India’s new astropolitik

C. RAJA MOHAN

THE first in-person summit of the Quad meeting in Washington during September 2021, opened the door for India’s space cooperation with the US and its Asian allies. The Quad, or the Quadrilateral Forum, is a coalition that brings together Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. Set up 2007, the Quad went into a coma soon after, but has come roaring back to emerge as a major new element of the Indo-Pacific architecture. In moving towards greater space cooperation within the framework of the Quad, Delhi is breaking from many traditional elements of its space policy. Long focused on bilateral cooperation with major space actors and taking the lead in multilateral forums, Delhi has now embarked on ‘minilateral’ cooperation on outer space that has become commercially attractive as well as politically contested amidst the growing militarization of this domain.

India’s engagement with outer space in a coalition with ‘like-minded states’ is based on a recognition of two important trends. One is the role of space technologies in shaping the 21st century global order. The other is about the urgency of writing new rules of road for peace and stability in outer space.  The new emphasis on space cooperation is part of a much larger technology agenda outlined by India and its Quad partners. In the statement issued after bilateral talks, Modi and President Joe Biden called on India and the United States to ‘continue and expand their partnership in new domains and many areas of critical and emerging technology – space, cyber, health security, semiconductors, AI, 5G, 6G and future generation telecommunications technology, and Block chain, that will define innovation processes, and the economic and security landscape of the next century.’

Technology cooperation has always been an important part of
India-US relations. But it has been
a boutique discourse between the relevant agencies of the two governments. But as emerging technologies overhaul global economic
and security structures, Delhi and Washington are now widening the interface of technology cooperation between India and the US. To be sure, official Delhi and Washington will
have a critical role in facilitating technological cooperation in these advanced areas. But it is the commercial sector that must set the pace for progress within India. And cross-border collaboration among the Quad corporates will be critical in implementing the ambitious technological agenda outlined in Washington last week.

 

 

Technological progress in the last two decades has also ‘produced’ new domains for human activity. One is ‘cyberspace’ that drives so much of modern life and occupies so much policy and political attention around the world. But the emergence of ‘outer space’ as a strategic domain is yet to get enough attention it deserves in Delhi. Although human forays into space began in the middle of the 20th century, the intensity of that activity as well as its commercial and security implications have dramatically increased in recent decades.  As outer space becomes a location for lucrative business as well as a site of military competition between states, the salience of space cooperation between the Quad members is likely to increase in the coming years.

Until now, the maritime domain has dominated the strategic co-operation bilaterally between Delhi and Washington as well as within the Quad. The annual Malabar naval exercise, for example, began nearly three decades ago as a bilateral venture in 1992 and became a quadrilateral one in 2020 with the participation of Australia. The idea of the Quad itself goes back to spontaneous cooperation between the navies of India, US, Australia, and Japan in responding to the massive humanitarian crisis triggered by Boxer Day Tsunami in eastern Indian Ocean at the end of 2004. The rise, fall and resurrection of the Quad is also intimately linked to the construction of a new maritime geography – the Indo-Pacific.

The rise of China, the projection of its maritime power into the Pacific and the Indian Ocean encouraged the re-imagination of the two oceans as a geopolitical continuum. As in the maritime Indo-Pacific so in outer space, coalition building has become important for both Washington and Delhi. The US recognizes that it can’t unilaterally define the space order anymore and is looking for partners.  India that traditionally acted as non-aligned ‘lone ranger’ in the security area has now moved towards building partnerships and coalitions. PM Modi’s bilateral and Quad summits in Washington saw the first steps towards strategic cooperation on space.

 

 

The India-US joint statement issued in Washington highlighted plans to finalise, ‘a Space Situational Awareness Memorandum of Understanding that will help in sharing of data and services towards ensuring the long-term sustainability of outer space activities by the end of the year.’ International cooperation on space situational awareness is similar to the agreements on maritime domain awareness – that facilitate sharing of information on a range of ocean metrics. India has been strengthening its maritime domain awareness through the Information Fusion Centre for the Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR) at Gurgaon.

Space situational awareness (SSA) involves monitoring the movement of all objects – natural (meteors) and man-made (satellites) – as well as effective tracking of space weather. If you think this is stuff for video games, you are very wrong. Today space is integral to our lives
and disruption of space-based com-munications and earth observation will have serious consequences. When signed, the agreement with the US on SSA will be the first of its kind for India. Washington has agreements with more than two dozen countries on SSA.

Beyond the bilateral, the Quad has set up a new space working group that ‘will identify new collaboration opportunities and share satellite data for peaceful purposes such as monitoring climate change, disaster response and preparedness, sustainable uses of oceans and marine resources, and on responding to challenges in shared domains.’ The Quad leaders also promised to ‘consult on rules, norms, guidelines and principles for ensuring the sustainable use of outer space.’

