The Space Race of India and China

(To Renato Scarfi)

The Armed Forces of the world have begun to look at space with growing interest. A domain previously reserved for very few countries, including Italy, must be underlined, because it was essential to be masters of those very high technological capabilities, indispensable to be able to have access to space and to place the payload in orbit, whether for scientific, commercial or military (read article “Space, the new frontier").

The progress and diffusion of the necessary technology, however, today allows access to space by a greater number of users and the appearance on the market of commercial intermediaries of space services also allows countries that do not have particular technological capabilities to take advantage of the satellite network services, both for civil and military purposes (information, data transmission, communications, positioning...). A typical case is the use of the network Starlink by Ukraine, which thus replaced its own network, neutralized by Russian forces in the initial moments of the aggression.

This confirmed that the tools to respond to security challenges have now exceeded the limits of what was considered science fiction and are increasingly dependent on the connection with the constellations of orbiting satellites.

It is no coincidence, therefore, that the main "emerging" powers, India and China, seek to access space to acquire strategic advantages, both in the commercial sector but above all in the military sector. It is no mystery, in fact, that the two countries have many reasons not to feel particularly friendly.

Upon the successful completion of the Indian launch which, with the mission Chandrayaan-3 (opening photo), brought the lander "Vikram" (photo) and the rover "pragyan" in the lunar south pole region, China is responding with the recent launch (May 3) of the space mission Chang'e-6, which aims to bring back to Earth two kilos of lunar debris from the far side of the Moon. In the approximately 50 days of the mission's expected duration, Beijing will therefore explore the side of our satellite hidden from us. A “The dark side of the moon” in the Sino-Pakistani version, given that Islamabad technology (Iqube-Q) is also installed on board the probei, used for filming. A double challenge to India, therefore, which must also be read in light of the not exactly idyllic relations between New Delhi and the two neighboring countries.

Let's see, therefore, what actions they are implementing to surpass themselves and to secure a place among the stars... with particular attention to geopolitical and military issues.


India has been interested in missions beyond the atmosphere since the 60s and, in 1969, established the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), which is headquartered in the city of Bangalore. Until 2000, the Indian space program developed slowly but, in recent years, the country's technological growth has allowed it to invest larger resources and accelerate the implementation of projects for civil and military purposes. Taking into account the existing frictions with China (and Pakistan), the Indian space race is also politically and strategically a way to assert its authoritative presence in this delicate domain.

Gāndhī's homeland has, therefore, set itself the declared goal of becoming the fourth nation to independently send humans into space. On 21 October 2023, the L40 single-stage rocket (44 t for 4.520 kg of payload) was launched from the Satish Dhawan centerii (Sriharikota island, southeast India).

The test flight was intended to verify, among others, the functioning of the emergency system and the Crew Escape System (CES) of the capsule Gaganyaan (“celestial vehicle” in Sanskrit - photo). The journey of Indian cosmonauts to the Moon, a medium-term objective, will however necessarily have to be preceded by the experience of long-duration orbital flights, perhaps by participating in programs on International Space Station (SSI). Meanwhile, last June 2023 New Delhi signed the “Artemis Accords”iii (Italy signed in 2020), in which 37 countries participate, which concern the general rules of space exploration and preparation for man's return to the Moon, with the aim of establishing a permanent presence thereiv.

The first flight of humans with an Indian carrier could, however, be only the first step of one extremely ambitious space policy whose current objectives, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi underlined, are the construction of an Indian space station by 2035 and the sending of astronauts to the Moon by 2040. In this context, during his visit to the space center Vikram Sarabhai (Trivandrum, Kerala) last February 23, Modi presented the first four astronauts (all military) selected for the aforementioned Gaganyaan programme.

Even the moon landing of the probe Chandrayaan-3 in August 2023 it is part of this path of India's approach to space and has made it possible, as mentioned, to touch the lunar south pole, an area never explored by the USA, Russia or China. The next step will be to look for a system to be able to take off again from the lunar soil to bring rock samples to Earth for examination. The mission should provide this Chandrayaan-4, currently scheduled for 2028. Meanwhile, in partnership with the Japanese Space Agency (Japan Aerospace eXploration Agency - JAXA), the exploration of the lunar south pole will continue as part of the mission Lunar Polar Exploration Mission (LUPEX). The collaboration between the two Asian countries includes the construction by India of lander lunar, while Japan will provide the launcher and the rover 350 kg lunar.

To bring ever greater payloads into space, India is also building a new generation launcherv and with capabilities that are decidedly superior to those of the current LVM3, given that at the moment it only allows us to place a payload of only 8 tonnes on low orbits or to send the 3,9 tonnes of the probe Chandrayaan-3 towards the Moon. The new generation launcher, which will not be ready before 2030, should be reusable (for the first two stages), have a mass of around 700 t and carry a payload of 18 t in low orbit and 7,5-10 t in geostationary orbit, with costs ranging between USD 1.900/kg and USD 3.000/kg for placing the payload into orbit.

