The Emergence of India as a Space-Faring Nation: Implications on the Developing Conflict in the South China Sea

Growing concern over China’s burgeoning military might and seeming willingness to use it has caused many to re-evaluate U.S. Army doctrine and training. Counterinsurgency and asymmetric warfare have dominated Western military thought over the past decade of fighting. However, the escalating conflict in the South China Sea has many strategic thinkers considering how to fight a large-scale war once again. One nation often overlooked in the Pacific equation, though, is India and their emerging capabilities in space, and how those emerging capabilities may impact an armed conflict.

As the Indian economy continues to develop and expand, they look to the South China Sea region with greater interest than ever before, especially in search of oil (Page, 2011). India’s growing economy has placed additional demands on the world’s oil supply, and most of the oil shipped to India from other parts of the world travels through common international shipping lanes in the South China Sea (Keck, 2012). In addition, China’s recent claims of ownership of some of these shipping lanes are a potential flash point for armed conflict.

Regarding India’s expanding space-faring capabilities as they relate to their consideration in the developing situation in the South China Sea, this paper focuses on three main areas of interest: Policy, Military/intelligence, and Industry/economy.


India has emerged as one of the world’s space-faring nations, and although they have not focused as much effort into military space capabilities, they do possess the ability to do so in the near future. This has significant implications on the emergence of the Chinese threat in the South China Sea. As India’s naval capabilities continue to expand and energy demands grow, India looks increasingly to the region for its oil reserves (Page, 2011), even as China does the same. As a result, the potential for conflict between the two large nations is increasing, which would be devastating to their economies and national interests as well as those of the United States. Hence, India’s national objective regarding potential conflict in the South China Sea is to gain control of oil reserves by enhancing space capabilities while avoiding armed conflict with China.

Indian Space Research Organization scientists and engineers watch Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) on screens after India’s Mars orbiter was successfully put around the Red Planet’s orbit, at their Spacecraft Control Center in the southern Indian city of Bangalore. (Reuters)

However, recent comments from India’s senior naval commander, Admiral Joshi, suggest armed conflict is an acceptable course of action for the Indian government (Keck, 2012). It is currently unknown whether Admiral Joshi had the authority to make the comments, but it does shed light on the mindset of India’s senior military leaders. Given that India has only one Russian-made aircraft carrier of questionable quality (Holmes, 2012), combined with the naval-centric geography in the region, it would take more investment into their conventional military capabilities to pose a real threat to China. Admiral Joshi’s comments suggest this may be part of India’s national policy.

India has some space capabilities that may contribute to this venture. Most of India’s current space capabilities support human ventures like agriculture by gathering earth sensing data such as vegetation and weather, but the Futron report lists their earth sensing capabilities as being “particularly strong across the civil, military, and commercial realms” (Futron Corporation, 2012). Recently developed satellite communications assets will also enhance the Indian military’s command and control capabilities. India’s current policy is continued expansion of their space program, to include enhancement of their military capabilities, scientific research, disaster management, and earth sensing capabilities in support of humanitarian development (RT News, 2012) (Futron Corporation, 2012).

The Futron report listed India as the leader of the “five emerging [space faring] nations,” and India continues to advance its space capabilities by a greater degree each year (Futron Corporation, 2012). In 2013, India’s space budget increased to a record $1.3 billion, and they launched their largest and most capable communications satellite that added thirty transponders to their overburdened capacity (RT News, 2012). This lessened India’s reliance on foreign satellites to meet their demand (RT News, 2012). All of India’s space capabilities have been further advanced by recent upgrades to their National Remote Sensing Center and plans to introduce their own geosynchronous-capable launch vehicle in the near term (Futron Corporation, 2012).

Regarding capability expansion, India launched a record ten satellites in 2013, including a scientific mission to mars that was designed to collect data on methane (RT News, 2012). This was an increase from only four launches in 2010 (Futron Corporation, 2012). India is striving to complete all of these missions with no foreign assistance, thus becoming only the sixth fully-independent space faring nation (Futron Corporation, 2012). They also have goals to create an independent manned space flight program by 2016, but many experts doubt they will achieve this lofty goal (RT News, 2012).


Although India’s space capabilities are centered on earth sensing in support of agriculture, scientific research, and disaster management, these earth sensing capabilities could be applied toward a military objective with some effectiveness, especially considering their resolution has improved dramatically (Futron Corporation, 2012). In addition, they have recently launched a synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellite with direct military applications (Futron Corporation, 2012). This all-weather system would provide India with information regarding China’s naval movements in the South China Sea, identification of Chinese ships, and their capabilities. As mentioned previously, India also has advanced satellite communication systems on orbit that would enhance their command and control of military forces. India’s missile warning capabilities are virtually non-existent, however.

India is known to be a nuclear-capable nation, and recently tested their Prithvi-II missile that is capable of delivering a nuclear warhead 350 km from its launch site (Pandit, 2014). They also possess nuclear missiles with ranges up to 3000 km (Pandit, 2014), and are developing two different missiles with intended ranges up to 5000 km (Pandit, 2014). The latter missile qualifies as an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, which is why it is included in this discussion of India’s military space capabilities. India lacks any Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) capabilities, which are a glaring hole in their nuclear deterrence program (Pandit, 2014). The same holds true for air-dropped nuclear munitions.

The one glaring vulnerability to India’s space assets is the Chinese counter-space threat.

