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India's Space Program: Challenges, Opportunities, and Strategic Concerns

An Interview with Rajeswari Rajagopalan

By Xiaodon Liang
February 10, 2016


As an emerging nation with both vast developmental needs and profound security concerns, India has had to balance many requirements in its rapid advance as a new space power. While success in sending a satellite into orbit around Mars and a rover onto the moon has boosted the Indian space program's credentials, military planners are increasingly concerned about the vulnerabilities that India's reliance on satellites has created. In addition, China's controversial testing of an anti-satellite missile in 2007 has elevated the threat of a slow-moving arms race in space.

In this Q&A, NBR speaks with Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, Senior Fellow and Head of the Nuclear and Space Policy Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, about the new security focus in India's space program and the country's primary strategic concerns in this domain. Dr. Rajagopalan also discusses the prospects for potential commercial actors in India's space sector and the role of foreign partners in the development of new technologies.


How has the Indian space program changed in the last decade? Is there a new focus on the military applications of space, and what brought about this shift in focus?

India's space program is several decades old and has been focused primarily on peaceful uses, with a number of scientific and technological applications including telemedicine, tele-education, disaster warning, search and rescue operations, mobile communications, and remote sensing and weather. Given that India is a country with huge developmental challenges, it is always tough to make an argument justifying allocations for space missions that do not have a direct bearing on development. That said, while military functions were not a focus of India's space program until about a decade ago, they have always been at the back of decision-makers' minds. Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first post-independence prime minister, and Vikram Sarabhai, the father of India's space program, understood the relevance of space to India in the national security domain from the program's inception. Nevertheless, India did not focus much on the security applications of outer space until 2007.

The wake-up call for India came when China conducted its first anti-satellite (ASAT) missile test in January 2007. The test clearly illustrated the challenges right in India's own neighborhood. Beijing came under a huge amount of criticism on two counts: one, for not announcing the test, and two, and more importantly, for creating long-lasting debris in low-earth orbit. While the test generated anger and public outcry, it did not result in any real punitive measures. The informal moratorium on ASAT tests, which had lasted for two and a half decades, was broken by the Chinese ASAT test. Thereafter, the United States tested an ASAT missile in 2008, which the international community was much more comfortable with because it was done openly and did not lead to the creation of long-lasting debris.

For India, however, China has been of particular concern. Beijing's activities in recent years have been driven by competition with the United States, so the capabilities it is developing are much more advanced than what are necessary to deter India. Nonetheless, India has to be mindful of Chinese advances. Following China's ASAT test, the scientific and technical communities and the Indian Air Force leadership, as well as sections of the political leadership, started debating whether India should be developing its own ASAT capability, and whether this capability should be demonstrated or simulated. India has a missile defense system under development, and the potential for India to acquire an ASAT capability is linked to its missile defense capabilities. The Indian Defence Research and Development Organisation has been developing missile defense capabilities independently but is also increasingly looking to partner with the United States and other countries. In contrast, China has followed the route of developing an ASAT capability first and later developing missile defense based on its ASAT capability.


How do China's space capabilities play into the regional politics of the subcontinent?

India is closely monitoring China's space cooperation initiatives in South Asia. China launched a satellite for Pakistan in 2011, and another for Sri Lanka in 2012. Our concerns are informed by the nuclear precedent; cooperation with China was critical for the Pakistani program. India feels that if Pakistan, which today has very limited space capabilities, cooperated with China, it could become a capable power in the space realm. The two major concerns are an independent Pakistani ASAT capability and further development of Pakistan's long-range missile capabilities. An ASAT capability is not quite as simple as rocket technology, but it would not be the hardest thing for Pakistan to achieve either.

For China, Sri Lanka is extremely important in the maritime security context, and for the Maritime Silk Road program. India–Sri Lanka relations have gone through ups and downs, but the new president, Maithripala Sirisena, and new prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, both have a friendly disposition toward India. Nonetheless, there are strict limits to Indian influence in Colombo. Critically, Sri Lanka is in dire need of economic opportunities and faces huge developmental challenges. Even if India had all the goodwill to support and help Sri Lanka, it does not have the deep pockets that China does. India is concerned that space cooperation may become yet another path for China to make inroads in Colombo.


