3 October 2015

Space: The New Battle Zone

By Sqn Ldr Vijainder K Thakur
01 Oct , 2015

The most potent threat to Indian military and dual use satellites in Low Earth Orbit (RISAT, CARTOSAT, TES) comes from Chinese hit-to-kill ASAT interceptors. However, the debris resulting from large scale kinetic attacks on Indian satellites could potentially damage scores of satellites belonging to other countries over a period of time leading to global disruption of services. Such debris could make access to large tracts of orbital space hazardous. It is unlikely that China would consider using kinetic ASAT weapons against India unless faced with ignominious defeat. The threat to Indian space assets will mostly come from jamming, spoofing and perhaps DEWs. China has demonstrated its ability to attack satellites and is likely far ahead of the defensive measures that Indian satellites currently incorporate.

It is possible that outer space could, one day, become a battle zone reminiscent of scenes in films such as Star Wars and Star Trek, with agile space fighters deftly emerging from the cavernous insides of humongous carrier ships through loud clanging airlocks, to engage swarming hostiles launched by ominous death star alien motherships. Trust us, it may never happen!

One simple reason is that a manoeuvering a spacecraft is largely governed by orbital mechanics, not by hot-shot pilots yanking at their control sticks. Media hype notwithstanding, nations will not battle each other in outer space because it is not an extension of air space. A country exercises sovereignty over its airspace as demarcated by its geographical boundaries; it can defend the airspace with all the ferocity that it can muster. Not so with outer space, where there are no geographical boundaries. When viewed from orbital distances, national boundaries spin out of sight and relevance. The whole world is one – a serene, jewel-like blue planet in the infinitesimal void and darkness of the universe.

The Indian Armed Forces are now heavily investing in network-centric warfare…

Space fighters and light years straddling motherships, will forever remain in the realm of science fiction, or at least, till we stumble upon bad aliens. What about the talk of the Indian Air Force (IAF) setting up an Aerospace Command as the other world powers have already done? Well, an Aerospace Command will happen, but not because the IAF wants to take future battles to outer space. The proposed command would not be an operational theatre command such as the Western, South Western, Central, Eastern and Southern Commands. It would be a non operational command like the IAF’s Training and Maintenance Commands; a command that would oversee development and maintenance of space assets and their integration with the IAF’s war fighting capability.

“The Moon, the stars are not high in the sky,” our Science teacher in school would say, “They are far from the Earth.” Having forcefully made a point, let me back up a bit. No nation can claim a right to outer space, but every nation has the right to access and use it through satellites. The problem occurs when these satellites are dual use in nature and are used for military purposes. Major world powers including India are now using satellites for military communication, navigation of aircraft and missiles, Electronic Intelligence (Elint) and reconnaissance. The use of outer space for military purposes is termed as militarisation of outer-space. Militarisation makes a nation’s space-based assets fair game for attack by the enemy in case of a war!

While the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 prohibits placing weapons of mass destruction in outer space, no treaty prohibits space assets being attacked electronically, with Directed Energy or kinetic kill vehicles. The attack could come from space or from the Earth.

Indian Space-Based Military and Dual use Satellites

The Indian military began its tryst with space technology with the use of meteorological imagery obtained from satellites in the early eighties. Towards the end of the decade, the Armed Forces (AFs) started using satellite imagery for monitoring military activity across the borders. As ISRO’s imaging capabilities matured – the Technology Experiment Satellite (TES), launched in 2001 provides a resolution of one metre with good attitude and orbit control capability – satellite reconnaissance became a serious endeavour for the AFs. The Cartosat-2 series that followed the TES improved upon orbital and attitudinal control as well as resolution which improved to 0.8metre.

Military use of satellites is here to stay and grow…

The RISAT-2 satellite launched in 2009 gave the AFs a game changing ability to capture imagery at night and through cloud. The RISAT-2 features an X-band Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) manufactured by Israel’s IAI. The 300-kg satellite was put together by ISRO in quick time and launched using the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) in the aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

The RISAT-1 launched on April 26, 2012, features a C-band Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) operating at 5.35 GHz in a multi-polarisation and multi-resolution mode (ScanSAR, Strip and Spot modes) to provide images with coarse, fine and high spatial resolutions respectively. It was placed into a 470 x 479 km orbit using PSLV-C19 XL launcher. TheGSAT-7, launched in the early hours of August 30, 2013, using Ariane-5 Flight VA215 from Kourou in French Guiana, was India’s first communication satellite dedicated to military use. The Indian Navy is using GSAT-7, also called Rukmini, to communicate with its submarines, frigates, destroyers and aircraft from its centres on the shore.

