28 October 2013
Space security: possible options for India
by Ajey Lele
The Space Review


India’s growing space capabilities, evidenced by its PSLV rocket (above), and its growing reliance on space, should encourage the government to take a more strategic look at space security issues. (credit: ISRO)

India’s space program is civilian in nature. Over the years, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has developed various space systems meant to carry forward the state’s agenda of using space technologies for the purposes of socioeconomic development. The key focus of India’s space program would continue to develop space systems that would offer social, scientific and economic benefits.

Broadly, space security could be associated towards securing the nation’s space systems and other related infrastructure.

Investments in outer space technologies have been used by India for various economic, security, and foreign policy initiatives. Simultaneously, the challenges in regards to the security of space assets have also amplified with the increase in space assets. Apart from space weather and space debris, the danger to space systems and associated ground infrastructure has also increased because of the counter-space capabilities developed by some nations. Overall, the notion of space security means differently to different nations depending on their actual threat perceptions.

Broadly, space security could be associated towards securing the nation’s space systems and other related infrastructure. It could involve developing satellite hardening and other types of protection technologies. Space security could be also about developing secure reconnaissance, communication, and navigation systems with an appropriate redundancy factor. Depending on the threat perception, the nation would also be required to develop a deterrence mechanism in form of counter-space capabilities.

Threat perception in Indian context

As a sovereign state during its more than six decades of existence, India has fought three and half wars with its neighbors, Pakistan and China. India shares significant geographical borders with these two nations and have various unresolved border disputes. All three nations are nuclear weapons capable and have a significant inventory of missiles.

During last few decades, China’s performance in the outer space arena has been praiseworthy and they have successfully completed various technologically challenging projects. At the same time in the post-Cold War era, China is the only state to conduct a significant anti-satellite (ASAT) test, in January 2007, giving rise to a significant amount of hazardous space debris. Subsequently, China has also undertaken several missions where their intentions behind conducting certain experiments in space are unclear. Very recently, a maneuver made by Chinese satellites (possibly using a mechanical arm on one satellite to grab another satellite) has further increased the suspicion about their possible intent. Hence, India needs to factor in China’s investments in counter-space capabilities in its strategic appreciation of threat matrix.

At the global level, the United States often does not disclose the details of all the experiments they undertake in outer space. For example, there have been three flights of the robotic X-37 spaceplane since 2010, with no clarity regarding its exact purpose. Also, in 2002, the US unilaterally withdrew from the Treaty on the Limitation of Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems (ABM Treaty, 1971). This essentially was the message to Russia and the rest of the world that the US would not like to be hostage to any legal architecture limiting their missile defense activities. All this indicates that they are against forming any strong and binding space legal architecture. Also, in order to address the Chinese challenge, the US could increase their activities in the counter-space technology area. This may eventually lead to the development of a military space race between the US and China, indirectly affecting India.

Legal architecture

Technically, the existing treaty mechanism expects outer space to be used for peaceful purposes; however, the term “peaceful purposes” has no exact definition. Also, there is no clarity in regards to definition of “space weapons” and “weaponization of space.” It is obvious that defining any “boundary value” for what is acceptable and what is not could create problems for the missile defense agendas of nation-states, hence, ambiguity could be the mostly desirable option for some nations.

Currently, the global efforts to establish any viable arms control/disarmament arrangement fall far short of developing any treaty mechanism. The United Nations (UN) efforts by establishing the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPOUS), and discussions about the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS), have met with little success.

Broadly, space security could be associated towards securing the nation’s space systems and other related infrastructure.

Presently, three ideas are under consideration among the global community. One is the Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on Transparency and Confidence-Building Measures (TCBMs) in Outer Space Activities. This group was established by the Secretary-General of the UN in 2012 and has already submitted its final report, which has now also been made public. Since outer space is inherently a multilateral domain, this group has proposed various TCBMs. The GGE expects states to review and implement various TCBMs through relevant national mechanisms on a voluntary basis. It is important to note that, in 1992, another GGE report was submitted to the UN, but no progress was made to contextualize this report for developing any space policy mechanism.

