According to media reports, India and France have agreed to start a bilateral space security dialogue. This will be the third country with which India will be engaged in a space security dialogue. The other two countries are the United States and Japan, with such dialogues beginning in 2015 and 2019, respectively. For France, India will be the first Asian country with which it will have such a dialogue.
The idea of a space security dialogue between India and France comes as no surprise for a couple of reasons. First, France has remained one of India’s oldest and steadiest partners in the area of space and other strategic technologies. Cooperation between New Delhi and Paris across space and nuclear domains reflect the confidence and trust the two enjoy with each other. Second, the space security dialogue between the two countries is a sign of the worsening space security environment and a number of like-minded countries are coming together to brainstorm ways to address the growing challenges and threats in outer space.
The proposal to have a space security dialogue between India and France was reportedly lofted during the visit of French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to India in April and the visit of the head of France’s Space Command, Michel Friedling in March this year. Although no dates have been provided as to when the space security dialogue will happen, it is still significant. That India has such engagements with only the U.S. and Japan, and now France, reflect new Indo-Pacific strategic dynamics and India’s own comfort in discussing space security issues with its strategic partners.
According to Indian media reports, one key area that will be part of the dialogue is ways and means to protect space assets. The rapid growth of counter-space capabilities by China is a serious development that India, France, Japan, and the U.S. have been grappling with. China’s growing inventory of counter-space capabilities is something the Indo-Pacific powers can no longer ignore. Although China has repeatedly reiterated that its space program is purely peaceful, India as well as other Indo-Pacific space powers remain concerned about China’s recent advances in outer space because of the inherent strategic and security risks. The social, economic, and security stakes of China’s counter-space capabilities are sufficiently challenging for India and France as well as other space players to come together and develop a shared sense of gaps and vulnerabilities that they may be exposed to. This competition and risks are only likely to grow in the coming years as outer space is increasingly caught up in the changing geopolitics and major power competition.
Of course, China is not the only country that is developing counter-space capabilities. Russia, the United States, and India are also developing these capabilities, albeit to varying degrees. But China’s growing counter-space capabilities along with its aggressive military posturing and use of force against powers both big and small in the Indo-Pacific have triggered alarms in many regional capitals.
There are also more countries developing dedicated military space institutions. In July 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron started the process of creating a space command. The French Space Command came into existence on September 3, 2019. The command, based in Toulouse, has a staff of 220 engaged in the development of capabilities to protect military satellites that might be approached by space threats from foreign powers. In March this year, France conducted its first multinational military space exercise, ASTERX. The exercise included Germany, Italy, and the U.S. in an effort to augment their armed forces and operations to respond to more contemporary space threats. General Michel Friedling, head of the French Space Command, called it a “stress test” for France’s new space command.
China’s establishment of the PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) in 2015 was a reflection of the growing importance of space in Beijing’s military thinking. The creation of the PLASSF concerned other space powers because it integrated the PLA’s space, cyber, and electronic warfare capabilities. This brought together several potent capabilities in an effort to deny other players any advantage they may accrue from the use of space assets. Russia has also undertaken such institutional advancements with the Russian Space Forces set up in 2011 as part of the Russian Aerospace Defense Forces meant to focus on military space developments. India, too, is making institutional changes to reflect the new realities of military space developments. The establishment of the U.S. Space Force in 2019 by President Donald Trump received a lot of attention in part due to his unique personal politics.
The reality is that more countries are likely to go down this path because of the increasing sense of competition and failing multilateral discussions. At the same time, the competition is bringing together a number of like-minded partners to work together in maintaining the sanctity of outer space, though they may not be entirely successful in their efforts.
The India-France space security dialogue is also an indication of India’s changing space orientation. India’s civil space cooperation engagements with different countries have evolved to focus more on space security. India also hopes to arrive at a common multilateral understanding of the emerging space environment and the possible threats to the safe, secure, sustainable, and continued access to outer space.
The inaugural edition of space security dialogue between India and Japan, for instance, addressed global navigation satellite system, space situational awareness (SSA), space security, and space-related norms, apart from bilateral space cooperation, which has been broadened in recent times. The Indian dialogue with the U.S., too, has been driven by similar sets of issues, including “long-term security and sustainability of the outer space environment, including space situational awareness and collision avoidance in outer space.” The two countries have concluded three rounds of space security dialogue and the third edition looked at the changing trends in space threats, their national space priorities, and opportunities for cooperation both in the bilateral context and in multilateral platforms.
Developing a common and shared understanding of the space security environment and developing appropriate means to counter them, along with some forward path on future global governance, will be a useful step indeed. It is likely that India will begin such conversations with other like-minded partners beyond France, too, including Australia and the United Kingdom, which could also give India a prominent leadership role in global governance.