by Cameron Hickert

India’s space capability situation is quite different from China’s, but its assets are not insignificant. It boasts over 34 satellites in orbit and has successfully completed the least expensive inter planetary mission ever, by sending an orbiting craft to Mars for $73 million. However, from a capability perspective, India’s greatest shortfall is its lack of long range radars and laser ranging systems that can track space objects – this infrastructure is “extremely limited if not non-existent.” These systems are crucial to protecting space-based assets, as they allow space agencies to detect inactive satellites and space debris which might collide with sophisticated and costly equipment in orbit. These systems are also the basis upon which a nation can track anti-satellite weapons, and are thus crucial to defence capabilities and monitoring of other space powers.

Lack of Power Projection

Strategically, India’s approach appears to be noticeably different from China’s. Absent are broad proclamations about the importance of space capabilities for national defence, human achievement, scientific prowess, economic power, and global prestige. Rather, the Indian government’s published materials regarding its space program’s vision, mission, objectives, and functions are quite sparse and utilize a technical vernacular rather than one dressed in trimmings of power proclamations. For example, the first point under the ISRO’s mission statement is to “design and development of launch vehicles and related technologies for providing access to space.” It is within the scope of a regional rivalry perspective that this makes sense; because India’s capabilities are not at the level of China’s, it would be unwise from a posturing position to emphasize the importance of those capabilities for national defence or regional stature. If India can continue to develop technological abilities that put them more on par with Chinese assets, it is likely to grow increasingly public about the power implications for space technology.

Frugal Science

One interesting strategic approach which seems to distinguish the ISRO is its emphasis on budget-friendly approaches to space. The unmanned rocket it sent to Mars for $73 million looks even more impressive in light of NASA’s Maven Mars mission, which cost $671 million. Furthermore, the success of this launch on relatively short timescales surprised Chinese space authorities, and thus garnered India more positive press and raised more eyebrows than would have been the case under a more traditional mission scheme. In fact, the ISRO often spends significantly less money than the government allocates to it annually; as an illustration in the 2014-15 fiscal year it spent only $869 million when it was allocated $1.08 billion.

Aiding the Indian economic emphasis in its space program is Pakistan’s relative weakness in the arena. Many facets of these nations’ military endeavours - for example, their nuclear programs - are best understood in relation to the other, yet Pakistan’s Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO – the nation’s space agency) has fallen far behind ISRO’s accomplishments and ambitions (SUPARCO was commissioned 8 years before ISRO). In contrast to India’s record of launching 104 satellites in a single mission, SUPARCO is not expected to have the capabilities to indigenously produce or launch its own satellite for two decades – the target is currently set at 2040. These factors have enabled a relatively frugal Indian approach that is unique among major space powers today, and represents a noticeable shift from the paradigm set under the Chinese and U.S. approaches.

Defence Focus Shift

India has established itself as a player in the budget satellite business. It even put a probe into orbit around Mars in 2014, in a U.S.-assisted project that cost just $76 million. But it is scurrying to enhance its ability to monitor China's activities, and the partnership with Japan is part of this.

Another sign that space is becoming a defence focus for India came on Dec. 19, when the country launched its third dedicated military communications satellite, the GSAT-7A. The satellite will connect with ground-based radar, bases and military aircraft, along with drone control networks.

On March 27, 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that his country had successfully conducted an anti-satellite (ASAT) test. Hailed by Modi as a moment of “utmost pride” and with “a historic impact on generations to come,” The mission was seen domestically as proof India was a space power on par with the United States, Russia and China.

This ASAT test, dubbed Mission Shakti, was meticulously planned. The target satellite was launched into a sun-synchronous orbit at a deliberately low altitude of 282 kilometres on January 24, 2019, a few weeks before the test. The spacecraft was relatively small in comparison to other Indian communication satellites, with a surface area of some two square meters, and its intercept occurred on the Prithvi Defence Vehicle PDV MK-II’s downward trajectory at a closing velocity of 9.8 kilometres per second. All these elements taken together clearly suggest that the Indian government consciously intended to limit the orbital life of the debris created by the hit-to-kill intercept.

Since the successful 2007 Chinese satellite intercept, therefore, India quietly began to contemplate developing its own ASAT program principally with the intention of signalling to Beijing that it too possessed the capability to hold Chinese space assets at risk—should Indian satellites ever become victim to a Chinese attack in the future. The Mission Shakti test was meant to underscore precisely this point.

Hazards of India-US Technology Cooperation

Yet in light of regional power politics, deep technological cooperation – particularly regarding space tracking capabilities – would be imprudent for the United States. Due to the current political climate between the U.S. and China in regards to space cooperation, the partnership with India would appear negatively. This is also true against the backdrop of South China Sea involvement in which the U.S. is currently a factor, as well as ongoing border disputes between China and India. Because China sets such a strong emphasis on the power implications of the regional space order, as well as the reality of the military-civilian dual uses of space technology, stronger U.S.-India cooperation on this front would almost surely antagonize Beijing. This is in contrast to India’s approach, which finds a more solid grounding in the economic aspects of the regional space race.

The implications of U.S.-India technological cooperation would be a heightened risk environment in the region, and potentially a more belligerent China on security issues; both of these would be negative outcomes for the U.S., and would cause India more risk. It would also escalate the security and military aspects of the regional space race to a new level, stirring tensions and undermining the possibility of enhanced regional cooperation in the near future. Political ramifications outside the region are also possible, as China might seek to block India from the sort of partnerships it has been developing with Europe and Russia.

Space Rivalry

Although this would not be a problem as of now – India does not seem intensely focused on space station access or capabilities – it would crystallize an environment unfriendly to burgeoning Indian capabilities in the coming decades. The regional space race in Asia is alive and well, with China and India developing an increasingly fast-paced rivalry. Within this context, there exists clear differences in approaches between the two nations: China is open in its power-based rationale (including both hard and soft power) for the space program, which is targeted at both domestic and foreign audiences, while India is much more circumspect and technical in its official rhetoric and strategy. These dissimilarities make sense within the frameworks of the existing strengths and shortfalls of each nation’s space program, and also drive the future aims of both nations as they continue to develop a space program encompassing military, economic, and scientific characteristics.

As the regional space race moves into the future, it is plausible that the U.S. involvement in India’s program takes the shape of technology sharing. India could certainly benefit from more rapid development of its tracking technologies, and the U.S. is increasingly seeking to cut costs from NASA in development of a leaner space program. Taken in a vacuum, collaboration between the two on technological ends would thus seem quite positive, and even natural. Already both nations are active in bilateral space cooperation, so further integration is not impossible. The U.S., as the global space superpower, is always a factor in this competitive dynamic, and as such must be deliberate in its approach.

Mr. Cameron Hickert is from the United States of America, and graduated from the University of Denver. IDN wishes to thank him for this piece