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India’s Mission DefSpace

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India’s Mission DefSpace

What is most remarkable with Mission Defense Space is its goal to provide the private sector an opportunity to finally operate in India’s defense space sector. 

India’s Mission DefSpace
Credit: Depositphotos

Earlier this week, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched Mission Defense Space (DefSpace) at the annual Defense Expo held in Gandhinagar, in the western Indian state of Gujarat. Speaking at the Defense Expo, he said, “[S]pace technology is an example of what security will mean for any strong nation in the future.” Adding that the Indian armed forces have reviewed and identified several challenges, he said that “we have to work fast to solve them.” Modi went on to say that Mission Defense Space “will not only encourage innovation and strengthen the forces but also provide new and innovative solutions.” 

Modi also highlighted India’s energized space diplomacy, already at work in Africa and many other developing and developed countries. He cited the South Asia satellite as a case in point. By 2023, the ASEAN countries will “get real-time access to India’s satellite data.” 

What is most remarkable with the DefSpace mission is its goal to provide the private sector an opportunity to operate in India’s defense space sector. According to a press release from the prime minister’s office, the mission was launched in order “to develop innovative solutions for the Defense Forces in the Space domain through industry & startups.” 

Speaking also at the Defense Expo, Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh highlighted the importance of outer space in the context of India’s national security. He said that “land, water and sky are already witness to the valor of our military, but now we are expanding our defense capabilities by reaching the depths of the ocean in the form of Under Water Domain Awareness and heights of space as Aero-Space force.” He added that under the new DefSpace mission, the government is looking for innovative solutions to 75 challenges that are being put out in the open.

On the same occasion, Lt. Gen. A.K. Bhatt (retired), the Indian Space Association (ISpA) director general, appreciated the opportunity for the private sector to contribute in the defense space sector. He said that “defense space challenges, which have been worked [on] with the Services, MOD along with private industry and IPSA, are primarily aimed at making a range of defense applications to enhance the capability of the three Services.”

There have been efforts in the last few years to strengthen private sector participation in India’s space sector. In 2019, the Indian Cabinet cleared the establishment of a new institutional set up, NewSpace India Limited (NSIL), under the Department of Space. This was in line with the government’s plan to highlight space as a key industry sector under the government’s Vision 2030, announced in the 2019 interim budget. A 10-point agenda noted in Vision 2030 identified a potential role for India as “the launchpad of the world.”

The NSIL was the second such institution (after the earlier experience with Antrix) to seek to strengthen commercial sector participation in India’s space growth story. The logic of the NSIL is to enable technology transfer from the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) to the Indian private sector, and also to step up marketing of space-based products and spin-off technologies. India’s satellite launch vehicles, such as the small satellite launch vehicle (SSLV) program and the polar satellite launch vehicle (PSLV), are likely to be part of such efforts. 

In 2020, India established the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorization Center (IN-SPACe), with the goal of stepping up industry and non-government private entity (NGPE) participation in India’s space sector. IN-SPACe was meant to make the process easier by the creation of a single window agency that will attend to the different aspects of private industry participation in India’s space program.

India then went on to establish the Indian Space Association (ISpA) in 2021. ISpA, an industry grouping of space and satellite industries, was set up with the goal of realizing India’s goal of Atmanirbhar (self-sufficiency) as well as making India “a global leader in the space arena.” ISpA over the last year has engaged multiple stakeholders within the space ecosystem so as to come up with “an enabling policy framework” that would accelerate the participation of India’s private sector to help in realizing the goal of self-sufficiency. ISpA was also tasked with connecting with a larger space ecosystem globally that might help with transfer of critical technologies as well as raise funds to realize the Indian goal of creating more high-skilled jobs within the country. Launching ISpA, Modi said that four pillars would guide India’s space sector reforms: “the freedom of innovation to the private sector; second, the role of the government as an enabler; third, to prepare the youth for the future; and fourth, to see the space sector as a resource for the progress of the common man.”

Despite Modi noting that the government’s role is one of a facilitator rather than a gatekeeper or “handler,” the Indian space sector has been slow-moving when it comes to embracing the private sector. The private sector is generally seen with a lot of suspicion given their profit motivations, but the recent speech by Modi on Mission DefSpace gives much hope that private sector can play a larger role in the Indian space program, and not merely in the civilian sector but in meeting India’s defense space requirements as well. 

Of course, while these are important statements from the highest political leadership, there will need to be appropriate rules and regulations framed in order for this to become reality. The Modi government has been mindful of the achievements by the ISRO, but the government appeared to be also cognizant of the fact that the Indian space program can achieve higher levels of competency only by bringing in all the capable actors from the private sector. There have been a few important baby steps taken in the last few years, but we also need to see legislation in the Parliament that make these possible. All of these come with the recognition that while ISRO has done quite well with a small budget, its capacity to deliver may be limited given the growing demands on India’s space program. Along with the growth in space-based services, India is also keen to capture a sizable chunk of the global commercial space market, but this cannot happen until India’s overall space competitiveness is enhanced.