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PSLV launch
An Indian PSLV launch of two satellites for Singapore April 22, days after the release of a new national space policy that encourages commercialization. (credit: ISRO)

India’s space policy and national security posture: what can we expect?

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India is a major space power in Asia. With its independent launch systems, satellites, spaceport, and long-standing space agency called the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), India has launched hundreds of Indian and foreign satellites since 1975, and sent missions to the Moon and Mars. India’s space program has long been a state-funded and state-led enterprise led by ISRO not only in research and development (R&D) but also in manufacturing of space systems.

The 2023 space policy makes it clear that the strategy adopted by the government of India to develop India into a space power is via commercialization of space.

All this has now changed with India’s 2023 space policy. Its focus is on the commercialization of space, ensuring that it is the private sector that takes the lead in building end-to-end space systems. As part of India’s space vision, the 2023 space policy states that “to augment space capabilities; enable, encourage and develop a flourishing commercial presence in space [emphasis added]; use space as a driver of technology development and derived benefits in allied areas; pursue international relations, and create an ecosystem for effective implementation of space applications among all stakeholders.”

Subsequently, the vision is connected to India’s space goals of utilizing space for national development, national security, and economic development with a focus on peaceful development of space. This is something I had indicated in my paper “India’s Space Program and its Drivers” where the drivers identified for India’s space program were nationalism, entrepreneurship, and national security. The 2023 space policy makes it clear that the strategy adopted by the government of India to develop India into a space power is via commercialization of space. Non-governmental entities (NGEs) or the private sector will be encouraged and facilitated through funding, institutions, and regulations to participate and develop capabilities in the entire “value chain” of the space economy.

Two policy gamechangers

Space Resources: The major gamechanger is India’s stand on space resources, by which I mean asteroid resources or resources on the Moon. Until now, India has been officially reticent to discuss this issue of space resources, and has not discussed creating a space program that develops space resources like space solar power, asteroid mining, and/or lunar mining. In my 2020 book with Peter Garretson, Scramble for the Skies: The Great Power Competition to Control the Resources of Outer Space, we had predicted that India, if it had not done so by the time of publication, will take a stand on space resources in the next few years. And here it is. The 2023 space policy provides India’s position on the extraction of space resources. On pages 6 and 7 of the 2023 space policy document, India stakes its position, to include clarifying ownership issues:

“Non-Governmental Entities (NGEs) will be encouraged to engage in the commercial recovery of an asteroid resource or a space resource. Any NGE engaged in such process shall be entitled to possess, own, transport, use, and sell any such asteroid resource or space resource obtained in accordance with applicable law, including the international obligations of India.”

This Indian policy position is similar to the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (2015), Luxembourg Space Resources Mining legislation (2017), and the 2021 Japan space resources act. India now joins them in encouraging its private sector to engage in the extraction of space resources by creating the enabling policy and regulatory structures for it, becoming the second country in Asia to do so.

Commercialization: ISRO, as the national space agency, will concentrate on R&D in developing new technologies and missions to better understand outer space. Access to remote sensing data will be made widely available by ISRO, and the agency will concentrate on developing human spaceflight technologies as well as support a sustained human presence in space. What is new is that the 2023 space policy directs ISRO to “undertake studies and missions on in-situ resource utilization, celestial prospecting and other aspects of extra-terrestrial habitability.”

ISRO will move out of manufacturing of space systems, and instead focus only on the R&D side. Manufacturing and operations will be turned over to the private space sector. The New Space India Ltd (NSIL) that was established in 2019 will be responsible for “commercialising space technologies and platforms created through public expenditure and procure/manufacture space systems from either the public or the private sector.”

The key thrust of IN-SPACEe is to make every aspect of India’s space sector private, with private companies now encouraged to build, manufacture, operationalize and maintain space infrastructure.

The Indian National Space Promotion & Authorisation Centre (IN-SPACe) will function as the single-window authorization center for both public and private sector space activities. It will include launch, operation, in orbit slots, re-entry of space objects, and the dissemination of Earth observation data. IN-SPACe has been tasked to proactively promote private industry in order to “establish India as a preferred service provider for global requirements of products/services in the space sector.” IN-SPACe will help Indian private companies file International Telecommunication Union (ITU) filings for orbital slots, and maintain a balance between government and NGEs for ITU filings for orbital slots. In-SPACe will authorize launch manifests, issue safety and security guidelines, and maintain registration and ascertain liability regarding the private sector for India’s international treaty obligations.

The key thrust of this organization is to make every aspect of India’s space sector private, with private companies now encouraged to build, manufacture, operationalize and maintain space infrastructure. This is a game changer for India as it aims to scale up its contribution to the global space economy from 2% today to about 9% by 2030. In this, the direction perceived from this space policy is to privatize.