The Indian AFs are now heavily investing in network-centric warfare using high bandwidth IP-based connectivity through fibre optic cables and high bandwidth Ku-band satellite transponders. The GSAT-7 will be followed up by GSAT-7A, a dedicated Air Force communications satellite.

Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS)

India is developing its own navigation satellite constellation – Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS). The IRNSS is expected to provide positional accuracies similar to the Global Positioning System (10 metres over Indian landmass and 20 metres over the Indian Ocean) in a region centred around the country with a coverage extending up to 1,500 km from India between longitude 40° E to 140° E and between latitude ± 40°.

The full constellation of seven satellites is planned to be realised by 2015-2016. Three satellites – the IRNSS-1A, the IRNSS-1B and the IRNSS-1C have been already launched. The IRNSS-1D is scheduled to be launched in March 2015. By the middle of 2015, the IRNSS would be able to provide GPS services to Indian users. In the years ahead, there would be many more dedicated military communication satellites, as also Elint, SAR imaging and missile launch warning satellites. Military use of satellites is here to stay and grow.

China’s Space Capabilities

Like India, China too is heavily invested in military use of outer space. It operates an impressive constellation of intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, meteorological and communications satellites. In 2013, China conducted at least eight space launches to maintain and expand the constellation. China has its own navigation satellite constellation, Beidou, which will eventually provide global coverage rivaling GPS. In 2013, China released Beidou signal interface control document to allow for the production of ground receivers. The constellation is expected to be completed by 2020.

China’s ASAT capabilities span the entire spectrum of threats – hard kill, soft kill and deception…

Quick Launch Capability

China is acutely aware that the US would attack and incapacitate at least some of its military satellites in the event of a major military confrontation between the two. China’s ocean monitoring satellites used to obtain targeting data for its DF-21D Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM) would be prime targets. To thwart such surgical disarming, China is investing in quick launch capability to replace space assets lost to enemy attack. China has developed and demonstrated the new solid-fueled Kuaizhou Launch Vehicle (LV) capable of placing a 400-kg satellite into Low Earth Orbit (LEO), ostensibly for “natural disaster monitoring”. On September 25, 2013, the Kuaizhou LV placed Kuaizhou-1 satellite in orbit from Jiuquan.

China is also developing the Long March 11 LV for rapid launch of satellites in case of emergencies or disasters. The LV, planned for launch by 2016, will feature China’s largest solid-fuel rocket motor. While China’s space capabilities are of concern to India, of even greater concern is China’s counter-space capabilities. There can be no doubt that in any future military conflict against China, or China’s ally Pakistan, attempts would be made to incapacitate Indian military and dual use satellites.

Spectrum of Threats Faced by Space Based Assets

Satellite operations can be interfered with in several ways such as
Surreptitious up-linking and commandeering
Jamming communications and command links
Spoofing or jamming navigation satellite signals
Dazzling or blinding satellite sensors using radio or laser energy
Kinetic (hit-to-kill) attack to destroy or damage LEO satellites
Directed energy (heat-to-kill) attack to destroy or damage low and high orbit satellites
Destroying satellite tracking and control ground terminals

Disrupting Communication

Satellite communication (SATCOM) infrastructure can be divided into three major segments – Space, Ground and User. The Space segment comprises the satellite constellation. The Ground segment is used to deploy, maintain, track and control the satellite constellation. The User segment comprises infrastructure to access satellite signals using ground, ship or aircraft based terminals or other devices.

Although the Ground segment is guarded, it can be physically attacked and destroyed just as any other military installation. The Space as well as Ground segment is vulnerable to being electronically attacked, blinded or jammed.

User Segment Vulnerabilities

A recent security audit revealed that SATCOM terminals typically have vulnerabilities – backdoor, hard-coded credentials, undocumented and/or insecure protocols, and weak encryption algorithms – that allow a malicious actor to intercept, manipulate or block communications and in some cases, to remotely take control of the physical device.

Often the terminals are required to be remotely operated, sometimes even through an SMS. While this may be convenient to users, a hacker using hard-coded credentials or other backdoor could run malicious code on the terminal. Such a code could damage, shut down or broadcast coordinates of the terminal compromising critical military operations. SATCOM works by modulating data (voice, video) over a carrier and beaming the carrier to a satellite transponder. The transponder amplifies the carrier and transmits it back to a target area at a different frequency. A denial of service attack on a communication satellite can be as simple as double illuminating a transponder. Satellite jammers with a 200-kilometre range have reportedly been available off-the-shelf for many years from the Russian company Aviaconversiya.

