India needs a comprehensive space strategy

Published on Feb 11, 2022 02:52 PM IST

It will not only bolster inter-organisation coordination in India’s space sector, but also help in building investor confidence and projecting the country as a responsible space power

Space has overarching applications and dependencies across almost all aspects of civilian life and military operations. (Isro)
Space has overarching applications and dependencies across almost all aspects of civilian life and military operations. (Isro)
ByAditya Pareek and Megha Pardhi

India’s growth and prosperity in the present era is due to its ability to secure its use of outer space. With the advent of the second space age, private NewSpace companies such as SpaceX are leading the charge, and not governmental civilian space agencies or militaries. However, as outlined in the Outer Space Treaty (OST), the existing international laws hold nation-states responsible for the actions and consequences of their private space companies, citizens, and functionaries.

So it is prudent for countries and even alliances of nations to formulate strategic publications detailing the broad direction of their space programmes. Unfortunately, India has not yet published a comprehensive space strategy. It will bolster inter-organisation coordination in India’s space sector and help build investor confidence and project the nation as a responsible space power.

The United Kingdom (UK), China and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have published the latest iterations of their strategic publications focused on the use of space. It may be wise for New Delhi to bring out its own strategic documents, outlining achievements, prospects and its broad approach to space.

Space is part of a wider strategic context

Space has overarching applications and dependencies across almost all aspects of civilian life and military operations. Therefore, India needs to avoid hyper-fixation on selected outer space projects. Instead, there is a need for a balanced approach to address in-orbit, Earth-to-space, and space-to-Earth applications. The NATO strategy’s reference to space being of relevance “across the spectrum of conflict” is a correct articulation of the idea. India has recently set up its Defence Space Agency (DSA) and Defence Space Research Organisation (DSRO), but no strategic publication or detailed charter about their mandate, goals and direction has been put out.

However, some media reports suggest that DSA is looking to acquire technologies that can “evaluate threats” and “maximise the effectiveness of Indian operations in space, land, sea and air domains.” As a tri-service agency, if indeed true, this is the correct approach for DSA. However, a more credible declaration in an overarching national strategic publication would reassure private NewSpace companies willing to supply these technologies and improve their ability to secure investor funding.

Engagement with international fora and international partners

The international community and the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) are figuring out norms for responsible behaviour in outer space. New Delhi’s strategy should indicate that it will not only be a participant but also a key stakeholder. Therefore, it is imperative to put forward India’s concerns around ensuring unrestricted access to use of space by all nations.

Push for greater Space Situational Awareness (SSA)

Space Situational Awareness (SSA) is the awareness of which space object is where doing what and what impact it can have. Transparent SSA should also be a priority for India’s strategic publication, as it augments India’s capabilities across the spectrum for defence and deterrence.

New Delhi should express its resolve to hold its adversaries accountable with publicly available SSA data. Transparent SSA should also be a priority for India’s strategic publication, as it augments India’s capabilities across the spectrum for defence and deterrence.

China factor

India’s progress in space exploration has gained a lot of momentum in the last few years, but it is still behind China in ambition and execution. China is the strategic adversary of India, and even though the Chinese space programme’s budget six times higher compared to India’s, the latter has to compete with China in space.

Space debris mitigation as a priority

India faced international criticism for its 2019 Mission Shakti, Direct Ascent Anti-Satellite test. China also faced similar criticisms when debris from the wreckage of its Fengyun-1C satellite threatened the International Space Station (ISS). China’s recent white paper on space, aimed to mitigate international concerns and project China as a responsible player, includes cleaning space debris as an area of focus.

India can also use a prospective strategic publication on its use of space to declare that mitigating space debris is a newfound focus. Outgoing ISRO chairman K. Sivan has already confirmed that “technologies like self-eating rockets, self-vanishing satellites and robotic arms to catch space debris” are an area of push for ISRO.

Risk Estimation and Hostile Actions

Strategic publications are also crucial for projecting the stakes involved to communicate the risks better. India should acknowledge the threats to its economy and space assets vis adversarial, mainly Chinese counter-space capabilities. Like the UK, India should include a back-of-the-envelope estimate for potential damage any hostile action can inflict on the nation’s economy.

Permanent presence, deep space exploration, and planetary defence

Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has undertaken manned space flight as a key focus area, beginning with the upcoming Gaganyan mission. It is of strategic and scientific significance for India to highlight the value of not just human space flight missions but also sustained human presence in orbit and deep space exploration. Another area of relevance India should accelerate research on is defence from near-earth objects.

Without international cooperation, India is unlikely to catch up to China, which already has its “Tiangong” space station’s first module in orbit. China is also planning to build a near-earth object defence system in the next five years. Although details of the proposed defence systems are not known as of now, some Chinese researchers have simulated that China’s Long March 5 rockets could be used to deflect an asteroid from its trajectory.

The latest white paper on space also highlights Beijing’s willingness for international cooperation in monitoring and responding to near-earth objects. India does not have any plans for planetary defence on the horizon. Considering the importance of this subject, New Delhi should take the initiative to cooperate with international actors in the short term and plan for a planetary defence program in the long term.

Aditya Pareek and Megha Pardhi are research analysts at Takshashila Institution.

The views expressed are personal

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