10 February, 2011

The Enigma of Space

Geopolitics, pp 52-54, February 2011, http://www.geopolitics.in/feb2011.aspx

A perusal of the institutional website of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) shows the basic template of the Indian Space agenda. The words of the father of Indian space programme, Dr Vikram Sarabhai are embedded in it.

It reads: “There are some who question the relevance of space activities in a developing nation. To us, there is no ambiguity of purpose. We do not have the fantasy of competing with the economically advanced nations in the exploration of the moon or the planets or manned space-flight. But we are convinced that if we are to play a meaningful role nationally, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society………”

In fact, such a vision is also seconded by Rodham Narasimhan, the present director of India's Space Commission. He asserts that India’s forays into space are basically along the development paradigm, which concerns among others, “communications, remote sensing, and agricultural crop production.”

One thing is difficult to go unnoticed however. ISRO proclaims of a Human Space Flight and overtly ambitious planetary explorations as couple of its envisaged missions by 2025. Furthermore, ISRO also adds a comparatively novel agenda that it aims to use satellite based communication and navigation systems for security needs.

Such declarations though, appearing as deviations from the charted territory, probably have a sound logic since on the other hand; New Delhi’s ever-growing belligerent neighbour China has a slightly different outlook towards the agenda of utilising ‘space’.

In November 2000, Beijing published a ‘White Paper’ outlining the goals and guiding principles for its space programme. The core aspects can be enunciated in a nutshell:

“…….making the development of space activities cater to and serve the state’s comprehensive development strategy. The Chinese government attaches great importance to the significant role of space activities in implementing the strategy of revitalising the country with science and education and that of sustainable development, as well as in economic construction, national security, science and technology development and social progress.”

A simple comparison will easily elucidate the different regimes in which the two governments tread in terms of space activities. While Beijing also attaches importance to development pertaining to communications and socio-economic growth of a nation-state, it is not at all averse to ‘national security’ which arises as a spin-off from such activities.

However, India appears to be reluctant to ascribe any military significance to its space programme, more so in an explicit form. The phrase ‘security needs’ have necessarily been kept vague and basically pertains to internal security threats. Possibly such a reluctance forces Johnson-Freese, a China space specialist to assert that both India and Japan have space capabilities matching China's but, not the “political will” to use them the way China has.

Based on official statistics placed by ISRO, India has about 21 satellites. Out of them, ten are communication satellites, revolving in Geo-stationary Earth Orbits. Moreover, there are four surveillance satellites with imaging capabilities. They have resolutions of less than 2.5 metre. Furthermore, there are seven earth observation satellites.

Interestingly, these satellites are of dual use; that is, can be used for defence purposes too. But, till date, a military satellite per se, is absent.

However, the Indian Defence Ministry in May 2010, unveiled plans for dedicated military satellites for the Navy, Air Force and the Army. The purpose seems to address the specific space based communication requirements of the defence forces.

Apart from this, there are some further developments which indicate that New Delhi is considering to widen its options regarding space activities. Incidentally, ISRO has already achieved considerable expertise with regard to Polar Satellite Launch Vehicles (PSLVs) and has gone for successive commercial launches in a successful manner.

Nevertheless, there are still ‘more than miles to march’ for ISRO as it is yet to acquire efficiency in the Geo-stationary Launch Vehicles (GSLVs). The GSLV Mark-III is an ongoing project in that direction. It has been the fallout of the American muscle-flexing in a post-1991 world which coerced Russia not to part with the Cryogenic technology to India, citing obligations to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).

In fact, the lack of cryogenic technology has hindered India’s growth trajectory in terms of Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), which are perceived as effective deterrents in an envisaged war-clime with Beijing.

In that regard, the ‘Christmas failure’ (on December 25, 2010) of ISRO to successfully launch the GSLV-F06 puts the Indian Space programme in a spot of bother. ISRO now has only one Russian cryogenic engine at its disposal. Hence if future ventures of Chandrayan-II, heavy payload-based communications satellites and other ambitious programmes are to see the light of the day, ISRO needs to bring the extraordinary out of its bag. Moreover, a failure in the ‘first stage’ of the rocket (as happened in the ‘Christmas failure’) does not augur well for the Indian Space programme.

Actually, any space maneuvering by India, though concealed within the yoke of the socio-economic model, has a security aspect naturally tied to it. And the rationale is provided by the rapid strides made by its northern neighbour, with which India has a persistent border problem. Hence, any move made by the Chinese in space, necessarily has an Indian countermove coming up.