Ground Segment Vulnerabilities

As mentioned earlier, the Ground segment of a SATCOM can be physically or electronically attacked. It is possible to seize control of a satellite by either gaining access to the network within a satellite control centre or by spoofing control signals using an independent uplink. This is evident from the fact that on two different occasions in 2008, NASA’s Terra EOS AM–1 satellite experienced interference and hackers achieved all steps required to command the satellite but did not issue commands. There have also been other failed attempts to commandeer US satellites, presumably by Chinese hackers.

Sensor Jamming

Surveillance equipment – radio frequency or optical – fitted on military satellite can be rather easily jammed, blinding a satellite. Take the case of an Elint satellite. It can be overwhelmed with signals that it is painstakingly eavesdropping for! SAR satellites can be similarly jammed with spurious radar returns, and optical sensors can be blinded with IR or Laser.

GPS Spoofing

A GPS receiver can theoretically be spoofed by counterfeit GPS signals structured like a normal GPS signal or by re-broadcasting an authentic GPS signal captured elsewhere resulting in a navigation error. A navigational drift can be caused by first broadcasting a signal synchronised with the actual GPS signal and then introducing a progressively increasing error. It is believed that such spoofing led astray a Lockheed RQ-170 drone aircraft in North-eastern Iran in December, 2011, resulting in the drone’s capture.

The Indian Armed Forces, especially the Indian Navy, need to carefully calibrate their dependence on satellites…

Directed Energy Weapons (DEWs)

Directed energy – high-powered microwave, particle beam, laser, can be used to directly attack military satellites, frying their electronics and sensors. DEWs could be based on the ground or on high flying airborne platforms. They could even be placed in orbit. The performance of DEWs is adversely affected by atmospherics. Turbulence and temperature variations in the atmosphere tend to dissipate a focused high energy beam. One way to counter the problem is to pre-distort the beam using adaptive mirrors such that atmospherics causes it to get focused! Adaptive mirror technologically is widely used in modern telescopes and within China’s grasp.

Placing ASAT DEWs in orbit has the advantage of not having to deal with atmospherics but energy requirements call for a heavy satellite and a powerful launcher, pushing up costs. The impossibility of upgrading DEWs placed in orbit further dampens enthusiasm for such weapons. ASAT DEWs placed on high flying manned or unmanned platforms would be less impaired by atmospherics, involve lower costs and be more amenable to upgrades.

The US made impressive technological advances with its Boeing YAL-1 Airborne Laser Testbed. The modified Boeing 747-400F featured a megawatt-class Chemical Oxygen Iodine Laser (COIL). It was primarily designed to destroy enemy Tactical Ballistic Missiles (TBMs) in boost phase, but its laser didn’t prove powerful enough for the task. It is believed a YAL-1 like aircraft could effectively target orbiting satellites when flying above the weather. Russia and China too are working on ASAT DEW technology though no country has, so far, fielded an operational system. China is reported to have used a ground laser to dazzle an American reconnaissance satellite.

US Assessment of Chinese Counter-space Capabilities

Highlighting Russian and Chinese capabilities, the head of US Strategic Command (STRATCOM), Navy Admiral Cecil D. Haney, said in February 2015, “Both countries have acknowledged they are developing or have developed counter-space capabilities. Both countries have advanced directed energy capabilities that could be used to track or blind satellites, disrupting key operations and both have demonstrated the ability to perform complex maneuvers in space.” According to Haney, Russia and China and a number of other nations are working to take away America’s strategic advantage in space by using military jamming capabilities to interfere with satellite communications and global positioning systems.

Indian military planners need to carefully audit the use of GPS…

China’s ASAT Capabilities

China’s ASAT capabilities span the entire spectrum of threats – hard kill, soft kill and deception. On January 11, 2007, China successfully destroyed its obsolete Fengyun 1C weather satellite using a Long March 1C interceptor that collided with the satellite. In 2011, China launched some maneuvering satellites as part of a suspected ASAT test. In May 2013, a high altitude Chinese sub-orbital space launch – claimed to be a scientific mission – was likely the first test of an Anti-Satellite (ASAT) interceptor capable of reaching geosynchronous earth orbit. As mentioned earlier, China has in the past temporarily taken control of US satellites through uplink hacking and blinded a satellite using laser. In 2014, a US government report stated that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had successfully jammed GPS signals of US satellites.