 

 

A second important development on space cooperation at the Modi-Biden summit has been the consultations between the two sides on the future of human activity on the Moon. The US and Indian delegations discussed a US initiative called the Artemis Accords – that regulates national activity on the Moon and other planetary objects. In the final quarter of the 20th century, the world agreed on several norms to guide human presence on the Moon. As technological breakthroughs open up new possibilities for commercial and military activity on the Moon, there is growing awareness that the world needs to revisit those rules – codified in the Outer Space Treaty (1967) and the Moon Treaty (1979), and update them to suit contemporary realities.

In 2020, eight countries led by the United States signed the so-called Artemis Accords. The accords are an agreement to abide by a broad set of principles to guide the exploration of the Moon and other celestial bodies for a host of activities ranging from mining resources to setting up lunar colonies.  The eight signatories were from Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, and the United States. Since then, some others have joined – Brazil, South Korea, New Zealand, and Ukraine. The US has invited India to join the accords and some preliminary official discussion on the issues has taken place at the Washington summit.

 

 

As technological capabilities grow, nations are looking beyond the near-earth space (or the ‘brown waters’ in the maritime jargon that continues to shape the outer space discourse) to inter-planetary probes and deep space research (the ‘blue waters’ if you will). These trends have brought the Moon – the closest celestial body to the Earth – into sharp focus.  As space-faring powers seek routine access to the Moon – as opposed to the lunar landings of the 20th century driven by political prestige – their attention has turned to what is called the cis-lunar space – or the volume between the orbits around the Earth and Moon.

No national activity in the cislunar space in recent years has been more ambitious than that of China.  Beijing’s lunar mission, named after the Chinese moon goddess Chang’e, was unveiled in 2007. Since then, China has put two spacecraft in lunar orbit (Chang’e 1 and 2) and landed two rovers on the moon (Chang’e 3 and 4). Chang’e 4 had the distinction of being the first landing on the far side of the moon that can’t be seen from the earth. The Chang’e 5 launched last year brought lunar material back to the earth. The last time a mission returned with lunar rock was the Soviet Luna 24 in 1976.

China’s ambitions are much larger. The next moon missions – Chang’e 6, 7, and 8 could well contribute to the construction of an International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) in the south pole of the Moon. The ILRS will have a space station orbiting the Moon, a moon base on the surface that will have several intelligent robots performing a variety of jobs. To support the ILRS, Beijing hopes to build a super-heavy rocket, Long March CZ-9, before the end of this decade. It is expected to carry at least 50 tonnes to the Moon. For a comparison of the scale, the payload of the Chandrayaan-2 launched by India’s PSLV rocket in July 2019 was about four tonnes.

 

 

China has also added an international dimension to its Moon plans by inviting other countries to participate in the ILRS project. Russia, once a leading space actor has now joined hands with China on the ILRS. Russia is reviving its Luna series of probes to the Moon to complement the Chinese efforts. Luna 25, 26 and 27 will work in tandem with Chang’e 6, 7 and 8 to undertake expansive reconnaissance and develop techniques for ultra-precise landings on the moon. Together these missions will lay the basis for the second stage of ILRS – a joint construction of the lunar base – starting from 2026.

As geopolitical considerations drive Russia towards China, space cooperation has become an extension of their strategic partnership against America. Russia is also threatening to cut-off space cooperation with the United States. It is a cooperation that emerged during the Cold War and has expanded since then. The United States, which raced to the Moon in the 1960s shut down the Apollo programme in the early 1970s. The broad advance of Beijing’s space programme, across the civilian and military domains, and its deepening collaboration with Moscow has shaken America out of its prolonged neglect of the Moon. The Trump Administration announced plans to put astronauts back on the Moon by 2024. The new project was named Artemis, after the Greek goddess and twin sister of Apollo.

 

The structure of the Artemis programme is also similar to China’s. It involves the construction of a permanent space station orbiting the Moon, called Lunar Gateway, and a surface presence at the south pole of the Moon that is supposed to have ice and could sustain future human activity. Although the deadline may be unrealistic, there is no doubt about the intent and the urgency in Washington about restoring America’s leadership in lunar exploration in the face of the Chinese challenge. Like China, the United States too decided that it cannot go alone and is looking for partners for its Artemis programme.

Many provisions of the Outer Space Treaty are increasingly subject to competing interpretations and vulnerable to new facts on the Moon created by the first movers. The breakdown of the post-Cold War harmony among the major powers has added fuel to the fire on the Moon and set the stage for a prolonged geopolitical contestation. That is the context in which the US is promoting the Artemis Accords in relation to the Moon and promote transparency, interoperability, emergency assistance, and peaceful international cooperation. But Russia and China don’t seem enthusiastic about working with the US. That leaves other space-faring nations like India to make difficult choices.

The growing strategic salience of outer space demands substantive national policy action in India. Delhi has undertaken some reforms in recent years like letting private sector participate in space activity. It has taken tentative steps to cope with the unfolding military challenges in outer space. It has also initiated space security dialogue with close partners like the US, Japan, and France.

