Benjamin Silverstein is the lead research analyst for the Space Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
India’s recent technical and political activities have boosted the state’s climb to space preeminence. In parallel to several successful launches that showcase the state’s capabilities and flexibility, political initiatives focus the bureaucracy and exhibit a strong vision for India’s future in space. India’s domestic success empowers the state to join and meaningfully participate in elite civil and commercial partnerships, notably signing the Artemis Accords during last month’s state visit to the United States. The administration of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi can reap the maximum benefits from these and future partnerships by expanding this approach to the space security sector, beginning by conveying its vision for governing the intersection of commercial and military space applications.
Earlier this year, India issued its first national space policy. This approach supports private capital’s access to the space sector and simultaneously frees state institutions to focus on work that is not financially attractive endeavors for most industry players, like basic science and deep space exploration. This guidance has been sorely lacking for India’s commercial space sector, which has suffered from the government’s ill-defined regulatory framework.
Prior initiatives to lift India’s commercial space sector created incompatible authorities and conflicts of interest within the government. For instance, the Department of Space has used Antrix, a wholly owned government company, to market government-developed space technology and know-how to the private sector since the 1990s but created a new subsidiary, NewSpace India Limited (NSIL), in 2019 to sell Indian space technology into the commercial sector. Both Antrix and NSIL claim to be the “commercial arm” of the India Space Research Organisation (ISRO). This web of conflicting responsibilities struggled to support India’s growth.
The redoubled political effort to elevate India into global space leadership delivers on the need to delineate organizational competencies. In addressing unsettled governance issues, India establishes a permissive regulatory environment and presents the state as a preferred partner for future economic ventures in space. This is most clearly demonstrated by the sections of the new policy that explicitly grant private entities rights to mine space objects like asteroids and to possess or sell space resources. While delivering asteroid ores to market is still a long way off, these sections clarify India’s stance on thorny issues related to non-appropriation of space. The political approval aligns the state with other leading spacefaring nations.
The treatment of in-situ resource extraction echoes tenets of the Artemis Accords, a collection of principles based on the U.S. interpretation of the Outer Space Treaty. Settling significant domestic political questions smoothed the path to signing the Accords and, in doing so, aligns India’s cultivation of a robust domestic space industry with political commitments to ensure government and commercial actors comport their space activities safely and responsibly. The next incremental step is to address India’s remaining governance gaps as they relate to security applications of space capabilities.
To make the most of India’s space diplomacy, including other initiatives like the Quad and iCET, the Modi administration must contend with questions about governing commercial entities that could serve national security organizations. Space security is not new to India, having demonstrated a destructive antisatellite capability, but its new policy leaves significant gaps by sparsely referencing space as a security domain. A favorable interpretation might excuse the omission, as it keeps the policy tightly scoped to address only the commercial aspects of the government-industrial nexus. A more critical analysis could question whether the policy was broadly vetted by space-relevant bodies like the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO).
The lack of clarity about plans to license, regulate, or otherwise govern commercial space assets that serve security customers may delay or deter investments in these products, ultimately crippling the effectiveness of political activities to encourage space industry growth. Thus, the governance gap demands policymakers’ attention. India’s recent evolution from overwrought space bureaucracy to privileged international partner provides a template that should be applied to the security sector.
The Modi administration’s next political effort should clarify how India intends to regulate the relationship between budding industrial partners and security services. Incremental steps would both affirm India’s commitment to becoming a preeminent space actor and set the table for future engagements with the United States that tackle space security. This might include pipelines with the U.S. Space Development Agency, formal exchanges with leaders who designed and execute the U.S. Space Command’s Commercial Integration Strategy, or arranging exercises with the Commercial Augmentation Space Reserve. The United States stands to benefit from these engagements as well –enabling Artemis signatories to perform safe and responsible space activities perpetuates the vision of the Accords.
India’s recent policy revision cultivates a commercial space industry and positions the state to become an elite space power. To fulfil Prime Minister Modi’s vision for the future, the state must contend with governing the intersection of commercial and security space applications. The Modi administration can elevate India into the upper echelon of space actors by presenting a cohesive governance and regulatory model for commercial space applications that support security objectives and, in doing so, promote norms of behavior that support safe and responsible uses of space.