The successful launch of India’s all weather , microwave imaging satellite RISAT-2, which ISRO(Indian Space Research Organisation) says was realized in association with Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) in the early hours of 20 April was a low-key affair. Because of the possible geopolitical fall out of this sensitive satellite mission, ISRO had kept the launch under wraps and the 300kg RISAT-2 featuring an X-band Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) supplied by IAI and designed for a high degree of maneuverability was placed into a 550-km high orbit by means of a core alone version of the four-stage space workhorse PSLV(Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle) sans the publicity normally associated with Indian space missions taking off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota island on India’s eastern coast.
Moreover, the press note issued by ISRO after the launch had more details of the launch vehicle than the satellite. Without referring to the military potential of this advanced radar imaging satellite, ISRO simply said that it would enhance India’s capability for earth observation with special reference to floods, landslides, cyclones and disaster management in general. Incidentally, the currently operational optical earth imaging satellites forming part of the IRS constellation of ISRO are – in contrast to RISAT-2 - not equipped to collect data under conditions of cloud, darkness and haze.
Designed for a lifespan of three years, RISAT-2 will be in a position to revisit an area in about four to five days. This quick revisit capability is critical to intelligence gathering and surveillance. Moreover, the highly agile RISAT-2 can be maneuvered to change its viewing angle as per the requirements of the users. From a strategic perspective, these features make RISAT-2 a highly beneficial platform for reconnaissance.
On the other hand, India’s homegrown RISAT-1 radar imaging satellite featuring a C-band SAR and weighing 1780kg is designed to operate from a polar orbit which implies that its revisit period will stretch up to 20 days. This makes it far from ideal from the strategic angle. RISAT-1 is planned to be launched by the end of this year. Against this backdrop and also in the context of the 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attack and the growing clout of Taliban in neighbouring Pakistan, a project for putting an all-weather radar imaging satellite capable of monitoring India’s borders with Pakistan in place received high priority.
Incidentally, because the high performance SAR packed into RISAT-2 was fully developed by Israel without any assistance from the US, there was no interference in so far as export of SAR to India was concerned. No doubt, as stated by ISRO, RISAT-2 has a range of civilian applications but defence experts are clear in their perception that RISAT-2 project was taken up by ISRO at the behest of “a defence or intelligence set up.” For instance, Ajay Lele, of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses says, “While there is still speculation over which central agency - the Union Home Ministry or Military Intelligence - will handle the spy data from RISAT-2, there is no doubt that India’s military and para-military forces will benefit from the satellite’s capability.” ISRO has said that it would be responsible for the operation and in orbit management of the spacecraft.
As things stand now, RISAT-2 could provide valuable inputs to the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force (IAF) in monitoring enemy troop build up along the international the border and identifying enemy targets for attack. In particular, RISAT-2 could prove helpful in differentiating a camouflaged formation from the surrounding terrain. Together with the three Phalcon AWACS that it will be getting from Israel, RISAT-2 data could give help the IAF take the adversary by surprise.
After the RISAT-2 launch, ISRO Chairman G Madhavan Nair, while replying to the queries from media persons had dismissed the suggestion that RISAT-2 could come in handy for surveillance, “In our agenda there is no such thing as a spy satellite” quipped Nair. But then earth observation and surveillance are considered the two faces of the same coin.
As it is, since the intelligence failure before and during the 1999 Kargil skirmish, Indian defence forces have been looking for regular access to high resolution satellite data. On another front, satellite systems such as RISAT-2 are considered critical for the operations of the proposed Indian tri-service aerospace command. Further, the plan for refining the network-centric warfare capability of the three wings of the services depends to a large extent on uninterrupted access to a range of satellites designed for a variety of end uses.
In January 2008, Israel’s TECSAR surveillance satellite was successfully launched by means of PSLV under a commercial contract Israel had entered into with the Bangalore-based Antrix Corp, the commercial arm of the Indian space programme. This launch had stirred a political controversy following media reports which suggested that TECSAR is meant to help Israel monitor developments in its neighbourhood with special reference to the Iranian nuclear development programme. TECSAR and RISAT-2 are said to be similar in terms of configuration and capabilities and unconfirmed reports say that Indian defence establishment has been getting TECSAR data for its military reconnaissance operations.