The Changing Trajectory of Space Missions
For a country that has developed a robust space exploration program over the last five decades, India has managed surprisingly well without a national space law. Current policy reflects realities from more than fifty years ago, when “national development” was the primary aim; this resulted in detailed guidelines on satellite communication and remote sensing, but little on strategic and commercial objectives.
In recent months, conversation on a comprehensive space policy has gathered pace. Government ministries are presently discussing a draft law that the chairman of the state-owned space agency – Indian Space research Organisation (ISRO) believes will be in place soon. Once legislated, a well-rounded law enunciating the goals of space research, development, and exploration, and envisaging a role for newer players, will offer the sector a transformational opportunity to optimize available expertise and use them to initiate a new era in Indian space research.
A Political Nod Toward Transformation
These developments reflect a fundamental shift in focus for the Indian space program. From technology demonstrators 40 years ago, ISRO has graduated to moon and Mars missions lauded for their low-cost efficiency. ISRO is a growing player in the commercial satellite launch market, slated to launch 25 satellites from the United States, Germany, Canada, Japan, and others this year alone. There are signs that these changes have backing of the administration in India. In early 2015, the Space Commission – the highest policy making body for space – was reconstituted to include the Foreign Secretary.
The program has also transformed from being merely a technological mission to one in which strategic and commercial aspirations are equally important. Since RISAT 2 in 2009, the program has also demonstrated a preference to using space capability to meet national defense ambitions. The latest manifestation of this inclination is in the form of the 7 satellite IRNSS or Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System – a regional real-time navigation and positioning service for South Asia to fulfil both civilian and military purposes.
As the draft law undergoes deliberation, newspapers have reported on some obstructions from the traditional home of the space program. A section of the civilian-led agency is believed to be uncomfortable with inclusion of the military component in the draft law. One way to resolve this may involve excluding the strategic aspect from the national space law, and codifying it instead in a parallel space policy to be administered by a separate agency. Should this happen, it would delay the process of enacting the policy in to law, and could even weaken the final space act.
Why Have a National Space Law?
ISRO’s discomfort is not difficult to understand. Developing and using satellites for strategic missions is relatively new for the agency. Even now, it desists from acknowledging the strategic objectives that these assets may fulfill, leaving analysts to depend on unofficial sources or stray comments to build a more complete, but perhaps inaccurate picture. In comparison, countries such as the United States, Japan, China, Canada, and Singapore, to name but a few, have incorporated satellites in anti-satellite (ASAT) and electronic intelligence (ELINT) missions. Most of them have also benefited from private consortiums collaborating with space agencies to drive research and technological advancement.
In recent years, ISRO has claimed that it wants to concentrate on research and development (R&D), leaving manufacturing to private companies. Recent entrants in the civilian space market like Dhruva Space indicate the interest that private players have in the sector. A space law with guidelines on the extent of investment and collaboration of private companies can dramatically expand India’s space activities. If the recent opening up of defense manufacturing to private companies is an indicator, it is also likely to bolster the government’s flagship “Make In India” ambition.
Outlining major strategic objectives of the space program in the law will attract fresh talent and collaborations. Despite working with universities, ISRO has failed to consistently lure the best and brightest towards a career in space. This is largely because the sector offers employment only in the state-run agency, and lacks alternate funding in R&D. A comprehensive policy allowing private players can open up additional funds for research, as well as proving to be a lucrative career option.
A declared space law will help India defend its interests and strategic goals for space exploration and use. As more countries elevate their space-faring capabilities, tomorrow’s rivalries will be about the weaponization of space, protecting assets in orbit, handling space debris, and regulating spectrum allocation. One possible necessity in such an eventuality might be a global system like the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). For example, unregulated development of ASAT capabilities by multiple players could lead to such a future. Declaring its stand now and making the broad outlines of its objectives public through a well-articulated space law will ensure that India is not left sitting outside such a global regime as it had to do on the issue of nonproliferation.
*This article is part of the IPI Space Security Initiative Series on Space Policy of Major Powers.