India Looks Skyward to Tackle Challenges on the Ground

India Looks Skyward to Tackle Challenges on the Ground

Interview with Bharath Gopalaswamy
December 20, 2013

Bharath Gopalaswamy (Atlantic Council) provides insight on the Indian space program’s future ambitions and the potential for U.S.-India cooperation in exploring and harnessing the final frontier.

On November 5, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) launched its first mission to Mars, a ten-month voyage known as Mangalyaan (“Mars craft”). If successful, India will become the fourth nation to reach the red planet, marking an important milestone in the country’s growing space program.

ISRO was established in 1962 with the formation of the Indian National Committee for Space Research. To date, its primary objective has been the development of space technologies, with a lesser focus on exploration. More broadly, however, ISRO’s missions have served as catalysts for developing domestic sciences and technologies, partnerships with the private sector, solutions to national security challenges, and international cooperation.

To shed light on ISRO’s goals and future projects, NBR sat down with Bharath Gopalaswamy, deputy director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council. Dr. Gopalaswamy provided insight on the growing role of the security sector in the Indian space program and the potential for U.S.-India cooperation in exploring and harnessing the final frontier.

Why does India pursue a space program?

India views space technology as a means of development. Imaging and telecommunications are two key technologies that have been developed through the space program. Because India is a huge country that has to map out various regions, the government realized that imaging technology could be used to accomplish this. Telecommunications played a critical role in bringing the country closer together. I believe that this was a tremendous vision that developed in the 1960s. Rather than saying that this high-end technology is not accessible to India, India accepted its development as a challenge and pursued it to our benefit.

Exploration is an integral part of any space organization, whether it is ISRO, NASA, the Russian Space Agency, or the European Space Agency. It was not India’s focus in the 1960s, but that does not mean that when the capabilities exist, exploration will not be pursued.

In the United States, NASA has historically enjoyed a high degree of popularity. Has this also been the case for ISRO in India?

ISRO also enjoys a tremendous amount of popularity. Its scientists receive a great deal of respect from the political elite, bureaucrats, and the local population.

What would you say are the main ambitions for ISRO, and where does India’s space program fit in the growing consortium of space-capable nations?

ISRO has three major components: development, exploration, and security. Development, applications, and connectivity are the mainstays of India’s space program. The twelfth five-year plan, which covers 2012-17, lists 58 missions, with 80%-90% of them being developmental in nature. In a global context, ISRO’s space program is still very myopic. ISRO recognizes that it has to serve its people first and has not lost sight of that goal. It is attempting some exploration programs, but that is an integral part of any space agency. Therefore, development and application-oriented goals will continue to be the broad focus of ISRO. You’ll see an arm in the direction of exploration, as well as an increase in focus on security applications. Internationally, because of India’s geopolitical realities, India must take certain precautionary actions. Whether that will trigger some kind of reaction from its adversaries is just speculation. To classify such reactions as a race is an oversimplification of the trajectory of India’s relations with its adversaries

Are there any specific goals for the telecommunications sector?

India was one of the first countries to contribute to telemedicine. There is still a huge market in terms of people, and expanding the telecommunications market is one of ISRO’s main ambitions. Another ambition is to address the problem that India does not yet have the technology to launch its own telecommunications satellites. ISRO still must work with Arianespace through the European Space Agency to launch those satellites. Developing a domestic launch capability is one of the country’s short- to medium-term goals. Furthermore, India has a vast coastline to monitor, and for those kinds of applications ISRO needs its own satellite assets. India is also a country that is prone to natural disasters. Predicting and better understanding natural disasters in order to improve relief and recovery operations is another important concern.

I think it is wrong to say that ISRO is trying to close any gap with NASA, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, or the Chinese National Space Administration, as some have suggested. ISRO is in competition with itself, and its developmental goals are meant merely for its people. It is funded by Indian taxpayers and must answer to them. These are still ISRO’s priorities. I do not think competing with China or Japan serves the purpose of achieving its development goals. Just because India launched an imaging satellite does not mean that the Chinese will launch one; the Chinese may do something else. When speaking to Indian policymakers, it is understood that this is a race that nobody wins. Besides, what is this race about? If it is for the moon, everybody has gone to the moon, and nobody wants to compete for the bronze medal.

ISRO recently started its mission to Mars. Why go there?

