India’s Military Space Capabilities and ISRO


In the last five years India has made some noteworthy achievements in the Space domain, wherein, in the year 2023 alone, India emerged as an acknowledged space power by two landmark achievements, Chandrayan 3 and Aditya, though non-military, these missions have demonstrated the indigenous capability of ISRO and the private sector to undertake path breaking space missions only a few nations would dare to attempt. India is the third country that has succeeded in a soft landing on the moon after US and China. India has also placed its satellite (orbiter) on the orbit of Mars and is now working on deeper planetary missions. Having joined the Artemis Accord, India is poised for manned and more planetary exploration missions.

Recently, India announced names of four Air Force officers who would be travelling to space in the indigenous Gaganyaan spacecraft. This would enable India to develop the entire ecosystem for training, equipping, and undertaking manned missions such as establishing a space lab or a manned space station. The International Space Station (ISS) launched in 1998 in the Low Earth Orbit, is a large space station assembled and maintained by a collaboration of five space agencies: NASA (US), Roscosmos (Russia), JAXA (Japan), ESA (Europe) and CSA (Canada). Its primary purpose is performing micro-gravity and space environment experiments. China has a crewed space station called Tiangong constructed by China and operated by China Manned Space Agency. Space lab gives a nation admission to an exclusive space club, currently reserved for these nations. India is a step away from being part of this exclusive space club.

India’s Space Ecosystem

While, the other countries initiated their space programmes primarily with military intent, India’s space programmes run by the ISRO have been for peaceful exploration of space meant for socio-economic benefit of the country. India initially lost out the opportunities in the first space revolution of the 60s started by the USSR (the Soviet Sputnik satellite was launched in Oct 1957). The US followed by launching Explorer 1 in Jan 1958 with a military intent. The Soviets took a lead in manned missions by sending Uri Gagarin in space in 1961 setting a manned space race. The US followed and won this race by landing Neil Armstrong on the moon in July 1969.

In the last five years India has developed a fairly good space ecosystem. In 2019, India established the Defence Space Agency under HQ IDS. At that time there was limited expertise in Space outside the ISRO, the only Space Research Institution of our country that also controlled the Department of Space under the PMO. The private players were young aspiring Space enthusiasts who found it difficult to access and match the Space infrastructure of ISRO.

A total of 124 Indian Satellites have been launched by ISRO till 2023 with 23 in LEO and 29 GEO orbit being functional.  A landmark decision was taken in 2022 to establish the INSPACe for facilitating the private players and start-ups to participate in the Space Sector. Since then, over 200 private players have jumped into the fray with many successes in various segments of space. Recently, India has permitted 100% FDI in the Space Sector. ISRO and DRDO also partnered to establish the Directorate of Special Projects (DSP) dealing with space under the DRDO. In 2019 itself DRDO demonstrated its ASAT (Anti-Satellite) capability by accurately targeting an ageing satellite in the Low earth orbit, announcing the military intent of India’s space programme.

India formed Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) in 1962 which was superseded by ISRO in 1969. India went through the Space experimental phase in 70s and 80s, beginning with the launch of Aryabhata using a Soviet launcher in 1975 and developed indigenous launch capability in 1980 by developing Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV-3), making India the sixth country in the world to become a Spacefaring nation when it placed Rohini Satellite into Low Earth Orbit. India graduated to operational phase in the 90s developing the Indian National Satellite System (INSAT) for communication, broadcasting and meteorology and the Indian Remote Sensing Satellite (IRS). In this phase, India also developed and operationalized the indigenous launch vehicles the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV). India’s launch capability began with sounding rocket trials in Nov 1963, and since then ISRO prides itself to have transited to developing cryogenic upper stage technology. By 2014 ISRO’s GSLV Mark III achieved a capacity to place 4-ton satellites in (Geo-Synchronous Trasfer Orbit) GTO and 10-ton satellites in LEO. ISRO has launched 432 satellites of 34 foreign countries including 123 micro and nano satellites from its launchers.

ISRO has successfully conducted Crew Module Atmospheric Re-entry Experiment. It has also embarked upon testing Reusable Launch Vehicle Technology Demonstrator for a fully reusable launch vehicle to enable low-cost access to space. To further bolster India’s launch capability, a second launch site, a spaceport, is being developed at Kulasekarapattinam, Tamil Nadu for SSLV (Small Satellite Launch vehicles) for launching Polar Satellites, avoiding the airspace of Sri Lanka.  Currently India had two launch pads at Sriharikota launch station, Andhra Pradesh, for space launches.

ISRO has established two major Space Systems, the INSAT series, having a constellation of 15 operational satellites for communication, television broadcasting and meteorological services which are Geostationary Satellites and the Indian Remote Sensing (IRS) system for resources monitoring and management which are Earth Observation Satellites.  ISRO’s new communication satellites (GSAT series) are being used for high-speed internet.  India launched its first military satellite GSAT-7 (Rukmini) in Aug 2013 for providing communication services to Indian navy, which would be replaced by GSAT-7R. The Indian Airforce has GSAT-7A (Angry Bird) and which also serves satellite-controlled operations of UAVs. GSAT 7C would augment/replace GSAT -7A.  GSAT -7B that would primarily fulfill the communication needs of the Indian Army.