For instance, the Chinese have sent humans to space three times. They have developed their land-based ICBMs. Moreover, they are in an apparently enviable position in terms of Anti-Satellite (ASAT) and Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) programmes, as far as India is concerned.

Thus, keeping in mind not only the aspect of prestige of matching China inch by inch, India is forced, all the more by strategic demands, to catapult its space programme to tally with that of Beijing.

ISRO’s former Chairman Dr Kasturirangan says that India has entered the “expansion phase” of its space programme since it has achieved the initial goals of economic growth with the help of space technology. Now, according to him, India can afford the luxuries of space science and possibly even human spaceflight. And with the overwhelming success of the nation-state’s first lunar spacecraft Chandrayaan-I, probably he is quite right.

India’s future ambitions are the development of GSLVs, further lunar exploratory missions (Chandrayan-II), a two-stage-to-orbit reusable launch vehicle, human spaceflight, and further international cooperation to expand its horizons. The commercialisation in this venture has already received a strong fillip with the creation of Antrix Corporation, which markets Indian space capabilities around the world.

However, in a direct comparison with China, the Indian space programme appears to be lackadaisical and lacklustre. While both the countries started off more or less at the same time in the 1970s, China surely has outpaced India.

Continuing the comparisons between the two countries, it goes to show that where China has already exhibited its prowess in ASAT capabilities by successfully destroying an old satellite of itself in 2007, India is in a rudimentary stage in that regard. In fact, China also scores over India in terms of the number of satellites in orbit, with its 57 well over India’s 21.

Very recently, China’s space programme was in the news as on October 01 2010, it launched an unmanned lunar probe, Chang'e-II. This was part of the project to send a human being to the moon around 2020. China has also announced that it plans a manned space station by 2020.

Now, the moot question is whether both India and China are embarking on a ‘headless’ competition to have an edge against each other as the next leader in Asia? Or is venturing into space a natural consequence of high growth in technology? Moreover, is China over-stretching its resources like the erstwhile Soviet Russia in showcasing its space prowess? And if India follows China in that path, will it not dig its own grave in terms of the rationale of economics?

Furthermore, such developments portend a vigorous militarisation of space which is not desirable. In fact, Colonel Deepak Sharma of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi warns of such a possibility. He opines that “the vulnerability of space assets is a function of dependence on those assets”. Thus higher the dependence on space system, the higher will be the vulnerability. Hence, he advocates that the dependence on space assets needs to be reduced and in future, such a scenario is likely because of induction of the latest state-of-the art ‘other’ systems.

The negative aspects of weaponisation of space and the empty notion of self-aggrandisation notwithstanding, India certainly cannot negate its prospects of bolstering the space programme. With China’s ambitious rise in the backdrop, it is not only necessary, rather imperative for India to build upon the space activities and that too with alacrity and without compromising quality. Nonetheless, a couple of things are noteworthy in this regard.

One, India should not overstretch its financial resources so as to ‘just compete’ with China. Beijing may follow that particular path vis-à-vis America and might foment ambience of a new Cold War in Asia. But India needs to be prudent in that venture. Presently, the Chinese space budget is around US $2.2 billion per annum whereas India is way behind at almost one-third the amount. Hence, India needs to activate its budgetary allowances and aim for targets within prescribed durations. At the same time, financial destabilization needs to be thwarted by avoiding a blind adherence to the China Model.

Second, the Indian policy-makers need to appreciate that space is slowly emerging as the fourth frontier of warfare as it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore space-based technology in our daily lives. And hence in the eventuality of a conventional war, India faces the risk of being rendered handicapped in terms of communications if it does not develop an effective deterrent in that direction.

To be dependent on the satellites of other countries in order to decrease the risk factor is a negative way of solving issues. More so, when ISRO has already developed a commercially viable space programme, a natural shielding becomes a necessity.

Donald Rumsfeld’s vision of a ‘Space Pearl Harbour’ and Ronald Reagan’s views on Space Wars might be too extravagant at present for the Indian scenario; however, that must not deter India to actively pursue an ambitious space programme with a vision of sending a human being to space and or with an over-ambitious plan of reaching Mars.

However, for such grand plans to fructify; international collaboration must be in the offing and in which both China and India can play significant role. Since both are yet to be parties to the International Space Station, both of them shall keep on contesting, with each other and with the rest of the world as well.

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