The purpose of the Mars mission is to achieve scientific objectives. If you look at the previous five-year plan, the goal was the moon mission, and if you look at this five-year plan, it is the Mars mission. India’s other missions are development-oriented missions, aimed at national technical and infrastructural advancement. The Mars mission, by contrast, is an exploration and scientific mission, centered on observation and data collection.

Should India not achieve the Mars mission, it would definitely be a setback, but traditionally ISRO has always bounced back from setbacks. Just because this mission fails does not mean that ISRO will not pursue any other missions in the future. That is what a scientific agency ought to do, and ISRO is no different.

Is there a strong military component of ISRO? If not, is the development of one probable?

IRSO has strictly firewalled any military component. However, there is a security component of the program that is emerging in connection with the Indian Armed Forces. The motivation behind this development is the 1999 Kargil War. In the mid-1990s the parliament had a standing committee on defense recommendations about using space assets for military purposes, but it failed to garner much attention. It was the Kargil War that woke military planners up. First, they did not have space assets that could monitor the troop incursion; and second, they did not have navigation systems fitted to their aircrafts. There are three key areas in which the security focus is growing. One is imaging, a second is navigation, and a third is securing Indian space assets from adversarial threats. As for the security-oriented projects that India is pursuing now, all categorically are being developed within the 1969 Outer Space Treaty.

What role do you see India’s private sector playing in partnerships with ISRO?

There are quite a few private-sector companies that participate indirectly with ISRO projects. That is huge. In one way or another, these companies offer either competencies or supplies. So there is a public-private partnership. On the commercial side, ISRO has been launching satellites with the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle for various nations such as Germany, Belgium, and South Korea. And on a visit to Indonesia last year, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh signed a memorandum of understanding for both countries to work toward launching a satellite.

What opportunities are there for the United States to collaborate with ISRO?

NASA is already collaborating with ISRO on scientific missions as part of the strategic partnership initiative. When it comes to NASA-ISRO collaboration, there is no problem because the two agencies have an official channel of communication. However, when you extend the cooperation broadly, there are issues. Still, India’s mid- and senior-level bureaucracy, particularly in the scientific establishment, suffered under the sanctions following the 1998 nuclear tests. So there is a little bit of a trust issue with the United States, for lack of a better word, when it comes to these types of collaborations. When it comes to collaboration on the security side of things, there is obviously a trust issue. But then ISRO is a purely scientific agency. It is not a security agency. So when the Americans want to talk to ISRO about security issues, they have to do it through NASA.

There is a strong interest in the U.S. Department of Defense to pursue a partnership in areas such as maritime domain awareness and remote-sensing satellites. India is a key leader in technologies such as synthetic aperture radar technology, which essentially means that you can see through cloud cover during both day and night. Those assets are very attractive to the U.S. Department of Defense, which aims at comprehensive maritime domain awareness. For that, you need partners around the world and cannot be the only agency to do these things.

However, communication channels between ISRO and the Department of Defense are not formalized, and communications have to go through the Ministry of External Affairs. As mentioned earlier, the security dimension of India’s space program is still evolving, and the country’s space assets are still controlled by the civilian space agency. For example, when it comes to issues of cooperation, the space situational awareness in the United States is handled by STRATCOM (Strategic Command) in Nebraska. If my colleague out there tries to convey a signal to the Indian side that its satellites are under threat, he will not get a response from the Indians because he sent the message to ISRO, and ISRO, as a civilian agency, will not communicate with STRATCOM.

The Indians are right in many ways. They blame the United States for the legacy of sanctions on resources directed toward the military program. I think those days still cloud Indian minds a bit on these issues. But that said, India does realize that it requires technology and that some of the core standards in technology exist in the United States. So it is inevitable that at some stage this train of thought going back to the time of sanctions will be broken.

Are there critical areas with room for expanding international cooperation?

One area is the space debris problem, of which space situational awareness is an integral component. Another is space governance. These are two areas in which I think India and the United States are actively engaging internationally and that are being taken seriously at the highest levels—for example, in the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space and in the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. The United States owns 50% of all deployed satellites, and for India its satellites are its eyes and ears. The two countries thus share common concerns.

International cooperation is something that is not new to India’s space program. Cooperation in this area with the United States always has to be seen in the context of broader Indo-U.S. relations. There are challenges with that, but India realizes that, despite these difficulties, it recognizes the need for collaboration.

Bharath Gopalaswamy is the Deputy Director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council.

This interview was conducted by Sonia Luthra, Assistant Director for Outreach at NBR, and Andrew Windsor, a Political and Security Affairs Intern whose research focus includes science and technology policy.