South Asian Space War

Bangladesh’s space age has begun with the successful launch of the Bangabandhu-1 satellite into orbit by SpaceX on May 11, 2018, making Bangladesh one of the 57 nations having its own satellite. While the country is growing in terms of economic development, growth, GDP, women’s empowerment, human resource development, expanding connectivity, improving communications, as well as technological advancement, the future space-based Bangladesh may face mixed experiences.

Obviously, the satellite is going to help the country achieve the goal of “Digital Bangladesh” — providing huge prospects for the nation — however, several internal, external, and strategic challenges cannot be ignored. How will the satellite shape Bangladesh’s national power as well as national security order in this age of globalization? How is the state going to manage its internal and external challenges for assuring greater sustainability in the space age? In which way the nation will handle the strategic challenges enforced by the space powers in the near future?

In order to compete with the globalized world as well as to materialize its vision of digitalization, the current government of Bangladesh decided to make its own satellite. Following these targets, the state acted in a rational manner to visualize its space age, such that France made the satellite, the US took it to orbit, and Russia leased the orbital slot to Bangladesh.

There are basically three prospects of the satellite for Bangladesh: expanding and developing telecommunications and internet services around the country, enabling the telecommunications sector to reduce dependency on satellite services provided by the space powers and earn foreign revenue, and detecting as well as managing natural disasters and greater national security. The satellite will provide benefits regarding economic, social, agricultural, communications, and natural disaster management purposes, and is the result of policy-makers finally being able to focus on a project and take the necessary measures to see it through. This satellite network will facilitate certain sectors such as telemedicine, distance-learning, online research, video conferencing, defense, detecting sea piracy, and disaster management. It will also improve the direct-to-home services, making people’s access to worldwide television entertainment faster and easier.

The satellite’s advanced communications will bring immense economic gains as well. Currently, Bangladesh annually spends more than USD 14 million renting satellite bandwidth from foreign operators. Bangbandhu-1 will save Bangladesh USD 210 million throughout its 15-year span. Bangabandhu-1 is also expected to provide services to other Asian states such as Nepal, Myanmar, Bhutan, as well as Indonesia, the Philippines, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan — given that it is properly set-up, of course. Which means that Bangladesh stands to earn approximately USD 1 billion by leasing out the transponders and another USD 1.5 billion by selling other related services.

Dreaming of a sustainable space age

Even while Bangladesh is dreaming of a sustainable space age, there remain a lot of internal and external challenges. First, the government borrowed EUR 155 million (approximately BDT 1400 crore) from HSBC Holdings for the procurement and launch of Bangabandhu-1. The BTRC has been estimated to earn the investment by selling satellite services at home and abroad within eight years; but the specific public-private partnership-focused plan and market strategy have not been sketched properly yet. Also, the worldwide capacity of a satellite is usually sold before the launch, but Bangladesh has yet to make any such move.

Bangladesh’s neighboring states, targeted as markets for the nation’s space service, are almost dependent on China, India, Japan, Russia, the US and the other space powers for their space activities. While Bangladesh has entered the space age, space sovereignty is still not a reality for the nation. The state tried to acquire its own orbital slot several times, but it was not allowed to. Finally, it had to borrow an orbit slot from Russia. The country is still very hopeful to get permission to establish its space sovereignty from the International Telecommunication Union. However, the current technological, technical, human resource, and space operation standard might not be in favor of the nation. To establish its space sovereignty, Bangladesh has to improve in these sectors following the global space standards.

The only space research center in Bangladesh is SPARRSO (Bangladesh Space Research and Remote Sensing Organization). It has been applying space and remote sensing technology in the fields of agriculture, forestry, fisheries, geology, cartography, water resources, land use, weather, environment, geography, oceanography, science, education, science-based knowledge and other related space research areas. It also provides the government with the space and remote sensing technology of different countries and gives advice on the formulation of national policy. But the organization is not globally well-connected and has not been developed as the space powers did during their emergent periods. It is not a focused organization that only operates, develops, navigates, and sustains Bangladesh’s space projection. The government now has to frame a rational and strategic policy and organization to visualize its space age. If Bangladesh would like to get any benefit from the satellite, the government will need to develop the technological standards for working the satellite as well as the policies and people working on it.

