Monday, October 21, 2013

Proliferation of Space Technology and Its Impact on Space Security, my presentation at the recent UNIDIR conference held in Kazakhstan

Here's my presentation on space technology proliferation and how it might impact on space security as also what might be done to stem the dangers of such proliferation, at the recent UNIDIR conference held in Kazakhstan on October 4-5, 2013.

For the presentation, click here.

Type rest of the post here

Monday, October 14, 2013

No, China Is Not About to Overtake the US in Space

Here's an essay written by my colleague Arvind and I on China's growth particularly in the space domain, published by the Diplomat on October 02, 2013.

China’s growth trajectory overall and more particularly in the space domain has been impressive. However, John Hickman’s categorical assertions in a recent Foreign Policy article that China is catching up and “may surpass the United States… to become the world’s preeminent spacefaring power” seems to us a touch far-fetched.

For the full essay, click here.

Certainly Hickman is right about Chinese determination and the “unquantifiable” factor of “an extraordinary sense of historical grievance” being a major driver of Chinese space dreams. China attributes its “military technological backwardness” to its past national humiliation at the hands of other major powers. Indeed, this is an important part of the national psyche and helps drives the Chinese space programs.

The problem lies in the tools needed to turn determination into material outcomes. The most important: China has nothing near the commercial space sector that the U.S. boasts. Sure, NASA now gets less than 1 percent of the U.S. federal budget, but much of America’s true capabilities are embedded in its private sector, which plays a much larger role than its equivalent does in China’s space sector and gives the U.S. a major advantage in space technology innovation. Not to mention the fact that the high-tech and defense sectors also contribute and the U.S. lead there is not going to disappear anytime in the next several decades.

China is taking steps to beef up its own commercial space sector (read: state-owned enterprises) but it still lacks the massive private-sector investment in R&D that will be vital to sustaining the success of any space program. For now, China must rely on public investment to advance its space program.

A Need for Innovation

More importantly, China does not innovate, it copies. That helps it catch up, but without innovation China will have difficulty taking over the top spot. Its growth looks like a parabola, approaching the number one spot before falling away.

Although China’s space program has come a long way since its launch failures in 1995 and 1996, that dramatic rise has been aided by the reverse engineering of Russian technology. For instance, many observers believe that the Shenzhou space capsule that heralded China’s manned space flight was based largely on the Russian Soyuz capsule. However, China’s ability to catch up with the other space superpowers by copying alone is fast approaching its limits. This is not helped by U.S. moves to isolate China with regard to international cooperation in space. The latter’s access to the latest technologies has consequently been restricted, a fact that even the Chinese are realizing, reflected in their recent drive to focus more on innovation.

Moreover, China lags significantly behind the U.S. generally in scientific innovation. Consider, as an example, that the U.S. is at the vanguard of revolutionizing manufacturing techniques with the use of 3D printing, which it intends to utilize in the International Space Station, or the involvement of NASA scientists in experiments that could bring them closer to the development of a warp-speed engine.

If ambition is cited as a factor for the possibility of Chinese dominance in space, then surely one must consider the U.S. aspiration to explore the far reaches of space. Even if China is quickly catching up with U.S. dominance in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), its program is largely restricted to that realm. The U.S. meanwhile has set its sights beyond our planet’s periphery.

While American satellites are exploring the far reaches of our solar system, with the Voyager 1 having reached interstellar space, closer to Earth satellites belonging to the U.S. and its partners outmatch Chinese satellites in number and scope. The former owns more than half of all satellites currently orbiting our planet. In terms of their capabilities, American satellites are still far superior to their Chinese counterparts.

Concerns regarding the decommissioning of the U.S. Space Shuttle Program may also be unfounded. NASA has already tapped the commercial sector to fill the gap in its human spaceflight capability. In the final phase of the Commercial Crew integrated Capability program (CCiCap), NASA signed an agreement with the Sierra Nevada Corporation, Space Exploration Technologies and the Boeing Company to develop commercial spaceships to launch American astronauts into orbit by 2015. This is not a sign of weakness; it is an indicator that U.S. national interests are closely aligned with the interests of the country’s commercial space sector.

In contrast, China’s commercial space sector is still very much nascent. In fact, China’s space sector is comparable to the Russian model: state sponsorship and commensurate state interference. Even though Russia continues to be one of the foremost space powers, it has experienced a sustained decline owing to financial constraints and manpower concerns. For China, the PLA’s stakes in aerospace companies are likely to encourage protectionist tendencies, which in turn block the emergence of other innovative thinkers. An underdeveloped private industry will limit the potential for innovation.

China’s impressive ascent in space capability has been driven by massive state financing. While this has undeniably worked well to date, the sustainability of this model as the Chinese economy rebalances is questionable. If state support is capped, or tapers, then with only a modest private sector to fill the gap it is difficult to see how China will sustain the extraordinary progress it has made over the past 15 years.

