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India Building A Military Satellite Reconnaissance System

10-Aug-2005 13:14 | Permanent Link

India is building up a satellite-based Military Surveillance and Reconnaissance System that will

become operational by 2007, allowing it to keep watch on developments in its area. "The program is

in the advanced stages of development and is planned to be operational by 2007," Indian Defense

Minister Pranab Mukherjee said in Parliament recently.

The system was to be operational by 2005, but the defense minister said validation of technologies

had taken more time than anticipated. While India's procurement system has a reputation for

being very risk-averse and missing deadlines most of the time, this sort of issue is not uncommon

in American satellite programs either.

India has not launched any explicitly military satellites to date and the government remains tight-

lipped, but experts believe the country has several options…

Civilian Stealth

First off, it's important to note that these developments are not entirely a surprise.

An Indian government adviser hinted in 2002 at a new military satellite in the early stages of

development, to be built by Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) and launched

by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) from the launch facilitaites in French Guyana or

Sritharikota Island.

At the time, sources in ISRO noted that it is not mandated to launch military satellites, unless there

is a directive from the government or a major shift in the policy laid down when ISRO was set up in


In practice, however, this has not been an issue.

One reason is that ISRO's activities have not always been entirely civilian. In May 1992, for

instance, the U.S. Department of State imposed trade sanctions against ISRO for its missile

proliferation activities in India.

Another reason is that several of India's current civilian satellites have resolutions that would make

them acceptable spy satellites.

ISRO launched the 1-meter resolution Technology Experiment Satellite (TES) in 2001, making it the

only civilian space agency to possess this technology besides the American, privately owned Ikonos

satellite. Although at the time of the launch former chairman of ISRO K. Kasturirangan said that the

satellite was meant for "civilian use consistent with our security concerns," it went on to successfully

relay high-quality images of the war in Afghanistan and of Pakistani troop movements along the


Notes that 1-meter resolution means TES can distinguish objects and details on Earth as small as

one square meter (about three feet square) To put that in vernacular terms: You can count the cars

in a parking lot, and tell which are pickups and sedans, but it isn't good enough to distinguish

individual people or read automobile license plates.

India successfully launched Resourcesat-1 (IRS-P6) on October 17, 2003, which is considered their

most sophisticated remote sensing satellite to date. Its maximum resolution is approximately 6

meters. On May 7, 2005, ISRO went on to launch the 2.5-meter resolution Cartosat-1 satellite,

which has "two cameras able to point at an object from two different angles." Cartosat-2 will have

an expected 1-meter resolution and a 120 GB storage capacity for captured images, and is

scheduled for launch at the end of 2005.

Officially, the Cartosat platforms will be used for cartographic purposes, as well as urban and rural

development. Unofficially, they are effectively dual-use even though theyfall short of the 10-15cm

(4"-6") capabilities of the best military satellites today.

Integration: The Secret Weapon

One good way to leverage all of this work would be to build a facility to collect input from these

diverse platforms, integrate it with other sensors and information, and display it for analysis and

monitoring. This could provide a strong surveillance capability just by combining existing "civilian"

assets already in place.

Alternatively, ISRO may indeed be preparing a military-quality high resolution satellite for launch.

Even in this eventuality, however, a complementary integrated ground system may offer India the

best option for immediate growth in their Satellite Reconnaissance and Surveillance (SRS) system's

overall capabilities.

The Israeli Option

Another option for India is to include elements of foreign cooperation in its system.

Israel has been considering an Indian offer to lease the Israeli Ofek-5 military remote-sensing

satellite since September 2003. Israel's Defense Ministry reportedly offered India the services of the

dual-use 1.8-meter resolution Eros-A remote-sensing satellite in December 2003, but an agreement

for the Ofek-5 (which is believed to have resolution below 1-meter) would allow India to obtain

superior images.

Satellite Trends

India's recent ambitions aren't an isolated case. Rather, they're outgrowths of global trends with

implications for the USA.

Both satellite surveillance capabilities and electronic networking and synthesis of this information

are the products of falling technology threshholds, with the computing element falling fastest. As

Wulf von Kries notes:

"The French Spot system, although established as a civilian enterprise, from the

outset was also planned to serve as a testbed for a later military system, i.e. Helios

which came into being in 1995. Not surprisingly, therefore, both systems have a

number of commonalities, e.g. the spacecraft "bus" and certain subsystems such as
the data recorders. From a broader point of view it is interesting to note that the

current civilian Spot system in terms of performance is equivalent to earlier US

reconnaissance satellites, and that the first generation military Helios system will

be matched by the planned commercial high-resolution US systems."

Note, too, the U.S. National Imagery and Mapping Agency contract to Space Imaging for exclusive

rights to all commercial Ikonos satellite imagery of conflict areas in Central Asia following 9/11, in a

$1.9-million per month deal that had indefinite renewal options.

Buying up available capacity may work now, but increasing numbers of commercial and national

"civilian" satellites with high-resolution capabilities will eventually render this option much less


India's progress is simply the early bellwether.

India: Into the Future

Though ISRO and DRDO officials were tightlipped about the project, Indian experts have said the

set up of extensive ground-based surveillance and coordination systems, hooked up to India's

remote sensing satellites, would enable the country to keep a watch on all explosive spots, missile

silos, any movements in the neighborhood, as well as sudden military build-ups.

Despite its limited resources, India has and is continuing to develop a broad-based space program

with indigenous launch vehicles, satellites, control facilities, and data processing.

It would seem that the country may be ready to take the next step.

Additional Readings & Sources

 Space Today Online's The Satellite Wars: Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq offers a

rundown of existing and future U.S. reconaissance satelite programs, and explains how

these assets have been used in recent conflicts.

 SPX, via SpaceWar (Aug 9/05) – India To Set Up Military SBS System By 2007

 (Oct. 27/03) – PSLV Launches RESOURCESAT-1 (IRS-P6)

 Rediff (Aug 2/02) – India to launch military satellite soon: Aatre

 Monterey Institute of International Studies, Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) –

India: Military Space Programs

 – Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO)

 Defense Industry Daily (May 29/05) – India's Defense Market: Obstacles to


 Wulf Von Kries of DLR, via – Dual Use of Remote Satellite Sensing

 Monterey Institute of International Studies, Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) –

Israel: Military Space Programs

 Israel Insider (May 29, 2002) – Ofek-5's successful launch gives Israel "eyes in


 DEBKAFile also claims to offer some less well-known details re: Ofek-5, including a

capability of "rapid orbital detuning." Note that DEBKAFile has a reputation for being correct

and brilliant sometimes, and rather off the mark at other times.

 Defense Industry Daily (Aug. 4/05) – GAO Report: Satellite Programs Show Overruns

Across the Board

 Marco Caceres of The Teal Group in American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics (AIAA)

Industry Insights (Jan. 2002) – Military satellites: The next generation