The Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) accomplished a major feat last week by launching 104 satellites at one go, breaking the record held by Russia (37 satellites) and the earlier US record (29). Launching dozens of satellites in different orbital slots is an extremely complex manoeuvre. India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), the tried and tested workhorse of Isro, proved yet again that it can achieve more complex missions. Despite this impressive achievement, some international reports tried to underplay it by saying that these were simply nano satellites. Inserting multiple satellites in space is significant irrespective of the weight. The PSLV has become Isro’s backbone for several important and impressive missions, including the Mars mission in 2013. The fact that India became the first Asian country to do this and that it accomplished the Mars mission in the first attempt is also no small feat. Several countries including China, supposedly more advanced, had attempted the Mars mission in the past but failed. While India need not make a show of its growing capabilities, it clearly reveals that even more advanced powers have failed in such missions due to the complexities involved. Isro’s achievements are also noteworthy given that it works on a shoestring budget.
Isro’s missions have far-reaching impact both from a commercial as well as national security perspective. India has been known for its affordable yet credible missions in the global space industry for long, but it is these recent missions that illustrate what it can deliver. For one, these missions increase India’s attractiveness as a partner in the commercial sector for satellite launches. Two, they also strengthen India’s credentials in global governance. Its ability to sit at the high table gets a fillip through such missions. India has every reason to be proud of its achievements, but there are still certain aspects of its space programme that need more attention. The need for a holistic space policy cannot be underestimated. Isro has issued a couple of sector-specific policies such as for remote-sensing and Satcom (satellite communication), but it is time that India put in place a policy that is all-encompassing and issued from a central agency rather than India’s civil space agency. This becomes particularly pertinent against the backdrop of numerous requirements, both in the civilian and national security domain. Traditionally, India believed in using space assets for economic and developmental applications but India can no longer ignore security-related needs against the backdrop of regional and global developments. Technology demonstration has also remained an imperative. India’s Insat, Indian remote sensing (IRS) satellites, Cartosat and Resourcesat series are good examples of technology demonstration that evolved into significantly meeting socio-economic and developmental needs. In this regard, India cannot develop separate policies for remote sensing or satellite communication or space security. The fact is that India’s space programme has grown enormously and cannot be compartmentalized into remote-sensing or communications or defence applications. India’s space programme today envelops all the different dimensions, including space security and developmental and economic needs, and, therefore, the policy that India will eventually develop should deal with each of these elements. While there has been some recognition of the need for a space policy, this has not translated into any concrete measure. Also, the space policy must not be developed in a vacuum-it needs to be a by-product of a calibrated approach on the kind of future warfare India is likely to fight and accordingly, decide on the course of technologies and capabilities, rather than do this in an unplanned style. It will be ideal if there is a national security strategy that is driving India’s broad ambitions on where it wants to go by 2030, for instance, and then have a clear requirement-based perspective. In the absence of that clarity, the scientific and technical bureaucracy will develop a perspective that is almost entirely technology-driven, minus a strategic interface. Also, outer space has been left in the hands of the scientific bureaucracy for too long. The political leadership has to take ownership of this domain and dictate what is necessary from a national strategic perspective.
Given the growing requirements, India must tackle one other important dimension: commercialization and increasing private sector participation. While Isro has accomplished a great deal, and is one of the public enterprises that has done India proud, it cannot deliver on the multitude of requirements that India has. India has a sizeable and talented private sector that must be brought in to maximize the capacity to manufacture as well as launch satellites. Isro might need to do a bit of handholding in the beginning but with a little help, the Indian private sector can contribute to India’s space growth story in an effective manner. Lastly, the current momentum towards developing global norms for outer space activities should be considered as India contemplates its space policy. Globally speaking, space debris, potential weaponization of space, cyber arms race in outer space, and anti-satellite (Asat) weapons are becoming major challenges, pushing states to write new rules of the road. India, being an established space player, should play an active role in shaping these and not lose the opportunity. However, these challenges do not belong to one single basket or the other, which dictate a considered policy approach from India. In addition, India should also be mindful of efforts by big powers to shape an NPT-like (NPT is the treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons) instrument for the space domain that may, for instance, declare a ban on Asat testing. Asat capability can be demonstrated in a responsible manner, creating the least amount of debris and in an orbit that is least damaging. India’s demonstration of an Asat capability would have both a political and strategic impact in terms of deterrence. India should pay heed to the evolving challenges and opportunities in outer space to stay atop. This commentary was originally published in LiveMint