And finally another factor that must not be discounted is experience. American astronauts have logged thousands of hours of space flight. That gives them long experience dealing with issues China is just beginning to encounter.

Future Potential – With Reforms

Yet despite these limitations, China’s space program could continue to impress given sufficient time and patience. Maintaining the growth trajectory will, however, require reform. More opportunities and incentives for private-sector participation will encourage innovation, while reducing the burden on the public purse. While a political mandate has been issued for innovative thinking, Beijing needs to make the requisite institutional and structural changes that will allow that to happen. Those changes may also help protect the Chinese space program from economic vicissitudes.

In fact, China has shown it understands the importance of commercializing its space efforts. Fortunately, it does enjoy some tremendous commercial opportunities. In Latin America, countries like Venezuela are looking to the Chinese to supply space technology and launch services. There is also demand in Africa, which has already developed strong economic ties with the Chinese. Given that China also has the fastest-growing market for commercial space services on its doorstep, namely in Southeast Asia, there is ample potential to generate revenue to fund R&D. China should aggressively seek potential clients around the world and invest heavily in education.

Meanwhile, China could try to attract technical talent from abroad. This will, however, require more than generous remuneration, since it will be tough to match the American private sector in that regard. For China, this should be a long-term plan for educating the next generation of engineers. If the Chinese are willing to invest time and resources, a new generation could innovate and develop new technology, instead of reverse engineering, creating a slow but more certain path to preeminence.

Finally, dominance in space requires more than just technology. China will need to become a persuasive force in the making of space policy, and this in turn will require that it demonstrate an ability to act responsibly. Beijing’s 2007 anti-satellite test and the resulting space debris was an example of what not to do, especially as the U.S. managed to shoot down a satellite with minimal residual space debris.

So, yes, China has clearly made very significant strides in its space capability. However, it is still a long way short of matching U.S. capabilities and alarm bells need not ring just yet. China’s rise is a function of heavy state investment based on a model that is unlikely to be sustainable. The American model of public-private partnership is more innovative and less of a taxpayer burden. China will need to undertake significant reforms before it supplants the U.S. as the world’s leading space power.

Synergies in Space: The Case for an Indian Aerospace Command

Here's an Issue Brief of mine, articulating the need for an Indian aerospace command published by ORF.


The Indian Armed Forces have been mulling over the establishment of an aerospace command for close to a decade now. Over those years, international circumstances and geopolitics relating to outer space have changed, making it imperative for India to make decisions now. Though outer space is part of the global commons, it is increasingly getting
appropriated and fenced as powerful States are seen seeking to monopolise space.

The growing advanced military space capabilities of some nations, which include the development
of their anti-satellite missile capabilities, are also a worrying trend. With much of outer space having
been utilised by a small number of great powers and the increasing presence of non-state players in
the recent years, even a nominal increase in terms of space activity by some developing countries is
leading to issues related to overcrowding and access. In order to protect its interests, India must
institutionalise its own strengths in the form of an Aerospace Command.

For the full paper, click here.

While all the three services are becoming increasingly reliant on outer space assets, the Indian Air
Force (IAF) has taken the lead, at least going by open sources. Back in 2003, Indian Air Force Chief
Air Marshal S Krishnaswamy had already articulated the need for an aerospace command: “Any
country on the fringe of space technology like India has to work towards such a command as
advanced countries are already moving towards laser weapon platforms in space and killer satellites.”

Some years after that, in 2006, the IAF established a Directorate of Aerospace in
Thiruvananthapuram in South India, which can be referred to as the initial avatar of the Indian
aerospace command. What was visualised was a separate command with communications,
navigation and surveillance as major functionalities. The directorate was headed by an Air
Commodore-rank officer who reported to the Vice Chief's office through the Directorate of
Concepts and Doctrines at Air Headquarters. The government, however, refused to take decisive
action over the additional expenditure involved. It also feared that India might be accused of
militarising outer space.

India has come a long way since then. The government clearly recognises the need to have a triservice space command, particularly given the changing regional and global dynamics of security.

In June 2008, Defence Minister A. K. Antony announced the setting up of an Integrated Space Cell
under the aegis of the HQ Integrated Defence Staff. Outlining the background to the project, the
minister said: “Although we want to utilize space for peaceful purposes and remain committed to our
policy of non-weaponisation of space, offensive counter space systems like anti-satellite weaponry,
new classes of heavy-lift and small boosters and an improved array of Military Space Systems have
emerged in our neighbourhood.” Antony articulated the need for the cell which will operate as an
integrating window between the military, the Department of Space, and the Indian Space Research
Organisation (ISRO).

