India’s Quest For Outer Space: Technological And Policy Challenges

 By Utkarsha Mahajan


With Donald Trump’s announcement in June 2018, of creating space force as the sixth branch of the USA’s armed forces, the area of outer space technology has regained the importance for Outer Space in the discussions at the international level. The concerns regarding the peaceful use of space and eventually the relevance of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 in the current scenario, have been expressed on various platforms. This also opens a debate regarding the use of space as the new battlefield which will also determine the major space powers’ restructuring of their power trajectory in the current multipolar world.

On 27th March 2019, India tested an Anti-satellite weapon in an operation codenamed Mission Shakti, becoming only fourth nation to be a part of elite club of nations with ASAT capabilities. In January 2007, China conducted its first ASAT test, becoming the third nation to join the league long after USA and Russia which had acquired the capabilities in early 1960s. In the 2007 test, China had shot down one of its own aging weather satellites in a test of the technology that the USA had protested.

The USA has been working on a number of programs which could be foundational for a space based ASAT. Russia also tested its direct ascent anti-satellite missile PL-19 Nudol twice during the years 2015 to 2016. According to a report by Defence One, Russia will soon be sending its first humanoid robots into space to join the astronaut crew on board at the International Space Station (ISS). The robots constitute a part of Russia’s FEDOR program, where FEDOR stands for Final Experimental Demonstration Object Research, launched in 2014 and originally designed for rescue operations but its role was later expanded to include space missions.

States have been heavily dependent on outer space for communications, reconnaissance, missile guidance systems and detecting incoming missiles. Russia and China have been building surface-to-air missiles powerful enough to take down satellites, a move over which USA officials have expressed concern. With the emergence of Outer Space as a new dimension of military, there is a need for recalculating the equations for balance of power and estimating the rise of security concerns beyond territorial and maritime boundaries. Although no ASAT system has yet been utilized in warfare, the nations have shot down their own (defunct) satellites to demonstrate their ASAT capabilities.

Outer space capabilities and counter space capabilities are going to be the key features for the space powers and will also contribute to the shift in global balance of power equations. This article focuses on the analysis of recent advances and emerging trends in the outer space technology and what are the challenges to India’s Quest for becoming a Space Superpower.


Space transportation and launch activities have advanced since the Sputnik launch in 1957. The first wave of outer space development involved increasing patterns of commercialization while establishing a satellite communication infrastructure. This process may result in the colonization of the geostationary orbit. The outcomes include many high-tech products and services. For example, the widespread global use of cell phones, the Internet, Social Media, VOIP services, Skype and wireless financial transactions that are all connected to satellites located in outer space.

The space race can be observed to have a shift from being presented as a competition between USA and USSR during the Cold War period to the race between the corporations providing suborbital joyrides and asteroid mining companies as key mass media themes. A new space race is underway, involving many nations, business moguls and companies including Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, XCOR, Orbital Sciences Corporation and others. There has been a continuous addition of new key actors in this race and the innovative missions and programs are also being undertaken by these stakeholders.

Past patterns of international space law making can be observed as more likely a result of how international space law authorities may have perceived them. None of the existing international agreements permit private or public property rights to own actual outer space territories. However, extraction of natural resources seems to be generally understood as being allowable.

Preventing an arms race has long been an agenda item for the United Nations General Assembly, which has requested the Conference on Disarmament 30 years ago to consider the issue.  However, a lack of consensus has been one of major factor leading to the failure of the negotiations not getting translated into a legally binding treaty or convention. Henry Alfredo Suárez Moreno (Venezuela), speaking on behalf of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), during the 71st session of United Nations General Assembly, emphasized the need to promote cooperation as a key pillar for the development of outer space.  Transparency and confidence-building measures, he said, could promote cooperation and dialogue. Welcoming a draft text on preventing an arms race in outer space and the commitment of no-first placement of weapons there, he further added. UNASUR members had undertaken voluntary commitments, but such initiatives could not replace legally binding measures.

