After hinting at developing the cutting edge technology required for realizing the building blocks of an anti satellite device, India’s state owned Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has unveiled a plan to build and launch a high performance electronic intelligence satellite capable of monitoring trouble spots along its international borders. In particular, Indian defence forces will be in a position to obtain a fairly good ”intelligence picture” of build up across the border in China and Pakistan by courtesy of this exclusive reconnaissance spacecraft. Indeed, the massive “intelligence failure” before and during the short lived 1999 Kargil skirmish with Pakistan highlighted the need for a dedicated spy satellite system at the disposal of the Indian defence forces.
While the payload of this satellite is to be developed by the Hyderabad based Defence Electronics Research Laboratory (DLRL), a constituent of DRDO, the satellite bus and launch support would be provided by ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation). DRDO is in talks with ISRO to take this project of national importance forward to its logical conclusion. According to G. Boopahty, Director of DLRL, the satellite would be equipped with sensors to pick up conversations and detect espionage activities. The Rs1000million satellite is planned to be launched into a 500kms orbit by means of the four-stage space workhorse Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) from Satish Dhawan Space Centre (SDSC) in Sriharikota island on India’s eastern coast. Incidentally, most of the spy and surveillance satellites are placed into near earth and middle earth orbits.
“The spacecraft should be ready for launch by 2014” said Bhoppathy. He drove home the point by saying that “the focus is now space and we have to equip ourselves for electronic warfare from space too.” He also revealed that the proposed satellite will be more powerful than the current genre IRS series of earth observation satellites being operated by ISRO. As pointed out by sources in DRDO, the electronic intelligence system onboard this satellite would help keep an eye on hostile satellites besides intercepting and jamming satphone communications.
At the moment, Indian defence forces don’t have a dedicated satellite system for surveillance, reconnaissance and intelligence gathering. Of course, all three wings of the services are in a position to access the constellation of communications and earth observation satellites belonging to ISRO. With everything going as planned, the Indian navy hopes to get its first exclusive satellite sometime later this year. Last year, Indian defence minister AK Antony had informed that the Indian Navy will get a dedicated satellite system for reliable, robust and foolproof communications in 2010. The satellite, codenamed Gsat-7, is being built by ISRO for launch later this year. While Indian navy sources have confirmed the launch of this satellite, ISRO continues to maintain its silence. Being a civilian space agency, the ISRO, has no mandate to give a “strategic edge” to its satellite development programme.
Meanwhile, the Indian defence forces would stand to benefit from the upcoming launch of Cartosat-2B which will feature an earth imaging system of less than one metre resolution. The Cartosat-2B is poised for launch by means of PSLV during the first half of this year. Cartosat series of satellites are built and launched by ISRO though officially meant for cartographic purposes including urban planning and infrastructure development could effective serve as a dual use system. Of course, the Cartosat-series falls short of the 10-15 cm resolution featured by the best of the current genre military satellites.
The TES (Technology Experiment Satellite) launched by ISRO in 2001 with its one metre resolution is capable of distinguishing objects and details on earth as small as one square km and has been perceived to be India’s unofficial reconnaissance satellite. The TES data has helped the United States with high resolution imageries for its counter terrorism operations in the aftermath of 9/11. However, the launch of 300-kg RISAT-II satellite—realized by ISRO in association with Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI)—in April 2009 has been viewed as a response to the insecurity complex generated by the 26/11 Mumbai attack by Pakistan trained terrorists. This all weather microwave earth imaging satellite equipped with Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) is capable of collecting data under conditions of darkness, clouds, haze and dust storm. The Indian earth observation satellites launched so far by ISRO were passive systems in that they were equipped to collect data only under the conditions of brightness.
Though ISRO describes RISAT-II as a civilian space system meant to enhance India’s capability in earth observation with special reference to floods, landslides, cyclones and disaster management, strategic analysts drive home the point that Indian defence forces could easily exploit the potentials of RISAT-II to boost their intelligence gathering capability in a big way. For earth observation and surveillance are considered the two faces of the same coin.
As envisaged now the Indian defence forces could easily use RISAT-II data to keep a tab on troops build up along India’s borders with China and Pakistan. In particular, RISAT-IIs revisit capability of four to five days is considered advantageous in the dynamic monitoring of the developments of strategic importance. Added to that the highly agile RISAT-II can be maneuvered to change its viewing angle as per the requirements of its users.