Should India Declare a Space Policy?
Image Credit: NASA Goddard Photo and Video

Should India Declare a Space Policy?


A low-intensity debate has been taking place in India as to whether India should have a declared space policy or not. The general consensus appears to be that there is no need. But there are several arguments to make in favor of outlining a policy in the open. In today’s world, the advantages of a declared policy far outweigh the disadvantages. A declared policy calls for a clear understanding of how it should be tailored, what it should contain and what should be left out.

First, open policy statements and declared policies have remained the best means to assuage fears, build confidence and avoid ambiguities. These are important measures for building transparency and reducing tensions in regional and global contexts. Since the Asian context is characterized by growing competition and rivalry and the potential for conflict, even relative openness and transparency will go a long way in diluting the levels of regional insecurities.

A declared space policy would be an effective tool of communication for both internal and external audiences. For both audiences, it will set limits as well as open up opportunities as the number of states engaged in space exploration and utilization continue to grow. The value of communication through such an exercise, with both internal and external communities, is important. However, it is worth remembering that as a policy is prepared and articulated, while an internal audience is important, the policy will also send a message to external audiences. As such, it must be written in a manner that does not aggravate insecurities. Fail to do that, and external audiences could be left with the wrong impressions about India’s space program and policy, further raising the risk of misperception and miscommunication. How external audiences will read the policy statement and what they perceive about India’s needs, objectives and plans for the future, therefore, must be an important consideration as New Delhi readies a space policy document.

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Second, India should have a clear picture of its long-term objectives and these should become guiding factors for a good space policy. The long-term objectives should consider both where India wants to be in a 25-year framework, and the perspective of outer space itself. A long-term vision should be followed by prioritization of important capabilities (political, diplomatic, military and economic) and partnerships that will help India reach its destination. This should translate into national security strategies articulated by the political leadership and then national military strategies derived from the national security strategy.

The second set of objectives will come from a debate on what sort of future India wants to achieve in space and accordingly what sort of behavior will be counter-productive to achieving those goals. Once there is clarity on these issues, India should adjust the orientation of its own space program and its priorities while working towards a favorable framework that would allow it to meet those goals. India should also steer its efforts in developing rules that would affect and curtail certain space programs and activities that may potentially be destabilizing and irresponsible. In addition to creating a framework that will protect its own interests, the political impact of this exercise is important. India should also strengthen its ability to maneuver at the global high table by prioritizing and fostering partnerships with countries that might share India’s vision in space.

Third, India should articulate its interests and policies in the broader context of the region and beyond, rather than talk about its interests in a narrow sense. This will have multiple benefits. For one, India’s policy articulation will be perceived as less threatening to the region. There are apprehensions particularly in the immediate neighborhood because of India’s dominant presence in South Asia. India’s growing capabilities in the space arena as in several other areas has the potential to heighten insecurities among these smaller neighbors. It will benefit India in the longer run if it were to showcase its interests and benefits in the regional context. Moreover, India should be able to cultivate regional interests that are akin to its own interests. It should be articulated in a manner wherein the region is able to transpose its interests and ideals with that of India’s. India should be able to convey to the region as to how such a policy might be in the interests of regional peace and stability.

Fourth, the domestic debate on India’s space policy has tended to highlight the utility of being ambiguous about policy. However, it should be understood that ambiguity has its limits. Bringing clarity to India’s policy and program will have multiple benefits. Despite the fact that India’s space program has been predominantly civilian in focus, the rising trend towards militarization in the region and beyond is influencing India’s orientation as well. Categorization of India’s space program into civilian and military components followed by clear-cut departmental structures would allow for greater focus, clarity and better financial outlays. Currently, institutional and budgetary resources are stretched across different programs. Devising a military space program will cater for better budget allocations as well as dedicated human resources.

Fifth, articulating an open policy would also add to the credibility of India as a major spacefaring nation. It would be a major transparency and confidence building measure, which is particularly important in the Asian context. Apart from its value in that regard, the policy should also articulate in clear terms redlines and limits that should not be crossed. This should be in terms of both capabilities and activities that may be considered irresponsible and contributing to regional and global uncertainties. Indicating such boundaries is important both for national security and deterrence as well as an international rule-making perspective. A national policy that would categorize certain activities as irresponsible and destabilizing will be in a position to determine when defensive responses can be activated and justified.

Similarly, defining what may be considered a space weapon or how one may define peaceful or defensive use of space will be significant in deterring accidents in outer space. This may be truer in the case of Asia, but space being a truly global commons, it has the potential to trigger conflicts even among the larger community of spacefaring powers. Being ambiguous about these boundaries and redlines undermines deterrence and increases the potential for accidental conflict. From an international framework perspective, a code of conduct that would set restrictions and limits and categorize certain capabilities as irresponsible or unacceptable might deter such actions. India should take a lead role while framing these restrictions at the global level in order to have its own interests protected.

Apart from the Cold War rivalries between the U.S. and U.S.S.R., space was seen as a benign domain with great utility in the civilian and developmental sectors. However, growing space capabilities are increasingly part of comprehensive national power. Growing facets of space use from space exploration to a quest for resources, including minerals, exploitation for energy resources (space-based solar power), operational response to natural disasters, and military use are changing the nature of our engagement with outer space. The technological spin-offs of ambitious projects such as space-based solar power have tremendous potential to bolster the science and technology base of any country.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) should be commended for its achievements, particularly given its modest budget. However, as recently noted by the ISRO Chairman, private sector involvement will inject a much-needed stimulus to India’s program. India must aim at creating a strategic space industry if it is to keep pace with growing commercialization. Launching satellites is becoming a lucrative business and India should not lose opportunities in this regard. Also, the number and types of players have undergone a major change in the last few years. India needs to respond to these changes and become a leading figure by articulating its needs and objectives for the future. As in many other areas, articulating a policy along with its broad orientations would also bring much-needed clarity internally within the space sector. Additionally, partners that look to India for collaboration across fields including the use of space-based assets and space situational awareness will only benefit India’s capabilities.

Finally, India’s space policy should also outline its efforts in the area of international rule-making. Given the potential for space exploitation to affect every aspect of our daily lives, actions could have serious consequences. Therefore, laying down the rules of the road is a task that should not be left until space is highly weaponized. Aside from the political and strategic value, India has a huge financial stake given its investments and reliance in this regard.

Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan is a Senior Fellow in Security Studies at the Observer Research Foundation.

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