The second is the much discussed European Union (EU) sponsored Space Code of Conduct (CoC). Presently, the CoC is probably in concluding stages of debate with the fourth draft of this code in circulation. The next meeting to discuss this code will take place in November in Bangkok.

The final proposal is the draft treaty called The Treaty on Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and of the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects (PPWT), introduced in 2008 by Russia and China. Presently, Russia is working on the second draft of this treaty mechanism.

Essentially both the GGE and CoC are soft laws and are voluntary and non-binding in nature. It is well known that developing a treaty mechanism is an extremely time-consuming and laborious process. As such, the idea of PPWT had almost no backers when it was initially introduced. All this indicates that a mechanism with inbuilt transparency is unlikely to be realized soon.

Possible options

Given this international backdrop, India needs to develop its policy options in the space domain. Today, India has a fast developing, technologically superior, and yet economically viable space program. From the mid 1970s to 2005, Indian space program had suffered significantly due to imposition of a sanctions regime in response to India’s nuclear policies. India did not receive much technological assistance from any country during this period. India was welcomed in the mainstream only after the Indo-US deal was signed in 2005. Eventually the US administration moved ISRO off of the so-called Entity List, in an effort to drive hi-tech trade and forge closer strategic ties with India, only in 2011.

Interestingly, this technological apartheid worked for India in different ways: on one hand, it delayed various projects significantly but, at the same time, it also led to the process of indigenization of space technology. Presently, India is slowly making its presence felt in the multi-billion-dollar space transportation market. ISRO’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) rocket has developed a great reputation in the global market and is expected to launch minimum of seven satellites over next two years for international customers. ISRO has also made some inroads in some other fields of space market as well.

Any strategy suggestions for India’s space schema should factor in various such geostrategic and commercial aspects. The following are a few suggestions:

White paper

The Indian space program started in the early 1960s and has made significant progress since those humble origins. Important information explaining major potential evolutions in space activities and policies in India has been made available by the government and space commission from time to time. However, there is a need to have a comprehensive document that could put into context India’s overall philosophy about its space agenda. It should be a simple (not technical) document that would present the social, technological, economic, foreign policy, and strategic aspects of India’s space program. It should highlight the ongoing nature of program and explain its future roadmap. Details about the commercial aspects of the space program and the role of private industry also should be highlighted. Also, a national space legal architecture needs to be developed.


The primary focus of ISRO is research and development. They design, develop, and execute various programs in the national interest. There is a constant demand for their products internationally on commercial terms, too. This involves selling of various data, the design and development of satellites to various clients, and providing launch facilities. ISRO has established its commercial arm, called Antrix Corporation, to cater to those commercial interests. However, the physical delivery of the product has to be completed by ISRO only, which puts an additional burden on this organization.

It is important for ISRO to transfer the commercially necessary portion of technology to private industry and encourage that industry to develop a suitable business model. For example, ISRO has already suggested that PSLV facilities required for the launch of small and medium satellites could be privatized. There is a need to exploit such ideas further. Private industry should also be encouraged to produce and trade various other products developed by ISRO.

World Space Council

A few years ago, India’s former president, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, brought forwarded the concept of overseeing international space security with an international space force for such operations as Space Situational Awareness (SSA), space navigation, space traffic management, space debris removal, in orbit servicing, space rescue, space solar power, and other issues of importance that demand global participation.

From the space security perspective, it is vital for various government organs involved in defense and foreign policy issues to work together and formulate policies regarding strategic requirements and issues concerning counter-space capabilities.

Currently, many nations are found reluctant to opt for any strong space regime based on hard law. Any soft law approach is expected to have inbuilt limitations and may bring in ambiguity to the global space arrangement. Therefore, the possibility exists that the activities of a few nation-states could pose significant challenges to space security in future. To significantly dilute the limitations of soft law mechanisms, there is a need to have a structure where states could operate together globally. Such a broad-based structure could assist to bring in transparency and develop confidence amongst the nation-states. India, perhaps, should take the initiative towards the development of World Space Council.

