Expert Speak Space Tracker
Published on Nov 21, 2020
Can Private Investment in the Space Sector help the Indian military? The announcement of a new set of space policy guidelines by the Department of Space (DoS) and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) under the Modi government is indeed refreshing, and it promises to make the Indian space sector very dynamic. There are a slew of measures that are likely to be implemented as part of the newly released space policy guidelines. It allows foreign companies to set-up facilities in India and enables Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in the space sector. FDI is one of the most important features of these changes in investment rules under the new space policy. Joint ventures between foreign companies and Indian entities will allow new facilities to be established. These Joint Ventures (Jvs) could include collaborative development of satellites. Even in the absence of any external collaboration, Indian start-ups and companies can and will be an integral part of developing space technology and infrastructure and commercialisation. The consequences of and possibilities for the commercial and scientific segment of the Indian space sector are enormous in that they will bring greater and better technology, introduce India to the best international practices and expertise as well as attract Indian youth to pursue vocations in space science and technology. Under the new investment rules, foreign companies can also avail space launch and telemetry facilities built by ISRO. Indeed, they can even be involved in building several ground stations for telemetry and communications. For starters, the Indian telecommunications company Airtel is already in the process of a collaborative venture with Norway-based Kongsberg Satellite Services (KSAT). KSAT runs a network of ground stations across the world. It enables downlinks services providing high throughput broadband connectivity. It is now working with Airtel, owned by Bharti Enterprises, to build a network of ground stations in India. Airtel, which a has stake in OneWeb, is slated to be one of the world’s largest Small Satellite (SmSat) constellation in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) consisting of 648 satellites. Thus, Airtel’s stake in OneWeb and agreement with KSAT’s quest to set-up ground stations across the country is a very significant step in intensifying private sector participation in the Indian space sector. They will also complement each other. Remote regions of the country, which cannot be connected through fibre optic cables will benefit significantly from this collaboration.

Opportunities and Challenges for Indian Armed Services

Beyond these beneficial and welcome measures, one of the most important areas where opportunities exist under the new investment rules from the Indian private sector are the Indian armed services. However, there are challenges. The KSAT-Bharti-Airtel JV is a sound and potentially viable template for the commercial and civilian space segment, but not for the military per. Indeed, as the ISRO Chairman and DoS Secretary K. Sivan cautioned, “While policies will enable this, decisions will be taken on a case-by-case basis, given how sensitive the space sector is. National security and interest will be priority, and firms will be required to give undertakings on following all guidelines we lay down.” Even if the Indian private sector telecom players are resistant and tepid in their embrace of the Indian military’s necessities today, although there is no evidence to indicate so, Indian mobile and Internet Service Provider (ISPs) companies dedicated to telecommunications and delivery of large data could potentially serve as a pathway for all three branches of the military with the Indian telecommunications industry. The collaboration need not involve external investment as is the case between KSAT and Bharti Airtel and the latter and OneWeb, but could involve exclusively Indian private sector enterprises that could potentially launch their own constellations embedding military payloads geared to meeting the requirements of the Indian armed forces. The Peoples Republic of China (PRC) and the United States of America (USA) are at the forefront of exploiting commercial space to service the needs of the military. The Indian armed services as well as the private sector will need to work jointly and follow a similar course. After all, if Indian private industry and ISRO can cooperate, so can India’s private sector players and the military. Although the new investment rules released by the DoS need more clarity about regulatory conditions between military and industry cooperation, there are a few pointers which could serve as a guide for collaboration between the Indian armed services and industry covering telecom giants, small space companies and start-ups. Take the case of the SmSat constellation involving the Beijing-based Xinwei Telecom company and Tsinghua University; the satellite cluster which eventually will become 300 strong is expected to deliver highspeed broadband internet connectivity, narrowband communications and data processing capacities to ships at sea, mobile phone users, vehicles and airplanes. This satellite constellation creates opportunities for the Chinese military to exploit by embedding payloads in satellite buses that meet its requirements. To be sure, China’s Hongyan mega-constellation, consisting of 300-plus satellites built primarily by China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), is very likely to play a key role in satellite broadband services from LEO to both the Chinese military and civilian users. Although Chinese private sector space enterprises have been slower in grasping the possibilities and the commercial viability of large satellite constellations in LEO, US-based companies have had no such problems. As a United States Air Force study put it: “The private sector is moving towards significant reductions in the cost of launch and is on the path toward a proliferated constellation of small satellites for sensing, communications, and command and control (C2) in space. This creates significant potential for contributions to all five-core Air Force missions, as well as to the missions of the entire Joint and Combined Force in the near, mid, and long-term.” Evidently, reduced cost is a very good reason for collaboration between the private sector and the armed services. Further, under Chinese law, foreign companies are barred from providing communications services to Chinese consumers. Thus, only Chinese companies can provide communications and data-related services. India, as the new investment rules stipulate, albeit subject scrutiny, will permit foreign investment in communications and data service as is evident from the OneWeb-Airtel and Airtel-KSAT JVs for Indian consumers. However, as the ISRO Chairman K. Sivan implicitly stated in the aforementioned, given the strategic nature of the space sector, external collaboration and foreign investment that involve the Indian armed services and have a bearing on India’s national security in the areas of Remote Sensing, Communications and Imagery is unlikely. Obviously the OneWeb-Airtel JV cannot be a template for a collaborative effort between the Indian armed services and a foreign company, even if it is partnership with an Indian company. Nevertheless, India’s native private industry should be facilitated to cooperate with the individual branches of the military. Ultimately, the constraint could be that India’s private sector does not see any opportunity for reaping commercial benefits in launching its own satellite constellations that allows the military to embed some of its payloads.
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Kartik Bommakanti

Kartik Bommakanti

Kartik Bommakanti is a Senior Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme. Kartik specialises in space military issues and his research is primarily centred on the ...

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