NASA managers have always relied on risk analysis tools for the development and maintenance of space projects. Quantitative and especially probabilistic techniques have been gaining acceptance in recent years. In some cases, the studies have been required, for example, to launch the Galileo spacecraft with plutonium fuel, but these successful applications have helped to demonstrate the benefits of these tools.

All the space-faring nations are not nuclear weapon states. Except for Pakistan, all other Nuclear weapon states are however independent space-faring nations and in future many countries with no intention to nuclearize could definitely aspire to become space-faring nations, not only for extending horizons of economic growth and development, but also to aid the defence and build Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities essential for addressing their national security concerns.

Challenges And Prospects For India’s Space Ambition

In Indian scenario, the debate on the Code of Conduct on Outer Space begins with understanding the kind of space future it wants to see in Asia and thereafter shapes the norms that would guide conducive behaviour and avoid activities that may be counterproductive to achieving that future. From the diplomatic point of view, national security is the chief driving force, argues Ms. Rajeshwari Rajagopalan while discussing the Indian perspective on the Space Code of Conduct Debate.

As noted by C. Raja Mohan, India’s stand in the 1970s and 1980s on the global commons including outer space, was based on morality and for strengthening India’s sovereignty. But today’s debate has, in sense, moved away from the morality angle to a more nuanced national security angle, which in turn proves to be more sustainable.

It is important for India to segregate its priority areas in its Space Policy, which need to be regulated internationally and domestically, especially the legal framework for civilian, military and commercial usage of Outer Space. With start-ups like Bellatrix coming up with the innovative designs like electric propulsion system and the recent establishment of New Space India Ltd. (NSIL), as the new commercial wing of ISRO alongside Antrix, if funds channelized properly, India can effectively project itself as one the manufacturing hubs for the outer space technologies, chiefly for the commercial purposes.

The significance of India’s ASAT test was to create deterrence and a distinctive strategic capability necessary for modern warfare. With the expansion of the counterspace capabilities, the vulnerabilities in space and also to the ground-based assets will increase drastically.  Along with kinetic kill, to be a self-sufficient space power, it is essential for India to enhance the capabilities for Signal Intelligence, Anti-jamming, Image Intelligence and quality control mechanisms. With the various technology sharing initiatives like NISAR between ISRO and NASA, critical technology sharing between India and Russia for the Gaganyaan project, including the presence at the International Space station and cooperation in futuristic technologies like new space systems, rocket engine designs, propellants and propulsion systems, spacecrafts and launch mechanisms, India’s growing capabilities and space programs can be seen to have received global acknowledgement and acceptance.

Way Ahead

Russia’s State Space Corporation Roscosmos is preparing to initiate international negotiations on banning full-scale tests of anti-satellite weapons, Roscosmos Chief Dmitry Rogozin said on in July 2019. As reported by the Russian news agency TASS, speaking at an event in Korolyov (Moscow Region) in November 2019, Rogozin once again had expressed his concern regarding the KE-ASAT tests debris from them “may destroy the (International Space) station”. Despite of concern being expressed several times, the proposed ban has not yet been officially presented by Roscosmos.

The European Union has put forward a proposal for a non-binding code of conduct to restrain activities in Outer space that was backed  by Australia, Japan and United States. On the other front, a counter proposal was introduced by Sino-Russian sponsored draft for Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space (PPWT), the Threat or the Use of Force against Outer Space Objects .

India is a party to all the major international treaties in the past, relating to Outer Space. With the growing competition, the challenge remains for India to strike a balance between the US-EU-Australia-Japan led and Sino-Russian fronts without losing out on any opportunity of being recognized as a decisive space power and maintaining a scope for engaging with any of the two fronts for its national interest.

“Security Dilemma” in the outer space domain is inevitable, but how India balances its Deterrence Mechanism with its efforts for peaceful use of outer space, will determine India’s prospects to play a decisive role in future international mechanisms and institutions governing outer space. To be a “credible and responsible” space power, India needs to acquire enough tangible space power by means of kinetic and non-kinetic counter-space capabilities, SSA capabilities and keep striving for an international mechanism that will address the issue of space debris, weaponization of space, ban on ASAT tests, Legislation and human security in outer space.


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