It’s Time to Tweak the Nuclear Policy

Published in Hindustan Times on May 15, 2023

India’s nuclear tests on May 11 and 13, 1998, stunned the world. This was not the first; in 1974, India had tested but called it a peaceful nuclear explosion (PNE). This time, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee declared that India was now a nuclear-weapon-state. Addressing parliament on the subject on May 27, he also placed a paper – “Evolution of India’s Nuclear Policy” – that provided the rationale for the tests and spelt out the elements of India’s doctrine that defined India as a reluctant but responsible nuclear power.

When India refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968, its “nuclear option” was born. In subsequent decades, preserving the option became the primary political and diplomatic objective. Through more than three decades of domestic political changes, policy continuity was sustained.

Meanwhile, Pakistan pushed ahead with its programme and by early 1980s, it was enriching uranium at Kahuta and by late 1980s, had weaponised its deterrent with Chinese help. As the frontline state in the United States’ covert war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, Pakistan managed to make the U.S. turn a blind eye to its nuclear developments.

There was a growing realisation that given technological advances since the 1974 PNE, the “nuclear option” could no longer remain viable and needed to be exercised. Post Cold War global developments with tightening dual-use export controls were also squeezing the Indian option. In 1995, the NPT was extended into perpetuity, freezing a nuclear order that India had long considered arbitrary and discriminatory. Negotiations on a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) began in 1994 with the Clinton administration pushing to complete it in 1996.

In 1995, France and China were still undertaking tests to validate designs and acquire data that would help sustain their capabilities with ‘zero-yield’ tests in their laboratories. Prime Minister Narsimha Rao gave the green light for tests and preparatory work began at Pokhran. In early December, days before the tests were scheduled, U.S. satellites picked up imagery of activity at Pokhran. The tests were postponed till after the general elections and meanwhile, Indian stand on the CTBT negotiations hardened.

Prime Minister Vajpayee toyed with the idea of the tests in 1996 but decided against it as his tenure was a mere 13 days. The next opportunity arose when he became PM again in 1998, and the die was cast.

The 1998 declaration of India as a nuclear-weapon-state marked a decisive break. It generated its own challenges, both domestic and external. A new kind of policy continuity was crafted. Domestically, it related to the nuclear doctrine and the configuration of the nuclear arsenal into the defence and decision-making structures. Externally, it was to gain acceptance as a responsible nuclear power and second, to stabilise deterrence relations with India’s adversaries.

After 25 years, the domestic challenge is still a work in progress. To maintain a credible minimum deterrent, a nuclear triad was considered necessary. The land-based missile force has now inducted Agni IV with an estimated range of 3500 kms. Agni V and Agni VI are expected to extend the ranges to beyond 6000 kms. The nuclear submarine programme has made slow progress with Arihant having undertaken its firs patrol last year. However, it currently carries K-15 (Sagarika) missile that has a limited range of 700 kms. Longer range missiles are under development.

Though India has no intention of embarking on a nuclear arms race with any other country, it must factor in technological developments that can have an impact on the credibility of its deterrent. Increasing use of dual use systems like hypersonics and cruise missiles, conventional precision global strike weapons blur the dividing line between nuclear and conventional systems. Digitisation renders both early warning systems and command and control systems vulnerable to counter-space and offensive cyber action.

These developments have led to questions as to how to define the ‘minimum’ and whether the no-first-use policy needs review. Some critics point to Kargil in 1999 and the Mumbai attacks in 2008 as evidence of failure of nuclear deterrence and would advocate a more robust posture. However, such criticism is ill founded. Indian doctrine is intended to deter threat and use of nuclear weapons. Dealing with Kargil-type attacks or terrorist strikes requires building conventional and intelligence capabilities that can offer a range of response options.

The external diplomatic challenge of gaining acceptance as a responsible nuclear power has been achieved in great measure. The Vajpayee government was proactive in reaching out to key countries, particularly the U.S. since it had taken the lead in condemning the tests and calling for sanctions.

The dialogue between Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh between 1998 and 2000 remains the most intense phase of bilateral engagement with 18 rounds of talks in 24 months. It remained inconclusive in not meeting either side’s stated objectives; yet, it was immensely productive in clearing the path towards the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership and eventually the India-U.S. Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement following the exceptional waiver by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in 2008 – another milestone that completes 15 years in 2023. The NSG waiver legitimised India’s civilian nuclear trade and has enabled over a dozen cooperation agreements to be concluded.