The scale of the challenges and opportunities in outer space, however, demand a more urgent and sweeping reform that can only be mandated from the highest political level. Back in 2015, PM Modi’s speech on the Indian Ocean focused national attention on maritime affairs. India could do with a similar intervention on outer space today. Modi has often talked about space technology in recent years and initiated some changes in a piecemeal fashion; but there has been no articulation of a comprehensive space strategy. Three elements of change present themselves: one is the privatization of space activity, second is the explicit framing of India’s military goals in space, and third is reworking the global governance of space.

 

 

Although India started early in launching a space programme and built impressive capabilities against great odds over the decades, it remains a laggard in realizing the full potential of its space capabilities. At the heart of the problem is the fact that the programme remains a governmental enterprise run by the Department of Space. Meanwhile the rest of the world has moved on letting the private sector run ever larger parts of the space programme. India was not an exception to state monopolies in the space sector in the 20th century. The sophisticated nature of technologies involved, the military implications, and the international prestige associated with them meant state led the space sector around the world. In India, the developmental imperative added another justification for state control. But continuing with that framework in the 21st century is a losing proposition for India.

As space technologies find a growing number of commercial uses, the size of the global space economy has grown rapidly in the last few years. The current size of the space economy is estimated to be around $ 450 billion and is expected to grow to $1.4 trillion by the end of this decade according
to some estimates. But India has barely 2 per cent share of the global space commerce today. The only way Delhi can boost India’s weight in the global economy is by ending the monopoly of the Department of Space. Although the NDA government did announce some reforms in encouraging private sector activity in 2020, the Department of Space and its agencies continue
to exercise expansive paternalistic control. There is a widespread consensus that India needs a space legislation that will provide a sustainable framework for space commerce. But critics say a space bill under consideration by the government does not go far enough. The temptation to retain state control continues to trump the imperative of promoting the rapid growth of India’s space economy.

 

 

The longer Delhi takes to come up with a sensible regulatory framework, the harder it will be for India to catch up with the rapidly changing commercial dynamic in outer space. Consider for example, telecommunication. It is one area that saw early deployment of space technologies for commercial purposes. But the intensity of that activity is dramatically increasing today. A number of western companies are planning to launch hundreds of low-earth satellites to provide broadband internet around the world. Beijing has plans for a Space Silk Road that seeks to expand Chinese dominance over global telecommunications. Meanwhile a whole range of new economic activities are emerging – from innovative uses of space-based earth observation to manufacturing specialized products in gravity free space environment, space tourism, and possible mining of Moon and other celestial bodies. The expanding commercial use of outer space has been marked by a deeper involvement of private actors.

The long-standing state monopoly on rocket launches has finally been broken by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company that introduced many innovations on the most demanding side of space business. The time is now for Delhi to mandate government space agencies to focus on basic scientific and technological research, while allowing the private sector to take the lead in the full range of activities relating to the space business.

 

 

On the security front too, India has steadily expanded the military dimension of its space programme – for example in the use of satellites for military communication, intelligence gathering through space-based observation. It has also tested anti-satellite weapons. But as in the commercial realm, India is in the danger of falling behind the major powers in the military uses of space. Delhi needs to correct this imbalance. Drawing private capital – both national and foreign – into the commercial space programme will allow the government of India to redirect resources to the faster development of military space capabilities.

As space becomes a critical factor in shaping the military balance of power on the earth, there is growing competition among states. During the Cold War it was American rivalry with the Soviet Union that shaped space security norms. China has now emerged as a major military space power and surpassed Russia. The dramatic expansion of Chinese space capabilities and Beijing’s ambition to dominate the outer space have lent a new urgency for the democratic powers come together to secure their national interests as well as promote sustainable order in the skies above. For India, this means moving from a small and national military space programme to developing security coalitions in space with the Quad and European partners like France.

Finally, one of the consequences of the growing civilian and military space activity is putting enormous pressure on the current international legal regime centred around the Outer Space Treaty. The OST says outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, ‘is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.’ It declares that outer space shall be the ‘province of all mankind’ and its use ‘be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries.’ India had a major role in drafting the Outer Space Treaty at the United Nations. The sweeping universalism of the OST, backed by Indian idealism, remains very inspiring; but it was easy to celebrate it when there were no capabilities on the earth to exploit the outer space for commercial and military gain. That situation is changing, thanks to the advances in space technologies and the expansive ambitions of major powers.

Delhi must initiate a comprehensive review of India’s interests in outer space. It needs a fresh look at the emerging challenges to the current space order, review some of its past political assumptions about the nature of outer space and contribute to the development of new global norms that will strengthen the resilience and sustainability of outer space. That in turn means working closely with its Quad partners as well as shaping the broader debates at the UN and other multilateral forums.