Indian space policy is undergoing important changes. In the early decades, as a newly independent nation developing its space programme, India was very conscious of the resource constraints and therefore India’s space programme developed with a primary focus on social and economic development of its people. But over the last decade, India’s space programme has grown with a significant focus on military aspects. India’s space policy approach (it does not have a declared space policy), as much as can be gauged from official statements in the Indian Parliament as well as in multilateral fora like the United Nations, has also undergone important shifts to reflect this change. Today, the India’s approach to space policy is driven much more by national security worries than by morality and sovereignty considerations that prevailed in the 1980s and 1990s.
India’s space programme has today matured to a great extent with reasonable launch capabilities and a range of satellites including for ISR and remote sensing. Given the maturity of its space programme, India has begun to pay greater attention to space exploration including through its Moon and Mars missions. India is also planning to do a crewed space mission called ‘Gaganyaan’, scheduled for 2022.
There are many who question the need for India to pursue space exploration and crewed space missions but with India’s space progress gaining strength and sophistication, these appear to be next logistical steps in its development trajectory. While these do not bring direct societal or economic benefits to India, these missions do raise the profile of the Indian space programme, thus increasing the possibilities of collaboration with other countries. A second important benefit is the spin-off technological benefits from such exploratory missions. For instance, India’s deep space communication capabilities are so much more significant today that it does not have to possibly rely on space agencies of other countries for this purpose.
India’s space programme has also been conditioned by the changing security environment. Given the larger trends in global space as well as in India’s neighbourhood, India had begun developing certain military space capabilities from early 2010s. India launched its first dedicated military satellite, GSAT-7, for the Indian Navy in August 2013. The satellite was launched for enhancing space-based maritime communications and has been important in augmenting India’s maritime security capabilities, especially given the security developments in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). The GSAT-7 launch removes the Indian Navy’s dependency on Inmarsat, a company that provides communication services to its ships.
In August 2015, India launched another dedicated military satellite, the GSAT-6, capable of providing secure and quality communication for the Indian Armed Forces. Continuing the series of geosynchronous communications satellites for strategic purposes, ISRO launched GSAT-7A satellite in December 2018, catering to the communications requirement of the Indian Air Force and the Indian Army. While the satellite will be primarily operated by the Air Force and will cater to the needs of the Air Force, 30 percent of its capacity will be given to the Indian Army. Further, in April 2019, the ISRO launched EMISAT (Electro-Magnetic Intelligence Satellite) for the Indian Armed Forces. The satellite was jointly developed by ISRO and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) in an effort to strengthen the military’s ability to intercept enemy radars by detecting the electromagnetic rays they emit. In addition to dedicated military satellites, the Indian military uses a number of dual-use satellites.
The Indian military has also been making institutional changes to allow them to make better and efficient utilization of space in their military operations. In June 2010, Indian Defence Minister AK Anthony announced the establishment of Integrated Space Cell, under the Integrated Defence Services Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence. The Space Cell, jointly operated by the three services of the Indian military and the civilian institutions such as the Department of Space and ISRO, is meant to bring about better integration between these different agencies and evolve a more effective way of utilizing space for military purposes. The Cell is also supposed to review and assess possible threats to Indian space assets.
Other institutional changes include the Indian Navy’s establishment of a new office called the Assistant Chief of Naval Staff (Communications, Space and Network Centric Operations; ACNSCSNCO) in June 2012. The ACNSCSNCO is responsible for overseeing and managing space-based military capabilities. This institutional set up is in line with the goal to transition from a “platform-centric Navy” to a “network-enabled Navy.” The most significant institutional innovation is that of the Defence Space Agency (DSA), which was set up in September 2018 and operationalized in November 2019. The DSA, a tri-service agency, is seen as a precursor to a full-fledged aerospace command in future. The DSA is located in the southern Indian city of Bengaluru, and is responsible for, among other things, developing India’s space strategy. This is part of the three tri-service military commands that are to be established – one on special operations headed by Army, another on cyber space headed by Navy and of course, space, led by Air Force. The DSA, according to analysts, will have around 200 personnel from the current Defence Imagery Processing and Analysis Centre, New Delhi, and the Defence Satellite Control Centre, Bhopal.
While India’s space programme has been developing a military profile, the most significant and controversial of this development has been the demonstration of India’s anti-satellite (ASAT) capability in March 2019. India’s space programme had largely ignored the space competition between the US and the USSR during the Cold War, except for making high-sounding statements, but the situation is considerably different today. The rise of China as a great power and its accumulation of enormous wealth and hard power capabilities including in outer space has a direct impact on India’s national security.
China’s first successful ASAT test in January 2007 became a wake-up call for India of the kind of space security threats that India will need to address. This prompted a new debate in India on what kind of deterrent measures it could develop to protect its own assets in space. There was almost a consensus across political, military and scientific leadership that India must develop countermeasures in response. In 2012, Dr. V.K. Saraswat, Director-General of the Indian Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), stated that India has developed the technological blocks for demonstrating an ASAT capabilities and was only waiting for a political decision. India’s decision to demonstrate an ASAT capability was a difficult one because it went against India’s long-standing Indian policy of non-weaponisation of space. But India was only trying to match up to a capability that already existed in the region and inaction on the part of New Delhi could have hurt its national interests in the longer term.
Nevertheless, India would prefer to see some movement on global governance issues because it has stakes in a peaceful outer space both for economic and security reasons. India believes that it has made considerable investments in space which must give it a seat at the high table in the global rule-making exercise on outer space. While the financial stakes are an important driver, the political importance is even more significant. While India has traditionally preferred legally binding treaties for dealing with such problems, it has also become flexible in understanding the difficulties associated with developing legal instruments. Thus, it has taken an active role in the discussions on all potential instruments – the EU-initiated International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities (ICoC), as well as the China and Russia supported ‘Prevention of Arms Race in Outer Space’ (PAROS).
Much of the changes happening in India’s space programme is driven by China. While China may be looking at the US as its peer and developing its space power in competition with the US, Beijing’s actions and capability mix have prompted other space powers in the Asian neighbourhood to consider the implications for their own security. There are genuine security-driven considerations for India and other Asian powers in shaping their space programmes. Outer space is becoming an extension of the terrestrial geopolitical competition, with all participating. But Asia is also high on nationalism and therefore, as Joan Johnson-Freese highlighted, prestige and techno-nationalism which were pushing the US-Soviet space race are becoming more evident in today’s Asia. This does not bode well for the future.