The US and Europe’s economic sanctions against Russia for its military action against Ukraine may throw up economic opportunities for the Indian space sector, instead of burdening it with economic cost, say industry experts.
They also feel that to cash on the opportunities, India should accelerate its satellite launch capabilities, and announce productivity-linked incentive (PLI) schemes for the aerospace sector.
“All those countries feeling the pinch due to the absence of Russian rockets for satellite launches may look at alternatives. While the bulk of the satellite launch contracts will be taken by the US and Europe, there will be others who may look at other options. India’s neutrality has created a new market segment,” Chaitanya Giri, Founder, DAWON Advisory & Intelligence, told IANS.
He added that the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) should ramp up its satellite launch capacity as two launches per year is not on anymore.
With private rocket companies also in the process of developing their small rockets, ISRO should actively handhold them so that they also realise their launch vehicles faster.
In the $360 billion global space sector market, India’s share is very negligible.
Industry experts are unanimous that the sanctions against Russia will not have any major impact on India.
Space is a critical sector and there are chances of the US asking India to take a side — for or against Russia.
So, what if the US and the West add India to their sanctions list owing to its relationship with Russia?
In the case of satellites, nearly 60 per cent of the components by value are now imported from Europe.
“India imports memory chips, sensors, onboard processors, relays and other items. We get components from Japan, Singapore. Sourcing of components from Russia is low due to language barrier,” Tapan Misra, Co-founder and Chief Technology Officer (CTO), Sisir Radar Private Ltd, told IANS.
Misra was earlier a Director at the ISRO’s Space Applications Centre, and Sisir Radar plans to make X-band synthetic aperture radar with 0.5 metre resolution.
Another retired senior official of ISRO told IANS preferring anonymity: “As a policy, ISRO will have an inventory of components for 15 satellites. The reorder level for components will come when the component inventory level is down to 10 satellites.”
During the past two years, ISRO did not make many satellites and hence the inventory levels will be comfortable for some more years, given its launch record and plans, the official added.
However, there are short life items like adhesives and soldering paste, which are imported. One has to plan for that by proper supply chain links.
“India has to make a tight-rope walk as it imports some rare earth materials and space grade metals. The Russia-Ukraine war will cool down, but the secondary effects of the sanctions may take time to go,” Giri said.
In the case of rockets, India has localised the majority of the items that go in the making of its rockets — Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) and the upcoming Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV).
“Most of the Russian and European parts and materials for making of ISRO rockets are indigenised. The impact of sanctions on India will be minimal. For Skyroot, the impact is zero as the supply chain is mostly within India, thanks to ISROs indigenisation efforts over the decades,” Pawan Kumar Chandana, Co-founder and CEO, Skyroot Aerospace, told IANS.
Skyroot Aerospace is into making small rockets — Vikram 1, 2 and 3 — with varying payload capacity.
But the point is, the engine designs of Indian rockets are three-decade vintage and there are no plans for making bigger and multiple engines, as voiced by an expert.
According to a retired senior official of the Indian space agency, ISRO had collaborated with Ukraine for semi-cryogenic engine technology but has not made much headway.
“One has to see what impact the war-hit Ukraine will have on India’s semi-cryogenic engine project,” the official said.
Responding to that, a former Chairman of ISRO told IANS: “Whatever needs to be obtained from Ukraine for semi-cryogenic engine development has been obtained. The testing of the engine has to be done.”
While India’s human space mission is tied up with Russia tightly in terms of astronaut training, supply of space suits and others, experts said that missions may not be affected owing to India’s changed stature in the international arena.
“This is new India, which is standing on a higher position in the pedestal than it used to be earlier. It cannot be arm twisted. We have to take care of the supply chain and become an octopus in sourcing materials for the strategic sectors,” Giri said.
The US may not antagonise India, and the Indo-US collaborative NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR) Mission may go on as planned, Giri added.
“Western ban on exports of space components will provide a big incentive for India to innovate. There are lobby bodies that promote imports and stall local development. If there is a ban, then local development will have to be made which the lobbies may not want,” an official said.
As regards the opportunity for the Indian space sector, he said Russia may like to source some components from India and hence the latter can be a trading partner.
Industry officials said ISRO should accelerate its SSLV programme. The small satellite launch market is increasing with 90 per cent of the satellite launches in recent times being small ones.
Similarly, the private rocket makers should also gear up and realise their vehicles faster.
“The Indian government has to come out with a PLI scheme for the space sector like it has done for semiconductors, electronics and other sectors. The PLI scheme should be focused on defence, aerospace and electronics,” Giri said.
The government could ask the Indian companies signing up satellite sourcing deals with foreign companies to localise the manufacturing.
“The Indo-UK joint venture OneWeb has not leveraged Indian opportunity. ISRO can offer to launch OneWeb’s satellites with its GSLV rocket,” Giri remarked.
Recently, the board of OneWeb — jointly owned by India’s Bharti Global and the UK government — voted to suspend satellite launches from the Baikonur rocket port in Russia.
Further, the Indian government could ask the domestic companies signing up satellite service ventures with foreign companies to localise their manufacturing, Giri suggested.
The Indian government is focusing on the startup ecosystem for the space sector. Once the system is in place, perhaps then the government can ask the major players to localise their needs, he added.
(Venkatachari Jagannathan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)