India's race to militarise space

Cover of Final Frontier: India and Space Security
On March 27, 2019, when newsrooms were told that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was to deliver an unexpected address to the nation, the joke was to scurry to the nearest ATM and withdraw as much cash as possible. The demonetisation-inspired joke turned out to be something else. The objective of this particular address was to announce India’s Anti Satellite Missile (ASAT) test, the first offensive military measure in space by India in its independent history. Mr Modi’s choice of an unexpected “address to the nation” mode of communicating this achievement was steeped in significance beyond impending election dynamics. Prime ministers before him had always opposed the militarisation of space. Former PM Rajiv Gandhi had even sponsored a six-nation summit in New Delhi in 1985 where he vowed to keep outer space free of weapons. Mr Modi’s address on March 27, 2019, marked a U-turn from decades of what India’s military had always demanded but the polity had refused. Announcing the successful ASAT test, Mr Modi had said, “It shows the remarkable dexterity of India’s outstanding scientists and the success of our space programme. India stands tall as a space power. It will make India stronger, even more secure and will further peace and harmony.”


Bharath Gopalaswamy’s book Final Frontier: India and Space Security  captures not just India’s attempt to militarise space but also how humankind’s achievements in outer space have inevitably found their way into building offensive military capabilities. Although the use of space technologies in defence is a continuous undercurrent in Mr Gopalaswamy’s book, that isn’t the only focus. It also provides valuable insights into the evolution of space technologies over the decades, the advancement of their capabilities and a glimpse of the future of space. It meticulously details the evolution of satellites; terrestrial surveillance through remote sensing from space, development of space-monitored location technologies and international policies, treaties and legal frameworks that govern the utilisation and exploitation of outer space by nations. Each chapter of this lucidly written book details the science behind a particular technology, its civilian and military use, its development in and relevance to India and capabilities of other nations that have developed the above mentioned fields.


Of particular interest to some readers would be an explanation of why India shifted its position on peaceful use of space over the years. Mr Gopalaswamy reasons that China testing its ASAT missile in 2007 may have triggered the shift. He contends that over the years, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), which are involved in space research and defence research respectively, had nothing to do with each other and functioned with little or no coordination and scant sharing of the respective technologies and capabilities that they developed. It was only in 1998 when India faced the imposition of sanctions following the nuclear tests at Pokhran that ISRO and DRDO started sharing resources. But it was not until 2010, in the aftermath of the Chinese ASAT test, that the first attempts were made to involve ISRO in national security matters.


Mr Gopalaswamy writes, “In 2010, the Integrated Space Cell (ISC) was set up by then defence minister AK Anthony. With the ISC, India took an important step towards using its space programme for the benefit of its military. The launch of GSAT-6 and GSAT-7, military communications satellites for the Indian Army and Indian Navy respectively displayed the effectiveness of the ISC in creating a bridge between the armed forces and the department of space.”


Although the book broaches the topic, Mr Gopalaswamy could have shed more light on the commercial aspects of India’s space programme. This deserved a chapter of its own but the book has only certain portions dedicated to the activities of Antrix Corporation, ISRO’s commercial arm. Mr Gopalaswamy writes, “In order to give a commercial dimension to the space programme, ISRO established Antrix Corporation in 1992, which coincided wonderfully with a historical moment in Indian economy: liberalisation. One of the first commercial activities of Antrix was to market globally remote sensing data. One of the main reasons for the steady increase in Antrix’s revenue is the growing reliability of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV). With India having created a record of launching 104 satellites, not just its own but also of nations such as US, Israel, Switzerland, Kazakhstan and Netherlands aboard the PSLV in 2017, there is certainly growing interest in India’s commercial space capabilities, more so when entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk and others are eyeing a chunk of a business expected to touch $37 billion by 2026.

Final Frontier: India and Space Security
Author: Bharath Gopalaswamy 
Publisher: Westland
Price:  Rs 699

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