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India-US Space Cooperation Takes Off

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India-US Space Cooperation Takes Off

Space and outer space are the theaters that will propel India’s rise and give a new dimension to the India-U.S. bilateral partnership.

India-US Space Cooperation Takes Off
Credit: Indian Ministry of External Affairs

On June 22, while Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in Washington, D.C. for a summit with U.S. President Joe Biden, the White House announced a major step forward in bilateral space cooperation. According to a senior Biden administration official, India will be signing the Artemis Accords and the two countries’ space agencies will pursue a joint mission to the International Space Station in 2024.

That breakthrough was part of a longer trend of forging closer India-U.S. cooperation in space. The U.S. Department of State Export Control and Border Security Group (EXBS) and the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) hosted the U.S.-India Space Technology Industry Workshop on Export Controls in April 2023. The aim of this workshop, as per the communique, was “to expand India’s commercial and defense cooperative engagement in the space sector.”

This meeting came close on the heels of the signing of the agreement on Critical and Emerging Technologies (iCET) and the Space Situational Awareness Arrangement settled in April 2022 under the rubric of the India-U.S. 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue – platforms that have provided opportunities for public-private collaboration in the space sector between India and the United States. A meeting of the U.S. India Civil Space Joint Working Group had preceded the signing of these agreements, as India and the United States attempted to formulate the possible best practices within the space sector – giving a further boost to the space sector within the spectrum of the wider India-U.S. relationship.

These initiatives have brought to the fore India’s burgeoning partnership with the United States in the space sector, at a time when the maritime partnership within the Indo-Pacific has been the focus of the bilateral partnership. Space, within the contours of the India-U.S. iCET framework, has emerged as a key pivot of the evolving relationship.

The Space Situational Awareness Arrangement signed in April 2022 under the umbrella of the India-U.S. 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue has provided a platform for enduring convergence in the space sector. The ongoing development of NISAR (NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar) has emerged as a milestone in the India-U.S. space partnership, for it “aims to observe some of the Earth’s most complex phenomena” such as hazards and global environmental damage.

Similarly, from a security lens, the launch of the Network for Space Object Tracking and Analysis (NETRA), a dedicated control center for Space Situational Awareness (SSA) activities set up by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) in Bengaluru in 2020, in conjunction with the United States’ Combined Space Operation Center (CSpOC) at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California is significant. The project aspires to protect Indian and U.S. satellites from both natural and man-made threats. The United States has also committed to training an Indian astronaut at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)’s Johnson Space Centre.

These initiatives have come after the success of previous collaborative efforts like Chandrayaan I – India’s Moon mission that carried two scientific payloads, the Moon Mineralogy Mapper and the Miniature Synthetic Aperture (MiniSAR) – and simultaneous collaborative arrival of separate national missions to Mars, namely the U.S.-led Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft and the India led Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). These initiatives have constantly provided a conducive environment for greater cooperation in the space sector in recent years.

While the India-U.S. relationship has gained a definite momentum under the leadership of Modi and Biden in recent months, conventional defense cooperation continues to be the focus of this bilateral partnership. However, it is India’s partnership with the United States on iCET – especially the space sector – that will determine the future course of this partnership. India, as the beneficiary state within this transactional relationship, needs to find enduring areas of convergence to continuously secure this alliance. A critical convergence and the desire to manage China’s imminent rise cannot be the only reason for a robust India-U.S. relationship. In this regard, space could fill the vacuum, enabling India’s further rise with U.S. assistance.

India can make a robust start in this direction by discarding its policy of strategic ambiguity on space. For instance, India should not abstain from voting on United Nations resolutions like the December 2022 U.S. resolution that called for prohibiting direct ascent anti-satellite tests (DA-ASATS). The resolution passed by an overwhelming margin, with a final tally of 155-9. Being one of the only countries in the world to have conducted an ASAT test in 2019, India chose to abstain in the vote, one of only nine countries to do so. This strategic ambiguity demonstrated India’s intransigence on matters concerning space and outer space.

In a step toward ending that strategic ambiguity, India has decided to become a signatory to the Artemis Accords – a U.S.-led initiative that seeks to create rules that will govern the spatial order while pursuing new missions to the Moon and Mars. By signing this treaty, India is committing to greater convergence on issues concerning space with its preferred partners in the present era.

For example, India’s embrace of space partnerships could allow the Quad – a grouping of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States – to expand its focus on the spatial domain as well. The other three members of the group have already signed on to the Artemis Accords. The Quad has already committed itself to regulating outer space and has demonstrated a willingness to share satellite-gathered data on issues concerning climate change and disaster relief.

Signing the Artemis Accords could also provide India access to newer markets. At a time when India is dependent on Ukraine for semi-cryogenic engines, signing the treaty could potentially allow India to find alternative markets to fulfill its needs within the space sector.

Finally, India could collaborate with the United States and emerge as a rule maker in the spatial domain by creating a supranational agency that could facilitate greater spatial cooperation between different states. This supranational agency could be created along the lines of the Information Fusion Center in the Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR), an initiative that has been strengthening maritime security through the establishment of maritime linkages and dissemination of information.

Space and outer space are the theaters that will propel India’s rise and give a new dimension to the India-U.S. bilateral partnership. While signing the Artemis Accords will give India a strategic fillip and provide it with an opportunity to become a long-term U.S. partner, eschewing strategic ambiguity on issues concerning space will let India fully embrace the spatial domain for both civilian and military purposes – enabling this partnership to become a “win-win proposition” for both sides.