This has been possible because the post-1998 policy too has been marked by a similar continuity that characterised it in its early years. Today, changing geopolitics has revived rivalries among major nuclear powers even as the geopolitical centre of gravity has shifted from Euro-Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific. Navigating these challenges may need policy adjustments that will be strengthened by consensus and continuity.


A Ground View of the Indian Space Policy 2023

Published in the Hindu on May 11, 2023

On April 20 this year, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) released the Indian Space Policy 2023 that had been in the works for some years. The document has been received positively by industry; however, it needs to be followed up with suitable legislation, accompanied by clear rules and regulations. Just preceding this, this writer wrote the article, “Awaiting lift-off into the Second Space Age” (April 10, 2023), which said that India’s modest entry into the First Space Age followed by its many gains should be used to help the country tap the vast potential in the Second Space Age.

Until the early 1990s, India’s space industry and space economy was defined by ISRO. Private sector involvement was limited to building to ISRO designs and specifications. The Second Space Age began with the licensing of private TV channels, the explosive growth of the internet, mobile telephony, and the emergence of the smartphone. Today, while ISRO’s budget is approx. $1.6 billion, India’s space economy is over $9.6 billion. Broadband, OTT and 5G promise a double-digit annual growth in satellite-based services. It is estimated that with an enabling environment, the Indian space industry could grow by 2030 to $60 billion, directly creating more than 2 lakh jobs.

Yet, it is the enabling policy environment that has proved elusive. The first SATCOM policy was introduced in 1997. It contained guidelines for foreign direct investment (FDI) in the satellite industry that were subsequently further liberalised but never generated much enthusiasm. Today, more than half the transponders beaming TV signals into Indian homes are hosted on foreign satellites resulting in an annual outflow of over half a billion dollars.

A remote sensing data policy was introduced in 2001, which was amended in 2011; in 2016, it was replaced by a National Geospatial Policy that has been further liberalised in 2022. Yet, Indian users including the security and defence agencies spend nearly a billion dollars annually to procure earth observation data and imagery from foreign sources.

To streamline matters, a draft Space Activities Bill was brought out in 2017 and went through a long consultative process. It lapsed in 2019 with the outgoing Lok Sabha. The government was expected to introduce a new bill by 2021 but appears to have contented itself with the new policy statement.

What is different

To be fair, the Indian Space Policy 2023 is qualitatively different from previous efforts. It is a short 11-page document, which includes three pages devoted to definitions and abbreviations. The Vision is to “enable, encourage and develop a flourishing commercial presence in space” that suggests an acceptance that the private sector is a critical stakeholder in the entire value chain of the space economy. It makes five key points. It defines its role in India’s “socio-economic development and security, protection of environment and lives, pursuing peaceful exploration of outer space, stimulation of public awareness and scientific quest.”  

First, this is the only reference to ‘security’ in the document, making it clear that the focus is on civilian and peaceful applications. Considering that space-based intelligence, reconnaissance, surveillance, communication, positioning, and navigation capabilities are increasingly seen as mission critical by the defence services, that India conducted a successful A-SAT (anti-satellite) direct ascent test in March 2019, and, in the same year set up the Defence Space Agency and the Defence Space Research Organisation, it is reasonable to infer that a defence-oriented space security policy will be a separate document. The United States puts out a space policy under the aegis of the White House Office of the Science and Technology Policy, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Departments of Commerce and Transportation while the Department of Defence and the Director of National Intelligence are responsible for the space security strategy.

Second, the policy lays out a strategy and then spells out the roles of Department of Space, ISRO, Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (IN-SPACe) set up in 2020, and New Space India Ltd (NSIL), a public sector undertaking set up in 2019 under the Department of Space as the commercial arm of ISRO to replace the now defunct Antrix.

Third, it states that ISRO will “transition out of the existing practice of being present in the manufacturing of operational space systems. Hereafter, mature systems shall be transferred to industries for commercial exploitation. ISRO shall focus on R&D in advanced technology, proving newer systems and realisation of space objects for meeting national prerogatives.” Another of ISRO’s tasks in the new Policy is to “share technologies, products, processes and best practices with NGEs (non-government entities) and/or Government companies.” This implies that ISRO will now use its biggest asset, its qualified and talented manpower to concentrate on cutting edge R&D and long-term projects like Chandrayaan and Gaganyaan.

