Even in a bureaucratic jungle like India’s, there are times when someone calls a spade a spade and gets away with it. The Society of Defence Technologists (SODET) seems to have done just that by voicing its support for the militarisation of space. The SODET, which comprises defence PSUs like Hindustan Aeronautics Limited and Bharat Electronics Limited, falls under the Ministry of Defence and its opinions are not supposed to contradict the establishment. New Delhi has steadfastly supported preserving outer space as ‘a sanctuary from weapons’, and India’s space programme is focused largely on the scientific and commercial uses of space.
Nevertheless, as the SODET pointed out, the time may have come to be more pragmatic about this approach. Military planners seek the high ground — be it a hill, a balloon, an observation aircraft, or air superiority — to provide them with a decisive advantage. And space being the ‘ultimate high ground’, it is naturally the most attractive option. China’s recent test of an anti-satellite ballistic missile that destroyed a weather satellite makes it imperative for India to develop its own space-based military assets. It strengthens the Indian Air Force’s case for establishing a dedicated Aerospace Command and go in for tests like using souped-up Prithvi missiles that use terminal guidance to knock down other missiles beyond the atmosphere. Civilian and military satellite systems are dual-use technologies that are little different from each other, and they could provide India with high quality military satellite intelligence. As SODET points out, such a capability could even have prevented the Kargil War, or at least “delivered firepower more accurately” to evict intruders from Kargil. In any case, it is inarguable that India’s investment in space technology is crucial to its rise as a major global power.
The sooner New Delhi acknowledges this and ensures the country’s effort is geared towards penetrating a global — rather than a regional — market, the better it can hope to match the US, Chinese, Russian, and European space assets. As for averting a space-based arms race, it’d be naïve to expect any state to eschew the ultimate high ground advantage when global disarmament on the planet itself remains a pipedream.