Thursday, September 26, 2013

Why India should Deploy Dedicated Defence Satellites?

Radhakrishna Rao, 
Visiting Fellow, VIF

The successful launch of India’s advanced communications spacecraft, GSAT-7 by means of an Ariane-5 vehicle of the European space transportation company, Arianespace, on August 30 has come as a shot in the arm for the Indian defence set up. For this 2,550-kg multi band satellite designed and developed by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) will serve as an exclusive satellite of the Indian Navy, the youngest of the Indian services. The significance of GSAT-7 lies in the fact that it is the first dedicated military satellite that India has put in place. As envisaged now, the safe and reliable communication channels provided by GSAT-7 satellite, will help the Indian Navy strengthen its blue water combat capabilities in all its manifestations. With its 2000 nautical miles footprint over the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), GSAT -7 will help Indian Navy network all its 140 warships, 13 submarines and 200 aircraft along with its ground based “resources and assets.” Specifically, GSAT-7 will serve as a “force multiplier” by sharpening Indian Navy’s edge in terms of network centric operations. On another front, it will provide the Indian Navy the necessary level of expertise for its seamless integration into the tri service aerospace command, the formation of which is awaiting clearance from the Government of India. More importantly, the robust communications link up facilitated by GSAT-7 will substantially enhance India’s maritime security over a wide swath of eastern and western flanks of IOR. GSAT-7 communications space platform is well equipped to serve as a “sensitive command post” in space over IOR and help transform the entire maritime domain awareness of the Indian Navy.

With a view to boost its striking punch and also expand its area of influence, Indian Navy is working on a well conceived strategy to link up its long range missiles, radars and air defence systems on all the sea based assets to a central room through a highly reliable satellite network made available by GSAT-7. The synergy between combat platforms moving in the high seas of the world with the land based nodes through GSAT-7 capability would help bring about a radical shift in the operational strategy of the Indian Navy .There is no denying the fact that a satellite based communications network is immune to many of the “deficiencies and limitations” associated with a conventional communications system. As a follow up to GSAT-7, it is planned to launch GSAT-7A for the exclusive use of the Indian Air Force (IAF).

Meanwhile, Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has revealed that in the years ahead it is planned to launch a range of dedicated military satellites for the exclusive use of the three wings of the services. Clearly and apparently, there is a growing realization that satellites could serve as “ears” and “eyes” of the defence forces on the lookout for a strategic lead. Of course, ISRO has maintained a stoic silence over the use of GSAT-7 by the Indian Navy. For being a civilian space agency, ISRO cannot openly associate itself with a space defence project. GSAT-7, which is the last of ISRO’s seven fourth generation communications satellites, would provide a substantial level of expertise for the optimum utilization of military oriented space platforms that India will launch in the years ahead.

By all means, the Indian Navy is keen on acquiring a range of spacecraft meant for a variety of end uses. For the tech savvy Indian Navy is fully well aware that ocean watch satellites snooping on the naval movements, electronic ferret satellites gathering data on radio frequencies, meteorological satellites predicting weather to facilitate an effective use of the weapons systems, navigation satellites guiding lethal weapons to designated locations with an unfailing accuracy, reconnaissance satellites providing vital data on the strength of the potential adversaries and the communications satellites ensuring a real time link up for the effective use of the resources have all become vital components in the mechanism of the modern day warfare. But then for now, GSAT-7 located over the Indian Ocean will enable Indian Navy to stand up to the expanding Chinese influence in the IOR. As strategic analysts observe, with China beefing up its presence in the Indian neighbourhood including Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Maldives through its much hyped “string of pearls” strategy, India should make vigorous efforts to realize a versatile, robust satellite based surveillance network designed to enable Indian Navy enhance its vigil in the Indian Ocean Region with the objective of warding off any threat to the Indian mainland.

Indeed, not long back, Dr.V.K.Saraswat, the former Scientific Adviser to the Indian Defence Minister had rued the fact that the tremendous strides made by India in space exploration has not gone to fill the gap in India’s capability to create space assets designed to help Indian defence forces meet the challenges of the future. According to him, in a futuristic battlefield scenario, successful operations of the defence forces on the ground, sea and air would depend on how efficiently space resources are exploited. Any denial of access to space would mean a clear cut set back to military operations at all levels. As such, ensuring the security of space assets too has assumed more than usual importance.