As ISRO’s commercial arms, NSIL will become the interface for interacting with the industry, undertake commercial negotiations and provide handholding support to ensure smooth and efficient transfer of technologies.

Private sector role

Fourth, the NGEs (this includes the private sector) are “allowed to undertake end-to-end activities in the space sector through establishment and operation of space objects, ground-based assets and related services, such as communication, remote sensing, navigation, etc”. Satellites could be self-owned, procured or leased; communication services could be over India or outside; and remote sensing data could be disseminated in India or abroad. NGEs can design and operate launch vehicles for space transportation and establish their own infrastructure. NGEs can now make filings with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and engage in commercial recovery of asteroid resources. In short, the entire gamut of space activities is now open to the private sector. Security agencies can task NGEs for procuring tailor made solutions to address specific requirements.

The activities of the NGEs will be in keeping with guidelines and regulation to be issued by IN-SPACe. It is expected to act as the single window agency for authorising space activities “by government entities and NGEs,” in keeping with safety, security, international obligations and overall national interests.

Finally, IN-SPACe is expected to create and “stable and predictable regulatory framework” that will ensure a level playing field for the NGEs. It will act as a promoter by setting up industry clusters and as the regulator, issue guidelines on liability issues.  

The gaps

The policy sets out an ambitious role for IN-SPACe but provides no timeframe for the necessary steps ahead. Neither is there an indicative timeline for ISRO’s transitioning out of its current practices nor is there a schedule for IN-SPACe to create the regulatory framework. The policy framework envisaged will need clear rules and regulations pertaining to FDI and licensing, government procurement to sustain the new space start-ups, liability in case of violations and an appellate framework for dispute settlement.

A regulatory body needs legislative authority. The Reserve Bank of India was set up by the 1934 RBI Act, SEBI by the 1992 SEBI Act, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) by the 1997 TRAI Act. IN-SPACe is expected to authorise space activities for all, both government and non-government entities. Currently, its position is ambiguous as it functions under the purview of the Department of Space. The Secretary (Space) is also Chairman of ISRO, the government entity to be regulated by IN-SPACe.

The Space Policy 2023 is a forward-looking document reflecting good intentions and a vision. But it is not enough. What is urgently needed is a timeframe to provide the necessary legal framework to translate this vision into reality, to successfully launch India into the Second Space Age. 


Awaiting Lift-off into the Second Space Age

Published in the Hindu on April 10, 2023

The Space Age began in 1957 with the launch of satellite Sputnik 1 and in 1961, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space. Neil Armstrong made history by walking on the moon in 1969. The First Space Age became reality.

Today, the Second Space Age is here. Though there is no precise date for its beginning, the contrast in today’s space domain is stark. Between the 1950s to 1991, a period dominated by the Cold War, 60 to 120 space launches took place annually and 93% of these were by the United States and the erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) governments. Three decades later, not only are there many more actors in the space scene, but a majority are also private companies. Last year, there were 180 rocket/space launches, 61 by Elon Musk’s Space X; 90% of global space launches since 2020 are by and for the private sector.

India’s space journey begins

India made a modest entry into the First Space Age in the 1960s. The first sounding rocket, a U.S. supplied Nike-Apache, was launched at Thumba (Kerala) in 1963 and in 1969, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) was set up. It has come a long way since, with over 15000 employees and an annual budget between Rs 12000 crores-14000 crores in recent years. Through these decades, it has sought to prioritise societal objectives and benefits.

Its first major project was Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE) that involved leasing a U.S. satellite in 1975-76 for educational outreach across 2400 villages covering five million people. Satellite technology was a new mass communication tool. This led to the INSAT series in 1980s, followed by GSAT, that provided the backbone for the country’s tele-communication and broadcasting infrastructure.

This was followed by remote sensing capability development. The use of space-based imagery for weather forecasting, resource mapping of forests, analysing agricultural yields, groundwater and watersheds, gradually expanded to cover fisheries and urban management. Following the Indian Remote Sensing programme, this plan grew with the Oceansat and Cartosat series.

