Air University Review, May-June 1983

Military Implications of India's Space Program

First Lieutenant Jerrold F. Elkin
Captain Brain Fredericks, USA

In a country where the bullock cart still constitutes a principal mode of transportation, India’s space program stands out as a dramatic achievement. Although New Delhi has consistently maintained that the space program bears no relation to defense requirements, India could produce an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) by the end of the decade assuming requisite political determinations are made. This article identifies the present accomplishments of India’s space effort and discusses near and mid-term program objectives. Further, it examines potential military application of Indian space technology and analyzes those factors most likely to enter New Deli’s decision calculus respecting development of a nuclear weapon carrier missile system.

India’s Space Achievements

On 18 July 1980, India successfully launched the Rohini I satellite and thereby became the sixth nation—after the Soviet Union, the United States, France, Japan, and China—to orbit a satellite with an indigenously produced launch vehicle. This event demonstrated that, in the eighteenth year of its existence, India’s space program had become a truly sophisticated enterprise. In an organizational sense, the program began in 1962 with the creation of the Indian National Committee for Space Research under the Department of Atomic Energy. The formation of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) in 1969 highlighted the transition of the space effort from a scientific undertaking of limited magnitude to a coordinated program with specific goals and time-bound projects in space applications and technology. The program’s organizational structure was further augmented in 1972 with the establishment of a Space Commission and a Department of Space. The Space Commission is responsible for general policy formulation and approval of the budget of the Department of Space. The Department of Space is tasked with planning, programming, and resource allocation. The ISRO is a constituent element of the Department of Space.l

Professor Satish Dhawan, Chairman of the Space Commission and ISRO and Secretary to the Government in the Department of Space, has been the driving force behind India’s space undertakings. Under Dhawan, India has made material progress in the areas of satellite and launcher development and ground support infrastructure expansion. While Dhawan has emphasized the need to enhance indigenous capability in all aspects of space technology, he has recognized that, as an interim step, acceptance of foreign assistance is imperative. Such assistance, in the form of satellite design support and actual launching of Indian satellites, has come from the United States, the U.S.S.R., and France.

On 19 April 1975, India’s first satellite, the 35 kg Aryabhata, was placed in a 600 km circular orbit by a Soviet rocket. The launching of Aryabhata demonstrated the ability of Indian scientists to design and fabricate orbital satellites. With the exception of the solar panels and batteries, all of Aryabhata’s systems were manufactured in India. Beyond this, the Indians evidenced an ability to employ receiving, transmitting, and tracking facilities for the purpose of satellite monitoring.

India’s second experimental satellite, the 444 kg Bhaskara, was launched in June 1979 from the U.S.S.R. on a Soviet rocket. The Bhaskara carried two remote-sensing payloads: a television camera and microwave imaging system. However, the TV camera failed to operate for nearly a year. After an extensive simulation exercise, Indian scientists were able to remedy the problem, and in May 1980 the satellite began transmitting as many as ten pictures a day. The quality of the nearly 1000 pictures sent back by Bhaskara’s TV camera compared favorably with similar pictures taken by other meteorological satellites.2

While the Aryabhata and Bhaskara were placed in orbit by Soviet boosters, Indian efforts to design and fabricate a satellite launch vehicle continued apace. An indigenously produced four-stage, solid fuel rocket, designated the SLV-3, made its maiden flight on 10 August 1979. A malfunction in the second stage caused a flight termination after only 317 seconds. However, in July 1980, the SLV-3 successfully injected the 35 kg Rohini I satellite into near-earth orbit. The primary objectives of the Rohini I were performance evaluation of the SLV-3 and determination of the satellite’s orbital characteristics.3 The magnitude of this achievement becomes apparent when one considers that Japan, a technologically advanced nation, was unable to put a satellite into space until its fifth attempt.

The year 1981 witnessed an acceleration of India’s space activity. In May, the second Rohini satellite, with an expected mission duration of 300 days, was placed into an elliptical orbit. The Rohini carried a landmark sensor of Indian manufacture capable of photographing areas 250 by 80 km with a resolution of 1 km. However, a problem in the fourth stage resulted in a failure to achieve required orbital altitude; in consequence, Rohini II reentered the earth’s atmosphere after only nine days in space. In June, India’s first geostationary satellite was launched by the European Space Agency from French Guiana. This satellite, known as APPLE (Ariane Passenger Payload Experiment), was meant to serve as a test bed for India’s communication satellite program. The most critical phase of the APPLE mission profile involved employment of an apogee boost motor to shift the spacecraft from a transfer to a drift orbit, from which the satellite was maneuvered to its permanent station.4 The success of Indian scientists in correctly positioning APPLE was trumpeted by the Indian press, which emphasized that this capability had been previously demonstrated only by the United States, the U.S.S.R., France, and Canada. In November 1981, Bhaskara II, India’s second earth observation satellite, was launched from a Soviet cosmodrome. Unlike its predecessor, the Bhaskara II experienced no problems with its cameras. This satellite provided information, inter alia, on cloud formation and atmospheric moisture content.

