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Let us develop a military space programme

By M P Anil Kumar
July 10, 2009 17:15 IST
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In the first segment of his study of the Chinese and Pakistan military programmes and their impact on India, M P Anil Kumar, a former fighter pilot of the Indian Air Force, noted how China's military space programme could pose a threat to India. In this concluding piece, he looks at India's muted plans for space warfare.

The Indian Air Force fancies its transformation into an expeditionary force, a continental air force with strategic reach to defend India's geopolitical interest. The AWACS (the first one inducted on May 28th) will be the bellwether of this expeditionary force.

With the acquisition of force-multipliers like the AWACS, aerostat radars, aerial refuellers, Sukhoi-30 MKI fighters, unmanned aerial vehicles, etc, that old gospel of point air defence was given a burial and area air defence was elevated as the new article of faith. Many strands of the new credo were tested and practised in the exercise Gagan Shakti in October 2006.

Pakistan tried to acquire an airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) platform (Boeing 707-based E-3C) from the USA as early as 1979 but failed. The Pakistan Navy will soon have a flock of ten Lockheed P-3C Orion long range, high endurance maritime surveillance airplanes.

Three of these are to be fitted with E-2C Hawkeye-2000 AEW suite. The Pakistan Navy also has a pair of ageing Breguet Atlantique maritime reconnaissance aircraft. The Pakistan Air Force in a few years will fly six Swedish AEW&C platforms (PS-890 Erieye radar mounted on SAAB 2000 turboprop).

Pakistan in all probability will invest and collaborate in the development of the ongoing Chinese AWACS project KJ-2000 on the Ilyushin-76 airframe and KJ-200 'Balanced Beam' AEW&C project on the Shaanxi Yun-8 airframe.

Apart from its standard scanning modes, the AWACS is designed to operate and 'fingerprint' in a silent surveillance mode known as the passive detection system (PDS). In this mode, much ELINT could be gathered from electromagnetic emissions, meaning peacetime PDS can excavate significant details of the adversary's tactics and orbat (order of battle). This knowledge is inestimable as it could tilt the balance decisively during wartime.

In sum, in another five years, the PAF and Pakistan Navy could jointly keep a constant vigil on the assets as well as activities of the Indian army, navy and air force.

Pervasive capabilities possessed by China and Pakistan have weighty implications for India during both peace and war.

To respond to China's calibrated hostility and Pakistan's incurable hostility, the Indian armed forces have to defend nearly 15,200 km of land frontier, 7,517 km of coastline (including Andaman and Nicobar and the Lakshadweep islands) and the airspace above it.

We need as many as 30 AWACS to patrol this vast geographical expanse round-the-clock, which is simply beyond our budget, which calls for a cost-effective, optimal deployment and employment of various ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) assets.

Since early warning is going to set the pace of air war and catalyse successful military missions, with the potential acquisition of AEW&C systems, Pakistan, through its force-multipliers, aims to nullify the IAF's superiority, and thereby shrink the asymmetry, achieve near-parity and blunt the Indian conventional deterrence in a way.

With Pakistan on course to achieve what can be termed 'AEW symmetry,' the IAF will perforce have to reboot with a different operational doctrine. (In all wars hitherto anchored by the AWACS -- from the Beqaa Valley air war in June 1982 to the 2003 Iraq war -- the Israeli Air Force and the United States Air Force blitzed and pulverised the adversaries under total AEW asymmetry.)

Should this disconcert us? Yes, and No.

Foremost, we need to acknowledge Pak capabilities and then use our heads to outwit, outgun and outgeneral the Pakistani military. Also, a state of symmetry does not mean a stallion will turn into a jackass. Force multipliers will retain its mojo and utility; AWACS will remain a strategic asset, retaining its punch. Operational tactics and strategies can be rejigged continually to beat the AEW-symmetry environment.

Among other things, the AEW symmetry will compel the IAF to relocate its combat aircraft squadrons further inland to increase survivability. This dispersed deployment in depth beyond the sweep of adversary's AEW/ESM systems is a long-term, capital-intensive process.

Even today, high-tech hardware is only as good as the man at the machine. Self-explanatory. Needless to add, the force with better leadership, training, innovation, motivation, aggression and tech-savvy personnel will naturally be the quicker one on the draw, and should carry the day.

Space ahoy!

How do we worst the AEW-symmetry in our unfriendly neighbourhood? One obvious first step is creating asymmetry through the assimilation of our space prowess. We need to develop and deploy space-based assets so as to cumulate sensor inputs, datalink it to the networked military command and control system from where it can be fed to the field units and commanders. This will enhance the battlefield situational awareness through real-time projection of the battlefield.

