The US recently relaxed exports to Indian space organizations in an effort to facilitate bilateral space cooperation. As a next step, Washington should now seek to build a consensus with New Delhi against the use of technologies targeting space assets.
Speaking before the Indian Parliament in November 2010, US President Barack Obama outlined his policy of "forging deeper cooperation with 21st century centers of influence - and that must necessarily include India." Noting space collaboration as an area ripe for expanded collaboration, the joint statement by Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced their determination to "transform bilateral export control regulations and policies to realize the full potential of the strategic partnership between the two countries."
To fulfill this objective, nine institutions critical to Indian space and defense technology development were removed from the US Department of Commerce "Entity List " in January. This list restricts commerce in space, nuclear, chemical and biological technology with certain organizations. The Commerce Department also reallocated India to an export control category exclusive to Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) "adherent" states. These revisions ease the path for exporters to obtain licenses for transfer of space technology to India, although individual licenses may still be denied. The granting of "MTCR adherent status" particularly signifies a growing US perception that India takes seriously concerns regarding global proliferation and sensitive technology transfers.
These actions provide new opportunities for American agencies and firms to assist India in the evolution of its space program, including supporting Indian goals of mastering advanced rockets, deploying an expanded satellite fleet, and building international commercial launch capacity.
New heights for space partnership
Viewing space infrastructure as an important source of national prestige, the Indian government increased the Department of Space's budget by 35 percent in February. The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), India's civil space agency, aims to launch a Mars probe after 2015, a manned space mission by 2016, and achieve a moon landing by 2020.
However, Indian space ambitions are constrained by present launch capabilities. The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), the space program's " trusted workhorse", is only capable of lifting a maximum load of 1.75 tons. A more substantive launch capacity is therefore needed for future endeavors, including an upcoming lunar exploration mission.
India's alternative rockets include the Geosynchronous Launch Vehicle (GSLV) and the GSLV Mark II, the latter able to lift a 2.5 ton payload into geosynchronous transfer orbit. A more advanced version - the GSLV Mark III, currently in development - is designed to launch a five ton satellite into geosynchronous transfer orbit.
However, Indian scientists are experiencing technical difficulties in their attempts to develop an indigenous cryogenic engine for the GSLVs. A first test of an Indian engine model in April 2010 was unsuccessful, and another launch in December, utilizing a Russian engine, also failed. ISRO is currently investigating faults in its indigenous model, but will face difficulty in meeting its bold space exploration targets if these problems persist.
However, following the export control revision, Boeing announced its aim to provide lightweight composite cryogenic fuel tanks to ISRO, which could help in the construction of a reliable cryogenic upper stage, consequently enabling development of larger rockets, and a greater number of launches. Boeing also indicated its interest in supplying reusable space equipment and astronaut rocket accommodation units, which would bring India closer to its targeted lunar destinations and beyond.
Broadening space launch horizons
Indo-American space collaboration will also aid India in its quest to attain global commercial launch hub status - and the prestige and strategic advantages brought with it.
Important steps have already been made in this direction. ISRO performed its first commercial launch in April 2007, carrying the Italian AGILE satellite aboard a PSLV rocket. Additional commercial initiatives include the launch of the Israeli Polaris military reconnaissance satellite, and nanosatellite launch services for customers including Algeria, Denmark, Germany, and Japan.
However, Washington and New Delhi are still to conclude a long-discussed Commercial Space Launch Agreement which would permit India to launch American commercial satellites, or those employing US technology, in direct competition with American launch enterprises. India's full entry into the US domestic commercial launch market will now become a core issue in bilateral discussions as the range of space cooperation efforts widen.
Managing the space race
India's expanding space infrastructure is likely to accelerate rival space programs and heighten their status as an element of regional strategic competition. Pursuing an expansive space program, Beijing is constructing a massive rocket production facility . Chinese officials announced intentions on 3 March to build the world's largest rocket, with a lift capacity of 130 tons, for a manned moon landing campaign. Pakistan is also developing a communications satellite with Chinese financial support, although it is yet to field an indigenous satellite launch vehicle.
Sino-Indian strategic competition threatens to extend to rival anti-satellite (ASAT) programs, intended to eliminate or disable adversary satellites and so deny access to space-based services including communications, navigation, surveillance, and targeting. China conducted an ASAT physical interdiction test in 2007, destroying a weather satellite with an SC-19 missile and generating substantial amounts of long-lived space debris. An SC-19 also served as the interceptor in a Chinese ballistic missile defense test in 2010, illustrating an emerging dual role for China's "hit-to-kill" rocket program. The most recent US annual estimate of Chinese military capabilities notes the existence of programs for the development of additional ASAT tools including particle beam, laser and high-energy microwave options.
New Delhi is also seeking to develop ASAT technology, as illuminated by a "Technology Perspective and Capability Roadmap" published by the Ministry of Defense in 2010. In its overview of defense technology development plans, the report included "development of ASATs for electronic or physical destruction of satellites in both LEO (low earth orbit) and geo-synchronous orbits", along with additional measures to harden satellites against potential attack. Furthermore, following a successful missile interception test in March, the chief of the Indian Defense Research and Development Organization highlighted advances in India's ballistic missile defense program with regard to their potential contributions to ASAT capabilities.
While Beijing should remain the principal focus of US efforts to restrain anti-satellite technology competition, US diplomats should also seek to engage their Indian counterparts on this topic. This approach would support the goal, outlined in the US National Security Space Strategy , of a "safe space environment in which all can operate with minimal risk of accidents, breakups, and purposeful interference."
More broadly, Washington should aim to encourage a regional consensus opposing the utilization of "hit-to-kill" technologies against satellites, an area of potential competition; it is also one which poses risks to all states with satellites in orbit: the resulting debris cannot be directed away from neutral or "friendly" equipment. This initiative could branch into discussions of alternative ASAT options, including targeted beams, jamming or the maneuvering of one satellite into another, with the aims of reducing the role of ASAT technologies in regional military strategies and raising the political costs of their development and use. In particular, such an engagement strategy would encourage a Sino-Indian understanding of shared risks and responsibilities regarding the protection of space assets, while providing a basis for broader efforts to manage their strategic competition.
The relaxation of export controls by the US has opened up the possibility for close cooperation in advancing India's space exploration and commercial launch campaigns. As new collaboration initiatives expand the range of bilateral space discussions, US diplomats should seek to encourage India away from the targeting of satellites by "hit-to-kill" technologies. This point should also serve as a central theme for dialogue with China, and impressed as a core American expectation of responsible behavior among its global space-faring partners. As India continues its space rise, this opportunity to advance crucial space security objectives should not be squandered.