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Tanmay Vashistha Sharma asked: Why is India developing its own navigational system when it can collaborate with the US or EU or Russia? Also, since the IRNSS is capable of covering South Asian region only, how much strategic advantage will it give?

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  • Abhijit Singh replies: To begin, it is important to point out that a satellite navigational system is an onerous enterprise that takes enormous capital and technological investment - not to mention years of research and experimentation - to fully operationalise. The high investment needed is one reason why countries favour developing navigation systems on a shared basis, so that the labour and costs involved can be distributed among the various partner.

    In practice, the side that seeks the greatest strategic and security gains develops the navigational system at huge costs and then offers it to other partners as a facility for ‘subscription’. The rest simply sign up, knowing fully well that they benefit from it but still remain at the mercy of the dominant power that retains control over vital components of the navigational system.

    A case in point is China’s indigenous satellite navigation system known as Beidou. To make the project a viable enterprise, Beijing has got many Southeast Asian countries to sign up for it. However, questions are being raised on whether it will be able to attract a large enough clientele to make the system a viable proposition. On the other hand, the act of signing up to the Beidou by regional states is being construed in some quarters as a strategic concession to China. Beijing, meanwhile, is constrained by the fact that despite putting 16 navigation and four experimental satellites into space, the project's coverage is still limited to Southeast Asia. For a global cover, the system needs an additional 40 satellites in orbit and another round of huge capital investment.

    In effect, all sea-going nations have a choice – to either develop their own navigational system or join an existing facility, in which case they remain mere consumers. India could, in theory, develop a navigational system in collaboration with the US or EU or even Russia, but can be almost certain that vital systems will remain under the practical control and authority of the bigger partner (as we have seen in the case of co-development of other technologies in recent years). Unfortunately, if an aspiring state chooses to go alone, it rarely has the investment capability or the technological wherewithal to develop a global facility.

    The Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) with a constellation of seven satellites and a coverage limited to the Indian subcontinent and South Asia is what India can presently afford, given that New Delhi does not want to be dependent on a foreign power when it comes to military navigation. Apart from the many civil and commercial benefits that accrue from the system, there is no denying the sense of greater autonomy and control over an essential strategic asset.

    Posted on May 12, 2015