India’s communication capability will be further enhanced with the initiation of Indian National Satellite (INSAT) operations. In addition to telecommunications and direct TV broadcasting, the INSAT system will have a meteorological earth observation and data relay mission. Two INSAT spacecraft have been fabricated by a U.S. firm according to Indian specifications. INSAT’s ground support equipment will include thirty-five tracking stations, six of these being mobile facilities. INSAT-1A was launched from the Kennedy Space Center on 10 April 1982 and inserted into a geosynchronous orbit on the thirteenth. However, a premature exhaustion of thruster propellant resulted in a cessation of operations only 150 days after launch. Nevertheless, New Delhi remains satisfied with the basic design, and a 1983 launching of INSAT-B is anticipated.

Projected Space
Development Programs

The Indians have embarked on a number to satellite development projects to be completed by the end of the decade. Among these is proto-INSAT, which will be used in establishing design parameters for indigenously built INSAT replacement satellites. However, it is in the area of booster technology that impressive advances can be anticipated in the near term. During the 1980s, India intends to produce an augmented satellite launch vehicle (ASLV) and a polar satellite launch vehicle (PSLV). The ASLV will consist of an SLV-3 with two first-stage SLV-3 rockets as strap-on boosters. The ASLV will be able to inject a 150 kg payload into low-earth orbit, as compared with the 35-50 kg lift capacity of the SLV-3. As presently configured, the PSLV will consist of a solid fuel booster with six strap-on motors derived from the SLV-3 first stage, a liquid fuel second stage, and two solid fuel upper stages. This launch vehicle, designed to place a 1000 kg payload into a 900 km polar sunsynchronous orbit, is expected to be operational by 1987.

Dr. Abdul Kalam, head of launch vehicle development in the ISRO, has declared that by 1990 India will be able to position a 2500 kg communication satellite into geosynchronous orbit at 36,000 km. He has further asserted that the ISRO can produce a cryogenic rocket engine (using liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen) during the l980s. The Indians consider cryogenic engines more cost effective than rockets employing solid or storable liquid fuel because of greater thrust generation and the possibility of reduced vehicle size.5

Military Implications of
Space Research

The Indian leadership has emphasized that advances in rocket and satellite technology will not be translated into an enhanced military capability. Thus, for example, the Minister of State in the Ministry of Defense apprised Parliament after the launching of Rohini I that no plans existed for the manufacture of IRBMs.6 Despite such pronouncements potential military applications of Indian space technology are manifold, to include development of reconnaissance satellites, improvements in command and control, greater precision in operational planning based on satellite-derived meteorological data, and IRBM production.

reconnaissance satellites

India has already designed a satellite camera system and placed it into orbit. While the resolution of the Rohini II landmark sensor was inadequate for detailed surveillance activity, it would have allowed New Delhi to locate road and rail nets in neighboring countries. The 1981 acquisition of advanced MiG-25 Foxbat reconnaissance aircraft from the Soviet Union evidences India’s interest in improving its ability to monitor military installations and troop movements in Pakistan and China. The production of satellites (employing sophisticated optics either indigenously fabricated or acquired from third countries) would appreciably augment India’s existing photographic intelligence resources.

command and control

A substantial upgrading of India’s domestic communication infrastructure constitutes a fundamental objective of the INSAT program. The INSAT-IB platform will have twelve communication channels, each able to handle 2000 telephone conversations, plus two direct broadcast television channels. The applicability of such an information transmission system to defense requirements is patent. Thus, for example, the six mobile down links associated with INSAT may well prove forerunners of systems integrated into army units that will enable these units to deploy from peacetime cantonments with little or no communication disruption. Similarly, satellites could increase the effectiveness of the Indian Navy both by ensuring continuous communication with all naval vessels and improving the accuracy of maritime navigation. In this context, it must be appreciated that India’s armed forces comprise the world’s fourth largest army, the fifth largest air force, and a navy transitioning from a coastal defense force to a blue-water fleet. A military organization of this magnitude, with installations distributed throughout India and numerous warships at sea, would derive particular benefit from a satellite-enhanced C3 network.

weather forecasting

Weather conditions form a critical variable in military planning. The greater precision in weather forecasting afforded by Indian meteorological satellites will, in consequence, materially assist planners in structuring military exercises or actual combat operations.

