India needs a nodal organisation for space coordination issues
This agency could be the single point of contact for formulating all stakeholder policies and directives to ensure aerospace safety and control. Representatives from various agencies/ministries could be a part of this organisation, which needs to be created before it gets too late
The salience of space as a domain for existence and survival continues to grow by the day. As the militarisation of space takes place at an unprecedented pace, the weaponisation to contest and dominate “global commons” is bound to increase in the coming years. While measures are afoot under the aegis of the United Nations (UN) to decide upon the rules and norms of responsible behaviour, the consensus appears difficult. The discussions are likely to be protracted due to the vested interests of major space-faring nations. The critical infrastructure of nation-States --- communications, monitoring of air and surface traffic, weather, meteorology and defence systems, including satellites, ground stations and data links ---- are dependent upon this domain.
This domain, therefore, becomes vulnerable to cyber, physical and non-kinetic attacks. Past conflicts and the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war vindicate this claim. The threat to the nation’s sovereignty via aerospace could come from space-based systems, ballistic and hypersonic missiles, conventional manned and unmanned aerial systems and cyberattacks.
The onus for defending the nation’s airspace rests with the Indian Air Force (IAF). But the primary stakeholder in the domain of space is the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), which works under the department of space (DoS), with the Isro chairman acting as the executive head of DoS. The DoS reports to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and is the primary agency that executes tasks related to space-based applications, space exploration and the development of related technologies.
All organisations under DoS were hitherto oriented towards research and development activities; however, with the opening of the space domain for commercial benefits, the government took the lead and created the Indian Space Agency (ISpA) and New Space India Limited (NSIL) in 2019. ISpA is an apex, non-profit industry body working exclusively towards the successful exploration, collaboration and development of India’s public and private space industry. New Space India Limited was established as a Public Sector Undertaking (PSU) of the government and the commercial arm of Isro under DoS to scale up private sector participation in the Indian space programmes.
The Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) and associated network, comprising surveillance, command and control and the air defence weapon systems as a part of the National Aerospace Surveillance System, is supposed to integrate various radars and sensors, including the Missile Monitoring System of National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO), which would give an integrated air and space picture of ship-based, terrestrial and space-based sensors covering the ballistic missile domain. However, the networking of these systems and the subsequent sharing of data to operationalise the weapon systems and the defence mechanism are yet to fructify.
The proliferation of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) for commercial use has been unprecedented and exponential, leading to justifiable concerns for regulation and control to prevent its use against national interest by State and non-State actors. The challenges for the security forces will only increase with the exploitation of this capability for commercial and military use.
Though the ministry of civil aviation (MoCA) has come out with Civil Drone Rules 2021, which govern the operation of civil drones in India, there is no clarity on the Unmanned Aerial Systems Traffic Management (UTM), which is a primary requirement for Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) UAS flying environment. The Digitalsky portal on the civil internet for registration, regulation and use of civil drone operations is yet to be fully operational.
Though this system enables a proactive approach to safety and security guidelines for UAS operations, it needs to be equipped with real-time tracking, geofencing or other systems to facilitate the safe operation of drones. The conflicting demands of economic growth and security would need to be balanced and coordinated by a host of organisations involved in the process, viz. the ministry of civil aviation, NSCS, ministry of defence, ministry of home affairs, the armed forces, the Border Security Force, National Technical Research Organisation, Intelligence Bureau and the state police departments. The sub-conventional threat of using drones is emerging as a significant threat, giving rogue elements within the country and across borders the benefit of plausible deniability.
The threat from the sovereign airspace of the country is being handled by the IAF. However, with the proliferation of threats from UAS, ballistic missiles, long-range stand-off weapons, cyber and space-based systems and the plethora of agencies that deal with the regulation, detection and control of the aerospace and cyber domain, coordination, command and control going to be difficult in peacetime, let alone war. Therefore, there is an urgent and imminent requirement for a central organisation under the aegis of the NSCS to look at all the inter-agency policy and coordination issues for space, ballistic missiles, conventional aviation and the operation of UAS in the Indian airspace.
This agency could be the single point of contact for formulating all stakeholder policies and directives to ensure aerospace safety and control. Representatives from various agencies/ministries could be a part of this organisation, which needs to be created before it gets too late. As quoted by William Shakespeare: “There comes a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood leads on to fortune; omitted all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat; and we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.”
Anil Golani is additional director general Centre for Air Power StudiesThe views expressed are personal