The one glaring vulnerability to India’s space assets is the Chinese counter-space threat. China has demonstrated the capability to launch effective direct assent anti-satellite (ASAT) missiles and co-orbital ASATs. ASAT technology and China’s known offensive space control capabilities, such as jammers, combined with China’s highly capable cadre of cyber warriors should cause concern for India’s military leaders. India lacks known space control capabilities, as well, whether offensive or defensive. Given these facts, China may initiate hostilities by neutralizing, degrading, or completely eliminating India’s space assets, should the diplomatic situation in the South China Sea deteriorate. It is unlikely India would respond with nuclear strikes considering the human, environmental, and economic costs combined with the fact China is also nuclear-capable. The Cold War era notion of ‘mutually assured destruction’ will probably prevail. As India’s space capabilities continue to advance, they may also increase their cyber defenses to prevent this scenario from occurring.

India’s policy of capability expansion and space-faring independence applies directly to the dispute in the South China Sea. Although most of their space capability expansion is in the scientific fields, having greater satellite communications at their disposal will enhance their military capacity to respond to Chinese aggression. India “punches below its weight” (Kliman, 2012) in terms of military might as compared to its national wealth and size, and would undoubtedly lose a full-scale war with China if the conflict remained a one-on-one engagement, although a multi-national conflict would be much more complex to predict.

Indian Space Research Organization scientists and engineers cheer after India’s Mars orbiter successfully entered the red planet’s orbit, at their Spacecraft Control Center, in this photo taken through a glass panel, in the southern Indian city of Bangalore September 24, 2014. (Reuters, Abishek Chinnappa)

The more India can leverage its space capabilities, however, the more likely China is to choose against armed conflict due to the cost their victory would entail. In other words, Indian space capabilities would not provide enough leverage to ensure victory over China in a full-scale war, but may prove to be an effective deterrent. China’s reluctance to engage in military actions with other, weaker nations when they believe conflict with the United States could be looming on their horizon supports this notion (Hart, 2011) (Glaser, 2011). A U.S.-led coalition in a war against China would prove to be disastrous to China’s burgeoning expansion, unless China is able to close the technology gap with the United States further than they have done so to date. China’s “uncharacteristic restraint” (Keck, 2012) following India’s recent aggressive comments (Keck, 2012) may support that idea, as well.


As mentioned previously, India’s policy is to continue expanding their space capabilities. See my previous comments under “Law / Policy” regarding their significant fiscal expenditures, which have increased each year in support of the goal of creating India’s own launch vehicle. In addition to these aforementioned economic factors, India has set a goal of delivering 10% of the world’s commercial launch and satellite manufacturing needs by 2020 (Futron Corporation, 2012), thus proving their commitment to space, although most of their capabilities are still government-owned. They have begun to make progress toward that goal, having launched satellites on behalf of Canada, France, and the European Space Agency (Futron Corporation, 2012).

Hampering their efforts, however, is India’s bureaucracy, which some argue burdens economic development. Many in the commercial sector have complained their regulations are vague, difficult to navigate, and multi-layered (Futron Corporation, 2012). As is often the case in overly-bureaucratic environments, this may prove to slow India’s space progress.

Engineers working on the Mars orbiter at the Indian Space Research Organization in Bangalore. (AP Photo, Aijaz Rahi)

Another point of distinction in India’s space program, though, is India’s “human capital” (Futron Corporation, 2012). According to the Futron report, India has a strong base of educated engineers and other professionals dedicated to advancing the space program (Futron Corporation, 2012). This base is continually expanding due to India’s investments into the university system and focus on the physical sciences. The space profession’s growth from 15,800 employees in 2009 to 17,000 in 2011 and the 71 space-related degree programs within the country’s borders (Futron Corporation, 2012) is a clear demonstration of this phenomenon.

These factors have led to an increase in India’s industrial capability to support the space program, but India still lags behind more developed nations in competitiveness. They are planning to create their own satellite position, navigation, and timing system comparable to GPS, but have shown an inability to innovate new technology in that regard; their system will rely on technology discovered by other nations (Futron Corporation, 2012).

Regarding the South China Sea conflict, India’s emerging space capabilities may serve as an effective deterrent against Chinese aggression, but their vulnerabilities may allow China to initiate hostilities by disabling India’s space systems.

India’s industry and economy surrounding the space program may affect the South China Sea conflict in several ways. First, their current partnerships with foreign nations and reliance on foreign technologies and launch vehicles may change their diplomatic approach to Chinese aggression, depending on China’s diplomatic relationships with these other nations. This potential shortfall will be mitigated as India continues to advance toward space independence, however. Second, their strong educational system and leaps in space-related degrees will help advance toward that goal, and the stronger their space capabilities become the more inclined China will be to use diplomacy in resolving conflicts as opposed to armed force.


In summary, India’s policy is to expand their space program through fiscal contributions with the goal of attaining space independence. They continue to expand their military space capabilities, including nuclear weapons, but currently suffer from several key vulnerabilities. Their industry is constantly growing with the support of an educational system to that end.

Regarding the South China Sea conflict, India’s emerging space capabilities may serve as an effective deterrent against Chinese aggression, but their vulnerabilities may allow China to initiate hostilities by disabling India’s space systems. Although China has expressed the overt intention of toppling the United States as the world’s hegemon, they realize their current state of affairs does not allow it to occur in the near term. Therefore, their biggest fear in the region is a U.S.-led coalition to check China’s expansion. This may serve as an effective deterrent against further Chinese aggression against India’s oil shipping lanes.

John P. McFarland is a U.S. Army Space Operations Officer. He is currently works for Space and Missile Defense Command in Colorado Springs, Colorado in preparation for an OCONUS deployment in support of joint space operations. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: Scientists and engineers work on the Mars Orbiter at the Indian Space Research Organisation’s satellite center in Bangalore, India, on Sept. 11.


Futron’s 2012 “Space Competitive Index: A Comparative Analysis of How Countries Invest in and Benefit from Space Industry,” Report, 5th anniversary edition, Bethesda, MD: Futron Corporation, 2012.

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