Have India's positions in multilateral forums on how the space domain should be governed changed with the country's new focus on military capabilities?

Despite India's new interest in military capabilities in space, official rhetoric and official statements at UN forums, such as the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, continue to emphasize India's support for the peaceful and civilian use of outer space and opposition to the weaponization of space capabilities and programs. Nevertheless, there are changes on the ground. There has also been some evolution in India's stance to developing global regimes for outer space. For instance, if you look at its position in 2011–12, the country was highly critical of the European Union's effort to develop a code of conduct, arguing that the EU cannot decide what is good for the rest of the world and expect all countries to sign on to the proposal. India has come a long way since then. In the last three years, it has been actively engaged with the United States, all the European countries, and the EU in particular in discussing a code of conduct and other promising mechanisms. Nevertheless, India has continued with its stated position that transparency and confidence-building measures (TCBM) are worthwhile, but they are only complementary to legally binding mechanisms.

Having said that, India is also beginning to understand and appreciate that in the current political climate, negotiating international treaties will not be easy as long as reaching consensus among the major powers remains a challenge. India has become slightly more pragmatic and now believes that TCBMs may be a good starting point, allowing for a gradual move toward legally binding mechanisms with all the important clauses on verification and enforcement. The best historical precedent would be the Outer Space Treaty, which started with a very loose set of regulations within the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space that went on to become a treaty in 1967.


Has the increased use of space capabilities for military applications changed how India thinks about its reliance on other countries and private actors in space?

Contemporary wars, from the first Persian Gulf War onward, have been highly technology-dependent, with C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) capabilities playing a key role. India appreciates that reliance on the integration of outer space and cyber capabilities will only increase in future conflicts. Through 2013, India had about 25 satellites, of which 4 were dual-use. The military was relying on those 4 satellites and did not have a dedicated military satellite until August 2013, when the first satellite was launched for the Indian Navy for maritime communications. Until then, India was relying on Inmarsat, a British commercial satellite communication provider. The next military satellite will serve the Indian Air Force and Indian Army and will likely have a delayed launch this year. Beyond the maritime domain, India has been relying on foreign partners for many other satellite-based communications and data services. For instance, it continues to rely on NASA for deep space communications. India also works a great deal with France to launch its heavy satellites.


What institutional changes has the government made to implement this shift in focus?

Until recently, the scientific and technological bureaucracy had been left to set its own goals and achieve whatever it could. The political leadership has failed to take ownership of this particular domain. The government needs to set goals, requirements, and milestones outlining where India wants to be in 2020 and 2030. The scientific bureaucracy's responsibility should be to achieve those goals. After the Indian Mars Orbiter Mission successfully deployed its orbiter, earning the state a huge amount of positive publicity, Prime Minister Modi began to attach much more importance to space programs and has been focusing more high-level attention on the domain. Last year, the induction of India's foreign secretary to the space commission for the first time confirmed India's focus on space from a foreign policy and national security perspective. An older change that also reflects this shift in focus was the creation of the first integrated space cell within the Headquarters of the Integrated Defence Staff in 2008. This cell was formed to create synergy between the Department of Space, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), which is a civilian space agency, and the Ministry of Defence and the military so that these different institutions talk to each other about requirements, capabilities, and relevant policy.


An important development in the U.S. space program over the last decade has been the emergence of private sector partners. What role does the private sector play in the Indian space program, and what challenges to further private sector development exist?

While the Indian space program is entirely state-driven, ISRO is around 70%–80% reliant on private sector contractors for components and services. There are a huge number of Indian companies providing ISRO with launch and satellite components—the leaders being established engineering and technology firms such as Larsen & Toubro, Walchandnagar Industries, and Godrej, with Tata Aerospace gaining ground. There is also a whole range of new space actors emerging, including several start-up companies based in Bangalore and elsewhere. Most of them are in the small satellite segment, but there are one or two companies talking to ISRO and the larger space community about developing launching capabilities for slightly bigger satellites. But I foresee another seven or eight years before ISRO finalizes a policy that facilitates greater private sector participation, particularly in a role beyond that of component supplier.