Space: The Fourth Frontier of Warfare

Space is considered as the fourth frontier of warfare, the fifth frontier being the Cyber. For smart warfare both fourth and fifth domain must come together to make digital and autonomous systems function ubiquitously. Artificial Intelligence would be fundamental operational need to get the machines to work in precision for a complicated battle environment, where IoBT (Internet of Battle Things) and IoMT (Internet of Military Things) would get truly integrated. Space being Non-terrestrial Asset would need seamless connectivity with terrestrial ICT networks. For making Smart War applications work, Space and ground-based persistence PNT (Positioning, navigation, and Time) and ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) would need integration with shooter-sensor ecosystem. Drones have become intrinsic to aerospace battlespace with Space connectivity with incremental approach to Near Space technologies, where neither the aircraft nor satellites can operate. The above scenarios were discussed in the major Defence Space exercise, IndspaceX as part of DEFSAT – 24, conducted by SIA (India), a premier Space Association, at the Manekshaw Auditorium, New Delhi from 07 to 09 Feb 24. Once the core technologies are in place, the next step forward would be to implement the Mosaic Warfare concept, also discussed at DEFSAT-24.

Till 2013, India was dependent for PNT on the American Global Positioning System (GPS) for its military needs. Due to the denial of GPS during the Kargil Conflict in 1999, ISRO built an indigenous PNT in 2013 called NavIC or IRNSS (Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System) designed with a constellation of 7 satellites and a network of ground stations. For the purposes of ISR, India has been using the remote sensing satellites IRS 1C and 1D having a resolution of 5.8 meters, Cartosat with 12.5 meters and TES (Technology Experimental Satellite) with One meter resolution have been available. For Military ISR, it is desirable to have sub-metric resolutions.  India operates Satellite-Based Surveillance (SBS) hooked up with ground based Remote Sensing Assets. ISRO plans to build Cartosat -3 with a resolution of 0.25 meters which is currently available only from few foreign satellites. Largely military grade satellites globally are available with 0.50 and 0.30-meters resolution.

ISR is a larger subject than just Satellite Earth Observation. In the battlefield one needs persistent day and night surveillance that should lend itself into meshed intelligence for executing meshed operations. This needs multi-modal and multi-sensors payloads of EO (Electro-optical), SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar) and ELINT (Electronic Intelligence). This field is evolving and in the future LIDAR and optical links combine would enhance its efficiency. The networked ISR and Secure communications with use of AI have taken the smart battlefields to adopt configuration of C5-I2-STAR2 (Command, Control, Communications, Computers and Cyber–Information, Intelligence–Surveillance, Target Acquisition, Reconnaissance and Robotics).

Space Cyber Security

India needs to develop Space Cyber Security Standards to ensure the ubiquitous use of smart devices in smart battles. China has tested use of Quantum Technology for securing land and space communications.  In the future battles all warfighting would have smart machines that would need high throughput. It is assessed that one square Kilometer would have upwards of one million networked sensors that would need terabytes of digital capacities. Such operations need uninterrupted and undisrupted power supply and secure communications without latency.

Importance of the Medium of Space

Space being dual use, helps in overall development and growth of humanity. Space is the best medium for weather perditions, disaster prevention / mitigation and relief, boost agriculture and blue economy, ubiquitous / tracking / navigation / communications for smart phones, establishing telemedicine nodes in remote areas, TV, and internet services free from ground/ sea cables. List of space use-cases and possibilities is long and would be constantly explored. For Military applications most of these are adapted with hardened and improved specifications.  Space being global in nature, all or most satellites can be shared through political, diplomatic and technology collaborations. Regional and global, economic, and military alliances are already using space diplomacy as binding factor that would not only bring the cost of space services down but also bring humanity together for peace and stability. To save the earth from the effects of global warming that would cause desertification of the earth, many experiments are underway, from prediction, to prevention. One of the solutions being worked out through the collaboration of nations is to place a large sun-shield at L1 point (where India’s Aditya is placed today) to cut down the heat caused by the sun rays.

Sharing of space assets would also be necessary to prevent over load of orbits and space congestions. The new age satellites are designed for life-span of 4-6 years as against traditional 15-20 years. Satellites with higher wastage / trail failures / space casualties in case of space wars, would flood the lower orbits with debris. Debris over decades could act as a metal shield that would not only be an impediment to space operations but can adversely affect weather.  As a responsible spacefaring nation India is treading carefully and steadily.


ISRO has planned future space missions carefully till 2035 that include launch of NISAR (SAR) Satellite, followed by SPADEX (Space Docking Experiment) later this year. Gaganyaan 1 and 2 missions which are the un-crewed series, would commence in 2024, leading to the launch of the Gaganyaan 3, the crewed mission, by 2025. As part of the moon mission ISRO plans a Lunar Polar Exploration Mission in 2026 followed by Chandrayaan 4 (Lunar lander and return) mission by 2028. ISRO is also preparing to establish an Indian Space Station called Bhartiya Antariksha Station (BAS) by 2035. India aspires to establish a Space Telescope (AstroSat-2) in a decade.

The privatization and militarization of the Space Sector are going to dictate how the space domain contributes to the future of our globe and the universe. It would be a major driver of trade, security, and well-being of humanity.  India needs to invest in Space education and infrastructure to empower the private Space industry to be a major contributor to the economic growth of the nation. The ISRO provides a sound base of skilled manpower, infrastructure, and opportunities to give impetus to the vision of the Prime Minister to achieve Atmanirbharta in Space.


Lt Gen (Dr) PJS Pannu, is a former Deputy Chief of Integrated Defence Staff, who pioneered the raising of Defence Space Agency, Defence Cyber Agency, and Armed Forces Special Forces Division. He commanded 14 Corps, the highest battlefield of the world.  He has authored two books Role of Niche and Disruptive Technologies in India’s Deterrence and War Fighting Capabilities, and Power of Future Machines. He is a distinguished fellow of the USI.


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