DRDO wary despite Obama’s “Entity List” announcement - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Tuesday 9 November 2010

DRDO wary despite Obama’s “Entity List” announcement

The DRDO has told Business Standard that it will delink the military satellite development programme from ISRO in order to protect the latter from any technology denial regimes

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 10th Nov 10

If, as New Delhi has declared, access to US high-technology is a crucial Indian motivator for a close relationship with America, a brief announcement by President Barack Obama, in his address to parliament on Monday, could have been one of the key achievements of his visit.

Halfway through his speech, President Obama stated, “We need to forge partnerships in high-tech sectors like defence and civil space. So we have removed Indian organizations from our so-called “Entity List.” And we’ll work to reform our controls on exports. Both of these steps will ensure that Indian companies seeking high-tech trade and technologies from America are treated the same as our closest allies and partners.”

The Entity List (it is unclear why President Obama referred to it as “the so-called Entity List”) is an American tool to control the export of dual-use and strategic materials and systems. It is maintained under the Export Administration Regulations (EAR) of the US Department of Commerce (DoC). American firms and businessmen require specific licences from the DoC before supplying specified items to foreign businesses, research institutions, government and private organizations and individuals on that list.

Four Indian organisations feature, in part or in full, on the Entity List: Bharat Dynamics Limited, which makes the short-range missiles --- called Prithvi and Dhanush --- in India’s strategic nuclear deterrent. Also proscribed is the “Missile Research and Development Complex”, a group of four Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) laboratories near Hyderabad, which make India’s intermediate-range (700-5000 kilometres) Agni-series ballistic missiles. The list also features key facilities of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). Finally, the Entity List includes several establishments from the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE).

Much remains unclear in Obama’s announcement: have all Indian organisations been removed from the “Entity List”, or merely a selected few? Does Obama’s call for partnership in “defence and civil space” mean that military space programmes will continue to face sanctions?

It seems clear that, while BDL, ISRO and the DRDO could well be taken off the Entity List, the DAE entities are likely to remain proscribed until Washington and New Delhi agree on acceptable verification measures.

Dr VK Saraswat, the DRDO Director General, told Business Standard before the Obama visit: “The issue is one of dual use technology. What is used in conventional weapons may also be used in strategic systems (like nuclear-tipped missiles). That fear stops the US from transferring high technology.

Despite Obama’s call, India’s defence and space establishments continue to work under the shadow of sanctions, separating civil from military so that a ban on one would not affect the other. The strategic missile programme, under the DRDO, was long ago separated from ISRO’s space rocket programme even though they deal in broadly similar technologies. And Business Standard learned that, in the run-up to Obama’s visit, the DRDO also firewalled its planned military satellite programme from ISRO’s civil satellite development and launch programme, which could soon be a global leader in commercial launches. This was to ensure that the US could not proscribe ISRO by accusing it of involvement in the militarization of space.

Dr Prahlada, a DRDO Chief Controller, explained the rationale to Business Standard just days before Obama’s arrival, “The DRDO will soon set up its own exclusive organisation for military satellites. We do not want to involve ISRO in the military satellite business. Their collaborations might be questioned; they may not get permits; their satellite programme might suffer. So we will set up our own laboratories.”

According to Dr Saraswat, the DRDO’s satellites will be very different from ISRO’s communications, navigation, cartographic and meteorological satellites. The DRDO’s disposable mini-satellites, which would be built for surveillance, intelligence and electronic warfare, could be quickly launched into a low-earth orbit over a theatre of battle only for the duration of the conflict. Since these would not need expensive and time-consuming launches into geo-synchronous orbit, they could be written off after fulfilling their purpose.

Currently 27 Chinese entities, many of which have multiple sub-entities, feature on the Entities List. In addition, the list features another 36 entities based in Hong Kong, many of which are merely addresses or individuals, presumably used as conduits for shipments of dual-use technologies to Mainland China.

The Entities List also features 19 Pakistani entities, many of them apparently innocuous, e.g. “Orient Importers and Exporters, Islamabad”.


  1. Nice article Col. Shukla.

    I wonder why we don't have publicly succesful front companies like the Chong Lot Travel Agency,which in turn was a front for a Hong Kong firm called Chinluck Holding Co. Ltd... We could have saved hundreds of millions on the Gorshkov like Chong Lot Travel Agency did for China by buying the Varyag at 20 (twenty) million.. and now its turning into a full fledged aircraft carrier which will spawn Chinese offspring.

    I hope Obama's entity list announcement will take effect immediately and not in the undefined future.

  2. What type of launch vehicles/platforms DRDO will build to launch these disposable satellites so quickly and so cheaply?

  3. @ Rahul

    PSLV oofcourse!
    GSLV for geo synchronous orbital satellites. We have no yet perfected the GSLV as you might know. ISRO will be testing again this year or the next. Many countries have gone through what India is going through now before they perfected the technology of GSLVs. Let not demoralize the scientist at ISRO. Do not blame govt here either, every successive govt has encouraged ISRO. All you need now is patience.


  4. If DRDO progressed under sanctions, so let it progress further with the same trend.


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