Space: securing India’s final frontier


Content from the Brookings Institution India Center is now archived. After seven years of an impactful partnership, as of September 11, 2020, Brookings India is now the Centre for Social and Economic Progress, an independent public policy institution based in India.

The launch of the GSLV–D6 powered by an indigenous cryogenic engine is a game-changer

Even as the country was agog with a salacious society murder and an indefensible regional protest over reservations, which hogged the electronic bandwidth and the print media, an event of strategic import crucial to secure India’s space frontier was relegated to a footnote. The launch of the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) – D6 powered by an indigenous cryogenic engine is a game changer in itself. Coupled with a military payload – a satellite, which will enhance secure communications among India’s strategic forces and other key users – the event is critical for several reasons.

First, this launch validates the new Indian GSLV design and Indian made cryogenic engine, which was successfully tested in January 2014 and, according to Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) officials, proves that this second successful launch was no fluke. Indeed, the growing confidence in the capabilities of this GSLV Mark II version will prove crucial for ISRO’s development of the GSLV Mark III version capable of putting satellites up to 5000 kilograms in Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO).

Second, at an estimated cost of around $ 36 million per launch, this GSLV is much cheaper than other options that India has used. For instance the Ariane – 5, which was used to launch GSAT-7 – India’s first advanced multi-band communication satellite dedicated for military use – costs approximately $ 60 million per launch. While India will continue to use foreign launch services given ISRO’s limited capacity, the GSLV option is, clearly, more economical.

Third, as a corollary, India is also on the path of becoming a competitive global space actor. It has already become a significant market player in launching satellites between 1425 kilograms and 1750 kilograms to Geosynchronous and Geostationary orbits and Sun-Synchronous Polar orbits respectively through its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). Until now the PSLV has launched over 40 satellites for 19 countries. The GSLV will enhance India’s competitive edge, evident from the fact that the GSLV Mark II has been commissioned to launch the NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar satellite in 2021.

The GSLV-D6 marks a crucial turning point in India’s credentials as a significant space power and the desire of its military to use space to enhance India’s security. Over the past five years India launched an average of 4 to 5 satellites per year (including on foreign launchers). Over the next few years this number is expected to go up to an average of 7 to 8 per year. In recognition of this increasing demand ISRO plans to build a third launch pad and a second vehicle assembly building to enhance launch turnaround.

India’s impressive space credentials notwithstanding, they pale in comparison to China, which is likely to be India’s commercial and military competitor in space. According to the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) Annual Report to Congress on Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China 2015, China is already placing an average of “17-25 satellites on orbit each year” – three to five times India’s average. Moreover, these spacecraft have expanded China’s strategic satellite communication and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. Additionally, China has also completed construction of its fourth space launch centre – its biggest – on Hainan Island. Unlike India, all four of China’s launch centres are located in different parts of the country and provide it with greater launch flexibility and redundancies.

Simultaneously, while building up its own space-based assets, China is also developing the capabilities to disrupt the space-based assets of adversaries through directed-energy weapons and satellite jammers. This, according to the DoD report is in line with the assertion by China’s military to “blind and deafen the enemy” by “destroying, damaging and interfering with the enemy’s … satellites”.

India, which is only just starting to use space-based assets for military purposes, needs to address these challenge through a mix of diplomacy (to promote norms that prevent outer space becoming a battlefield) and offensive and defensive space capabilities, which will allow it to protect its own assets from attack while also developing the capability to take action against other assets, if necessary.

In the diplomatic arena India has thrown in its lot with the G-21 group of countries (with a disparate membership ranging from Algeria to Zimbabwe and including problematic countries (for New Delhi) like North Korea, Iran, and Pakistan. While the group’s position is supportive of the objective of the prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS), their approach is not; it echoes the position of Russia and China and annoys the United States, with whom India is increasing its space cooperation. It might be time for New Delhi to review its diplomatic approach and, perhaps, go it alone rather than part of this group.

In terms of building its military capabilities, India has shied away from overtly developing offensive capabilities, even though it has the technological wherewithal to do so. In contrast, China, which is one of the leading proponents of PAROS has simultaneously moved ahead to develop and demonstrate its offensive anti-satellite attack capability.

Even as India has finally begun to use space-based assets to enhance its security, it needs to review its diplomatic and strategic approach to keeping weapons out of space. This is imperative for India to secure its final frontier.

A shorter version of this article first appeared in Mint, on August 31, 2015. Like other products of the Brookings Institution India Center, this is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues. The views are those of the author.