Tyagi publicly raised the issue, stating thus: “As the reach of
the Indian Air Force is expanding it has become extremely important that we exploit space and for it
you need space assets. We are an aerospace power having trans-oceanic reach. We have started
training a core group of people for the 'aerospace command'.”
Former Indian President and eminent scientist, Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, in March 2007 outlined the
force multiplier aspects of outer space assets. He said: “I visualize the Indian Air Force of the year
2025 to be based on our Scientific and Technological Competence in the development of
communication satellites, high precision resource mapping satellites, missile systems, unmanned
super-sonic aerial vehicles and electronics and communication systems. This capability will enable
the Air Force to succeed in the electronically controlled warfare in the midst of space encounters,
deep-sea encounters, and ballistic missiles encounters.” He emphasised the greater relevance of air
and space power in future warfare. The idea behind an aerospace command is to integrate all the
different capabilities and functions that exist today, particularly the military aspects of outer space.
Logic of an Aerospace Command
The logic behind the creation of a joint aerospace command in the case of India is abundantly clear.
First, as India's requirements for space increase, it becomes more important for the country to have a
single agency that will coordinate such different activities. Second, the presence of a single entity will
also allow India to better promote its national interests in outer space as this becomes increasingly
crowded and contested. India's security interests are now more than merely maintaining territorial
integrity; today those interests go beyond its borders. Accordingly, India's armed forces have to be
far more agile and dynamic with an ability to constantly understand, appreciate and respond to
emerging situations. The need to be ever vigilant to the rapidly changing security environment in
Asia cannot be underestimated.
Even as India has maintained the rhetoric of peaceful uses of outer space, the military utilities of
outer space are growing. At present, out of the country's 25 satellites, six are dual-use or military
ones, with utilities across passive military applications including surveillance, communications, and
However, with the changing nature of warfare, it has become necessary to leverage space capabilities
for full-fledged military operations as witnessed in the US operations in the two Iraq wars and
Afghanistan. India cannot remain on the sidelines, as many other countries including potential
adversaries move ahead, utilising space for military purposes. China, for example, has learnt a great
deal from the US experience and accordingly streamlined its capabilities under the PLA. We can also
learn from the experiences of other powers that have made such attempts before.
Aerospace Commands in Other Countries
Many other powers have gone about establishing space commands given the increasing military
nature of utilities of the space domain. The United States Space Command (USSPACECOM) is one
of the earliest space commands, established in 1985 as a Unified Combatant Command of the US
Department of Defense.
The Command was established acknowledging the greater utility of space assets in military
operations and therefore the need to institutionalise it under one head. Military utility for passive
applications such as intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and navigation, has been widely
prevalent and the potential for space assets for utility in active military operations is rising. The
USSPACECOM was established with a view to coordinate and strengthen several different space
utilities, including launching of satellites and other high-value payloads, enhanced communications,
intelligence, missile warning, and navigation.
Even though a Russian Space Command, as part of the Russian Aerospace Defence Forces, was
born only in December 2011, Moscow had set up the Russian Space Forces way back in 1992. The
new command, as in the case of the US, is tasked with important space utilities in functions such as
missile warning, space surveillance, and control of military satellites.
France, too, has a similar institution called the Joint Space Command, established in 2010. It has roles
and functions that are similar to those of its counterparts, including tracking and directing space
utilities in six key programmes: earth observation; signals intelligence; space situational awareness;
missile warning; military satellite telecommunications; and space-based navigation. The idea of the
Command was also to establish a single window for contact with international partners on all the key
One of the justifications for France's space command was that while the country had a fairly wellestablished military space programme, particularly satellite communications and optical surveillance
capability, there was a lack of a clear chain of command to get these space assets to be used for
tactical operations. Thus like the other two, coordination was the primary problem that France faced,
and it is an issue that India faces, too.
Looking at the experience of these three powers, a joint space command has been of great utility in
giving a sharper focus, particularly to military space activities, in coordinating with international
partners in identifying the challenges and finding solutions, and lastly in seeking better financial
allocations and human resources. In most cases, it is the air force that has taken the lead despite the
fact that it is a tri-service command with utilities across army, navy and air force.
India's own space command should have a similar outlook, with the IAF shepherding the command
and also similar functionalities: stepping up watch on India's immediate and extended
neighbourhood regions and developing better situational awareness across land, maritime and air
domains, easing integration of outer space assets across the three services while restricting the
destructive abilities of hostile forces that might target India's outer space assets, and bringing about
better integration among India's multiple space-related stakeholders including the ISRO, the
Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry
of External Affairs, and the Department of Space.
At a functional level, India's aerospace command could also be responsible for India's evolving
missile defence programme, providing missile launch warnings, managing a range of high-end
satellites with military utilities, among others. While ISRO has been so far managing India's satellites,
having a military command responsible for military satellites as well as the dual-use satellites with
military implications will free up the ISRO and enable it to focus on more scientific and
India already has much of the hardware needed to effect these capabilities; bringing it all under a
single military command will be significant. India's all-weather and day and night satellites, with
synthetic aperture radars such as the RISAT-1, RISAT-2 and the maritime communication satellite
such as the GSAT-7, already implement many of these military functions.
It is important to ensure that while the Air Force may take a lead in shaping the command and its
activities, the burden and assets for the joint command be shared among all the services equally. The
burden should not be placed on the Air Force alone, making the command potentially a non-starter.
Moreover, the command should not be seen as a supporting, auxiliary unit but a full-fledged
command with utilities across the spectrum.
While India has the software in terms of its technological capabilities, it lacks the institutional
architecture in the form of an aerospace command. Given the centrality of space assets across
domains–socio-economic and development, weather monitoring, intelligence, surveillance, and
navigation–India has to coordinate the functions of these different compartments for greater clarity
and better allocation of resources, both human and financial. In addition to greater efficiency, an
Aerospace Command is also needed because of the manner in which other powers are using outer
space and its potentially dangerous consequences for India.