Space based assets are also critical to the flawless functioning of the Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) shield being put in place by DRDO. Indeed, in the context of rapidly changing global security scenario, the need for a range of satellites equipped with electro optical sensors and Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) for early warning and other strategic purposes has become all the more pronounced. Currently, Indian defence forces have a limited access to the INSAT communications and IRS earth observation spacecraft constellations being operated by ISRO. But with the possibility of fighting a battle on the two fronts being very much on the cards, Indian defence forces are clearly in need of a wide variety of dedicated satellites to stay at the winning edge of the war.

But then ISRO’s civilian mandate and nature of operations focused on exploiting the fruits of space technology for the socio-economic development of the country, could act as a significant check on the attempt of the Indian defence establishment to involve the Indian space agency in a big way in realizing a resurgent space defence capability. However, technology developed by ISRO for its satellites meant for earth observation, communication and other end uses could well serve as a test bed for future military space projects. In the context of the efforts to revive the spectre of space war, as highlighted by the Chinese and American moves, India’s political leadership should seriously consider the issue of giving a military edge to India’s exclusive civilian space programme. Not surprisingly then , strategic analysts hold the view that launch by ISRO of increasingly capable, higher resolution earth imaging satellites has implications for surveillance and reconnaissance. The Cartosat series of satellites though designed for cartographic applications can be exploited to meet a part of the requirements of the Indian defence forces. But then there is no denying the point that Cartosat series of satellites fall short of the 10-15 cm resolution featured by the best of the defence satellites.

The launch of the 300-kg RISAT-II all weather microwave imaging satellite realized by ISRO in association with Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) in April 2009 did give a new edge to the surveillance capabilities of the Indian defence forces. In fact, RISAT-II was built and launched on a fast track mode to meet the challenges posed by the growing terrorist threat to the country and heighten vigil along the Indo-Pakistan border. Equipped with a Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), RISAT-II is an all weather satellite capable of collecting data even under conditions of cloud, darkness, haze and dust. The fully home grown RISAT-1 satellite launched in April 2011 can easily complement the surveillance capabilities inherent in RISAT-II. The all weather microwave earth imaging satellites like RISAT-1 and RISAT-II would give early warning about any kind of troop build up and terrorist camps. Indian defence forces can access the remote sensing satellite capability built up by ISRO for meeting a part of their surveillance requirements, as remote sensing and surveillance are considered the two faces of the same coin.

The satellite intelligence capability is expected to provide Indian military planners, tactical and strategic information on military build up in China and Pakistan. The Hyderabad based Defence Electronics Research Laboratory (DLRL) of DRDO has hinted at developing an electronic intelligence satellite for the exclusive use of the Indian defence forces. This satellite would be capable to intercepting radar communications and satphone conversations of the adversaries .The glaring intelligence failure suffered by the Indian Army during 1999 Kargil skirmish with Pakistan has strengthened the urge of the Indian defence establishment to go in for space assets at an accelerated pace.

Clearly and apparently, the limited capability of ISRO in building and launching satellites could be a big hurdle in the way of helping the Indian defence establishment to meet their needs for “space assets”. Moreover, with the Indian industrial base lacking in resources and expertise to build satellites and launch vehicles on a turnkey basis, the Indian defence forces may find it difficult to get the kind of space platforms delivered into orbit well on time. However, a synergy between the technologies developed by ISRO and DRDO could prove a win win development for putting in place a platform for developing and launching a range of defence satellites. Indeed, in early 2010, DRDO had emphasized on a comprehensive Indian space defence capability on the strength of technological advances made by DRDO and ISRO. However, the road map for the building up of defence space capability of the country is far from clear. In particular, enough focus should be given to the institutional support mechanism for meeting the Indian defence forces’ rapidly growing needs of high performance defence satellites.

