Why India’s Space Program Is More Than Meets The Eye

by Zohaib Altaf

India’s space program, while celebrated for its advancements in lunar exploration and satellite technology, presents a complex narrative of dual-use technology that blurs the lines between civilian space exploration and military ambitions.

The recent discussions at the 61st Session of the Scientific & Technical Subcommittee (STSC) of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) in 2024 highlighted India’s significant achievements, including the Chandrayaan-3 Vikram lander’s historic landing near the moon’s south pole in August 2023. These achievements, while marking India’s contributions to global space knowledge, also serve as a facade for the strategic military applications embedded within its space program. This juxtaposition is further complicated by the involvement of private space companies that, under the guise of democratizing space, are in reality extending the reach of defense contractors into space technology, potentially for defense purposes, especially for enhancing its Inter- Continental Ballistic Missile Program.

The establishment of the Indian Space Association (IsPA) in 2021, heralded as a step towards opening up India’s space sector to private enterprise and innovation, includes founding members such as Larsen and Toubro, Nelco (Tata Group), OneWeb, Mapmy India, and Walchandnagar Industries. These companies, while ostensibly contributing to India’s civilian space efforts, have deep ties with the defense sector. For instance, Larsen and Toubro signed a substantial 2,585-crore contract with the Indian Defense Ministry in February 2023, emphasizing the defense sector’s reliance on technologies developed within the space industry. Similarly, Nelco, part of the Tata Group, plays a crucial role in the indigenization of weapon development, showcasing the dual-use potential of space technologies for military purposes.

This duality is most evident in the development and conversion of space launch vehicles into ballistic missiles. The adaptation of the SLV-3 into the Agni medium-range ballistic missile in the 1980s exemplifies the strategic military capabilities derived from advancements in space technology. The Agni program, now including missiles with ranges of up to 3,000 kilometers, and the development of the Agni-VI, anticipated to reach between 9,000 and 16,000 kilometers, underscores the strategic advantage India seeks through its space program. These developments highlight the seamless transition between civilian and military applications of space technology, raising concerns about the true intentions behind India’s space exploration efforts.

Moreover, the shared technological foundations of space launch and missile systems illustrate the inherent dual-use nature of these technologies. The precision and capabilities of ballistic missiles, significantly enhanced through satellite guidance systems, demonstrate the military advantages gleaned from space technology. This technological overlap not only facilitates the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) but also enhances India’s strategic posture on a global scale.

India’s international space cooperation efforts further reflect the geopolitical motivations underpinning its space program. Despite formal agreements with China for space cooperation, the tangible progress has been limited, signaling broader geopolitical dynamics at play. The lack of technology transfers to China, contrasted with India’s engagement in space agreements with Quad nations, highlights the strategic considerations influencing India’s space policy. This selective approach to international cooperation, prioritizing alignments that bolster India’s strategic interests, underscores the geopolitical undercurrents shaping its space exploration initiatives.

In conclusion, India’s space program, through its achievements and ambitions, presents a narrative that intertwines civilian space exploration with strategic military objectives. The involvement of private space companies, far from democratizing the space sector, appears to extend the capabilities of defense contractors, potentially for military purposes. This strategy, masked under the achievements of lunar exploration and satellite technology advancements, raises critical questions about the dual-use nature of India’s space endeavors. As India continues to advance its space program, the challenge lies in distinguishing between peaceful space exploration and the pursuit of strategic military advantages, ensuring that its contributions to space technology development align with the peaceful use of outer space.

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