For this, the Indian armed forces will have to attain network centric warfare (NCW) capability, but they are just inching, not marching towards that goal. NCW will pivot upon the networking of terrestrial, nautical & aerospatial radars; AEW platforms; air defence fighters, missiles & artillery batteries; communication centres; electronic warfare systems and aggregation of other air defence assets of army and navy.

Thus, a net-centric apparatus will enable the military to interlock geographically scattered units to operate as a unified force, thus maximising our reach and offensive power, thus maximising our chances of aerospace dominance. Hence, the government's present piecemeal approach and hesitation to found an integrated, triservices NCW system are truly baffling.

Though we enjoy the edge over Pakistan in satellite technology, one cannot rule out China -- Pakistan's soul mate and an alleged, unapologetic proliferator -- sharing its know-how and intelligence with Pakistan. China is light years ahead of us in offensive space technology; so our endeavour should be 'space denial.' In case of Pakistan, we must go all out to achieve total 'space control.'

India must also prepare a contingency plan for the worst-case scenario -- China emerging as a 'rogue space power.'

These are easier professed than done. For, high-tech structures like an aerospace command require dedicated military satellites interlinked with other ISR infrastructure. Leave alone establishing a fully-operational aerospace command, we are aeons away from using space for real-time snooping, warning, jamming and guiding precision-strike munitions.

Policy stasis, the bane of this nation

With space having emerged as the fourth medium for military operations, the IAF had brought out its blueprint titled 'Defence Space Vision 2020' two years ago. The IAF had also laid claim to the aerospace command as natural progression for them, and therefore, wanted its bureaucracy to run it.

Since space-related technologies will be accessed by all three services, since future wars will be fought jointly and at theatre levels, since command and control will be executed via military networks, the Integrated Defence Staff is the most deserving agency to host the aerospace department.

Acknowledging this logic, last June, the defence minister announced the formation of an Integrated Space Cell under the IDS headquarters in Delhi to counter what he called 'the growing threat to our space assets.' The remit of this cell is, however, rudimentary -- to liaise with the relevant elements among the armed forces, the department of space and ISRO -- and the cell could degenerate into another talking-shop!

Though China's ASAT shocker and Pakistan's pains to attain AEW symmetry should have galvanised us into action, our establishment (the unhurried politico-bureaucratic setup) seems to be reading the hare and the tortoise fable, not 'Vision 2020' or related literature, and daydreaming about the Indian tortoise breasting the tape ahead of the Chinese hare! Well, the establishment is travelling mostly in time, not much in space!

(The US Department of Defense in 1973 created an Office of Net Assessment -- the Pentagon's internal think-tank. Many militaries have constituted a body comparable to the ONA since. Unlike military or national power, hard or soft power, Net Assessment focuses on intangible, even inconspicuous aspects that could be taken advantage of during a conflict.

For example, if a country's governmental decision-making is slack, strategists will flag this national character for exploitation. Hence somebody needs to drive home this point to our slowcoach mandarins that their chronic tardiness is in effect making them a fifth column.)

With space and time collapsing rapidly in modern warfare, the establishment of a triservices Space Command (under the IDS) cannot suffer further deferral. The Space Command should be charged with total administrative and operational control over the whole gamut of space warfare.

As space assets must be seen as auxiliary tools to serve our security requirements, let us develop a military space programme by investing in space technologies without being apologetic about it, without the typical Indian ambivalence, fence-squatting and dilly-dallying.

Given the national security implications, one can only hope that the defence minister will goad the lazybones and will infuse much-needed urgency, energy, purpose and direction to our military space programme.

Let me sign off on an optimistic note by quoting what General Colin Powell had said: 'Perpetual optimism is a force-multiplier.'

Tailpiece: Einstein provided an answer in 1905 to a puzzler still daring the 21st century scientists: the secret of eternal youth. Simply travel at the speed of light. Any object journeying at the speed of light does not travel in the time dimension, and therefore, does not age! But wait. Einstein himself dashed all hopes of intergalactic voyages to defy ageing with his famous energy equation E=mc2. How? Those with a bent for physics, read on.

Assume an object aiming to accelerate to the speed of light. The equivalence of energy and mass in the above equation means that the energy an object has due to its motion would add to its mass. So, as it accelerates, its energy would increase, which would in turn increase its mass. Gradually more and more energy would be required to propel and accelerate the swelling mass further and further. Soon, infinite energy would be needed to speed it up any more. Ergo, only waves without intrinsic mass can travel at the speed of light, thus nixing the prospects of human space excursions to retard ageing.

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M P Anil Kumar