US lifts export curbs but space, defence units await fineprint

Our Bureau Bangalore | Updated on February 04, 2011

File picture of Environmental Test Facilities Division, Thermovac Test Facility, at ISAC (ISRO). — Picture by K. Murali Kumar

Overnight, even as the US lifted curbs on high-technology exports to Indian space and Defence research centres, domestic circles said they would wait for the fine-print before counting the benefits of the move.

Bangalore-headquartered space agency ISRO, whose last four centres have been removed from the US entity list, said it would not comment until it was intimated of it officially and saw what the announcement actually spelt out.

It may take some weeks for the notifications to percolate through the upper channels of both the countries, said a Department of Space official who did not want to be named. According to the DoS official, ISRO needs to import for its satellite programmes radiation-hardened electronic components; testing equipment and micro controllers. These may be available more easily from the US now than before; the US has a larger industry base and the products cost slightly less than in Europe, the official said. Some US sources are IMB and ST Micro for electronic components; and HP.

The launch vehicle programme relies almost fully on the domestic industry.

Ms Nidhi Goyal Director, Deloitte in India, said it would be premature to start gauging the impact. “There is no clarity whether licensing curbs have been completely lifted. Could there still be some [hidden] restrictions on imports and end-use monitoring? It would be premature to say India is happy” about the announcement, she said. In the long run, there would definitely be some benefits that would support the ambitious plans of these organisations, she said.

After 12 years, the US Department of Commerce has lifted curbs on four DoS and four DRDO centres, as the US President promised during his November visit. These are Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre, Solid Propellant Space Booster Plant, Satish Dhawan Space Centre and Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre under the DoS; and DRDO labs Armament Research and Development Establishment, the Defence Research and Development Lab, the Missile Research and Development Complex; and Solid State Physics Laboratory, besides public-sector missile maker Bharat Dynamics Ltd.

US companies had to get a licence to export to them and were normally denied the permission to do so.

ISRO's stoic stand is that it has carried on with its satellite and launch vehicle programmes and survived the curbs imposed in 1998 after the Pokhran nuclear tests were conducted. “We were not hampered by the export curbs all these years. When we could not buy US components, we developed alternative sources in Europe and other countries. This may not mean much now,” the DoS official said.

Some believe this could be a step towards the signing of the far more ambitious Commercial Space Launch Agreement - which will allow US-made satellites and those carrying US components to be launched in India.

Or would the US take a yard there after giving an inch, with so many Indian Defence purchase plans beckoning US companies, was another view from the Defence side. The US Secretary of Commerce, Mr Gary Locke, is leading a 24-member industry delegation to the country in February.

On the contra side, Ms Goyal said, “We are talking of self-reliance [in space and defence] and this would mean reliance on imports. What would happen to Indian industry?” How would the government balance imports and indigenisation? Would domestic industry get the technology it requires for its programmes?

The biggest benefit, in her view, was the improvement in Indo-US relationship and promise of eventual availability of technology for Indian industry.

Published on January 26, 2011

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