T K Arun
The Chandrayaan 3 mission takes forward India’s longstanding quest for strategic autonomy. Chandrayaan 3 has landed on the moon. India joins the select club of nations that have landed a craft on the Moon, comprising the US, Russia and China, so far. And India’s would be the first exploration of the Moon’s south pole.
That would be a marvellous technological feat, and one achieved on a modest budget of Rs 615 crore. Apart from showing off India’s technological prowess in being able to launch a spacecraft all the way to the moon, the rover’s explorations and analysis would extend human understanding of the Moon’s formation, and, perhaps, about the formation of planets in general. But science and technology are not all that is there to mastering space. Mastery of space is vital for national security, in the emerging landscape of war.
Satellites have been used to supply early warning about missile launches by enemy forces, for decades. What they are being used now, as demonstrated in the Ukraine war, is to make the enemy’s position and movements transparent.
What can be seen from up above is a whole lot more than what can be seen at the ground level. The French used hydrogen balloons to send up observers above the battlefield, who dropped down notes or messages encoded in the waving of flags, called semaphore, to inform French troops about their enemy formation’s movements. The first such use of the balloon for gaining informational advantage over the enemy was in 1794, in the Battle of Fleurus, located in present-day Belgium, in which French and Austrian troops clashed. The French emerged victorious, although to what extent the balloon contributed to this victory was a matter of debate.
But there is no debate about the utility of monitoring by satellites and drones in modern combat of the kind taking place in Ukraine. Modern satellites’ assorted sensors and radars see through the dark, render camouflage irrelevant, detect heat and radio waves, and even peer below the ground to a shallow depth. The information so gathered is collated, analysed and targeting decisions arrived at by clever algorithms, such as those used by the Silicon Valley outfit, Palantir, which promises dominance in decision-making.
Unlike in the past, where even the deadliest of weapons were ‘dumb’, modern weapons are parts of weapons systems that are plugged into information networks that gather and process information from satellites, drones and even mobile phone apps of civilian volunteers. So, while the formal claim is that the US-led military alliance merely supplies weapons to Ukraine, and the war is fought by Ukrainian soldiers, in reality, western computing and data analytics and communications mount Ukraine’s offensive against the Russians. This is why casualties are so high in this war.
To the professional analysts of war, the Ukraine war underlines the importance of satellites and drones in gathering information and converting it into targeted attacks. What this means is that mastery of space will become ever more important in determining strategic capability.
Satellite imagery plays a role in monitoring Chinese troop movements along the Line of Actual Control, and detected hostile build-ups, even in the wake agreements to disengage.
Chandrayaan 3 would demonstrate India’s ability to muster such capability. The US has formally created a United States Space Force. And China’s People’s Liberation Army has a Strategic Support Force, which deploys space and cyber capabilities in the service of the Chinese army. Whether a separate force is created or not is less important than the coordinated use of space by other wings of the armed forces to optimise the capacity for offence and defence.
Mastering satellite launches has enormous commercial value as well. Low earth orbits are filling up with communication satellites that whiz around, bouncing signals on to other satellites and to terminals on the ground, to create a high-speed, low-latency broadband network. Elon Musk’s SpaceX company operates the Starlink system of satellite internet, while One Web, jointly owned by six investors — the Government of UK, Bharti, SoftBank, Hughes, Eutelsat and the Korean aerospace company Hanwha — and Amazon’s Project Kuiper wait in the wings.
China is reportedly setting up its own low-earth orbit network of communication satellites. When thousands of satellites are required to be launched, satellite launch becomes a huge market opportunity. Chandrayaan 3 would earn India a respectable place among the operators of satellite launches.
Indian Space Research Organisation has been roping in private participation in its space projects for decades. The pace has picked up recently, and a bunch of startups are working to cash in on this opportunity. They will also become players in the global space business, missions like Chandrayaan giving them street cred.
This article was first published in The Sanjaya Report as Building Strategic Muscle beyond Reaching for the Moon on August 24, 2023.
Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.
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Posted by Samprikta Banerjee, research intern at IMPRI.