India is laying the groundwork for the formation of a space command to give it a military edge in the tense South Asia region, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi pursues a broader upgrade of the armed forces.
Signaling a shift in focus from civil to military use of space, India has expanded its satellite program over the last three years to cover long-distance communication for soldiers in the field, cross-border surveillance and a more accurate use of firepower. The establishment of a space command would help better coordinate those efforts.
Seven key civil satellites, controlled by the Indian Space Research Organisation, already contribute to government responses on climate change, agriculture, food and water security, disaster management as well as navigation and communication.
The development of a space command stretching across the military "needs to be expedited," Air Force chief Arup Raha, the most senior officer in the country, said in an e-mailed response to questions. In the meantime, a cross-service Defence Space Agency will be set up under the command of a two-star officer, he said.
India is only just starting to use space technology for the military, said Ajey Lele, a senior fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi and a retired air force group captain.
Eyes in Sky
"India requires eyes-in-sky for anti-terror operations," Lele said. "Space technologies are useful in any tactical and strategic operations, for intelligence gathering, communications and navigation. Space is considered a fourth dimension of warfare."
India's military is looking to better harness the space capacity of the civilian sector as tensions again rise across South Asia. India and Pakistan -- both of which are nuclear powers -- have been embroiled in a spat for several weeks over the disputed Kashmir region after the killing of 19 Indian soldiers in September.
The country also needs "many more" dedicated military satellites, said Manmohan Bahadur, a distinguished fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies in New Delhi and retired air vice marshal. "A space command is a necessity, so the journey should start now."
The push into space comes as India seeks to modernize its aging air force fleet and buys other advanced weaponry to upgrade its predominantly Soviet-era Russian equipment.
Raha said the defense ministry is preparing to expand the air force to 42 fighter squadrons from the existing 32. The current level is less than the government says it would need to defend India from a joint attack from China and Pakistan.
The shortfall will be resolved through the introduction of Su-30MKI, Tejas and Rafale planes, Raha said, referring to new fighter jet orders. India began the induction of the first set of Tejas earlier this year.
Last month India signed a deal with France to buy 36 Rafale aircraft. The first of those jets are set to be delivered in three years.
India is also considering the manufacture of an additional type of fighter under Modi's 'Make in India' initiative, Raha said. "A fresh case is under process for procurement of additional Tejas Mk-1A aircraft."