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India’s space programme has both strategy and stardust in its eyes. The Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), it is often forgotten, helped develop India’s strategic missiles and provided satellite and telecom support to the military.
In the 1960s and 1970s, when India worked to develop a space rocket for launching satellites, there was widespread recognition that this capability could also be used to develop a ballistic missile.
The SLV (satellite launch vehicle), subsequently developed by Isro, is described by Bharat Karnad in his history of India’s nuclear deterrent as “the building block for all long-range missiles” created by India. The SLV became the first stage of the Agni missile, the cornerstone of India’s long-range nuclear deterrent.
India’s limited resources in those days meant that it developed many dual-use technologies – those that had both military and civilian uses – in civilian bodies and then transferred them to a military agency or vice versa. Former Isro chief Satish Dhawan was quoted in Raj Chengappa’s book Weapons of Peace as saying, “Like nuclear energy, we could cross the divide whenever we wanted.” The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), in effect, was Isro’s sister organisation.
The imposition of international sanctions on India only strengthened this symbiotic link: both Isro and the DRDO faced the same bans and had to pool resources.
Over time, as financial constraints became less of a problem, both agencies sought to develop independent capabilities and by the 1990s they only shared a propellant factory. This was cleared at the prime ministerial level, says K Santhanam, former DRDO number two. “They shared this facility for about five to seven years,” he says. “Otherwise, their relationship was reduced to peer reviews of each other’s work.”
Isro, in particular, wanted a “pristine image”, says Santhanam. Isro officials say that breaking off their military ties became important as the agency became commercialised and sought greater international cooperation. This proved useful when the Indo-US nuclear deal paved the way for the ending of international sanctions. As a prerequisite, the deal required the firewalling of the civilian rocket and military missile programmes – a standard global practice.
Isro continues to provide lesser services to the military though it prefers not to speak about it publicly. The Rs 180-crore GSAT-7 was built by Isro with defence applications in mind. Says defence expert brigadier-general Gurmeet Kanwal (rtd), “This satellite had a platform exclusively for naval communications.” Even here, however, the Indian military are seeking their own independent capability. He says the army is building up a satellite ground station near Bhopal that will allow Isro to cease to provide such services to the military.
The separation of the civilian and military space programmes still has vestigial traces. The DRDO remains a subcontractor for Isro programmes to this day and, presumably, absorbs the resulting technical knowledge. But nowadays, say Kanwal and others Isro officials prefer to downplay their role in building India’s nuclear delivery system as it positions itself as a globally competitive space agency.
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