intermediate-range ballistic missiles

The Indian political leadership has consistently asserted that the activities of the Department of Space are nonmilitary in nature. However, Satish Dhawan declared in 1979 that the SLV-3 could be converted into an IRBM with a range of approximately 1500 km.7 Adoption of such a course of action would appear to have the support of India’s armed forces. An editorial in the November 1981 edition of Vikrant, a semiofficial Indian military publication, states that India". . . must possess adequate capability for strategic long-range strike in the form of MRBM/ IRBMs equipped with nuclear warheads, a strategic air strike and interdictor force and adequate air defense, all equally complementary and coordinated.’’8

Modification of the SLV-3 into a nuclear-weapon-carrier missile involves more than mere payload substitution; rather, a number of significant technological difficulties must be surmounted. First, a reentry heat shield capable of withstanding temperatures of several thousand degrees centrigrade must be developed. It has been reported that Indian scientists are presently endeavoring to perfect an ablative heat shield system that would satisfy this requirement.9 Second, sophisticated guidance systems are needed to ensure that warheads arrive at their targets. India’s demonstrated capability to maneuver a satellite into geosynchronous orbit evidences possession of sensitive position-correcting instruments. A senior Indian scientist has asserted that such guidance systems could be applied to defense purposes after modest refinement.10

Indian military affairs analyst R. R. Subramanian notes that the SLV-3, a four-stage launcher using solid propellant motors, is far from an ideal weapon delivery vehicle. The disadvantages of a four-stage rocket are said to include the need to integrate control and guidance equipment with each of the stages and the increased likelihood of engine malfunction. Further, the solid propellant rockets of the SLV-3 cannot generate as much thrust as liquid-fuel engines (and thus have a lesser payload- lift capability.11 In this regard, it should be appreciated that India is currently designing a liquid-fuel rocket which, in combination with solid fuel rockets, will form the PSLV power plant.

In sum, it is probable that, given a political decision to manufacture nuclear bombs and a missile delivery system for such weaponry, India could have an operational IRBM force by the end of the decade. Indeed, a senior ISRO official has observed that India could develop an IRBM prototype within two years. 12

Factors Influencing India’s
Decision to Develop IRBMs

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi has repeatedly maintained that India’s nuclear program is dedicated to peaceful and constructive purposes. However, many influential figures have articulated the view that development of nuclear weaponry is imperative. The late Air Chief Marshal P. C. Lal, former head of the Indian Air Force, asserted that "India has the capability to make the atom bomb at short notice and should integrate it in its military arsenal and build up its defense strategy and tactics around it." He further advocated the establishment of training programs to familiarize Indian armed forces with nuclear warfare.13 K. Subrahmanyam, director of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (an autonomous but government-funded body that serves as a principal actor in the formulation of defense policy), observed that "India has to keep a few steps ahead of Pakistan in nuclear weapon technology and develop the infrastructure to be in a position to deter Pakistan when it reaches nuclear capability."14 If Pakistan does in fact explode a nuclear device, pressure applied by India’s "nuclear bomb lobby" may prove irresistible. If the decision to develop nuclear weaponry is made, the question of an appropriate delivery vehicle must be addressed.


There is no need to employ ballistic missile assets against Pakistan. Strike aircraft presently maintained by India (namely, the Canberra medium bomber, the Anglo-French Jaguar, and the Soviet MiG-23 Flogger, along with the French Mirage 2000 to be acquired during 1984-85) can hit targets throughout Pakistan with nuclear bombs.

It should be noted parenthetically that there is no uniformity of opinion within India regarding the indispensability of countering Pakistani nuclear weaponry with equivalent Indian weaponry. Rather, some analysts believe that a Pakistan armed with several crude nuclear bombs could be readily defeated by India’s overwhelming conventional strength.15


India considers China to be its chief strategic threat. This perception results in part from the severe defeat suffered by New Delhi in the 1962 Sino-Indian War. India reacted to this defeat by substantially augmenting military force levels along its northern and northeastern borders. Today, an appreciable percentage of India’s ground and air strength is oriented toward China. However, India’s conventional arms cannot offset the threat presented by China’s medium- and long-range ballistic missile inventory.

India is endeavoring to meet the Chinese threat by diplomatic as well as military means. In December 1981, efforts to resolve Sino-Indian differences regarding demarcation of their common border were reinstituted after twenty-one years; subsequent rounds of talks occurred in May 1982 and January 1983. It is far from certain, however, that these border negotiations will be satisfactorily concluded. Thus, for example, an exacerbation of tensions between India and Pakistan, a principal Chinese ally, could lead to a termination of discussions. The talks could also collapse if India and China are unable to overcome decades of ill-feeling and mutual suspicion. In such circumstances, India’s possession of an IRBM force would prove of marked utility, serving to inhibit active Chinese intervention in any future Indo-Pakistani conflict and deter a Chinese attack against India.