Indeed, Bangladesh’s neighboring states, targeted as markets for the nation’s space service, are almost dependent on China, India, Japan, Russia, the US and the other space powers for their space activities due to these space giants’ cost-effective services, their global networks, the market-oriented cost and supply, their huge number of satellites, their uninterrupted information and data flow, and their ever-increasing investment in space-connectivity. Where Bangladesh has only Bangabandhu-1, India has 84 satellites and China has 244. China is providing a low-cost space service to neighboring states in order to expand its “Belt and Road Initiative” and is also developing space technology to improve and expand connectivity around the world. India is also doing well to counter the Chinese connectivity dream by initiating its “Cotton Route” where space connectivity, customer friendly space services, and its huge number of Indian TV channels and Bollywood are gaming a competitive chessboard for the space superpowers. Both states have targeted Bangladesh as one of the key players and customers for their space governance. So, space balancing is going to a dilemma for Bangladesh, and rational action and strategic decisions to expand nation’s space age will be crucial.

Bangladesh’s growing space activities is going to strengthen and expand its soft power projection within the global space order. Around the last decade, the country experienced tremendous economic growth and technological development, and managed a lot of obstacles and crises. Now the challenges are bigger. Bangladesh has to face these challenges in order to visualize its sustainable space age where establishing space sovereignty, framing standard space policies and legal framework, balancing global space powers, considering and preparing for competitive satellite market, establishing academia for space exploration, ensuring national security, and managing internal dilemmas, external threats, and strategic challenges smartly are necessary.

Is India worried?

The launch of Bangabandhu satellite is a welcome development considering Bangladesh’s economic potential and at the same time an adverse comment on spacefaring India. The world over, the trend of developing countries utilizing space services for economic development is growing. Bangladesh signed satellite contract with a French space company in 2015, years before India launched the South Asia Satellite.

India offered its assistance for launching Bangabandhu, but it could not match Bangladesh’s requirements. The satellite weighs 3,500 kg, which is beyond the launch capacity of India. The GSLV Mk III capable of launching 4,000 kg to geostationary transfer orbit (GTO) was first launched in 2017 while GSLV Mk II, with a chequered flight record, is capable of launching only 2,500 kg to that orbit. On the other hand, Bangladesh is assured of a stand-by launch (SpaceX Falcon 9) in case the primary launcher Ariane 5 is not available. Interestingly, India is also still dependent on Ariane 5, the GSAT-11 for example.

The unavailability of a credible launcher also led to India missing a high profile business opportunity as Bangladesh acquired a $250 million loan from France for the satellite project. The satellite loans issued by US or China show that the launch contract usually are awarded to the creditor country.

Bangladesh intends to lease some of the spectrum to its neighbours. And with the Sri Lankan space company now aiming to become a South Asian regional hub. But India is still dependent on foreign satellites for its domestic requirements. And is now facing stiffer competition for satellite services in its own backyard.

Space is slowly becoming more and more accessible not only to big nations but also small governments, private companies, and individuals. The new Bangabandhu-1 satellite is a testament to this. Rather than looking at Bangladesh as a threat or a competitor, India should view the situation from the perspective of mutual growth and learning.

India has a 50-year record of space-faring, and has been a global technology leader for space, but the regulatory environment and turf war for regulation has only lead to a deadlocked system with absolutely zero private assets in space. The fact that Bangladesh now has a privately-designed, built, launched, and operated satellite to feed its needs should be a source of learning to our great nation; we should try and grow our industry.

We have a lot of capacity within India. If we are not able to create value due to poor vision and regulatory faux pas, it is a shame. Bangladesh is one of the many small countries now aspiring to launch space assets, and as more and more players join this renewed global interest in space, the industry is bound to grow exponentially over the next few decades. If India plays its cards right, it can ride this wave of growth and not just be a technology leader, but also an industry leader and thought leader, taking the world to space and beyond.

Rather than be threatened or worried, India should rejoice and learn from Bangladesh and move towards creating a more free and vibrant ecosystem around space and related technologies within the country. India should welcome friendly regional neighbours using more of space-based capabilities, because it can offer some of its services like navigation, geospatial data, etc. However, without a strong private sector within the country possessing the ability to scale these space-based capacities to international markets, the ability for India to leverage its low cost and frugal innovation to capture international regional demand suffers.

This leaves opportunities open to the likes of European and American companies, who are taking advantage of new markets opening up in Asia. Several other countries, such as Bhutan and Philippines, have formalised their space agencies, which should be a wake-up call to India. It should scale up its ability to leverage its capacity in space, similar to software and allied technology services.

As a first step, India needs to reflect on its capacity-building approaches, and make sufficient investments into public-private partnerships, taking inspiration from the likes of NASA and CNES to build a vibrant local industry ecosystem that will allow it to capture such market opportunities.

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