Of course, Indian industries continue to support the Indian space program by way of the supply of components and systems and hardware for satellites and launch vehicles. In sharp contrast, in US and West Europe, private industrial outfits have built up a technological and manufacturing base resurgent enough to supply both the satellites and launch vehicles in a ready to use condition. Against this backdrop, it may be appropriate to set up a high powered space defence agency authorized to pool the resources, expertise, talent and infrastructure available in the country-cutting across the private-public sector barriers for realizing the space based assets for the exclusive use of defence forces on a fast track mode with least bureaucratic interference.

The Indian Defence Ministry‘s “Technology Perspective and Capability Roadmap” till 2025 has identified space warfare as a priority area. The concept of integrated warfare and the need for reducing the “sensor to shooter loop” underpins the need for a totally radical approach focussed on “battlefield dynamics” with system capable of making available information on real time basis to all the three wings of the services. The roadmap of the Indian Defence Ministry identifies in unambiguous terms, the development of an anti satellite capability based on “electronics or physical destruction of satellites in both low and geostationary orbits.”

The launch of India’s first full fledged navigation satellite IRNSS-1A on July 2 is a development that could positively impact on the battlefield strategy of the Indian defence forces. IRNSS-1A, the first of the seven spacecraft constituting the space segment of the home-grown Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS), would provide the Indian defence forces a robust system for location identification and navigational support for combat aircraft as well as for combat platforms on land and sea. For the defence forces in the thick of the battle field operations, a GPS system like IRNSS enables locating objects in the dark and paves way for the coordination of the troop movements even in hitherto unfamiliar territory in addition to facilitating reconnaissance as well as search and rescue operations. For the Indian defence forces which had difficult times accessing the “restricted capability” of the US GPS system, IRNSS would provide hassle free, uninterrupted access to the satellite navigational capabilities.

Indeed the stunning effectiveness of the American GPS was demonstrated during the ‘Desert Storm’ operations of 1990-91 that was aimed at freeing Kuwait from the clutches of the invading forces from the neighbouring Iraq. Here the potentials of the American GPS was mainly pressed into service to guide bombers to targets, allow infantry and armoured units to locate their bases in frightening, featureless expanse of the desert and position artillery in a war zone ideally suited to fire at enemy lines apart from precisely navigating missiles to chosen targets. The US-led allied forces during their operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq relied heavily on satellite based navigation with hand held portable GPS devices to realize their strategic goals at a rapid pace.

By all means, GPS is considered a veritable force multiplier by the defence forces in the battlefield. Moreover, it has also been instrumental in shaping the contours of the precision warfare. For the Indian defence forces, the IRNSS system capabilities will be of immense use in refining the network centric warfare techniques. Similarly, the proposed Indian tri service aerospace command would need a large and independent satellite navigation capability that can be accessed anytime to boost its combat superiority. Indeed, for the Indian tri service aerospace command, access to GPS along with other satellites meant for communications, surveillance and weather watch would mean a quantum leap in meeting the challenges of the future warfare with confidence.

For India, there is an imminent need to develop a robust system to protect space assets that are critical to every aspect of military operations on the ground, in the air and on the sea. DRDO has hinted that it is working on putting in place the building blocks of an Indian anti satellite system to neutralize hostile satellites moving in low earth and polar orbits. The focus of DRDO would be on laser based sensors and exo atmospheric killer vehicle (EKV), the technology of which could be derived from its missile development programme. As it is, the technologies developed for India’s long range, nuke capable Agni-V missile which had its second successful test flight on Sept.16 could be profitably exploited for boosting India’s space defence and space warfare capabilities.

It was the early 2007 Chinese test that made use of a ground based medium range ballistic missile to smash an ageing weather watch satellite stationed at an altitude of 537-kms above the earth that sent shock waves through the Indian defence establishment. Subsequently, there was a strident clamour to develop a full fledged Indian space war capability along with a range of dedicated defence satellites. And the modest effort now on in this direction seems to be a response to Chinese strides in space defence capability. In realizing the military space capability, India should look beyond the Chinese threat by taking into account the global advances in the area of satellite technology and space warfare techniques.

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