The field of satellite-aided navigation emerged later. It began with GAGAN, a joint project between ISRO and the Airports Authority of India, to augment the Global Positioning System (GPS) coverage of the region, to improve air traffic management over the Indian airspace. This has now been expanded to Navigation with Indian Constellation (Nav-IC).

In parallel came the development of satellite launch capabilities. Beginning with SLV-1 in the 1980s, it took a decade before ISRO developed the PSLV series that has become its workhorse with over 50 successful launches.

Space potential

The origins of the Second Space Age can be traced to the Internet. In India, the process began accelerating as 1990s saw the emergence of private TV channels, together with cable TV followed by direct-to-home transmissions. The demanded for satellite transponders and ground-based services exploded. Today, more than half the transponders beaming into Indian homes are on foreign satellites.

The last fifteen years witnessed another transformation and this time India was in lock-step with the developed world. The age of mobile telephony, followed by smart phones has shown the world what a data-hungry and data-rich society India is. Broadband, OTT and now 5G promise a double-digit annual growth in demand for satellite-based services.

In 2020, the global space economy was estimated at $450 billion, growing to $600 billion by 2025. The Indian space economy, estimated at $9.6 billion in 2020, is expected to be $13 billion by 2025. However, the potential is much greater with an enabling policy and regulatory environment. The Indian space industry could easily exceed $60 billion by 2030, directly creating more than two lakh jobs.

The reason is that in terms of the end-user revenue, only one-fifth is generated by the government. Media and entertainment account for 26% of India’s space economy with consumer and retail services accounting for another 21%. In terms of space activities, downstream activities like satellite services and associated ground segment are dominant accounting for over 70% of India’s space economy with upstream activities of satellite manufacturing and launch services contributing the smaller share. A similar trend can be seen in developed countries. The reason is that India has been an early adopter of digital app-based services.

The growing role of the private sector is also evident in the numbers and ownership of satellites. According to the UN Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), there are 8261 satellites in orbit, of which nearly 5000 are active. Till 2010, about 60 to 100 satellites were launched annually. The pace picked up in recent years. In 2020, 1283 satellites were launched into space. Today, Starlink operates a constellation of 3500 satellites and has a million paying customers. Both Starlink and One Web (in which Airtel has a stake) project constellations of 40000 satellites each. And Jeff Bezos of Amazon has launched Project Kuiper to bring low-latency broadband connectivity around the globe. How this domain will be regulated is a separate challenge but this provides a glimpse of the scope of expansion.

Creating an enabling environment

The Indian private sector is responding to the demands of the Second Space Age. From less than a dozen space start-ups five years ago, today there are a over a hundred. The pace of investment is growing. From $3 million in 2018, it doubled in 2019 and crossed $65 million in 2021. The sector is poised for take-off; as a transformative growth multiplier like the IT industry did for the national economy in the 1990s.

Today, ISRO manages four to five launches annually. It manages 53 operational satellites – 21 for communication, 21 for earth observation, 8 for navigation and the remaining are scientific experimental satellites (China operates 541). In addition, ISRO has missions like Chandrayaan, Mangalyaan and Gaganyaan (manned space mission).

ISRO has always been an open organisation that has worked closely with the Indian private sector. However, for some private sector companies, space technology related work is a small part of their revenue stream. They were content as vendors, producing to defined specs and designs.

The start-ups are different. Their revenue stream depends on space related activities and they need a different relationship with ISRO and government. ISRO today is the operator, user, service provider, licensor, rule maker and now also an incubator. It has steered India through the First Space Age and now it needs to do what it can do best within its resources and its high-quality manpower – research.

To be fair, the government has been mulling over this. In 2017, the government introduced the first draft Space Activities Bill in Parliament but it lapsed in 2019. There has been talk of commercialising the PSLV and SSLV launch services and New Space India Ltd (NSIL) was set up to replace Antrix. The Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (IN-SPACe) was set up in 2020 as a single-window-clearance for the private sector. However, it is unclear as to whether it will emerge as the licensing authority or a regulator. An Indian Space Association (ISpA) was created as an industry association.

In recent years, a series of policy papers have been circulated for discussion – a satcom/telecom policy, an earth observation policy and an foreign direct investment policy. These have served a purpose. What is needed now is legislation (a Space Activities Act). This provides the legal grounding that policy papers lack; helps set up a regulatory authority and create an enabling environment for raising venture capital funding into the Indian space start-up industry. The window of opportunity for India to join the Second Space Age exists; it should not be lost.