The debate surrounding the creation of an aerospace command began to gather greater momentum
in the aftermath of the Chinese anti-satellite (ASAT) test in 2007. Two weeks after the test, then
Indian Air Force Chief Air Marshal S. P. Tyagi publicly raised the issue, stating thus: “As the reach of
the Indian Air Force is expanding it has become extremely important that we exploit space and for it
you need space assets. We are an aerospace power having trans-oceanic reach. We have started
training a core group of people for the 'aerospace command'.”

Former Indian President and eminent scientist, Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, in March 2007 outlined the
force multiplier aspects of outer space assets. He said: “I visualize the Indian Air Force of the year
2025 to be based on our Scientific and Technological Competence in the development of
communication satellites, high precision resource mapping satellites, missile systems, unmanned
super-sonic aerial vehicles and electronics and communication systems. This capability will enable
the Air Force to succeed in the electronically controlled warfare in the midst of space encounters,
deep-sea encounters, and ballistic missiles encounters.” He emphasised the greater relevance of air
and space power in future warfare. The idea behind an aerospace command is to integrate all the
different capabilities and functions that exist today, particularly the military aspects of outer space.

Logic of an Aerospace Command

The logic behind the creation of a joint aerospace command in the case of India is abundantly clear.
First, as India's requirements for space increase, it becomes more important for the country to have a
single agency that will coordinate such different activities. Second, the presence of a single entity will
also allow India to better promote its national interests in outer space as this becomes increasingly
crowded and contested. India's security interests are now more than merely maintaining territorial
integrity; today those interests go beyond its borders. Accordingly, India's armed forces have to be
far more agile and dynamic with an ability to constantly understand, appreciate and respond to
emerging situations. The need to be ever vigilant to the rapidly changing security environment in
Asia cannot be underestimated.

Even as India has maintained the rhetoric of peaceful uses of outer space, the military utilities of
outer space are growing. At present, out of the country's 25 satellites, six are dual-use or military
ones, with utilities across passive military applications including surveillance, communications, and

However, with the changing nature of warfare, it has become necessary to leverage space capabilities
for full-fledged military operations as witnessed in the US operations in the two Iraq wars and
Afghanistan. India cannot remain on the sidelines, as many other countries including potential
adversaries move ahead, utilising space for military purposes. China, for example, has learnt a great
deal from the US experience and accordingly streamlined its capabilities under the PLA. We can also
learn from the experiences of other powers that have made such attempts before.

Aerospace Commands in Other Countries

Many other powers have gone about establishing space commands given the increasing military
nature of utilities of the space domain. The United States Space Command (USSPACECOM) is one
of the earliest space commands, established in 1985 as a Unified Combatant Command of the US
Department of Defense.

The Command was established acknowledging the greater utility of space assets in military
operations and therefore the need to institutionalise it under one head. Military utility for passive
applications such as intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and navigation, has been widely
prevalent and the potential for space assets for utility in active military operations is rising. The
USSPACECOM was established with a view to coordinate and strengthen several different space
utilities, including launching of satellites and other high-value payloads, enhanced communications,
intelligence, missile warning, and navigation.

Even though a Russian Space Command, as part of the Russian Aerospace Defence Forces, was
born only in December 2011, Moscow had set up the Russian Space Forces way back in 1992. The
new command, as in the case of the US, is tasked with important space utilities in functions such as
missile warning, space surveillance, and control of military satellites.

France, too, has a similar institution called the Joint Space Command, established in 2010. It has roles
and functions that are similar to those of its counterparts, including tracking and directing space
utilities in six key programmes: earth observation; signals intelligence; space situational awareness;
missile warning; military satellite telecommunications; and space-based navigation. The idea of the
Command was also to establish a single window for contact with international partners on all the key
programme areas.

One of the justifications for France's space command was that while the country had a fairly wellestablished military space programme, particularly satellite communications and optical surveillance
capability, there was a lack of a clear chain of command to get these space assets to be used for
tactical operations. Thus like the other two, coordination was the primary problem that France faced,
and it is an issue that India faces, too.

Looking at the experience of these three powers, a joint space command has been of great utility in
giving a sharper focus, particularly to military space activities, in coordinating with international
partners in identifying the challenges and finding solutions, and lastly in seeking better financial
allocations and human resources. In most cases, it is the air force that has taken the lead despite the
fact that it is a tri-service command with utilities across army, navy and air force.

India's own space command should have a similar outlook, with the IAF shepherding the command
and also similar functionalities: stepping up watch on India's immediate and extended
neighbourhood regions and developing better situational awareness across land, maritime and air
domains, easing integration of outer space assets across the three services while restricting the
destructive abilities of hostile forces that might target India's outer space assets, and bringing about
better integration among India's multiple space-related stakeholders including the ISRO, the
Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry
of External Affairs, and the Department of Space.

