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2 January 2020, Gateway House

India and the revolution in space affairs

India’s preparedness in the decade of the 2020s for the imminent revolution in space affairs depends on mastering Industry 4.0. This is critical as space aspirations now define national interests – a marked change from the vanity-and-pride programmes of the first space age. This will also determine India’s space leadership for the rest of the 21st century

Fellow, Space and Ocean Studies Programme

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India’s space programme has progressed exponentially in the last decade. The country has become proficient in operating low-cost space projects; it makes good returns from satellite construction and space launch services to a large roster of international clients; it has successful space science missions in its portfolio; and its esteem in the country and the world has increased tremendously.

The calendar for this decade is packed with back-to-back missions, scheduled to land on the Moon (2020), orbit around Venus (2023) and Mars (2024), operationalise the country’s first space-based solar observatory (2020), undertake the country’s first crewed orbital spaceflight mission (2021) and establish the first modular space station (2030). This busy agenda is expected to cement India’s position as a top space-faring nation by decade-end.

Yet, expectations apart, there is a far more important, complex, and less comprehended task at hand: to urgently prepare for a decisive and looming global revolution in space affairs.

The current decade will see emerging Industry 4.0 software and hardware technologies integrating the real and cyber worlds into seamless cyber-physical systems. A paradigm shift is anticipated as archaic Industry 3.0 software and hardware technologies, that have been at the core of space operations until now, will be ruthlessly replaced by innovative Industry 4.0 cyber-physical systems.

As Artificial Intelligence, hyper-automation, autonomous robots, big data synthesis, digital manufacturing among other harvests of Industry 4.0, speedily make their way from laboratories to the market, those with control over research, development and commercialisation will make swift and large windfalls. Countries such as Luxembourg, Australia, New Zealand, United Arab Emirates and Turkey, which never had an Industry 3.0 space infrastructure, are now putting their newly-acquired Industry 4.0 proficiencies to use and into the market, surging into the revolution in space affairs in the quest for strategic rewards. This will power them to catch up and be consequential in the race for shaping the rules of the space game as well as control of the astropolitical order.

Therefore, it is critical that India’s civilian space programme, howsoever consistent and competent, prepares better for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. With less than 15 patents per year, its intellectual property generation is minuscule. In comparison, China’s space agency registers 15 patents in 2013. The civilian programme’s interaction with Indian industry and academia is limited to off-the-shelf component supplies and occasional payload research and development (R&D) that is neither commercialised nor innovative. India’s military space programme is new, but is more advanced in terms of generating intellectual property than its civilian counterpart. But it too has been slow to productionise key technologies.

With the establishment of the Defence Space Agency in 2019, India’s space prospects have improved more than when it was under a solitary civilian space agency, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). The two space agencies can boost India’s preparedness for the looming revolution in space affairs if they:

  • operate with an acute understanding that the lines between the civilian and military technologies are blurring at a dramatic pace;
  • reduce project life cycles by implementing stringently-audited ‘Plan-Programme-Budget-Research-Develop-Evaluate-Execute’ protocols and reinforcing the L1 tendering process with a greater emphasis on high quality-to-price ratio;
  • focus on higher return-on-investment than on frugality; and
  • jointly develop Industry 4.0 innovation ecosystems and increase the composition of Industry 4.0 technologies and components in all their projects and missions.

The near-Earth space is undergoing a swift democratisation, with more countries now possessing easy access to space. In the last decade, 15 new space agencies have been established – almost double that since 2010. Although pursuing a knowledge of space is a justified right of all nations, it expands terrestrial geopolitics into extra-terrestrial astropolitics, the consequences of which cannot be imagined, both positively and negatively. This realpolitik is driving the revolution in space affairs and making space aspirations indispensable to national interests – a marked change from the vanity-and-pride programmes of the first space age.

India’s civilian and military space planners must prepare a comprehensive and strategic multi-decadal national space vision, develop economic and military doctrines, formulate strategies, policies and laws, and more importantly, ensure that these are executed appropriately and with urgency.

Like the Fourth Industrial Revolution, its associated revolution in space affairs will not be a protracted occurrence. It will not announce its arrival nor bid a noisy farewell. The revolution will begin quietly by offering a short-duration level playing field to those players that are able to comprehend the game and are ready to play it. Those who miss the game will have to wait for a few decades until the advent of the Fifth Industrial Revolution.

The next 10 years will test India’s civilian and military preparedness to be a leader of the revolution in space affairs. Only success will ensure a seat at the strategic high table for the rest of the 21st century.

Chaitanya Giri is Fellow, Space and Ocean Studies Programme, Gateway House.

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