Asia Defense | Security | South Asia

Bridging Strategy and Space: Indian Defense Reforms

India’s space ambitions are growing. With that growth, New Delhi’s strategy in the space domain will need to evolve, too.

By Nilanthan Niruthan for
Bridging Strategy and Space: Indian Defense Reforms
Credit: Unsplash

“Space is the unsung achievement of Indian industry in many ways.” This observation was made by PS Raghavan, chairman of India’s National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), while discussing sweeping defense reforms undertaken by the Indian government last week. These reforms were not only made to hasten the country’s economic revival in a post-COVID era, but also to strengthen its national security interests, particularly defense manufacturing and procurement. A big emphasis of the reforms was on trying to encourage public-private partnerships in the space sector. 

In recent years, India has been a surprisingly significant player in this arena. As a growing geopolitical power, the space domain has been prioritized in the security discourse as a crucial base to be grown. This is clear from various policy positions taken in the last two years, particularly the announcement of a manned space mission to begin in 2022, preparations for a “space doctrine” by the National Security Council and most importantly, conducting an anti-satellite test as a display of power to its rivals. When the test was conducted, India gained membership to a very exclusive club with the United States, Russia, and China as the only countries to have demonstrated anti-satellite capabilities. The fact that New Delhi did it before the United Kingdom and France, both of whom are permanent members of the UN Security Council, might well be the first signs of the old global military hierarchy giving way to a new one. 

Is There a Gulf?

The overarching objective of these reforms seems focused on creating public-private partnerships in the defense sector, including space capabilities. This is particularly significant for India’s security paradigm, since all the progress it has seen in outer space so far has been singularly led by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), with little to no contribution from private actors. Even on a military level, the anti-satellite test last year was the first time ISRO directly participated in a weapons demonstration, despite India’s space ambitions having been articulated years before that. 

The organization’s competence is beyond question, having achieved many things previously thought impossible with Indian infrastructure. It has managed to capture the public imagination, with news outlets and voices now treating ISRO launches as national media events. The present administration has also succeeded in turning this momentum in space technology into a rallying point for public support and national pride, which in turn might someday facilitate more hawkish policies in this new domain.  

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Impact of Privatization

Predicting the effect privatization would have on an industry is always fraught with risk, given all the unknown variables. Two things, however, can be concluded with a reasonable sense of certainty, now that the Indian defense sector is becoming more open. 

Firstly, the permeation of space technology for commercial applications is likely to skyrocket. ISRO has already contributed a lot in terms of varied uses of space technology, from the building of satellites to launching them. As Raghavan points out, ISRO’s achievements “exceed that of some of the other space-faring nations because of the applications” for which they have been used, particularly on the developmental side. Given that the state sector has already demonstrated such a penchant for diversification, one can reasonably expect the influx of private players to multiply this trend exponentially, as the private sector usually does. If so much progress was made despite the procedural red-tape, only more innovation will arrive now that many bureaucratic constraints have been removed.  

Second, we are likely to see commercial interests begin to seep into military policy, another natural consequence of private-public partnerships in defense. India thus far has not had a “military-industrial complex,” with an indigenous manufacturing market left largely untapped for several decades. In fact, India is the largest armaments importer in the world. While this has helped keep the nation’s military decisions predominantly geopolitical – without overwhelming interference from local business interests – it has also held back the ability of the state to project power. Given that space is a new domain of warfare with no binding legislation or punitive framework governing the conduct of key issues, commercial interests are a double-edged sword. On one hand, their innovation thrives in unregulated markets, potentially leading to great technological progress. On the other, it could also lead to tension between what is good for the nation and what is good for business. 

The Great Space Rivalry

On a larger scale, the reforms will finally bridge the gulf between strategy and space for India. The nation’s security posturing, made robust since 2014, will become more ambitious. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the country has already undertaken an unprecedented amount of extraterritorial military operations, ranging from rescue missions to counter-terror strikes. There is no reason to assume that this confidence and assertiveness of a rising India will not extend to space as well. 

While space itself has not been explicitly militarized yet, many see it as inevitable. Although the 1967 Outer Space Treaty forbids such a development, decade-old laws will not stem the tide of a growing technological-strategic nexus in space politics. China has already acknowledged space as a war-fighting domain, while the U.S. Space Force has officially been unveiled, with its own flag. Both of these would seem contrary to the 1967 Treaty, but the lack of an enforcement mechanism renders the law more or less toothless. Space rivalry and the potential for military conflict cannot therefore be avoided. 

As private actors get involved and an industry is built around space infrastructure, the question of asset-protection will start becoming a key one. The bigger your space industry becomes, the more assets you have in space. The more assets you have in space, the more it becomes the State’s responsibility to protect them. The more this responsibility builds, the more rationale there is for militarization. And the more militarization, the more volatile the space rivalry. Just as how building an oil pipeline across many countries could lead the creator-State to deploy its own military forces to protect that asset in a foreign territory, nations will be under pressure to secure their property in space even if this leads to a confrontation with others. 

India’s journey to becoming a full-blown space power will not be the most welcome development to other space giants, particularly China. Of all the rivalries in what is called the “Asian Century,” the Indo-China one is likely to the most combustible, given both their rises. The first signs of a space rivalry between the Asian giants are already visible. China conducted anti-satellite tests as far back as 2007, which probably shocked New Delhi, given how subdued the response was. India’s test last year could be seen as a deterrent against China. 

On the American side, NASA was highly critical of India’s tests last year, with its chief even calling it a “terrible, terrible thing.” Although the official rationale for this criticism was space debris and environmental concerns, it is difficult to see how that alone could have triggered a public response, given the American position on militarizing space. Russia, which has typically enjoyed a much better security partnership with India than the United States or China, did not seem too bothered by the tests, even stating that it believed India did not direct it against any particular nation. Russia has been particularly proactive, going ahead with anti-satellite tests in April this year and seemingly unbothered by Western criticism. 

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An Uncertain Future

Therefore, while it is certain that the Indian space sector will now undergo a revolution of sorts in terms of technology, we are also likely to see drastic changes in India’s space doctrine. As the nation becomes more ambitious – a natural trait of any rising power – it will now start playing a major role in the strategic landscape of outer space, which is already witnessing old tensions. 

This also comes with many opportunities for the nation. The private sector can help the government be a leading voice for new legal regimes, making sure India’s present position is protected even when legal impositions are inevitably placed. It could help smoothen tensions with other space rivals, particularly the United States, if synergy can be found in the private sector for space manufacturers in both nations. 

Whatever the results may be, what is certain is that these reforms will put India on its way to finally having an indigenous defense base, both in space and otherwise. It will also play a pivotal role in deciding just how powerful the world’s largest democracy is. As humanity becomes more digitized and reliant on satellite technology, the domain of outer space will be what determines the power hierarchy, especially when the destructive capabilities of space weapons become apparent. Much like how the definition of military power changed after the twins blasts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where it became apparent that nuclear countries were now far stronger than non-nuclear ones, the 21st Century is likely to be dominated by space powers. And when that day comes, India will be glad that it created a space industry before it became too late to capitalize on the rising wave. 

Nilanthan Niruthan is a defense analyst, currently attached to the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies in Colombo. He is the author and editor of several publications on global security. He also teaches Low Intensity Warfare at the Defense Services Command and Staff College, the highest seat of military education in Sri Lanka.