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ISRO’s French Connection

Gp Capt Ajey Lele (Retd.) is a Consultant at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • December 07, 2010

    It is interesting to note that both US President Barack Obama and French President Nicholas Sarkozy decided not to land at first in Delhi during their India visit. Was it by design or by default? What was the diplomatic signal these two leaders were trying to send? It appears that more than the cities, the places they visited on arrival were significant in regard to signalling their foreign policy intentions. Obama visited Hotel Taj Mahal in Mumbai giving indications about US concerns with regard to terrorism and the priority his administration gives to this issue. For his part, Sarkozy landed in Bangalore and visited the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), thus clearly announcing that business in the nuclear and space arena is a priority for the French government. This is not to say that the United States had no business interests. For its Af-Pak policy, India’s support is crucial and the signalling on terrorism is just to keep India pleased, while the French were more direct about their business interests.

    The speech delivered by President Sarkozy at ISRO was an interesting mix of issues of geostrategic significance, business, and collaboration in science and technology. There were customary pronouncements like India should become a permanent member of the UN Security Council, it should assume a full role in the G-20, and the terrorism originating from Pakistan and Afghanistan is a major source of global and regional insecurity. The Korean issue being the flavour of the season was also touched upon. However, his basic interest appeared to be on civil nuclear trade under the larger rubric of collaboration in science and technology. France clearly understands that India plans to increase nuclear power production from 4,000 to 62,000 megawatts in the coming 20 years and there is a huge market available.

    While Sarkozy’s choice of Bangalore to open his visit was no surprise, what is important is that he looked beyond visiting globally recognized Information Technology (IT) MNCs and instead visited ISRO. This clearly indicates that France is looking beyond short-term tactical business advantages and is looking at the connections in the arena of science and technology as a tool to develop a long term strategic partnership.

    For France, ISRO is an old partner. Since the 1970s it has been associated with India’s space programme. India’s first communication satellite was launched by the French space launch vehicle Ariane1 in 1981. Till date, 12 of Indian’s communications satellites have been launched by Arianespace on a commercial basis. Within the next two years France would be helping India in the launch of GSAT-8 and GSAT-10 satellites for which ISRO would be paying approximately Rs. 500 crore.

    Today, the United States is also keen to engage India in the space arena. This was reemphasized by Obama during his visit. The United States has interests in India’s moon mission and is also keen on India’s participation in the 16-country experiment of the International Space Station (ISS). However, there appears to be greater clarity in the India-France relationship particularly in the space field. France understands and appreciates the role played by ISRO in the socioeconomic development of India. The French space agency is collaborating with ISRO in the area of research and development too. The importance which both states give to space technology in their relationship is also evident from the joint statement issued at New Delhi on December 6, 2010. This statement highlighted space cooperation as a part of the Indo-French strategic partnership. Both states have expressed their commitment to the use of space for peaceful purposes and intend to increase their cooperation for climate change studies and space exploration.

    By next year both countries are planning to launch the Mega-Tropiques satellite to study the water cycle in the tropical atmosphere and a remote sensing satellite called Saral for climate and ocean observation. President Sarkozy highlighted that both states view the use of space as a tool for supporting human development. It is also interesting to note that Sarkozy was not only pushing France’s agenda but was also asking India to do business with the European Union. He is keen that India should launch some European satellites. ISRO has had a strategic alliance with EADS Astrium, the subsidiary of European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS SPACE) since 2005. This was renewed for five more years during Sarkozy’s visit. It will allow both parties to develop a plan for joint marketing of satellites. With the global market for launch of communication satellites growing rapidly, ISRO can expect a major increase in its list of customers. It is important to note that for states having requirement to launch satellites with a payload power below 4Kw and a two to three tonne launch mass, ISRO is the most reliable and cheap option available.

    The real highlight of Sarkozy’s talk at ISRO was the indirect message he gave to the United States and to a certain extent to China. He made it clear that space was not the monopoly of a few states. He understands that those who control space could control the world to a large extent in the coming decades. The utility of space for communications, remote sensing, education and navigation is well-known and space also offers major economic opportunities. Moreover, space offers major military advantages and it is being perceived as the battlefield of tomorrow. Presently, given that natural resources are fast diminishing from the earth’s surface and humans are planning to hunt for them in other planets, a revolution in space travel is likely to change the ‘landscape’ of future transportation and tourism industry. In short, the future of mankind is likely to be governed by happenings in space. Hence, France wants many states to be in the race for the conquest of space.

    During the Cold War era, the world witnessed a two-state monopoly over space. In that era military strength was the only instrument of power projection. However, the tools of power projection in the 21st century have multiplied and space domination is fast emerging as one of them. Probably, that is why President Sarkozy chose ISRO as the venue to launch his India campaign.