Thursday, July 21, 2011

US-India Strategic Dialogue: Lack of Vision in Space


Here's an analysis of mine, published by ORF, on the recent US-India Strategic Dialogue, more from a space point of view.

India and the US need to be more innovative and visionary, and identify cutting edge areas to cooperate. There are plenty of candidates: areas like space access, in-space maneuver, space logistics, space infrastructure, in addition to developing new markets such as space tourism, on-orbit construction and manufacture, terrestrial resource mapping, space resource and energy utilization, space traffic management and active debris mitigation, to name a few.



The US-India Joint Space Working Group (JWG) on civil space cooperation concluded their talks in Bangalore last week. In terms of concrete steps, the two sides have agreed to work together for sharing information on tropical weather, monsoon forecasting by exchanging and using satellite-based scientific data about the Earth, weather, geophysical features. These are by no means the most exciting areas of cooperation on space. This as well as other areas highlighted during the JWG meeting have been included in the Joint Statement at the end of the second US-India Strategic Dialogue which ended on Tuesday evening.

The Strategic Dialogue appears to have produced no big ideas for carrying forward the relationship. The Joint Statement focuses on, among other things, the new US-India Dialogue on Central Asia, acknowledging particularly the importance of it in the context of better trade and transit linkages that might contribute to the long-term well-being of Afghanistan; strengthening of defence ties through transfer of technology, joint research, development and production of defence items; US' support for India's membership into the four technology export control regimes - Nuclear Suppliers Group, Missile Technology Control Regime, Australia Group and the Wassennaar Arrangement; and the bilateral initiatives on clean energy options including solar energy, energy-efficient buildings and advanced bio-fuels.

The statement has been along expected lines. Despite huge potentiality and almost no controversy -- unlike in the nuclear area -- Indo-US space cooperation has not moved to concrete actionable agenda yet. The statement clearly lacks much vision. It included a paragraph on space, with the two sides agreeing to cooperate on a number of areas such as sharing satellite data on oceans and global weather patterns, joint experiments, earth observation, space exploration and so on.

The need of the hour was to introduce a US-India 21st Century Commercial Space Initiative or a Space Knowledge Initiative, along the lines of the US-India Agricultural Knowledge Initiative and the US-India Clean Energy Initiative, making space an attractive proposition for entrepreneurs besides the strategic entities on either sides. Such an initiative would have made space a commercially and strategically sustainable area in India-US relations. The two sides should have had a clear goal along with bilateral funding. Subsequently, it could have been made into a good case for public-private partnership. The Agricultural Knowledge Initiative is often cited as a good example of public-private partnership.

India and the US need to be more innovative and visionary, and identify cutting edge areas to cooperate. There are plenty of candidates: areas like space access, in-space maneuver, space logistics, space infrastructure, in addition to developing new markets such as space tourism, on-orbit construction and manufacture, terrestrial resource mapping, space resource and energy utilization, space traffic management and active debris mitigation, to name a few. The two sides ought to make this into an economically sustainable option, and create a strategic industry around space to make it sustainable in the long-term. This would have several spin-off effects in terms of creating a pool of human and scientific resources, well-versed in dealing with future challenges. The spin-off benefits in terms of job creation would have become an attractive proposition for the two countries, given the domestic pressure.

India and the US should have ideally produced a joint statement that would have laid out a long-term plan with near and mid-term milestones -- such as monitoring non-traditional security threats, including human security issues by studying the environment and oceans, with a roadmap for constructing a space-based sensors constellation. They could have considered a technology demonstration programme for making space-based solar power a technologically viable option or endorsed the goals of the Kalam-NSS initiative and IAA study, calling for the establishment of a working group toward an on-orbit demo of an international space-solar power demonstrator satellite within 10 years, with both Delhi and Washington pledging $1bn over the next 10 years towards such a programme. Lastly, the two sides could have established a US-India Space Knowledge/Commercial Initiative. This would have required the two governments making an investment of about $40-50mn for a five-year period, while identifying specific projects for this time span.

Lastly, Indo-US relations have been drifting along for sometime now and it is time that the two sides identified another big idea to steer the relationship and take it to the next level. Space cooperation clearly has the potential to play this role. But clearly, its potential is yet to be recognized by either side.

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