Editorial: A U.S.-Indian Opportunity

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The prospect of India being permitted to launch U.S.-built satellite hardware is bound to raise concern in the United States that such a policy shift will lead to unauthorized transfers of sensitive technology and also adversely affect U.S. launch providers .

In considering the move, the U.S. government is once again using space as a tool to support broader foreign policy goals, in this case closer strategic ties with the world’s largest democracy. And while that practice often leads to government mischief at American industry’s expense, there are good arguments to be made in favor of opening up the U.S. launch market to India, especially if it also leads India to open up more of its markets to U.S. companies.

The changing climate of U.S.-Indian relations was borne of a post September 11 recognition by the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush that the United States and India share many geopolitical interests. These include combating terrorism and curbing the proliferation of dangerous weapon technologies.

The United States and India also share common interests and goals in civil space, including monitoring the environment and exploring the solar system. Easing the rules that bar the shipment of U.S. satellite hardware to India would be one way to help build the trust that is necessary if the two nations are to forge a true partnership in space activity.

A U.S. interagency group met June 9 to discuss the policy implications of allowing U.S. commercial satellites or components to be launched from India aboard Indian rockets . It was the third such meeting on the topic and assuredly not the last.

Officials at the White House and relevant agencies such as the State and Commerce departments will probably hear plenty of complaints that permitting India to launch U.S. hardware is a bad idea.

Some will play the anti-proliferation card, but the technology transfer argument is a weak one. India already is self-reliant in many if not most of the satellite technologies it would be permitted to launch on behalf of U.S. customers.

Besides, the United States arguably has the strictest technology-export controls of any developed nation. These rules certainly would apply to India just as they apply to Canada and Europe to ensure that American technology does not get into the wrong hands.

This is not to say that unauthorized technology transfers related to launch activities have not taken place. The satellite manufacturing divisions of Loral and the former Hughes Space and Communications Co. were penalized by the U.S. government for sharing sensitive technology with China. But those transfers took place in the context of launch-failure investigations and in situations where the companies involved complained that the U.S. rules were not explicitly clear. Today the rules as they relate to space technology exports are painfully clear, and when in doubt companies err on the side of caution.

The U.S. government now has a wealth of experience in protecting sensitive technology that is shipped overseas for launch. The relevant lessons from this experience can and should be factored into any bilateral agreement that governs the handling of U.S. space technology in India.

India’s impact on the commercial launch market, meanwhile, would not be large.

The vast majority of the commercially launched payloads today are geostationary-orbiting communications satellites that are too big for India’s current fleet of rockets. In fact, India procures foreign launch services for its domestically built operational communications satellites, which makes it a potential customer for U.S. rockets.

It is true that India is developing a larger variant of its Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle that would handle payloads weighing 4 metric tons, but India’s rocket production capacity is limited. India also is not likely to introduce price competition that is any greater than what Russia and Ukraine already have brought to the global market.

In any event, the U.S. government already does plenty to protect the nation’s launch-vehicle industrial base. It provides a steady market for government satellite launches that is, for all intents and purposes, off limits to foreign suppliers, and is paying out hundreds of millions of dollars to Boeing and Lockheed Martin to keep both companies in the launch business.

U.S. government payloads are permitted to launch aboard non-U.S. rockets only under special circumstances, such as international cooperative programs where no exchange of funds is involved. Europe and Japan have launched NASA payloads under such arrangements, but these missions come few and far between. The addition of India to the mix should not disrupt that part of the market and would broaden the cooperative opportunities that will help NASA return to the Moon while continuing its research in space and Earth science and aeronautics. If negotiated properly, it also should provide opportunities for U.S. satellite and rocket makers.

To be sure, the Bush administration’s nascent detente with India in space is not really about space — it is driven by macro-level geopolitical considerations. But it nonetheless has the potential to benefit those with a stake in space activity, both in the United States and abroad.

That said, cooperation is a two-way street. While India is a democracy and stands to become an important U.S. ally, it also has one of the most closed markets in the world. If U.S. policy is going to change, Indian policy should change as well.