There have been increasing calls for allowing private sector firms to manage some of the tried and tested programs, which would allow ISRO to refocus on the larger, more ambitious interplanetary missions, as well as purely research-oriented programs. For example, the former ISRO chairman called on Larsen & Toubro to take over India's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle program, which has been an established program for more than a decade now. Privatization may also allow India to increase its launch capacity, which is currently at four to five per year and compares poorly with the twenty or so launches China does on average. Increasing the number of launches is partly an infrastructural problem tied to the number of launch facilities in India, but ISRO also has internal constraints on its capacity to deliver. Dr. A.S. Pillai, formerly the head of the Brahmos missile program, has now moved from the Defence Research and Development Organisation to ISRO to push for greater public-private participation and to explore how India's space program can leapfrog ahead with the entry of the private sector. One impediment is that India does not have an explicit space policy to guide private sector participation. I and others have argued that it is in India's interest to make official, even in very broad terms, its space policy, ambitions, and plans for the near future, medium term, and long term. India does have some sector-specific policies, such as for satellite communications and remote sensing data. But these have not been fleshed out well. Industry is unsatisfied, complaining that the policies do not detail how the government will partner with commercial actors. ISRO is currently in the process of developing a full-fledged space policy. This will be put through the Ministry of External Affairs and finally through parliamentary debate, meaning that finalizing the policy will take at least another two years.


Which foreign partners have been the most important for India in the history of its space program? Is the relative importance of those partnerships changing, and what opportunities for collaboration has India identified?

Our most important international partner in space has been France, which launched most of India's heavy-payload satellites. Until recently, we were reliant on the French because any satellite that weighs more than two metric tons was always a problem for our own launch vehicles. We lacked the cryogenic engine technology to improve our launchers and failed in the early 1990s to buy it from Russia, which was put under pressure from the United States not to transfer the technology to India. Our indigenous cryogenic engines have only recently undergone a series of successful tests, and we will soon no longer need to rely on our international partners to launch heavy payloads.

The other country that has been important for India has been Israel. India and Israel have cooperated in developing advanced imaging and reconnaissance satellites, most notably the RISAT-2. Israel Aerospace Industries and ISRO worked together to develop the RISAT-2 imagery satellite shortly after the Mumbai terrorist attacks. ISRO was already developing RISAT-1, but following the attacks, India decided to work with Israel to launch the RISAT-2 right away, even before the RISAT-1 was complete. RISAT-2, using synthetic aperture radar, is a day-night and all-weather radar-imaging satellite capable of monitoring India's border areas on a 24/7 basis. Even as RISAT-2 has a number of applications in the realm of agriculture, cyclone tracking, and disaster management, its applications for security and surveillance, including over its immediate waters, have been far more significant.

The third important partner has been NASA, with which India has a long history of cooperation, going back to its first launch of a sounding rocket in 1971. However, cooperation was restricted because of the export control regimes and sanctions placed on ISRO and many of its associated institutions following the 1974 and 1998 nuclear tests. This history also explains why India is guarded and secretive about its policies and capabilities. However, after the 2005 U.S.-India civil nuclear agreement, things have begun improving. All ISRO entities have now been removed from the sanctions list, and there is more cooperation at every level. The United States is now talking about bringing India into the global export control regimes, and India has been tweaking and adjusting its export control lists to facilitate this process.

While Russia has been a key partner to India in the defense realm, space cooperation has been limited. However, even that limited cooperation has come under strain. For instance, Russia was supposed to supply a Lunokhod rover and a lander for India's Chandrayaan-2 mission, but it has faced several delays. In the face of this, India reportedly may develop its own lander for the mission—thus, the Chandrayaan-2 is being reconfigured with an Indian orbiter, lander, and rover. Some Russian experts say the delays may be a result of Chinese pressure on Russia to limit cooperation with India. In the face of the Ukraine crisis, Russian scholars talk about how the country needs a strong voice on its side. India cannot play that role, but China can. Although China does not have much to gain from Russia in terms of new technologies, Beijing appears willing to see what it can gain through this cooperation. The advanced space cooperation between these two countries sparks a lot of apprehension and wariness in India.


Xiaodon Liang is an Intern with the Political and Security Affairs group at NBR.


This is part of a series of publications produced by NBR for the Senate India Caucus.



Rajeswari Rajagopalan is Senior Fellow and Head of the Nuclear and Space Policy Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. Prior to this, she spent five years at the National Security Council Secretariat (2003–7), where she was an Assistant Director.

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