An Indian Space Odyssey: Security and Economy

An Indian Space Odyssey: Security and Economy

During the past two decades, several initiatives by ISRO concerning the Indian space programme have been conducted. These reflect both an international environment of competition for space dominance and India’s growing wealth and technological capability.  

In 2013, India sent an exploration satellite to Mars. In 2017, it obtained the record number of satellites positioned in orbit in a single take-off. And on July 22nd, 2019, it began their most ambitious mission to date: to transport and land a probe at the Moon’s south pole. The next goal of ISRO is to send a human to space between December 2021 and January 2022, in what will be the first human-crewed mission for the country. If it achieves its goal, India will become the fourth country in the world to achieve this feat.

However, this is going to be difficult, and there is a great division in opinions regarding the chances of success. However, the least clear issue by ISRO is one of the interplanetary travels. Due to the absence of specific dates for sending crewed missions, these do not appear to be very advanced. Therefore, there is a risk that the 2021/2022 launch will end up being a mere show for Prime Minister Modi to boast himself in front of his followers, rather than the start of a long-term programme. At the same time, many people in India remain critical of the space programme, questioning government spending.

The militarisation of the Indian space program

Another of the initiatives promoted by the Indian government materialised on March 27, when the first test of an Indian anti-satellite missile (ASAT) was carried out. New Delhi has historically been cautious about positioning itself as an aggressive power; however, the ASAT test marked a definite shift in India’s space programme towards its progressive militarisation.

Concerns about Beijing jeopardising its critical infrastructure led New Delhi to show its capacity for retaliation as a deterrent. After the test, the government ordered the development of a space doctrine project. This, together with the recent steps taken by China, Russia and the United States to create specialised space forces, could lead to the creation of an Indian military space organisation.

New Delhi is organising its first simulated space warfare exercise in the near future to counter China’s growing space warfare capabilities. The simulation will help identify potential threats, the kind of response India can adopt with its current capabilities, and also the areas in which it will need to invest in expanding its response capacity.

The commercial dimension of the Indian space programme

With the world record for placing satellites in orbit, India has attracted the attention of many telecommunications companies wishing to launch their satellites at meager costs, thus positioning itself as the best country for the launch of commercial satellites.

India’s approach to space commercialisation is not entirely new but stems from the government’s plan to make space an economic engine and turn India into the world’s satellite launch pad. The commercialisation of the Indian space programme is primarily conditioned by the need to remain competitive with China or companies such as Tesla.

In this sense, India has already had some success with the recent launch of a navigation satellite manufactured by a public-private consortium, but perhaps in the long term the most exciting aspect of India’s commercial space activity is the company Exceed Space, which built and successfully launched its first satellite, ExseedSAT 1, in 2018.

But it’s in the launch of large, heavy satellites where the money is. India has launched several of these satellites with its Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV), but so far it has only been used for national satellites. In recent months, however, there have been several consultations with US and European companies to conduct launches through the GSLV. If India can start bringing heavy satellites into space at a low cost, it could monopolise a market worth billions of dollars.

Towards an Outer Space Regime?

In recent years, it has been pointed out that there are plans to extract moon dust rich in Helium 3, to generate energy and transport it back to Earth. This would confirm that the future of space will focus on the mining of celestial bodies, and this will force to generate norms and rules for the management of these activities.

Likely, New Delhi’s fears of being excluded from the process of generating these norms will force it to adopt measures that expand its capacity for action in space, thus ensuring that it has a seat at the negotiating table of the rules of space management. All this shows that India has changed its strategic culture. It’s changing space policy suggests that it is quite willing to serve its security interests, and to project itself as a technological power in a very exclusive club of states.

Categories: Security, Under The Radar

About Author

Manuel Herrera Almela

Manuel Herrera is a Geo-political risk analyst at the Geopolitical Analysis Cabinet of the Spanish Ministry of Defence. He previously worked as a research assistant at the Nuclear Security Programme in the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi (India), where he devoted most of its research to the Iranian nuclear file and the Indo-Pakistan conflict. He has also worked for the Department of the Interior of the Catalan Government as a researcher on a project concerning the main mechanisms for exports control of sensitive nuclear materials of the EU. He regularly collaborates with several Spanish and foreign think tanks, newspapers, and several intelligence cabinets. He is currently a PhD candidate at the King Juan Carlos University of Madrid where he is writing a thesis on the EU Non-Proliferation policy. He holds a master's degree in International Security from IBEI and a master's degree in European Union Studies from the European Institute in Bilbao. He also has a bachelor degree in International Relations from the Ramon Llull University of Barcelona.