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Even as the country was agog with a salacious society murder and an indefensible regional protest over reservations, which hogged headlines, an event of strategic import crucial to secure India’s space frontier was relegated to a footnote. The launch of the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV)–D6 powered by an indigenous cryogenic engine is a game-changer. Coupled with a military payload—a satellite, which will enhance secure communications among strategic forces and other key users—the event is critical for many reasons.

First, this launch validates the new Indian GSLV design and Indian-made cryogenic engine, which was successfully tested in January 2014 and, according to Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) officials, proves that this second successful launch was no fluke. Indeed, the growing confidence in the capabilities of this GSLV Mark II version will prove crucial for Isro’s development of the GSLV Mark III version capable of putting satellites up to 5,000kg in geosynchronous transfer orbit.

Second, at an estimated cost of around $36 million per launch, this GSLV is much cheaper than other options that India has used. For instance, the Ariane 5, which was used to launch GSAT-7—India’s first advanced multi-band communication satellite dedicated for military use—costs approximately $60 million per launch. While India will continue to use foreign launch services given Isro’s limited capacity, the GSLV option is clearly more economical.

Third, as a corollary, India is also on the path of becoming a competitive global space actor. It has already become a significant market player in launching satellites between 1,425kg and 1,750kg to geosynchronous and geostationary orbits and sun-synchronous polar orbits respectively through its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). Until now, the PSLV has launched over 40 satellites for 19 countries.

GSLV-D6 marks a crucial turning point in India’s credentials as a significant space power and the desire of its military to use space to enhance India’s security. Over the past five years, India launched an average of four-five satellites per year. Over the next few years, this number is expected to go up to an average of seven-eight per year. In recognition of this increasing demand, Isro plans to build a third launch pad and a second vehicle assembly building to enhance launch turnaround.

India’s impressive space credentials notwithstanding, they pale in comparison to China, which is likely to be India’s commercial and military competitor in space. According to the US department of defence (DoD) Annual Report to Congress on Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China 2015, China is already placing an average of “17-25 satellites on orbit each year"—three-five times India’s average. Moreover, these spacecraft have expanded China’s strategic satellite communication and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. Additionally, China has also completed construction of its fourth space launch centre—its biggest—on Hainan island.

While building up its own space-based assets, China is also developing the capabilities to disrupt the space-based assets of adversaries through directed-energy weapons and satellite jammers. This, according to the DoD report, is in line with the assertion by China’s military to “blind and deafen the enemy" by “destroying, damaging and interfering with the enemy’s…satellites".

India, which is only just starting to use space-based assets for military purposes, needs to address these challenge through a mix of diplomacy and offensive and defensive space capabilities, which will allow it to protect its own assets from attack while also developing the capability to take action against other assets, if necessary. This is imperative for India to secure its final frontier.

W.P.S. Sidhu is senior fellow for foreign policy at Brookings India and a senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, New York University. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.

Comments are welcome at otherviews@livemint.com

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