Event ReportsPublished on Mar 24, 2015
At the launch of the ORF Kalpana Chawla Annual Space Initiative, experts felt that space is unlikely to become an exception to the security-seeking nature of the international system. They felt States should accept space militarisation as a reality and develop institutions to regulate its use for both peaceful and military purposes.
Space militarisation inevitable

Space is unlikely to become an exception to the security-seeking nature of the international system. States should accept space militarisation as a reality and develop institutions to regulate its use for both peaceful and military purposes. This, among several important aspects of space utilisation, was discussed during the launch of the ORF Kalpana Chawla Annual Space Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation on March 17.

ORF Kalpana Chawla Annual Space Initiative

The launch drew participation from an eclectic collection of experts, ranging from lawmakers, security experts, private entrepreneurs, space scientists, military and public policy analysts. The programme was neatly divided into two separate but related themes -- features of India’s space programme, and challenges in encouraging cooperation through global institutions to regulate outer space activities.

Dr. Shashi Tharoor, Member of Parliament, and an experienced international negotiator, provided vital historical context to India’s space programme. Space research in its early years following the Second World War was a ’big boys’ game and was confined to the major powers. India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had the foresight to invest in this program immediately after independence, despite more pressing problems like national integrity, social justice, and poverty alleviation. Even though other states have stepped up in recent years, Nehru’s vision of India as a scientifically advanced country has given it an advantage over similarly placed post-colonial states.

Keeping with history, Group Captain Ajay Lele, Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence and Strategic Analyses, delineated the trajectory of India’s cooperation with major space-faring nations -- United States, France and the former Soviet Union. He argued that on aggregate, space bonhomie has benefited India, key aspects of which have been technology assistance and transfer, sharing off-the-shelf products, launch facilities, ground infrastructure, and training. In the process, space has emerged as a mechanism to extend strategic relationships. He categorised the six decade-long history into three distinct phases. The first stage, following independence was linked with India’s social and economic goals like generating data to improve agriculture output and weather analysis. Early cooperation, however, was replaced with ’technological apartheid’ in wake of India’s leaning towards Soviet Union. The end of the Cold War and the concomitant rise of India as a significant economic and scientific power led to the resumption of cooperation, as evidenced by US-India collaboration in the Chandrayan project and Indo-French joint missions like Megha-Tropiques to analyse water cycles. Gp Capt Lele marked Japan and Israel as the most likely candidates for future collaboration.

His overview of India’s space project, largely executed by the ISRO, was an apt segway to the fledging role of the private sector, which was represented by D S Govindarajan, Aniara Space, and Narayan Prasad, co-founder of Dhruva Space. Govindarajan highlighted the growing role of private players in space domain, particularly their contribution to niche areas like nanosatellites. He stressed that for India to realise former President APJ Kalam’s vision of ’space industrial revolution,’ the government must foster conditions conducive to attractive returns to investment. The benefits for the state are not merely tangible, such as telecommunications and remote-sensing capabilities, but also indirect, in the form of technology spin-offs, scientific knowledge, and enhanced international prestige. He suggested leveraging Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Make in India initiative, joint ventures between state-owned and private companies, creating government, industry, and academia triads, as well as incubation funds, leadership programmes, and scientific exchange programs. In similar vein, Prasad suggested that ’Tier-1’ companies contracted by ISRO, which currently include no more than 10 companies out of the organisation’s roster of 500, should be expanded in line with the industry’s growing expertise and volume. Likewise, starting the practice of regularly updating Geographical Information System (GIS) data will create opportunities for the private industry, and so will commercialising launch programs. Prasad also called for greater Private Public Partnership (PPP) mode of collaboration, transparency and time discipline in issuing licenses of the proposed commercial satellites, and streamlining space spectrum allocation.

Turning attention to the role of the international system in moderating state behaviour towards space, especially its militarisation, Air Marshal M Matheswaran reiterated that the enduring anarchic nature of world order will compel states to privilege security over the global commons approach. Indeed, that 70 percent of all satellites either have exclusive military objective or are dual-use with strong military utility demonstrates that space, when seen from the vantage point of states, is no different from previous nascent technologies whose military utility was not left unexploited. Indeed, the use of space in modern conflicts such as Kosovo and Afghanistan well illustrates its non-exceptional nature. China’s decision to test an Anti-Satellite missile, or ASAT, has sparked fears of renewed competition for weaponisation of outer space. Given the primacy of information to warfare, much of today’s information in both civilian and military realm that are driven through space-based technology like GPS remain vulnerable. Their disruption, the Air Marshal predicted, will be devastating.

