Policymakers on both sides should consider space through a strategic lens and in a long-term perspective.

 

India’s struggle with the new Covid wave has struck the conscience and claimed the sympathy of the entire world. In such terrible times attention is riveted on the crisis at hand; all other issues slip, momentarily, into the background. One notable item thus understandably removed from this week’s agenda has been the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s long-trailed state visit to New Dehli. Over the coming days British cargo flights will rightly bring to India much-needed ventilators and other critical medical supplies, rather than a prime ministerial delegation.

But one of the brutal realities of human affairs is that geopolitics never stops, and countries continue to need each other’s support in the global arena as they do in the face of calamities at home. When India will have overcome the present tragedy—as undoubtedly it will, and as all its friends wish it to, soonest—the usual foreign policy concerns will reassert themselves and perhaps Boris Johnson will make his visit. It is an important one, at a pivotal time for both India and Britain, and no video-link summit can substitute for the symbolic power and the personal investment involved in a real-life trip.

Regardless of exact timings and details, this next step in bilateral relations at the head-of-government level is expected to deliver a major reset and a new opening between India and the UK. The context, on the British side, is “Global Britain”: the country’s grand post-Brexit project for re-adjusting its overseas posture. The necessity, shared by both London and New Dehli, is the rise of China and its impact on world order.

The UK Government has taken its Global Britain planning extremely seriously. Its recently-concluded Integrated Review of UK security, defence, development and foreign policy represents the widest, deepest and most systematic reconsideration of British “grand strategy” since the Cold War. One of the totemic elements of this document—and the most conspicuous geopolitical decision contained therein—is an Indo-Pacific framework describing Britain’s new “tilt” to the region.

There is a lot riding on this, strategically, and relations with India are key to the success of the tilt—which in turn can play a significant role in addressing the China challenge. A measure of UK’s intent in this regard is that Alex Ellis, who was the Civil Service official responsible for the Integrated Review in the Cabinet Office in London, has now been put in charge of British diplomacy at New Delhi. The Review’s main author was John Bew, the Prime Minister’s foreign affairs adviser and a former senior figure at Policy Exchange. This is relevant as Policy Exchange provided a decisive input into the Review process with our November 2020 report, “A Very British Tilt: Towards a new UK strategy in the Indo-Pacific Region”.

The product of a distinguished Policy Exchange Commission drawn from across the Indo-Pacific and chaired by Stephen Harper, the 22nd Canadian Prime Minister, “A Very British Tilt” offers a roadmap for UK policy in this region over the coming years that goes beyond what has been retained of it in the Integrated Review. One particular Policy Exchange recommendation, which deserves more attention in an Anglo-Indian context is that of developing a Space Technology Alliance resting on Commonwealth and other Indo-Pacific nations.

Taking loose inspiration from the model provided by the European Space Agency (ESA), which pools financial resources from a multiplicity of sovereign countries (most, but not all, from the EU), this prospective Space Tech Alliance could open important strategic and economic possibilities in the space domain for states ranging from Britain and Canada, to South Africa, India, Australia, Singapore or Japan. From a UK perspective, this could constitute the main space component of Global Britain.

There is undoubtedly a need for a more coordinated approach among friends and allies with respect to international space affairs and the global balance of space power. More realism coupled with a keener strategic sense of how space power is increasingly affecting the geostrategic environment would likewise be much welcome—especially on the British side.

Countries like India, China or the United States are demonstrating a strategic pursuit of space power. They have avoided the trap of “terra-centrism”, a view that is only really interested in how space assets and applications can support activities on earth, and that essentially looks “inward” from orbit. When combined with over-optimistic hopes in the ability of international norms to limit military competition in outer space, terra-centrism can only stunt a nation’s long-term space power ambitions.

In an age of systemic competition, countries that want to retain a place at the top table will have to face the uncompromising reality that only an expansive space power strategy—that looks outwards from orbit, to the Moon and beyond—can secure their interests.

One of the great achievements of the UK’s Integrated Review has been to formally recognise the importance of space for the national interest across security, economy, defence and in the context of international “regulatory diplomacy”. It is a major step forward, but unlike countries like India and indeed China, Britain’s space vision still betrays its narrow utilitarian, free-market—and in a sense, experimental—roots.

This is a certain “value-oriented” mindset that in the past accounted for the UK becoming, in the 1970s, the 6th nation ever to launch a domestic satellite to orbit on a domestic rocket, only to immediately dismantle that launch capability completely, on grounds of (not enough) “value for money”. This is also why, for example, the UK never developed a human spaceflight programme—only one UK-funded astronaut has ever flown to space—despite the country’s world-class capabilities in human spaceflight-associated science and its incredibly rich heritage in aeronautics. This is a major oversight—wisely avoided by India—in view of the next generation of space development activities in cis-lunar space and towards Mars.

Calibrating UK national space strategy along more realist lines for the systemic competition of our age will require a bit more time. More immediately, however, there is a golden opportunity to make the case for closer UK-India relations in the space domain firstly on strategic rather than on commercial grounds.

The joint UK Government-Bharti partnership in the OneWeb satellite broadband project can perhaps be decoded as an early instance of this logic. There will be other future areas of potential cooperation including, perhaps, in the area of geospatial intelligence (in view of an announced UK intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance constellation), counterspace technology and, particularly, human spaceflight.

In the purely commercial sphere, the booming British space industry has much to offer by way of partnerships, from established players like Inmarsat—the largest UK-headquartered space company—to nimble start-ups like rocket-maker Skyrora. They can fill in gaps in the Indian space services industry, or act as catalysts for a more dynamic Indian commercial market.

India is a great and resilient nation; we all hope that its present Covid sufferings will give way, very soon, to a successful recovery. In this, as in much else, it will have a friend in Britain. But the post-Covid world will present new challenges to us all; one of the greatest will be the struggle for advantage in the space domain.

As the UK and India are resetting and strengthening their relationship, space affairs are a common interest that can provide one of the most powerful foundations for a shared future in the decades to come. It is imperative, therefore, that policymakers on both sides consider this critical area through a strategic lens and in a long-term perspective.

 

Gabriel Elefteriu is Director of Research and Head of Space Policy at Policy Exchange, Britain’s leading think-tank.