South Asia’s Space Race

 During the ideological struggles of the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union faced off in the space race. That competition culminated in the greatest feat of human exploration in history with the moon landing on July 20 1969. Almost 50 years later, a new rivalry is pushing aerospace development much like the preceding struggle. India and China are competitors in by almost every major indicator.

Space Globe Earth Moon Solar System Orbit Planet

Space Globe Earth Moon Solar System Orbit Planet

They are economic rivals, and a series of military agreements between China and Pakistan are pushing India further and further into cooperation with the United States. This is further complicating their delicate diplomatic practice of freezing or stalling negotiations on areas of disagreement while forging ahead cooperatively where they can to compensate and maintain an amicable relationship. This was communicated recently when China allowed its media to drum up public outrage over a border dispute in Nepal – while the Chinese military made allusions to the 1962 Sino-Indian war, calling on India to heed the lessons of its defeat. This offered a sharp departure from their usual practice of containing the situation and disallowing state media to even report on the issue. This changing relationship, and their developing competition extends to their respective space programs, and threatens to refocus aerospace research and technologies into military advantages.

India’s progress in spaceflight was highlighted earlier this year when they set the world record for launching the most satellites into orbit in a single launch with 104. It shattered Russia’s previous record of 37. This complements the Indian Space Research Organizations impressive logistics already managed; sixteen rocket facilities and a world-class satellite network. In fact, India currently operates the largest fleet of domestic observation satellites in the world. This has allowed ISRO to map forest coverage, estimate crop yield, and influence land management by other government agencies through satellite mapping and data, time saving India $2 billion a year in environmental damages. With the development of low-cost, light-weight rockets, India is also pushing into the $323 billion dollar satellite launch industry, and generating millions of dollars of revenue. It could also be the fourth country in the world to send a manned mission into space.

These economic successes are largely a result of cheap labour, and government subsidization. That has put some restrictions on their capabilities to secure commercial contracts for launch, and specifically from the United States, which operates the largest share of the worlds commercial satellites. These range from satellites predicting market trends, Google Maps satellites,  and even Facebook’s free internet project. Alongside efforts to protect American aerospace corporations and technological secrets, the launch of small satellites by India faces challenges securing commercial contracts. For many interested parties, especially universities and researchers however, the prices remain too high to take broad advantage of.

Even so, Prime Minister Modi’s joke that India’s successful mission to Mars cost less than the budget for the film Gravity is remarkably accurate, and the ability to act on such a tight budget is a point of pride.

It has also earned them the attention of NASA, and the Indian press celebrated news that plans for future cooperation are in development. This is the picture that India projects to the world about its space program – it is economical, successful, and a major competitor in the industry. However, the major-share of the commercial-launch market rests in launching heavy satellites, which weigh between 6-11,000 lbs or over and are usually delivered to geo-synchronous orbit (app. 35,000 km altitude.) Until recently, India’s most capable rocket, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, could only carry about 3,800 lbs to sun-synchronous orbit (up to 800 km altitude.) Those limitations meant that India only achieved its record at all because many of the satellites it launched in its record setting event were nano-satellites weighing up to 25 lbs. These capabilities may change if the successful launch of the Geo-synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mark III on June 5 is representative of consistent performance. Capable of carrying almost 9,000 lbs into geo-synchronous orbit, the GSLV Mk III is set to be the heavy lifter of ISRO, and for a fraction of the cost of other heavy launch vehicles but as a new vehicle it remains to be proven.

China is generally dismissive of India’s accomplishments as compared to its own. China has already launched manned space-craft, having become the third country in the world to do so in 2003 with Shenzhou 5, has landed a rover on the moon, has already flown heavy lift rockets, and become the first country in the world to use quantum communication through satellite transmission. These have been possible because China gives its space agency a much larger budget ($6.1 billion in 2013) than ISRO by several orders of magnitude ($1.1 billion in 2013.) Its involvement, and priority, in the small satellite commercial launch market is also low. A large part of the difference can be connected to the purpose of the two programs. China’s program developed out of research into missile technologies during the Cold War. China is also deeply interested in the development of space-based weaponry, and anti-satellite capabilities. These would pose a significant threat to the United States, which relies heavily on its satellites for intelligence and operational support, as well to India’s own satellite fleet. This is to say nothing of the economic damage that could be brought to bear by targeting enemy commercial satellites.

The development of launch rockets for space exploration is also linked to the technical capabilities of constructing Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicles (MIRVs), a missile design developed during the Cold War to carry multiple nuclear warheads. As of India’s successful GSLV Mk III launch, both they and China have proven their capabilities to operate a rocket capable of MIRV load-bearing levels. For example, the American made ‘Peacekeeper’ MIRV design could carry 10 such warheads, each weighing between 500-600 lbs and delivering a 300 kiloton blast. Compare that with the 15-16 kiloton yield of the Mark-I dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. It’s an enormous amount of firepower, and the expansion of the Chinese and Indian aerospace industry has generated a renewed focus on MIRVs by the Pentagon as it analyses security in Asia. This follows the successful test of a new Chinese MIRV in 2012. These trends also follow estimates which suggest that India, China, and Pakistan could grow their nuclear arsenal by 375 warheads in the next fifteen years.

    The applicability of aerospace technology to advanced weapons programs will necessarily complicate the security situation in Asia, if India and China turn to such advances for an edge in their rivalry. Just as MIRVs and Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ program threatened to upend the security dynamic of the Cold War, the rapid expansion of space-based capabilities among rising powers is likely to have destabilizing effects unless carefully managed. To mitigate the risks, India and China should ensure they hold the necessary dialogue to avoid confrontation, while the United States should foster greater civilian cooperation and control of the development of international aerospace efforts. They can do this by allowing India to gain a greater market share of commercial satellite launches, while pushing international efforts to increase and empower the involvement of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs in aerospace de-escalation with China. This would help to satisfy India’s pursuit of economic advantage through space power, while mitigating the influence of the Chinese military on the priorities of its space program.

Adam Templer

Adam Templer

Policy Intern at InPRA
Adam is a recent graduate of McGill University with a double major in history and political science. He has previously written with The Political Bouillon and has been published in Hirundo, the McGill University Classics Journal. A member of the Canadian Infantry Reserve, he cares about promoting human rights, democratic governance and peaceful international cooperation. Although extremely interested in peace and security issues, Adam also cares deeply about acting to preserve the environment and counter the threat of climate change. He hopes to take a more active role in supporting his local communities through working with pubic officials, and engaging with his representatives in Parliament.
Adam Templer

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