Who implements the 2023 space policy?

The main government entity that will implement the 2023 space policy is the Department of Space (DoS), which falls under the Prime Minister’s Office. DoS will be responsible for any clarifications sought in the space policy. It will be the body that will ensure the interoperability of the Indian satellite navigation system with other navigation systems, and will establish a framework for the safe and sustainable operations in space. IN-SPACEe, however, will be tasked with the creation of what the policy calls “a stable and predictable regulatory framework to provide a level playing field to Non-Government Entities in the Space sector.”

What is missing?

The 2023 Indian space policy is focused on explaining the focus on developing the private space sector, as well as the institutionalization of certain entities like NSIL and IN-SPACe that will make the process of incorporating the private sector into India’s space sector easier. While we do know that India’s space goals are focused on national development, commercialization, protection of the environment, and peaceful development of space, we do not know which specific space missions in particular India will ask private entities to.

Is the goal to send humans to low Earth orbit (LEO), or is it focused on developing India’s capabilities for a lunar and Mars missions? If so, what are these missions? Is there an asteroid mission that India is focused on? What about India’s position on space-based solar power? We do know now that India aims to recognize the private ownership of space resources. If so, is there an Indian mission afoot that aims to do exactly that, like the one we are witnessing with Japan’s ispace mission to the Moon to carry out the first commercial activity on the Moon? The Indian space policy reads more like a roadmap for the mechanisms required to develop its private space sector, without really clarifying what for. Why are these space technologies being developed?

The 2023 space policy document offers no in-depth details on India’s national security space architecture. In the Defense Space Symposium organized by the Indian Space Association on April 11, 2023, India’s Chief of Defense Staff (CDS) General Anil Chauhan stated that “the very nature of warfare is on the cusp of major transformation and what is being witnessed is militarization of space and steady progress towards weaponisation… the aim for all of us should be towards developing dual-use platforms with special focus towards incorporating cutting-edge technology and we must expand our NAVIC constellation, provide agile space-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and ensure secure satellite-assisted communications.”

India’s Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) chief, Samir V. Kamat, specified that India needs to develop greater space situational awareness, resilient space systems, and better ISR capabilities. For this, he called upon collaborations with India’s private space sector and academia. In October 2022, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched Mission DefSpace that called for private sector space companies to apply for 75 defense space challenges for indigenous development. This included the development of “Launch System, Satellite System, Communication & Payload System, Ground System, and Software System.” The highlight of the launch was a push to “liberalizing the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) policy to allow 74% FDI under the automatic route”.

A future space policy document should clarify India’s long-term space goals, the capacities being developed to meet those goals, and its military space posture.

Insights from the CDS’s speech as well as strategic policy conversations within India indicate that there is a general assessment that the anti-satellite (ASAT) capability that India tested in 2019 is not enough of a deterrence against an adversary that has enhanced capabilities to destroy India’s space-based assets through non-kinetic capabilities like high powered laser, high powered microwaves, electromagnetic pulse, jamming, and spoofing. The role of commercial space in augmenting space warfare capabilities was specified by Chauhan when he stated that “as seen during the Russia-Ukraine conflict by SpaceX and Maxar, had unfolded a new area in the war on convergence…This combined with the intense race towards militarization of space has resulted in the battlespace becoming expanded and the very nature of warfare is at a major cusp of transformation.”

India does have a Joint Doctrine, issued by the Integrated Headquarters of the Integrated Defense Staff (HQ IDS) in 2017, that views space as a multi-domain operation. In chapter VI of the joint doctrine titled “Concepts of Military Power Application”, there is a section on space power that states:

Space is a medium like land, sea, air and cyber through which various activities are likely to expand in the future. Emergence of space power is analogous to conventional land, sea or air power that will mark it out as a ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’. Space bestows immense force multiplication capability on the Armed Forces, and the dependence on space assets for military operations is rapidly increasing. Currently, India’s space capabilities are mostly driven by civil and commercial requirements, steps for exploitation of space for military applications are undertaken. Leveraging space power would include protection of our National space assets and exploitation of space to enable defense capabilities across the conflict spectrum.

There are now calls for India’s Defense Space Agency, similar to the United States Space Force, to issue a military space doctrine.

The 2023 Indian space policy is a response to these calls for a greater role of the private sector in developing India’s civilian and defense space capabilities. It clarifies the role and authority structures of institutions like IN-SPACe, NSIL, ISRO, and DoS. A future space policy document should clarify India’s long-term space goals, the capacities being developed to meet those goals, and its military space posture.

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