Military & Aerospace

China’s Space Programme & Its Implications for India
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Issue Vol. 27.4 Oct-Dec 2012 | Date : 12 Dec , 2012

A picture of simulated docking of Shenzhou-8 unmanned spacecraft with the Tiangong-1 from the mission’s control center in Beijing

Future Plans

China has lofty plans for the exploration of space in the future. In August this year, the Chinese space agency CNSA announced its intention to launch its third unmanned mission to the moon in the second half of 2013 under the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP). This will be the first Chinese probe that will attempt a soft landing on the moon employing a Chang’e-3 spacecraft and explore its surface with the help of a rover, transmit data and return to Earth. The landing and successful journey back to Earth will make China the second nation to complete an exploratory mission to the moon. This is seen as a critical step for her plans to send a manned mission to the moon sometime in the next decade. Given the complexities, it is likely that a manned expedition to the moon may not be possible before 2025.

The plans for space exploration in China were executed with   utmost secrecy…

Apart from missions to the moon, China has set for itself a target of 20 launches annually to develop technologies for application in a variety of areas such as communications, remote sensing, navigation, reconnaissance, space walk, docking and construction of space station. Just for navigation alone, China plans to have 35 satellites in orbit by 2020. China is undoubtedly embarked on enhancing her role in space with the aim to eventually emerge as a world leader.

Implications for India

India’s space programme began in the early sixties, a few years behind China. The government-owned Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has, in relative terms, performed better than other scientific departments and institutions of the Indian government. As per UR Rao, former Chairman of ISRO, “The Indian space endeavour has been focused on research and applications aimed at meeting the economic and social development needs of our country.”

ISRO has undoubtedly done well in areas of communications, remote sensing, weather monitoring and navigation. It has also been able to exploit opportunities in the global commercial launch market. However, in the overall perspective, India has lagged far behind China in the space race. India has so far been able to send only one mission to the moon called Chandrayaan I that involved inserting a satellite in lunar orbit. Chandrayan II, which envisages a moon lander and rover, is to be executed in collaboration with Russia’s Federal Space Agency Roskosmos. The launch, scheduled for 2013, is likely to be delayed on account of a ‘major’ review of Russian space programme following a recently failed mission. ISRO has also to deal with problems with the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV), having experienced four consecutive failures. Only one GSLV launch was successful and that too only partially.

In July 1985, China conceived and initiated its own manned space flight programme…

On account of all these issues, the time frame for the launch of Chandrayaan II is quite uncertain. In the meantime, ISRO has announced plans for a mission to the Mars on which the scientific community stands divided. Some are of the view that ISRO’s priorities are distorted and that Chandrayaan II ought to have priority over the proposed mission to Mars.

Then there is talk of a manned space flight but there does not appear to be any substantial progress towards this objective so far. It is understood that there is no approval by the Indian government as yet for a manned space flight. Budgetary constraints and technology denial regimes have been cited as the primary causes of tardy progress in India. While this may be so, with the nation afflicted by slow and diffused decision-making process, bureaucratic lethargy and an uninspiring political system, India may not be in a position to compete with China where decision making is swift, aggressive and centralised. As a result, China has already established a clear lead over India in the economic, military and technological domains. Awareness of ground realities was evident in a statement by Dr K Radhakrishnan, Chairman ISRO that, “India was not locked in a space race with China.” Indeed, a race between a hare and a tortoise is possible only in the realm of fables.

The rapid progress that China has made in space technology has implications for India’s national security. Space will undoubtedly be the military high ground for warfare in the future. China has already established a commanding lead over India in not only supporting operations from space but also in acquiring the capability of neutralising Indian satellites that could be used for military purposes. But what is more ominous for India is Chinese support for Pakistan in the regime of space technology especially in the event of a conflict with one or both the not-so-friendly neighbours.

What is more ominous for India is Chinese support for Pakistan in the regime of space technology…

Defence cooperation between Pakistan and China that has obvious implications for India’s security interests, has increased in recent years. Pakistan and China have jointly developed the JF-17 Thunder, a multi-role combat aircraft. China is also building four F-22P frigates for the Pakistan Navy in a deal that also includes transfer of technology. There is no doubt that military cooperation between Pakistan and China will extend to space technology. Both the countries have in place a Framework Agreement between Pakistan Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO) and CNSA on strengthening cooperation in space technology including collaboration in the fabrication and launching of satellites. PAKSAT-1R, an upgraded version of PAKSAT-1 communication satellite manufactured by China, was launched on August 12 last year from China. On the occasion of the first anniversary of the launch, the defence establishments of both Pakistan and China have reiterated their commitment to continue their cooperation on space projects and further strengthen their all-weather strategic partnership.

The Final Word

It is only logical that China and India, the two largest and most populous nations in Asia and even in the world, are destined to be rivals, politically, economically, militarily and technologically. The ability to control and exploit space will accrue disproportionate benefits across the board especially to secure national security interests including most importantly energy security through access to the vast and virtually inexhaustible reserves of Helium 3 present on the surface of the moon. Helium 3, a source of fuel for the generation of nuclear power through fission, is not available in adequate quantities on the surface of the Earth. The Indian space establishment needs to review long term plans and re-orientate its priorities to reduce, if not close, the ever-widening gap with China in the regime of space exploration.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Air Marshal BK Pandey

Former AOC-in-C Training Command, IAF.

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