India and the U.S. will undertake joint military drills in October in Auli, Uttarakhand. Auli is at an altitude of 10,000 feet and some 95 km from the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
The time is ripe for the inaugural India-U.S. joint space military exercise. First, this single act will push India’s defence partnership into a new orbit. Second, it will send a strong message to a common adversary. Third, it will have other ripple effects for the wider Quad.
Space has been singled out as a critical area of cooperation in the recent Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) meeting between India and the U.S. For the first time in history, both countries are jointly staring at a common adversary. Nothing binds friends together as sharing the same displacement anxiety.
A military domain
Space as a military domain is a well-accepted fact. In 2019, the U.S. stood up its space force as a branch under the department of the Air Force. At the time, it became the world’s only independent space force. In India, historically, space has remained the sole jurisdiction of its civilian space agency, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). However, the successful demonstration (dubbed Mission Shakti) of anti-satellite (ASAT) missile test in 2019 changed things forever. The same year, India conducted its first ever simulated space warfare exercise (IndSpaceX) with an eye on Chinese threats.
Furthermore, the launch of the tri-service Defence Space Agency (DSA) has permanently taken the military away from the shadows of civil space. The government has also set up the Defence Space Research Agency (DSRA) to help develop space-based weapons for the DSA. Space is as much recognised as a military domain as land, water, air and cyber.
India and the U.S. do drills on land, in air and at sea. Why not extend it to the fourth domain? It is inevitable as both countries can expect the exact same conversation happening in their adversary’s strategy rooms.
It will have actionable spill overs for the Quad, transform the moribund DTTI from a talk shop and send the right message to the adversary.
The lowest hanging fruit would be a joint anti-satellite (ASAT) missile test. It is essentially a missile launched from the Earth’s surface to destroy a satellite passing overhead. Both countries have demonstrated capability in this. The test would be against a simulated orbital target as that does not create space debris and is not included in the wording of the U.S. moratorium.
Eventually, this will lead to other space military collaborations such as directed energy weapons, rendezvous and proximity operations (RPOs), co-orbital ASATs (in space micro satellites as a kinetic kill option), etc.
Every country worth its weight in salt is working on the military aspects of space. France conducted its first space military exercise, ASTERX, in 2021. China is marching ahead to the Cis-Lunar space (region beyond the geosynchronous orbit) with an ambition to establish a permanent presence on the Moon by 2024.
The doctrine in space is still evolving with the U.S. urging partner countries to lay down rules and norms. China and Russia have released a draft binding treaty of their own. Red lines and norms will eventually emerge but until then it provides an ideal new theatre to push Indo-U.S. military collaboration forward.
Space has assets that form the bedrock of the modern economy — GPS (PNT — position navigation timing), telecom networks, early warning systems for missiles and weather forecasts all are enabled by our satellites in GEO or LEO orbits.
But there could be some expected pushback from the usual naysayers. First, it will provoke our eastern neighbour and compel them to draw a new redline. Second, our eastern neighbour will use our western neighbour as a proxy state. Third, it will derail the ongoing Core Commanders dialogue in Ladakh. Fourth, the United States cannot be trusted. Fifth, it will fastback militarisation for space. Our response to all the above is that it is an inevitable trend unfortunately, notwithstanding our action or inaction.
Changing times now require us to innovate on doctrines, technologies and deterrence. Xi Jinping is on his way to building a “world-class” Chinese military by 2049. If India is to become a space power and if the Indo-U.S. partnership is to become the alliance of alliances, then imaginative steps will be needed.
It is time for the India-U.S. military collaboration to get bolder and travel from mountains to outer heavens.
The authors work at the intersection of national security and technology