Indian Ocean

India appreciates that its regional maritime interests can be secured only through an increased power presence. This in large measure accounts for the emphasis being given to the development of a blue-water navy. The addition of ballistic missiles to New Delhi’s weapon inventory would materially enhance its ability to project military force throughout the Indian Ocean. Increased attention paid to Indian security concerns by outside powers operating in the region (for example, the United States, with its Diego Garcia base) would prove an attendant benefit.

psychological and prestige factors

India wishes to be recognized as a technologically advanced state. The desire to instill this perception was, in addition to military and scientific considerations, a driving force behind the 1974 explosion of a nuclear device. Similar motivations have impelled the establishment of the space program and, to a great degree, stimulate interest in the development of IRBMs.

The political significance of an IRBM force is also not lost on the Indian leadership. Only a few major powers have a ballistic missile production capability. Should India join this group, it would doubtless facilitate efforts at realizing an international security role commensurate with its size and potential. Furthermore, New Delhi would be able to resist the strategic demands of great powers that might otherwise have to be accommodated.16

nonaligned movement

Maintenance of India’s status as a leader of the nonaligned movement is one of Mrs. Gandhi’s central concerns. The manner in which procurement of nuclear weapons and carrier missiles would impact on this policy objective is therefore an issue of considerable moment. In consequence, the Indian government must weigh the likelihood of ballistic missile production raising India’s stature in the Third World or, in the alternative, isolating New Delhi within the nonaligned movement by generating apprehension regarding Indian intentions.

economic factors

India’s space program expenditures totaled $330 million during the period 1962-80. The relative frugality of this enterprise resulted in part from the willingness of the Soviet Union and the European Space Agency to launch Indian satellites at little or no cost. The dramatic growth of space activity in the 1980s will necessitate a financial outlay of approximately $1.1 billion, a figure that will increase appreciably if space technology is applied to defense requirements. However, such amounts are far less than the costs associated with India’s present force modernization effort. In 1979, India signed a $1.7 billion contract with the United Kingdom for Jaguar strike aircraft; in 1980, weapon procurement agreements totaling more than $2 billion were concluded with the Soviet Union and West Germany; and in 1982, India purchased Mirage 2000 multimission aircraft from France at a cost of nearly $1 billion. Therefore, it would appear that, if deemed militarily imperative, economic factors will not dissuade the Indian government from developing a ballistic missile force.

There is no evidence to suggest that New Delhi is currently employing space program assets to satisfy defense requirements. It must be recognized, however, that many of the accomplishments of India’s space scientists have direct military applicability. Further, the lead time needed to convert satellites and launchers from civilian/scientific to military end use will diminish as India’s space effort becomes more sophisticated. Undoubtedly, India’s leadership would authorize such a program reorientation should this course of action be deemed advantageous.

Defense Intelligence Ageny
George Washington University


1. P. Nandakumar " Space Research in India," Indian and Foreign Review, November 6, 1977, p. 15.

2. S. P. Baranwal, editor, Military Year Book 1980-1981 (New V Delhi, India: Guide Publications, 1980), p. 19.

3. "Space Research in India," India News, October 26, 1981, p. 5.

4. European Space Agency, APPLE: India’s Experimental Communication Satellite, 1981, p. 4.

5. "Reusable Boosters for Indian Rockets by 1986," The Hindu (Madras), September 1, 1981, p. 1.

6. India, Parliament, Parliamentary Debates (Rajya Sabha), vol. 115. no. 16 (August 1980), col. 158.

7. R. R. Subramanian, "SLV-3 a Giant Step into the Missile Age," The Hindu (Madras), August 15, 1980, p. 18.

8. "Zero Option for India," Vikrant, November 1981, p. 2.

9. "India Reported to Develop Missile Capacity," Patriot (New Delhi), December 13, 1980, p. 1.

10. Ibid.

11. Subramanian, p. 18.

12. S. K. Ghosh, "India’s Space Programme and Its Military Implications," Asian Defense Journal, September 1981, p. 36.

13. "P. C. Lal for India Making A-Bomb," Times of India (Bombay), July 19, 1981, p. 5.

14. Ibid.

15. "Nuclear Weapons: To Blast or Not to Blast," India Today, September 15, 1981, p. 95.

16. Onkar Marwah, "India’s Nuclear and Space Programs: Intent and Policy," International Security, vol. II, no. 2, 1977.


First Lieutenant Jerrold F. Elkin (B.A., Temple University; J.D., Columbia University; MA., Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania) is an analyst in the Directorate of Research. Defense Intelligence Agency, Washington, D.C. He has previously published articles in the Air Force Law Review, Biochimica et Biophysica Acta, and has been a previous contributor to the Review.

Captain Brian Fredericks, U.S. Army (USMA; M.A., Georgetown University), is a doctoral candidate at George Washington University. He has previously served as an intelligence analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency and as an infantry platoon leader and company commander. Captain Fredericks is a graduate of the Military Intelligence Officers Advance Course.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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