In September 2013, the first multiband satellite created by ISRO for exclusively military purposes was also launched (Gsat-7), which guarantees a reliable and autonomous data exchange with Navy units on the high seas, freeing New Delhi from foreign satellite services and obtaining an instrument compatible with modern military resources, including future strategic underwater forces, created to ensure credible nuclear deterrence (read article "India looks towards the sea")

The telecommunications satellite then entered service in August 2015 Gsat-6, necessary to make military communication safe and of good quality along the more than 15.000 km of the varied land border, characterized by deserts, high mountains, etc... For the purposes of the Air Force in December 2018 the was finally launched Gsat-7a (photo), to offer a constant connection with all the air bases in the country.

Regarding positioning systems, felt need of the hour, New Delhi has implemented theIndian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS), a regional system consisting of a constellation of seven satellites offering high precision standard civil and military (encrypted) services.

Finally, in March 2019, the success of a neutralization test of an orbiting satellite was recorded, which paved the way for the acquisition of counterspace capabilities.

The current Indian space effort, in a nutshell, reveals great potential for development and unquestionably allows New Delhi to present itself as the other major Asian player in the sector, allowing it, despite not yet having reached the level of the major "space" powers, to provide a notable contribution to research, to ensure a growing level of services to the population and to face the challenges at its land and sea borders with greater determination.


The Chinese space program was born for purely military purposes, while the commercial interest in space is rather recent, formalized for the first time in the 2016 white paper. This document underlines that, in parallel with the terrestrial and maritime Silk Roads, China also wants to realize the Belt and Road Space Information Corridor (BRISIC) which includes, in addition to Earth observation capabilities, also communications and broadcasting (with an extension of Chinese telecommunications services to BRI partners - Belt and Road Initiative), navigation and positioning, with particular reference to the diffusion of its satellite navigation system Beidou. This would allow Beijing to expand the use of the service globally, in competition with the systems Galileo (EU), Glonass (Russia) e GPS (USA).

Il Beidou it was developed in 2000 and became operational in 2020 and, to date, would see the presence of around forty satellites that would "cover" around 80% of the globe. The initiative aims to build Chinese credibility as a country capable of responding responsibly to the various challenges of modernity.

BRISIC, therefore, is interpreted by Beijing as a challenge for the management of a wide range of civil areas such as transport, agriculture, fishing, SAR, hydrogeological surveillance, weather forecasting, disaster management, cartography, public safety, IT development and intelligent port installations. It is therefore understandable how this is considered strategic from an economic, political and military perspective, given that these areas of application of space technologies will predictably play a growing role also in the field of security and defense, predictably favoring the China's growth in global influence.

Together with BRISIC, China, in order to achieve its ever-increasing space ambitions, has recently also strongly accelerated the development of reusable launchers. In Beijing's intentions the sector should be "covered" by the launcher Zhuque-2vi, created by the Chinese startup Landspace, the first liquid oxygen and methane carrier to reach orbit, and since Tialong-3, a medium two-stage launcher developed by Space Pioneervii, which would allow the transport of a load of approximately 15 t. The first flight is scheduled for July 2024. A "heavy" version capable of approximately 50 t of payload is also being studied.

Regarding heavy load carriers, it should be remembered that Changzheng-5 (abbreviation CZ-5), produced by a subsidiary of China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC)viii, powered by liquid propellant (liquid oxygen and kerosene), which allows it to carry payloads of 25 t into low Earth orbit and 14 t into geostationary orbit. Launched for the first time on November 3, 2016 from the Wenchang Cosmodrome on the island of Hainan, after some "youth problems" it became fully operational. The CZ-5 is also evolving towards a "reinforced" version for specific lunar use. The CZ-10, this is the name of the new carrier, will be able to transport loads of around 70 tonnes to low orbit and 25 tonnes towards the Moon.

Finally, Beijing is developing a "super-heavy" carrier rocket, the Changzheng-9 (abbreviation CZ-9), which should be able to transport payloads of approximately 150/160 t to low orbit, 53 t to the Moon and 44 t to Marsix. A “monster” 108 m high and 10,6 m wide, weighing 4.122 t.

To underline China's ambitions leadership space, we add the fact that China is leading a program similar toArtemide, Named International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), which has so far received 8 membersx. Unlike Artemide, which provides each participant with a common basis on which to collaborate, each ILRS program agreement is customized.

The acceleration that has occurred over the last ten years has also seen the entry of new private players in the creation of satellites and the sale of services, a sector historically dominated by institutional players such as CASC (China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation) and the CASIC (China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation). A policy that in 2022 allowed China to place second in the world in terms of number of launches carried out, behind the USA.

