Satellite firm OneWeb signs deal with India as Johnson begins visit

The agreement aims to tackle disruption cause to the launch programme caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Sam Blewett
Wednesday 20 April 2022 22:30
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is heading to India (Jonathan Brady/PA)
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is heading to India (Jonathan Brady/PA)

Boris Johnson will welcome taxpayer-backed satellite firm OneWeb signing a contract for launches with India to deal with the disruption to the programme caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Ahead of the Prime Minister’s visit to India, Downing Street described the agreement with New Space India Limited as a “historic” move that will be a “significant development” for the company’s operations.

OneWeb had to scrap a planned launch of 36 broadband satellites in March because it would have used Russian rockets, but was the firm rescued after a deal with Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

Then the British satellite firm suspended launches from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan after Moscow demanded guarantees its technology would not be used for military purposes.

Officials hoped the new contract with the commercial arm of the Indian Space Research Organisation will deal with the volatility caused by the loss of access to the Russian and Kazakh launch sites that followed Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

I see vast possibilities for what our two great nations can achieve together. From next-generation 5G telecoms and AI to new partnerships in health research and renewable energy - the UK and India are leading the world.

Boris Johnson

The UK Government took a £400 million stake in OneWeb to rescue it from bankruptcy in July 2020, as part of a consortium with India’s Bharti Global, following a bidding war.

Ahead of touching down in Gujarat on Thursday, Mr Johnson announced £1 billion of new commercial deals and more than 11,000 new jobs created in the UK.

He will travel on to New Delhi on Friday to meet his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi.

Mr Johnson said: “As I arrive in India today, I see vast possibilities for what our two great nations can achieve together. From next-generation 5G telecoms and AI to new partnerships in health research and renewable energy – the UK and India are leading the world.

“Our powerhouse partnership is delivering jobs, growth and opportunities for our people, and it will only go from strength-to-strength in the coming years.”

Downing Street said the new commercial deals include Indian software firm Mastek creating 1,600 jobs in the UK in the next three years.

Mr Johnson is also expecting to seal new collaborations on defence and green energy in India as he seeks to reduce the country’s dependence on Russian fossil fuels and military equipment.

He also hopes to help progress a post-Brexit free trade deal.

But the trip takes place amid the tumult caused by Mr Johnson being fined by police for breaching his own coronavirus laws with his 56th birthday celebration in 2020.

He will on Thursday miss a Labour-led vote on whether to refer him to the Commons Privileges Committee for an investigation into whether he intentionally misled Parliament with his denials.

In Delhi, Mr Johnson is expected to encourage Mr Modi to loosen ties with Putin’s Russia in response to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

But No 10 has been cautious to stress he will not seek to “lecture” Mr Modi, despite concerns that the Indian leader has not been strong enough in condemning the war.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “We will be looking to secure new partnerships on trade, technology and defence on the visit that will include significant new investment on jobs announcements and science partnership.

“In Delhi we’ll be announcing a new collaboration on defence and green energy.”

Mr Johnson was determined to push on with the trip despite the Commons vote and slowly increasing calls from his own Tory MPs for his resignation.

His plans to visit have twice been cancelled, first over the UK’s winter wave of Covid infections and then in April last year in response to a new variant hitting India.

The trip is not directly linked to the Ukraine crisis, but Mr Johnson’s spokesman said it “will of course be a topic of discussion”.

Downing Street expressed an ambition that a post-Brexit free trade deal with one of the world’s largest economies could be brokered this year, but did not seem overly confident.

The official spokesman said: “We don’t want to sacrifice quality for speed and our ambition is to reach it by the end of the year, but we recognise negotiations can take longer if you’re seeking to secure the best possible deal for both sides.”

He said the deal needs to be “fair” and “reciprocal” while being consistent with the points-based immigration system launched after the EU departure.

Asked if he was ruling out reducing visa fees for those in India or a working holiday agreement for its young people, the spokesman said: “I’m conscious that I can’t get too much into the detail of ongoing negotiations.

“The point I’m trying to make is immigration is not routinely a formal part of trade talks and our broad position on this is that any agreement will have to be consistent with a points-based immigration system.”

Speaking to journalists on the plane to Gujarat, Mr Johnson said: “We’re making a big breakthrough on OneWeb, the UK’s satellites.

“Because there was a problem caused by the Russians deciding they couldn’t launch any more from Kazakhstan.

“We’ve fixed it and OneWeb has the potential to do a lot of good around the world.”

Mr Johnson said he would be meeting Sunil Bharti Mittal, OneWeb’s executive chairman.

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