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A significant development in the Indian aerospace industry is on the horizon as Tata Advanced Systems (TASL), in collaboration with Satellogic, a company from Uruguay, has a sent a spy satellite for launch. Scheduled for liftoff next month aboard a SpaceX rocket from Florida, the satellite marks a significant milestone as it is the first spy satellite to be manufactured by the private sector in India for Indian Army. Equipped with advanced capabilities, including a high-resolution camera capable of capturing images with a spatial resolution of 0.5 meters, the satellite has the ability to discern objects as small as 50 centimeters from space, distinguishing even trees and people. According to report from the Economic Times, the partnership between TASL and Satellogic has played a crucial role in enhancing the latter’s satellite manufacturing capabilities, with a focus on detailed, component-level manufacturing. This collaboration has empowered TASL to potentially manufacture and launch up to 25 such satellites into the Lower Earth Orbit (LEO), forming a constellation of remote sensing satellites. With such a constellation in place, continuous coverage of areas of interest can be achieved in near real-time, courtesy of the intercommunication between these satellites and ground stations, promising enhanced surveillance capabilities while also bolstering the security concerns of Pakistan.

Space 2.0 in India

A significant transformation has unfolded within India’s space sector in recent times. Traditionally, space exploration had been the domain of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). However, this landscape shifted following the space sector reforms of 2020. Previously, private companies primarily served as suppliers to ISRO without the autonomy to operate independently and for-profit ventures in space. This changed with the implementation of a new Indian Space Policy, where ISRO’s role was limited to research and development, granting the private sector greater authority. The policy’s impact has been significant, with 190 active space-oriented startups emerging in India, some achieving noteworthy success. For instance, Pixxel, a space startup, secured a contract from the US spy agency National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) for hyperspectral imagery. It has also secured funding totalling $71 million, including $36 million from Google. This funding has bolstered Pixxel’s satellite design, manufacture and launch capabilities, adding to the two already deployed satellites. Noticeably, private investment in India’s space sector surged by 77% between 2021 and 2022, reflecting increased involvement across various facets of space exploration, including satellite propulsion, private rocket development and launch, and the development of small satellites.

Warfare and Private Space Companies

The Gulf War in 1991 marked the beginning of recognizing space’s pivotal role in future warfare, with approximately 60 military satellites directly contributing to operations, covering various domains like communications, surveillance, and navigation. Similarly, the Russian-Ukraine conflict has been another conflict bringing a paradigm shift in this domain as it highlighted the evolving nature of space, with private space actors now playing crucial roles, sometimes outperforming government satellites. Western private space companies such as Maxar and SpaceX provided critical surveillance and communication data to Ukraine, which lacked its own space infrastructure, forming a core part of the aid package. This reliance on private space data isn’t unique to Ukraine; many sovereign states purchase data for defense and economic needs. Due to recent engagements with the PLA, India found its ISR assets insufficient, prompting it to purchase satellite data from private space companies. However, reliance on private space entities for satellite data presents complexities for sovereign states. Such dependence may compromise operational integrity through the sharing of coordinates, which is a sensitive operational aspect as it may compromise operational security, preserving intelligence capabilities, and mitigating potential countermeasures against satellites. Furthermore, the Ukrainian case also highlights the capacity of private actors to exert influence over strategic decision-making, introducing an additional layer of complexity that could prove pivotal in conflict scenarios. And lastly, while the Western response to the Russian-Ukraine conflict exemplified collective support, the availability of such solidarity may not extend universally, accentuating the necessity for nations, particularly those with enduring security concerns, to develop indigenous space capabilities.

Space 2.0 in South Asia

The establishment of a ground control station in Bengaluru for Tata Advanced Systems Limited’s (TASL) satellite intended for the Indian Army represents a strategic initiative aimed at bolstering operational autonomy while mitigating reliance on foreign space entities. Furthermore, the envisioned utility of the satellite imagery extends beyond national security requirements, with potential avenues for commercialization in friendly nations already under consideration as reported by Indian media. The unfolding dividends of India’s privatization of space sector is analogous to the successes observed in the United States and other nations. However, these advancements in Indian surveillance capabilities are poised to raise apprehensions in Pakistan, particularly given its comparatively smaller landmass relative to China, rendering it more susceptible to round-the-clock surveillance. At the strategic level, such level of access to the real time information may prompt India to a false sense of confidence leading towards much sought after temptation of first strike against Pakistan’s strategic assets. Pakistan’s imperative for autonomous space assets is underscored not only by the dependency of current military hardware, such as missile systems reliant on satellite data for precision targeting etc, but also by the evolving landscape of advanced weaponry increasingly reliant on satellite infrastructure for positioning and communication. Consequently, Pakistan’s strategic calculus necessitates the cultivation of indigenous space capabilities to stimulate a sense of mutual vulnerability that is in parity with Indian muscle in space. Against this backdrop, Pakistan’s latest space policy underscores a strategic shift towards integrating private sector partnerships as a foundational tenet. Hence, it could be said that the future of space exploration and utilizing its potential in South Asia rests on how well the governments in India and Pakistan are able to incentivize the private sector to invest in this sector.

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