Militarisation is a key problem, but other issues impair cooperation too. Space, Tharoor argued persuasively, has become more democratic due to factors such as globalisation, the rise of middle powers, growth of non-state actors in space, and the relative ease of technology which once was possessed by a handful of major powers. The consequent proliferation of space programs has led to an ’over-crowding’ of space, resulting is several coordination problems like spectrum allocation, debris management, and taking elaborate measures to avoid unintentional damage to each other’s satellites. In fact, of all the artificial objects in space, merely 7 percent serve a functional purpose; the rest comprise non-serving satellites, spent orbital stages, and more worryingly, debris. In fact, studies which measure fragments larger than 10 cm have recorded 22000 such debris particles which pose a progressively greater threat to new satellite launches that have to manoeuvre through them.

Such challenges are bound to increase, which makes for a stronger case for regulating space research. However, as noted before, space is no different to other areas of international relations, and negotiating the contours of future cooperation has proven elusive. Cooperation cannot be discriminatory; emerging powers like India are mindful of the possibility of an apartheid-like regime akin to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and will resist unregulated cooperation among a few at the exclusion of the rest. Existing institutions are simply inadequate in reconciling concerns of major space-faring nations that these rules will stifle their ambitions, with fears of emerging states that the proposed norms will create entry barriers.

Other factors create impediments as well. Take the problem of issue linkage, wherein negotiations on one issue becomes contingent on extracting favourable terms on another unrelated bargain. For instance, Russian view on space is thought to have hardened in wake of the Ukrainian crisis. Besides, taking cue from classical collective action theory, as the number of stakeholders increase, treaty-making becomes more difficult. Cooperation is desirable, but it also renders one vulnerable to risks. It is hardly surprising that most frontline states are developing or have already developed their own GPS systems, case in point being the Chinese Beidou and the Russian GLONASS. Facing such structural impediments, a Global Commons approach will be possible only when the regime enforces transparency and accountability. It was suggested that one should make norms of responsible behaviour as an intermediate step towards the final goal of a legally binding treaty.

The interaction between international and domestic features of space research should not be discounted either, argued Daniel Porras, Visiting Fellow at ORF. Governments find themselves between institutions that make the international system, and pressures emanating from the growing number of private actors in the domestic realm. The manner in which states regulate the mandate of their domestic actors is imminently tied to international institutions these states are in turn bound to. To explain the linkages, major powers at the forefront of designing such regimes have already reformed their domestic markets and policy to absorb the changes expected once the proposed regimes are enacted. Emerging states, on the other hand, have taken different development pathways that are often not compatible with such regimes. As a result, they will have to make changes to their domestic market, thereby increasing the cost for participating in these institutions. Similarly, debris management practices currently being deliberated, such as the IADC Debris Mitigation Guidelines, call for satellites to be pushed into a designated part of the space, or satellite graveyard. This requires them to carry extra fuel which will further increase costs and impose entry barriers.

Dr Rajeswari Rajagopalan, Senior Fellow at ORF, explained the major regimes being debated at the launch, namely the EU-sponsored International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities (ICoC) and the Treaty on Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and of the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects (PPWT) was first proposed by Russia and China in 2008 and reintroduced in June 2014. The PPWT prohibits the use of weapons in outer space, but worryingly, remains silent about the use of ground-based weapons such as the ASAT against space assets. She referred to the argument gaining ground in security circles in New Delhi that India should develop and test its own ASAT capabilities before a new mechanism takes shape which might close India’s options in the future. The scientific community, she added, believe that the technical knowledge and material requirements for developing such weapons are available however it is a political decision on whether India should demonstrate such a capability or not. With regard to the ICoC, the European Union’s decision to draft the agreement among its member states without consulting much of the developing world has not been received well, drawing criticism that their perspectives and interests are not reflected in the proposal. For instance, Latin American states are wary of the principle of right to self-defence as an alibi to develop counter space capabilities and therefore sensitive to provisions of Article 51 of the UN Charter. Subsequently, the EU has sought the offices of the UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDR) to arrange a series of conferences aimed and generating consensus.

Amb. Rakesh Sood provided a less sanguine view of international cooperation. Drawing from his experience as a diplomat privy to several negotiations on outer space and nuclear matters, he explained how global orders, to mention a few, climate change, trade, the United Nations, are created through compromise solutions amenable to all participating members. Such structures, at the time of their inception, are expected to evolve through ratification and reform. However, in most instances, the Ambassador reminded the conference, ratification is stone-walled as incumbency pressure and institutional inertia assume a life of its own. He added that the proposed Code of Conduct has failed to emerge beyond merely a debris mitigation arrangement because the interests of participating states simply do not converge. We should admit that space’s weaponisation is inevitable. Instead of a global commons approach, Sood argued for a less glamorous but a more pragmatic and gradualist approach that favours incremental changes in space conduct.

(This report is compiled by Kaustav Dhar Chakrabarti, Associate Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)


  •  Ajey Lele

  •  S. Govindrajan

  •  Narayan Prasad

  •  Soma Perumal

  •  M. Matheswaran

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