Space is one of the primary factors for enhancing a country’s comprehensive national security and technological capability. Today, the race to space is much more than a “flags and footprint” mission reminiscent of the Apollo era. It is a quest to establish permanent presence on the moon and beyond.
China’s long-term space ambitions articulate such a grand vision. It is in this context that space cooperation between the United States and India — the world’s oldest and the world’s largest democracies, respectively — acquires a strategic context and urgency. Unlike U.S. Congressional restrictions on U.S.-China space cooperation, the United States and India are not affected by any such restrictions. Given the ways that their strategic partnership has improved over the years, it is rather a puzzle that their cooperation in space is not even closer and strategically aligned.
During U.S. President Donald Trump’s first visit to India on February 24-25, 2020, it is appropriate for space cooperation to be elevated to a higher realm, given both countries have similar long-term ambitions for a moon landing, and robotic exploration missions to Mars.
Both the United States and India have made changes to their military space forces, with the U.S. establishing the Space Force and India constituting a Defense Space Agency. At the “Howdy Modi” event in Houston in September 2019, part of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s broader visit to the United States, Trump specified that “here in America, we are creating the United States Space Force, and we’re working closely with India to enhance space cooperation… we will pioneer new frontiers in space, working together, raising the sights of humanity. We will uphold our values, defend our liberty, and control our destiny.”
There are several strategic agreements and joint statements between the U.S. and India, across administrations, that can be utilized to enhance space cooperation. Some of these important agreements are the 2004 Next Step in Strategic Partnership (NSSP), the 2005 New Framework for the India-U.S. Defense Relationship, the 2005 India-U.S. civil nuclear deal, the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI), as well as the Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region. The NSSP identifies the need for civil space cooperation with India. Both countries have established a U.S-India Joint Working Group on Civil Space Cooperation.
Yet more is required at the highest level to elevate space. Sadly, there is no Vision Statement on U.S-India Space Cooperation that has high visibility and offers pointed direction. This lack of strategic foresight is puzzling given that outer space will become the most valuable asset for a state and society, with a return on investment predicted to be in the trillions of dollars.
Given there is bipartisan support for space cooperation between India and the United States, here are some of the core areas that offer such cooperative possibilities.
First, the United States and India can sign a shared vision of industrial space development and security of commerce for the 2050 timeframe. This vision should be explored through a diversity of table-top exercises involving representatives from NASA and the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), the U.S. Space Force and the Indian Space Defense Agency, as well as commercial industry partners from both countries. Such events will lay the groundwork for a consensus on broad global regimes governing economic development of space. At the heart of these efforts must be a shared vision of a future of vast prosperity and freedom.
Second, U.S. Space Command and the Indian Defense Space Agency should sign agreements on Space Situational Awareness (SSA). This must be followed by exchanges of space personnel at the highest levels of strategy and policy for military space, space intelligence, civil space agencies, and commerce agencies. Such exchanges already exist between the United States and other key national security partners, but not yet with India. This sort of mechanism will allow easier cooperative planning, and make it easier to harmonize legislation, investments, and mutual activities.
Third, building on the success of the U.S.-India nuclear agreement and the 10-year U.S.-India Defense Framework, the two countries should make a series of high-profile investments in the technologies that will form the foundation of the future industrial space economy and cement their mutual connectedness. They should develop a joint vision for Earth observation, environmental surveillance, remote sensing, broadband, and maritime domain awareness across the Indian Ocean Region. Since both countries share similar concerns, their intelligence agencies should be cooperating to use space to better employ electronic, signals, and cyber intelligence.
Fourth, they should undertake joint robotic exploration of the moon. In 2008, NASA’s moon mineralogy mapper aboard the Chandrayaan 1 discovered water ice and provided the first mineralogical map of the moon. India is focused on landing on the South Pole of the moon with its Chandrayaan 3 lunar mission by 2022. NASA announced plans to send a robotic rover to the moon by 2022 to prospect for ice. Incidentally, India and Japan have signed an agreement to send a resource prospector to the moon (2022-24) for similar resource prospecting, with an aim to establish a base. Here is area for strategic cooperation, given that the U.S. and India already have an agreement in place to explore the moon together.
Fifth, the two countries should pursue joint Exploration of Mars. In September 2014, NASA’s Mavern and India’s Mangalyaan arrived in Martian orbit two days apart from each other. What is little known is that NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory provided navigation and communication support to India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). Subsequently, India and the United States established a Mars Working Group to “identify and implement goals that NASA and ISRO share for Mars exploration, particularly coordinated observations and science analysis between MAVEN and MOM and NASA’s other Mars craft. The working group also looks to potential future joint missions to Mars.” This existing framework offers the Trump administration and the Modi government the perfect peg to aim higher, and establish a joint Mars mission.
The sixth area of cooperation could be space nuclear power and propulsion. China has already announced plans for a nuclear-powered space shuttle, and fission nuclear propulsion could allow much greater access to Mars and the asteroid belt. India, like the United States, has significant expertise in small nuclear reactors. A cooperative program could accelerate both countries’ ability to find prosperity in the stars. Even more advanced is fusion propulsion. India and the United States are already cooperating on the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER). A wealth of concepts for space fusion power and propulsion lay waiting to be developed as part of a joint project to literally “reach for the stars.”
The seventh area of cooperation could be orbital power stations. As remarked upon by Trump, energy security is at the heart of U.S.-India relations. Already, China has started a program to build solar power satellites, a technology that could alter the entire balance of global power. Back in 2011, former Indian President A.P.J. Kalam proposed that the United States and India begin a joint development program on space-based solar power. Until now, however, the idea has remained mostly notional. This could be another area of potential cooperation.
As Trump prepares to leave for India, besides the usual suspects for cooperation like trade, defense sales, and joint statements on terrorism, an U.S.-India Vision on Outer Space identifying key areas and mechanisms to implement that vision for the final frontier would be truly revolutionary. This joint vision could identify space as a key area of strategic cooperation based on a shared vision, similar to the U.S.-India Indo-Pacific vision.
Besides civil and commercial space, both countries could lay guidelines to wargame out plausible military threat perceptions in space, and how to mitigate its harmful effects. Both countries should look to establishing a cooperative framework in space that is transformational, and not transactional. After all, their democratic ethos is their greatest common strength given that authoritarianism is the alternative. The moment to seize that strategic initiative is now.