Commentary | The New Asia Space Dream

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When space issues are debated in an Asian context, normally the focus is on the achievements and plans of states such as Japan, China and India. The reasons for this are obvious. These states gained spacefaring stature during the 1970-1980 period, have made significant investments toward acquiring and developing various satellite technologies, and over a period of time have emerged as major players in the global space domain. In comparison with these three states, and to a certain extant Israel, various other Asian states lack much in the space domain.

However, in the 21st century more Asian states are showing an interest in making investments toward acquiring space assets. States such as Iran, North Korea and South Korea have even succeeded in achieving spacefaring status against various odds. In a relative sense they have only rudimentary rocket technology; however, they have major ambitions. Today, many smaller Asian states are keen toward possessing their own satellite systems.

Interestingly, even states in the conflict-affected regions are eagerly seeking to acquire “eyes in space.” Recently, politically disturbed states such as Afghanistan and Egypt have become the proud owners of new space platforms.

Afghanistan started using its first satellite in mid-May. This satellite, called Afghansat 1, was acquired to boost the Afghan telecommunications sector. The satellite was launched in December 2008 by Eutelsat and was earlier known by three different names: Eutelsat W2M (2008-2012), Eutelsat 48B (2012) and Eutelsat 28B (2012-2014). Now, as per an agreement Eutelsat reached in January with the Afghan Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, this satellite has been taken on rent for $4 million per year. It is expected to improve international connectivity significantly and is likely to provide uninterrupted services till 2020.

The first Egyptian satellite, called EgyptSat-1 or MisrSat-1, was developed and launched in April 2007 with assistance from Ukraine. This satellite had a designed life of five years, but it stopped functioning in 2010. The second Egyptian satellite, EgyptSat-2 or MisrSat-2, was launched in mid-April 2014 with assistance from Russia. This reconnaissance satellite has a mission life span of 11 years and offers a resolution in the range of 1 to 4 meters.

Afghanistan has been at war for more than a decade; Egypt witnessed a popular uprising (the Jasmine Revolution) in 2011 and the situation there is far from normal. The question is, under these difficult circumstances, what is motivating these states to invest in space technologies?

Over the years U.S. forces have managed to bring in some normalcy in Afghanistan, and along with fighting the Taliban the process of reconstruction is in progress there. At the same time there is a significant amount of uncertainty about the future of Afghanistan because within a few months the United States will be withdrawing from the region.

On June 8 in Egypt, former army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi was sworn in as president after national elections. A year earlier he had overthrown the government of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, and the present elections are known to be stage-managed elections. However, with the current social fissures, any quick return to normalcy in this country looks difficult.

The satellite acquired by Afghanistan is a communications satellite and the Egyptian satellite is a remote sensing satellite. Some reports recognize the Egyptian satellite as a spy satellite. EgyptSat-2 is meant to provide high-resolution views of Earth for environmental, scientific and military applications. Broadly, it could be argued that because space technologies are inherently dual-use technologies, both these states are expected to receive multiple benefits from their investments.

Amusingly, Syria, in a state of war for the last three years, announced in March that it would be establishing a space agency to conduct scientific research. On the other hand, states such as Iran and North Korea are found associating ballistic missile and satellite launcher development together. Their ambitions in space are mostly seen as a façade to demonstrate their missile capacities. However, particularly in the case of Iran, there is a need to take a broader view. Its space program has much more to it and it has made reasonable progress so far with a few sub-orbital and orbital launches. Recently, there have been some unconfirmed reports indicating that Russia and Iran signed a cooperation agreement in April under which Russia will provide some images with submeter resolution to Iran.

Other, much smaller Asian states also are very interested in possessing their own platforms in space. It has been observed that the aspirations of all such states are more realistic in nature. Mostly they are keen to buy foreign satellites and pay for foreign rockets to launch them. The most interesting aspect is that in spite of various grievous political challenges, economic limitations and huge social problems to address, various states are found investing in space technology. Also, some states facing political and economic sanctions that have almost destroyed their economies are also eager to invest in space technologies.

All this clearly indicates that the conventional criticism that states facing malnutrition, poverty, lack of sanitation and clean drinking water facilities, etc., should not invest in space technologies has become a dated concept. These states are fast becoming fully aware of the enormous socioeconomic benefits such technologies offer and are not afraid to make financial investments that initially could look exorbitant. Another crucial aspect of their investments is the military utility of such technologies. Leaders in these various conflict-ridden states are always keen to have additional means to gather intelligence, and in years to come they are expected to increase their dependence on satellite data.

Overall, various smaller and underdeveloped states in Asia are expressing their aspirations in space. It is important not to dismiss their space dreams as only a manifestation of a state ideology of “nationalism.” Their investments in space technologies are more from civilian and military utility. They are aware that space powers are hungry to grab the emerging space market. Today, with increasing commercialization of space, they are in a position to exploit almost all the benefits available from various space systems with relatively very little investment.

 

Ajey Lele is a research fellow at India’s Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses and author of the book “Asian Space Race: Rhetoric or Reality?”