Space Command

There have been some media reports regarding the possible formation of a Space Command as a part of India’s security architecture. It is obvious that the Indian armed forces and their space cells would have a better appreciation regarding to their present and future needs in that case. In addition, such a structure should also cater to the needs of paramilitary forces. The issues particularly concerning space and cyber activities do have a significant amount of “civil” component to it. Hence, this command needs to have built-in flexibility in their approach for dealing with civilian government and non-government agencies, industry, and international agencies. The idea of developing Space Command should be taken to its logical conclusion.


The reality is that, since the beginning of the space era, various spacefaring and other nations with interests in space have failed to evolve any global space regime. The present global space politics and positioning demonstrates that the EU and the US, and probably Japan, have a similar view about the future space architecture and are keen to have a soft law mechanism. Meanwhile, Russia and China have apparently no objections to soft law but may prefer to develop a treaty mechanism.

So far, India’s experience in global negotiations in respect of arms control and disarmament issues has not been very encouraging. The current Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) essentially caters for the interests of five nuclear weapon states. In the field of chemical weapons as well, some have observed that the US and Russia, who have pressurized Syria to give up its chemical weapons, have actually defaulted from the treaty mechanism and are expected to take a decade more to destroy their own chemical weapons stockpiles. India also has no pleasant experiences in regards to negotiations on the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). Recently, India abstained from voting in favor of a global Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) when it became evident that this treaty is more favorable to the arms exporting states. Overall, it is unlikely that, in near future, any strong arms control or disarmament regime would emerge at global level that could largely guarantee space security.

On the other hand, India’s security challenges are far too complex. India’s both nuclear neighbors have kept a sustained focus on military modernization. China’s investments into outer space arena are noteworthy. India’s concerns are more about the possibility of weaponization of space by China. It could be argued that China’s interests in ASAT and space weapons are more US-centric than India-centric. However, from India’s point of view, the concern is about China’s counter-space capability. Eventually, such capability could also offer China an asymmetric advantage against India.

For India, weaponization of space is not an option and it should be avoided at any cost. However, what is important for India is for it to build its technological capabilities. India should build its technological capabilities for debris-free ASAT competence: the capability for any possible interception at about 150 to 250 kilometers above the earth’s surface.

Strategic Space Commission

Various Indian investments in space are for peaceful purposes. India has more than US$25–30 billion worth of space assets and has major impending projects. Theoretically, there is no protection available for any of India’s space assets.

India’s multifaceted security challenges demands the security establishment to remain in a constant state of readiness. Naturally, space technologies would find increasing utility for India’s security setup in the near future. It is obvious that the development of military follows technology development logic. The development of the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) in India’s strategic calculus demands information superiority. India’s requirement of reconnaissance, communications, and navigation necessitates the presence of a space-based architecture.

India’s existing Space Commission, which is an overarching body to decide and execute its overall space agenda, has a framework of a civilian mandate. It is important for ISRO, as an executor of India’s space vision, to maintain its existing identity integral to the nation’s policies. Also, it is important for ISRO to enhance India’s commercial stakes in the global space market by encouraging the private industry.

Now the time has come for Indian technocrats and policy makers to place this program under the global settings of space technology, space law, and space security.

From the space security perspective, it is vital for various government organs involved in defense and foreign policy issues to work together and formulate policies regarding strategic requirements and issues concerning counter-space capabilities. In the future, with possible technological breakthroughs various new issues in areas such as stations, space tourism, on-orbit satellite servicing, and the management of mineral resources on the Moon and other planets could arise. This could change the nature of outer space dynamics and increase security challenges. Such technological achievements could be required to be channeled mainly by using various strategic and diplomatic leverages.

In order to cater for various existing and emerging space security challenges, two separate space commissions could be put in place: a National Space Commission and a Strategic Space Commission.


India’s space program had humble origins in the early 1960s but has made exponential progress during the last few decades. During that time, Indian rocket scientists have brought many laurels to country. Now, the time has come for Indian technocrats and policy makers to place this program under the global settings of space technology, space law, and space security.

Disclaimer: This article is an academic and personal view.

Dr. Ajey Lele works at the Institute For Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), a New Delhi-based think tank on security issues. He is a postgraduate in physics and has a doctorate in international relations. His research focus is on strategic technologies and WMD related issues. He has several publications to his credit.

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