Kinetic Attack Limitations

At first glance, China’s kinetic attack ASAT ability appears most threatening and understandably draws maximum media attention. However, the ability is beset with some limitations and needs to be seen in the correct perspective. The exact circumstances of the 2007 Chinese interception of its meteorological satellite are not known. Did the interceptor target a pre-calculated interception point, or was it Command guided to an interception through active tracking?

Also, the test didn’t go beyond demonstrating China’s ability to target LEO satellites using an IRBM-sized interceptor. To target satellites in Geostationary or Geosynchronous orbits, China would need ICBM-sized interceptors pushing costs to near irrational levels.

China’s ASAT capability is also constrained by the lack of global satellite tracking infrastructure, without which it cannot accurately predict the orbit of a satellite and target a predetermined interception point. If the exact orbital parameters of a satellite are known, its orbital path can be predicted, but ISR satellites such as RISAT and CartoSat have the ability to alter their orbital paths using thrusters. Without global tracking, a Chinese interceptor missile would need to be Command guided along an interception track. Considering the high speed of an orbiting satellite (approximately 7.5 km/sec) and the limited boost phase of a ballistic missile (approximately three minutes) satellite interception poses more challenges than exo-atmospheric interception of an enemy missile warhead following a predictable ballistic trajectory.

Countering Threats to Indian Space Assets

The threat to Indian space assets can be countered by technology and best practices.

Electronic Threat

Following are some of the measures adopted by the new generation Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) series of communications satellites fielded by the United States Air Force Space Command to make SATCOM jam resistant:
Narrow spot beams
Frequency Hopping Spread Spectrum (FHSS) Transmission with Separate encryption devices
Phased-array antenna that can vary radiation patterns in order to block out potential sources of jamming

SATCOM Terminals are best secured by eliminating backdoor, hard-coded credentials, undocumented and/or insecure protocols and weak encryption algorithms. Access to terminal firmware must be secured.

The current generation ISRO communication satellites are not jam resistant…

Physical Threat

Physically attacking and destroying satellite tracking and control centres is a very effective way of degrading or crippling enemy satellite operations. ISRO installations need to be secured to the same extent as sensitive military installations if hostilities become imminent.

DEW Threat

To counter heat-to-kill weapons, ISRO satellites must be able to detect a directed energy attack and take evasive measures such as changing orbit, going into safe mode and shielding sensors from the energy source.

Satellite System Fallbacks

In case of an attack on satellites, communication relay, optical or SAR reconnaissance, Elint and ISR can to some extent be performed by High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and Airships. The Defense Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is already working on these technologies but perhaps not with as much vigor as is mandated by the urgency. A quick launch ability would allow critical satellite-based communication links to be restored within hours of being taken out.

As to accessing navigation signal, India already has an agreement to access the military signal of the Russian Glonass network and could enter into similar agreements with the US and the European Union. Indian military planners need to carefully audit the use of GPS. Our aircraft, ships, boats, submarines, UAVs, weapons and communication terminals must not get locked out in the absence of satellite-based navigation signals. They should automatically revert to inertial mode combined with manual position fixes.

Integrated Space Cell

Recognising the military importance of space based assets, the Government of India (GoI) has set up the Integrated Space Cell, which operates under Integrated Defence Services Headquarters. The cell is tasked with efficient utilisation and security of the country’s space-based military assets. The formation of the Cell was announced on June 10, 2010, by Defence Minister A.K Antony citing “the growing threat” to India’s space assets.

India’s Space Warfare Capabilities

India is developing capabilities to:
Defend its satellites against disabling attempts through kill vehicles, laser or other beam weapons
Disable enemy satellites in orbit using kinetic and directed energy weapons
Launch micro satellites on demand at short notice

The DRDO says it is building capabilities to protect Indian satellites against electronic or physical attack. Presumably, future ISRO satellites would incorporate these capabilities.

ASAT Capability Development

India is developing anti-satellite capability but has no plans to field test an anti-satellite weapon because of space debris concerns. Interception and destruction of satellites would be tested electronically only. Indian ASAT capability is being built around the following technological components that have already been developed and tested.
Target satellite would be tracked using the Long Range Tracking Radar (LRTR) developed for the Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) system with a current range of 600 km that is being extended to 1,400 km.
First stage of Agni-V which can inject a warhead into a 600 km high orbit will serve as the interceptor.
The Interceptor will use the kill warheads developed for BMD missiles, featuring Infra-Red and Radar frequency seekers to home on to and destroy the target satellite.
Communication and control systems developed for the BMD program would be used for the ASAT capability also.