At a functional level, India's aerospace command could also be responsible for India's evolving
missile defence programme, providing missile launch warnings, managing a range of high-end
satellites with military utilities, among others. While ISRO has been so far managing India's satellites,
having a military command responsible for military satellites as well as the dual-use satellites with
military implications will free up the ISRO and enable it to focus on more scientific and
developmental missions.

India already has much of the hardware needed to effect these capabilities; bringing it all under a
single military command will be significant. India's all-weather and day and night satellites, with
synthetic aperture radars such as the RISAT-1, RISAT-2 and the maritime communication satellite
such as the GSAT-7, already implement many of these military functions.

It is important to ensure that while the Air Force may take a lead in shaping the command and its
activities, the burden and assets for the joint command be shared among all the services equally. The
burden should not be placed on the Air Force alone, making the command potentially a non-starter.
Moreover, the command should not be seen as a supporting, auxiliary unit but a full-fledged
command with utilities across the spectrum.


While India has the software in terms of its technological capabilities, it lacks the institutional
architecture in the form of an aerospace command. Given the centrality of space assets across
domains–socio-economic and development, weather monitoring, intelligence, surveillance, and
navigation–India has to coordinate the functions of these different compartments for greater clarity
and better allocation of resources, both human and financial. In addition to greater efficiency, an
Aerospace Command is also needed because of the manner in which other powers are using outer
space and its potentially dangerous consequences for India.

Space should be playground for humanity’s dreams, not new battlefield

Here's a short essay of mine on the global governance of outer space published by the Global Times on October 09, 2013. As two of the established space powers in Asia, India and China, have a responsibility in framing the evolving rules by rectifying loopholes. Legally binding mechanisms are ideal and desirable. However, the prospect of consensus among major powers in identifying challenges and introducing solutions seems distant.

Given these difficulties, India and China could start working toward common definitions of responsible behavior and greater transparency measures among major powers.

For full post, click here.

With the growing dependence on outer space assets for socioeconomic, developmental and military purposes, the number of players in outer space is growing rapidly. There are more than 60 such operators, including non-state actors, in this domain.

India and China, as two of the established space powers in Asia, have a responsibility in framing the evolving rules by rectifying loopholes.

Legally binding mechanisms are ideal and desirable. However, the prospect of consensus among major powers in identifying challenges and introducing solutions seems distant.

Given these difficulties, India and China could start working toward common definitions of responsible behavior and greater transparency measures among major powers.

A new regime should be guided by three key objectives: the security of outer space, order and stability, and sustainability. Most nations accept and acknowledge these objectives, at least rhetorically.

India and China face several common challenges. Operationally, these include space traffic management, overcrowding of satellites and debris in outer space. The debris increases the potential of collision with currently viable assets.

For example this May, the only Ecuadorian satellite, Pegasus, collided with Russian space debris and on August 28, it was officially declared "lost." The UN Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee predicted that space debris, unless tackled aggressively, will have grave consequences over the next 200 years.

The ongoing militarization of space is a concern. Several countries are using space assets for military functions, developing anti-satellite capabilities and offensive uses for space assets, and are making the threat of weaponization and a new arms race imminent.

With this congestion, the need for cooperative rules and regulation cannot be overemphasized, possibly through an institution similar to the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

Unregulated cooperation will only heighten insecurities at multiple levels. This explains the inadequacy of the current regime which has been hobbled by political differences and precluded a new cooperative architecture.

Consequently, different countries have been pursuing tangential solutions. The West has by and large favored Transparency and Confidence Building Measures (TCBMs) as a means to develop norms of responsible behavior in order to ensure safe, secure and continued access to space. While Russia accepts TCBMs, it has joined hands with Beijing to propose a draft treaty preventing the placement of weapons in outer space.

Similarly, a resolution on the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) was passed by the UN General Assembly in 1981, but the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva is yet to have a productive session on PAROS.

The UN Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) is another mechanism to develop cooperative measures in outer space. India too has been active in writing new rules. With a consistent policy against the weaponization of space, it has been active in forums like the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space and the CD.

Even as it insists on working out a legally binding mechanism, it is pragmatic enough to recognize the need to start with a normative exercise and gradually move to legal measures.

Space, as a true global commons, must be protected for safe, secure and uninterrupted access. India and China, along with other spacefaring powers, must therefore utilize every opportunity to push for developing norms of responsible behavior, including strengthening measures in the area of active debris removal and on-orbit satellite servicing.

These two early space powers should take on an active role in bridging the gap between the West and the rest in formulating new rules including the Space Code of Conduct and should not allow a few Western countries to monopolize the process, given the huge financial stakes involved.