India Spices Up the Race to the Moon

ByNaveed Ahmad

India joined the elite space club by becoming just the fourth nation to touch down on the moon. The Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft landed on the moon’s south pole on August 23. The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) successfully established a communication link between the spacecraft and mission control, and as per plan, its rover Pragyan left the lander, Vikram, for 14 Earth days (one lunar day) before being switched off as its solar power depleted.  The rover collected and transmitted scientific data about the moon’s composition.

The Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft crashed into the lunar surface due to a software glitch in September 2019, however, this time, the ISRO was successful, and the feat was spectacular; even more impressive was that the Indian space agency only expended a modest $73 million on the project.  Not only did the Indian agency perfect the algorithm but also opted for a larger target landing area besides equipping the vehicle with sturdier legs for Vikram and dynamic engines for better control for a smoother touchdown. Meanwhile, India beat its ally Russia whose robotic Luna-25 probe crashed onto the surface of the moon days prior. Unlike India which enjoyed the complete scientific and technological support of NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, Russia had to do it on its own. Russia’s State Space Corporation Roscosmos could not get the camera from  ESA to ease the craft’s landing while Airbus refused to sell the main navigation device for the lunar mission.

India’s success brings fresh excitement for other developing countries wanting to reach the moon. With sophisticated technologies at hand, the lunar voyages these days are far beyond the prestige projects that they used to be in the 1960s.

The ISRO’s craft landed at roughly 70-degrees south latitude, not far from where the Russian spacecraft was to touchdown. The moon’s south pole is a premium piece of real estate,  owing to immense scientific interest due to expected large quantities of water ice. Once water is discovered and means of its extraction, exploitation and separation of hydrogen and oxygen develop, then avenues of exploration of other minerals and deeper ventures into space using the celestial body as a base would be discovered. Vikram is equipped with a seismometer to sense moonquakes and also to take the temperature of lunar soil. China has been conducting research on the dark side of the moon since 2019. The entire ordeal is in preparation for human landing. NASA plans to resume crewed missions from 2025, half a century after they were discontinued. China, ESA and Japan are likely  to follow NASA in sending human missions to the moon, expectedly to set up bases for commercial and military/security purposes. Though the moon nearly equals the expanse of the Asian continent with numerous attractive locations for resource exploitation, it would require stringent regulation. As the fourth country to reach the moon, India has won a seat at the table for determining the rules of the game for lunar inhabitation and cislunar economy alike. Global competition and political polarization both add to the challenges facing the United Nations working group examining the legal issues related to exploiting space resources, whose first set of proposed regulations will not be ready by 2027. An unregulated space race poses unprecedented challenges to global security.

Already, SpaceX has sold one human trip to the moon, tentatively scheduled for launch in 2024, and Indian companies will be aiming to join  their latent  rivals like Japan-based iSpace and US-based Astrobotic in using commercial lunar landers. In a world of dual-use technologies, the threat-perception matrix is already too complex on Earth. The Outer Space Treaty is already too obsolete to address the scientific challenges, even if one sets aside great power rivalries over resources, power and prestige.

Anil Bhardwaj, director of the Physical Research Laboratory, an affiliate of India’s space research program, terms the success of Chandrayaan-3 as important for the country’s “strategic and geopolitical purposes.” The West is not alarmed at the likely destabilizing impact of India’s monumental feat. When China landed on the moon in January 2014,  Western leaders and military commanders were alarmed. Like India, Beijing had achieved a first by landing on the dark side of the lunar object. The media was abuzz with fears of  China’s first manned lunar base and a dominant military position in space. A decade later, this has yet to happen. If Beijing’s space project  had military implications, then so  does New Delhi’s. Putting  the  West’s myopia aside, the celestial outreach of a handful of countries does come with strategic dilemmas for the have-nots on Earth.

The strategic competition in space ranges from jamming GPS satellites, launching cyberattacks, or using lasers to destroy space assets. The  United States, Russia, China and India have already demonstrated  their capabilities to shoot at satellites from the ground.  India shot down its 750-kilogram military satellite on January 24, 2019, with a missile 283 kilometers above the Earth. The trend in proliferation and sophistication of anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons sparks the danger of space debris starting a chain reaction.

Pragmatically speaking, India will use Western cooperation and its expertise in cutting edge technologies to further hone its space military capabilities to outmatch those of China and also surveil and better counter its arch-rival Pakistan’s strategic capabilities.

No country is venturing into space or landing on the moon for science. Space programs, even if not military run, exist to cater to a country’s national interests which could be strategic and pursued aggressively when needed. For instance, if China’s or Russia’s space programs are used to strengthen their military prowess, why would India or any other nation voluntarily choose otherwise?

A military base in space is a reality and it is a matter of time. The  United States and China may both be the leading contenders, but India will catch up soon. A crewed base on the moon opens a new world of possibilities, the military applications of which far outweigh the so-called peaceful civilian benefits. Given the strategic significance of Starlink’s mini-satellite constellation for Ukraine in the face of  Russia’s attack, China and other space giants like India  could launch their own to jam  the internet exploits of their foes or expand their own. 

Moon bases could be used as backups to control military and civilian satellites if their ground bases are destroyed as much as to deploy ASAT weapons. India’s moon landing is as spectacular a feat as its disruption of the global balance of power on Earth and beyond. The race to space has just spiced up!

 Opinions in this article reflect the writer’s point of view, not necessarily the view of Rasanah

Naveed Ahmad
Naveed Ahmad
Research Fellow (Strategic Affairs)