DRDO scientists have also claimed that the ASAT hit-to-kill vehicle will use an imaging infra-red seeker and a 3-D laser image of a target satellite in LEO to guide itself to impact.

Satellite Launch on Demand

On March 31, during DefExpo 2012, the DRDO first announced that it is building a capability to launch small satellites on demand to support the Armed Forces at a press conference. The capability will provide communication, navigation and guidance support to the armed forces during crises and will be based on Agni 4 and Agni 5 missiles. The DRDO will be able to launch mini and micro satellites within hours of demand.

Future Indian Space Based Assets

The ISRO has given the Indian Armed Forces a bonus edge with space-based surveillance, communications and navigation. New projects are underway to further empower our war fighters.

Communication-Centric Intelligence Satellite (CCI-Sat)

The Defense Electronics Research Laboratory (DLRL) under the DRDO is developing this Elint and Surveillance satellite. The satellite will feature SAR for imaging with the capability of detecting conversations and espionage activities in the region. It will be launched in LEO, about 500 km above the earth, using the PSLV. The satellite will reportedly also serve as a test bed for Anti-Satellite weapon development.

GEO Imaging Satellite (GISAT)

The GEO Imaging Satellite (GISAT) will be placed in geostationary orbit of 36,000 km to facilitate continuous observation of the Indian sub-continent and quick monitoring of natural hazards and disasters. The GISAT will carry a GEO Imager with multi-spectral (visible, near infra-red and thermal), multi-resolution (50m to 1.5 km) imaging instruments. It will provide pictures of the area of interest on near real time basis including border areas.

The remote sensing satellites launched by ISRO so far revisit the same area once in every two to twenty-four days and acquire images of a geographical strip (swath) at different spatial resolution (360 metre to better than a metre). The GISAT will provide near real time pictures of large areas of the country, under cloud free conditions, at frequent intervals. That is, selected Sector-wise image every five minutes and the entire Indian landmass image every thirty minutes at 50m spatial resolution.


The ISRO is developing Cartosat-3 advanced remote sensing satellite with a resolution of 0.25 m for cartographic applications and high-resolution mapping. The Cartosat-3 will be the successor to the Cartosat-2 series of satellites – Cartosat-2, Cartosat-2A and Cartosat-2B – capable of 0.8 metre resolution imaging. Currently, the American satellite GeoEye-1, launched in September 2008 and owned by DigitalGlobe, has the best resolution of 0.41 m among commercially available satellites. Another DigitalGlobe satellite, WorldView-2, offers a best resolution of 0.46 metre. DigitalGlobe degrades its commercial imagery to 0.5metre to conform to US regulations. Cartosat-3 featured in the Notes on Demands for Grants, 2013-2014 from the Department of Space, which formed part of the budget documents presented to Parliament in February 2013, against a request of Rs 10 crore.


The most potent threat to the Indian military and dual use satellites in Low Earth Orbit (RISAT, CARTOSAT, TES) comes from Chinese hit-to-kill ASAT interceptors. However, the debris resulting from large-scale kinetic attacks on Indian satellites could potentially damage scores of satellites belonging to other countries over a period of time leading to global disruption of services. Such debris could make access to large tracts of orbital space hazardous. It is unlikely that China would consider using kinetic ASAT weapons against India unless faced with ignominious defeat. The threat to Indian space assets will mostly come from jamming, spoofing and perhaps DEWs. China has demonstrated its ability to attack satellites and is likely far ahead of the defensive measures that Indian satellites currently incorporate.

The Indian Armed Forces, especially the Indian Navy, need to carefully calibrate their dependence on satellites to avoid getting ahead of the curve and introducing potentially crippling vulnerabilities. The current generation ISRO communication satellites are not jam resistant to an extent that rules out disruption by Chinese ship-based satellite jammers. Finally, the DRDO has, in the past, introduced vulnerabilities in Indian defense by making over-the-top claims about weapon systems that it is developing. The DRDO’s claims on its ASAT, quick launch ability and Directed Energy Weapons need to be taken with the proverbial pinch of salt.



2.Defense.gov News Article: Stratcom Chief: U.S. Must Maintain Space Dominance Annual Report to Congress 2014

3.China’s Deceptively Weak Anti-Satellite Capabilities | The Diplomat



6.Anti-satellite Weapons Pose Major Cyberthreat | SIGNAL Magazine

7.An Assessment Of China’s Anti-Satellite And Space Warfare Programs, Policies And Doctrines
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