Monday, May 12, 2014

Geopolitics of India's Mars mission, my OpEd in The Wall Street Journal....

It has been more than six months since I updated my blog. I thought I will get serious with my blog at least from the beginning of a new year but it has been more hectic than before. There have been couple of different projects that I have been part of as well as coordinating, which have been exciting and challenging but they clearly took a lot of my time as they involved a lot of travelling, meeting and interactions with experts, key stakeholders. Now that I am done with most of the travel for these projects, I hope I will have more time at hand at my blog back on track.

November 2013 was big for India. India's Mars mission undertaken on November 05 was a matter of pride, in terms of technology demonstration. But the Mars mission, called Mangalyaan, was also a reflection of the growing competition in the space domain, especially in Asia. Also to be the first Asian country to conduct such a complex mission must have been an important factor in India's calculation. The fact that India managed to do this mission in a cost-effective manner at around $ 75 million, a fraction of the cost incurred by other spacefaring powers, added to the pride factor.

Here is an OpEd that I wrote in November, one for the Wall Street Journal.

In the Asian Wall Street Journal OpEd, I argue that India did not enter the space domain with big dream projects but the key objective was to bring about change in the socio-economic and development domains through greater utilisation of science in particular, and space utilisation in particular. However, as things have progressed over the decades, there have been challenges, new compulsions which have necessitated India to focus on showcasing of its abilities every now and then.

Full article is given below.

India’s space program did not begin with big ambitions. Vikram Sarabhai, one of the original leaders of the Indian space program in the early 1960s, said that India did “not have the fantasy of competing with the economically advanced nations in the exploration of the moon or the planets or manned space-flight.”

Even if we take Mr. Sarabhai at his word, India’s maiden mission to Mars, set for lift off today, shows that things have changed.

Firstly, it provides an indication of a growing space race between India and China. Fielding its Mars mission before China has reached the Red Planet is clearly a big factor in Delhi’s calculations. China attempted a Mars orbiter mission in 2011, piggybacking it on a Russian Mars spacecraft, but that failed to leave Earth’s orbit.

Setting off to Mars is a demonstration of India’s technological capabilities and an attempt to join the US, Russia and the European Union in successful interplanetary exploration before China.

The mission is not without its critics, including some former officials of Indian Space Research Organisation, India’s space agency, who argue that it is a waste of money, especially in a country where so many live in poverty. It is unlikely that critics will get much of a hearing.

India claims that its missions are much cheaper than similar ones elsewhere, with this attempt costing $73 million, about a tenth as much as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration spends on comparable programs.

The bread or gun argument is real for India, but the country doesn’t live in a benign neighborhood and the security imperative also requires it to focus on those capabilities which can prepare it for the challenge presented by its location.

India’s security compulsions are becoming a more compelling driver for its space program. Countries around the world have so far used space for so-called passive military applications such as communications and reconnaissance but there is a growing trend towards ‘weaponizing’ outer space.

The U.S.’s Prompt Global Strike program, which includes using long-range missiles and hypersonic vehicles that will transit through space, has created the impression that it plans to weaponize space. This could provoke reactions from Russia and China and set off a broader arms race in space.

China’s anti-satellite test in January 2007 served as a wake-up call to India about the challenges that exist in its neighborhood. The test sparked a new debate, both within the Indian security establishment and the larger Indian strategic community about the country’s traditional policy against the militarization of space and put pressure to develop its own anti-satellite system. While India is yet to demonstrate such capability, the scientific establishment has made it amply clear that they have the technological blocks ready should there be a political decision to do so.

One indicator of Indian concerns about the nature of the space race, is the likely establishment of an Indian aerospace command. Many of the key global powers such as the U.S. and Russia have such commands, India does not. While the Indian government has been debating the issue for close to a decade, there are indications that it is moving forward with the proposal. In 2008, India established an Integrated Space Cell under the aegis of the Integrated Defence Staff. The cell has functioned well in coordinating between the military, the Department of Space and ISRO.

India also launched the first dedicated military satellite this August for its navy, reflecting a gradual shift in the country’s approach to security. The maritime communications satellite is a necessary tool for the marine force as the competition for the Indian Ocean, particularly with China, gradually gathers pace.

From the outset of its space program, demonstrating technological pride and capability has always been an important consideration for India. No less so today. But the Mars mission is as much about demonstrating India’s capabilities as a force in space, as it is about scientific skill.

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