‘Bharat Natyam’ in Indian Diplomacy

Published in the Hindu on March 16. 2022

The late Jyotindra Nath Dixit (Mani Dixit to his many friends and admirers) took over as Foreign Secretary on December 1, 1991. He retired 26 months later, on January 31, 1994 – 58 years was then the retirement age.

Republics and Moscow

Those were times of change. On December 25, 1991, Soviet Union’s General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev resigned, the flag of USSR was lowered for the last time at the Kremlin and the following day, USSR was formally dissolved. In its place, 15 republics emerged. India accepted the challenge and set about opening new embassies to build new relationships with these countries in Central Asia, South Caucasus and Central Europe while maintaining its traditional ties with Moscow.

In January 1992, India and Israel established full diplomatic relations, announcing the opening of embassies and exchanging ambassadors for the first time, opening the door to a relationship that has blossomed into one of India’s most significant strategic partnerships in the last three decades.

Path to the nuclear deal

On January 31, 1992, Prime Minister P V Narsimha Rao participated in the first ever meeting of the UN Security Council at summit level (India was a member in 1991-92), presided by British Prime Minister John Major. On the side-lines, Mr. Rao had a bilateral meeting with U.S. President George H. W. Bush where the two leaders decided that in the changing world, India and the U.S. needed to have frank exchanges on issues that had divided them during the Cold War; the issue identified was ‘nuclear proliferation and disarmament’; the first meeting took place during Mr. Dixit’s visit to Washington two months later, sowing the seeds of the dialogue that continued through ups and downs, leading to the path-breaking India-U.S. Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement in 2008.

At the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit on January 28, 1992, Prime Minister Rao’s ‘Look East’ policy began to take shape as India and ASEAN embarked on a sectoral-dialogue partnership. By end-1995, this had matured into a full-dialogue partnership and in 1996, India joined the security dialogue platform – ASEAN Regional Forum. Since 2002, the relationship has strengthened further with the annual India-ASEAN summit.

On China and Taiwan

Following intense negotiations, during Mr. Rao’s visit to China in September 1993, the two sides initiated the first of the many confidence-building-measures, notably the Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity Along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas. It laid the foundation of the relationship for two decades.

Simultaneously, India and Taiwan negotiated to open Economic and Cultural Centres; Taiwan opened its office first in Mumbai in 1992 before shifting to Delhi while Indian established the India-Taipei Association office in 1995.

The above gives an idea of how India was responding to the changes taking place around us and in the wider world. As a junior colleague who had the privilege of working closely with Mr. Dixit during these years, I often heard him engage patiently with foreign diplomats and respond to questions from inquisitive journalists seeking to make sense of the about-turns in Indian foreign policy.

Relaxing as he puffed on his pipe, in a private aside to his friends, he would tell us, “In Indian diplomacy, sometimes, you need to do a bit of Bharat Natyam”. The point was simple – you may appear in different forms to others but after you have first secured your interests.

UN vote dynamics

In recent weeks, the debates and discussions in Indian media and TV talk-shows about India’s stand on the Ukraine conflict and India’s votes in the UN Security Council and General Assembly are an appropriate moment to reflect on the Dixit principle.

Evidently, the Indian government has chosen to ‘abstain’, based on an assessment of its core interests. However, there is a cardinal principle associated with Security Council votes on issues in such charged times. A ‘for’ or ‘against’ vote is intended to convey a blunt message of ‘support’ or ‘opposition’. It is a black or white choice, and once exercised, the messaging is clear.

On the other hand, ‘abstention’ takes us into a grey zone because it is the middle path. It can either be seen as fence-sitting (which is a sign of helplessness) or create space for diplomatic manoeuvre (which is a successful outcome). In the Ukraine instance – the West should feel satisfied that India ‘abstained’ because they perhaps expected us to oppose their draft proposals given our traditional ties with Russia while Russia should also feel satisfied at our ‘abstention’ because they perhaps expected us to give in to Western persuasion.

The second outcome is a positive one but to appear in different forms at the same time, we need to revive the kind of Bharat Natyam that Mr. Dixit used so effectively to navigate those turbulent times, even as he helped set the course for Indian foreign policy three decades ago.