From a military point of view, it should be underlined that the acquisition of space capabilities is considered a priority objective by President Xi Jinping who, with a view to deterrence and mutually assured destruction of resources, wants in the short term to try to counteract the Pacific Deterrence Initiative of the USA. In the medium term (2050) the objective is to achieve substantial parity with Washington, in order to balance its global geopolitical weight. The economic and technological effort currently underway must be interpreted overall in this light. (read article “The Chinese challenge to US naval power”)

Since 2007, when it carried out the first exercise against satellites in orbit, China has systematically carried out programs for the creation of counterspace technologies. In this context, it seems that China is "specializing" in the creation of anti-satellite weapons consisting of cheap but theoretically valid missiles, capable of destroying a military satellite in low orbit with a single launch.

From a geopolitical point of view, BRISIC and military space programs, therefore, do not represent "only" a fundamental support for the digital architecture of the BRI (and the extension of some of its benefits to the BRI countries will be a means to strengthen bilateral relations) but they want show Beijing's propensity to respond to global challenges and certify its ability to develop critical technologies, especially military ones, without Western help, with a view to overall expansion of its geopolitical influence (read article "Precarious stability in the Indo-Pacific").

final Thoughts

In addition to the "historical" countries, the USA and Russia, today there are also India and China aiming for the stars, in a sort of strategic and economic race for space. For Beijing, in particular, it is not just a question of countering New Delhi or reaching parity with Washington, but of overcoming the USA by ensuring space superiority.

From an economic point of view, space is, in fact, increasingly considered a fundamental sector that offers immense direct and indirect potential. Investing in the sector, in fact, encourages the birth of new industrial sectors exceptional added value and therefore contributes to the creation of new jobs. The global geolocalization market, for example, is estimated to be worth around 16 billion USD (2022 data) and it is estimated that the growth rate until 2030 could be around 15,6% per year. This makes the business of satellites a important element of industrial competitiveness of a country. Added to this is also the search for carrier rockets capable of carrying ever heavier loads and ever greater distances. Initially intended for the launch of satellites in geostationary orbit or interplanetary probes, heavy launchers have long remained the prerogative of the great space powers. However, the rapid growth of a thriving economy in low Earth orbit, particularly lucrative, has also led numerous private companies to reevaluate "heavy" transport capacities. From low orbit to Mars, heavy launchers could then become discriminating element for the recognition of space power and the related capabilities will probably not only serve to "place" harmless constellations of satellites for civilian use around the Earth (read article "Space: geopolitics, economics and defense").

As can be guessed, in fact, civil space projects actually also have significant military implications and, for example, in the Chinese space program the military dimension is absolutely not secondary, so much so that the Chinese astronauts are all military and the launch bases are all managed by the People's Liberation Army (People Liberation Army - PLA).

In a period, such as the one we are experiencing, in which international relations are characterized by profound uncertainty, space is now a domain that is impossible to ignore and will occupy a increasingly important role in defining future geopolitical balances of the main powers which, consequently, tend to develop the space capabilities they need to achieve commercial objectives but also for military purposes. In this context, the development of adequate Earth observation capabilities, for example, represents a challenge more than ever, whether it be to prevent climate risks, to keep resources under control, or to provide adequate responses to the needs of security and defense. Underlying it all is the awareness that the control of space, including the acquisition of anti-satellite capabilities, will affect the final outcome of future battles.

In this context, the global competition relaunched by China for supremacy in space worries India as Chinese capabilities in the sector, currently all aimed at overtaking the USA, could potentially be turned against New Delhi tomorrow. It is probably for this reason that a strong acceleration was given to his projects. Beijing, in the meantime, continues the path of the last ten years, during which it has invested a river of money in its space program, officially for scientific research purposes or for economic reasons, but also (or above all?) for the strategic supremacy that presence in space can guarantee to those who will secure a prominent place among the stars.

A sort of new Olympus where India and China now rightfully sit. A choice that we can romantically attribute to the desire to advance in scientific knowledge, but which appears increasingly conditioned by strong geopolitical reasons and by the need to improve their respective war capabilities, in order to effectively counter the adversary's claims and respond promptly to continuous skirmishes along the borders and on the sea.

i Designed and developed by the Institute of Space Technology (IST), in collaboration with the Pakistani national space agency Suparco and the Chinese Shanghai Sjtu University.

ii Indian mathematician and aerospace engineer (1920–2002)

iii The following 37 countries have currently signed: Angola, Saudi Arabia, Argentina, Australia, Bahrain, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Colombia, Czech Republic, Ecuador, France, Germany, Greece, India, Iceland, Isle of Man, Israel , Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Poland, Republic of Korea, Romania, Rwanda, Singapore, Spain, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States, Uruguay.

iv This is a US-led program in which the first crewed mission is scheduled for 2025 and the first moon landing in 2026.

v The design phase appears to have reached its final stages. The next generation launcher should be reusable (for the first two stages)

vi Launched from the spaceport Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, located in Northern China, in the Gobi Desert.

vii Also known as Beijing Tianbing Technology Co., Ltd.

viii It is the main state-owned enterprise for China's space program.

ix A load equivalent to the US one Saturn V of the “Apollo” program of the 60s and 70s.

x Azerbaijan, Belarus, China, Egypt, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa, Venezuela.

Photo: ISRO / / OpenAI