Home Global Village India-Russia space cooperation: The US response – Afeera Firdous

India-Russia space cooperation: The US response – Afeera Firdous


Afeera Firdous |

The story of India-Russia space partnership is nothing new, but it is important to analyze this collaboration in the context of the US grant of status of a Major Defence Partner to India. In 1984, the phrase “saare jahan sy acha” made its way to the big news in USSR media because the first Indian astronaut, Rakesh Sharma, replied this to then Indian Prime Minister Indra Gandhi upon her asking as to how India looks from the outer space.

The first sounding rocket launched from India was NASA-designed, Nike Apache, in 1963. Many countries in the Asian region including the Soviet Union joined the NASA program of scientific launches in the early 60s. After a decade of collaboration with NASA, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) and Soviet Academy of Sciences, for the first time, signed a contract to launch India’s first national satellite, Aryabhata, which was successfully launched in 1975.

Of course, India-Russia collaboration in space will be adversely affected by the failure of the Soyuz launch failure incident that happened a few days earlier on October 11, 2018.

Under the agreement, Soviets provided consultation on the design and construction of the satellite; and also provided the satellite launch facility, while the Indian side was responsible for the production of the satellite. This satellite project paved the way for Bhaskara (I and II) satellite launches in 1979 and 1981, respectively.

Vikram Sarabhai, the father of Indian space program, stated the vision of Indian space program when he said that India does not want to compete with economically advanced nations in space missions yet. However, India is convinced that if it wants to play a meaningful role on an international level, it must not be behind in the application of advanced space technologies for nation-building.

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Consequently, India built its Indian National Satellite System (INSAT) program in the early 1980s without direct Soviet contribution which became Asia’s biggest domestic communication satellite system. The manned orbital flights were always the core of the Soviet space programs.

USSR had a better safety record of manned space flights than the US in the early years of its space programs. With a good safety record, the country started an ambitious program of bringing nationals of strategic allies to space. Apart from Czechoslovakia, Poland, Cuba, and Vietnam; India also got the opportunity to collaborate with Russia for the manned flight to outer space manifested by Rakesh Sharma’s foray into space.

ISRO and the Federal Space Agency of Russia (ROSCOSMOS) signed a memorandum of understanding on joint activities in the field of human spaceflight program.

In 1988 and 1991, Indian imaging satellites were launched by Soviet SLV, Vostok rocket, despite India having achieved the mark of launching its own Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV) in 1987. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, India and the Russian Federation started a new era of space collaborations.

By early 90s, India became self-reliant in delivering its observational satellites to orbit through its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). Nonetheless, there remained a gap in India’s capability for launching its satellite in geostationary orbits. India, again, approached Russia for support in this project and signed an agreement, in 1992, for a supply of engines and technology for production in India.

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However, due to US concerns that it would trigger the arms race in the region, India and Russia renegotiated the deal, in 1994, with no transfer of technology from Russia to India. India then negotiated procurement of seven engines supplied from Russia which were used in Indian GSLV Mk I launcher.

Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV Mk I) launcher carried successful missions of delivering GSAT-2 and GSAT-3 in 2003 and 2013, respectively. Patterned on the Russian supplied engines, India successfully tested its own cryogenic technology in GSLV Mk II launcher in 2014.

Under STA-1 status, the US acknowledged India as a Major Defence Partner and will expand its cooperation in civil space, defense, and other high-technologies sectors.

India and Russia also negotiated cooperative measures under the Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS), the Russian version of the global positioning system, and Chandrayaan-2 (India’s Moon landing mission) projects. Though both these projects could not materialize, there was an agreement between India and Russia in 2011 to grant the Indian military a preferential access to positioning data under GLONASS.

The recent visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to India for India-Russia Annual Summit has proved to be a benchmark in space cooperation between the two countries. ISRO and the Federal Space Agency of Russia (ROSCOSMOS) signed a memorandum of understanding on joint activities in the field of human spaceflight program.

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During the summit, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also announced an ambitious mission of sending an Indian astronaut to space by 2022 on board ‘Gaganyaan’. According to the agreement, three Indian astronauts will go to Russia for training, after that Russia will bring an Indian astronaut to the International Space Station (ISS) onboard a Soyuz spacecraft for a short training mission in 2022.

Furthermore, the two sides agreed to enhance cooperation in the field of exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes, including human spaceflight programs, scientific projects, as well as agreed to continue developing cooperation on BRICS remote sensing satellite constellation. Of course, India-Russia collaboration in space will be adversely affected by the failure of the Soyuz launch failure incident that happened a few days earlier on October 11, 2018.

Indigenous space program once achieved, the technology will give India an edge in the development of missile defense and anti-satellite weapons technologies.

India has an ambitious space program and is collaborating with many other countries, apart from Russia, such as France, Germany, Israel, and the US in this regard. In 2017, the US President Trump signed into law the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) for imposing new sanctions on Iran, Russia, and North Korea.

Under this new US legislation, CAATSA, an economic sanction can be imposed against countries for buying military equipment and strategic technologies from Russia. In September 2018, the Trump administration imposed sanctions against China for purchasing Russian military equipment especially S-400 under this law.

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It was speculated that India might also face sanctions for buying military equipment and collaboration in the field of space technologies with Russia. But the US did not do so. The decision was defended by saying that the purpose of CAATSA sanctions is not to harm the military capabilities of allies or partners rather it is directed against Russia.

Alternatively, the US has also given India Strategic Trade Authorization – 1 status in June 2018. Under STA-1 status, the US acknowledged India as a Major Defence Partner and will expand its cooperation in civil space, defense, and other high-technologies sectors. Currently, as some analysts say that now India is the driver of Indo-US relations may be closer to the truth.

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India’s space collaborations with the US and Russia will not only help the Indian private sector but will also assist India in accomplishing its dream of establishing the Indian Space Command. Indigenous space program once achieved, the technology will give India an edge in the development of missile defense and anti-satellite weapons technologies.

Pakistan had started its space program before India but institutional hurdles, lack of priorities, and political will have played unfavorably in case of Pakistan’s space program development. Pakistan also needs strong collaboration with spacefaring nations including the US, China, Russia, France, and Japan to procure space technologies.

Afeera Firdous is Research Assistant at Center for International Strategic Studies Islamabad (CISS). She has done her M.Phil degree from Department of Strategic Studies, National Defense University Islamabad. She also worked with the Institute for Strategic Studies, Research, and Analysis (ISSRA). Her area of interest includes cyberspace, counter extremism, and counter-terrorism, strategic and nuclear issues. The views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.

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