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Separate and equal

What lies behind official evasions over India’s satellite launch

Written by Ajey Lele |
April 21, 2009 12:47:53 am

The Indian Space Research Organisation,or ISRO,is celebrating the successful launch on April 20 of two satellites,both with different purposes,known as RISAT-2 and ANUSAT. Of these,with RISAT,India has for the first time acquired an “eye in the sky” capability,which can watch any form of border infiltration,whether day and night,rain,snow or shine. (It is also expected to help India’s disaster management preparedness.)

The RISAT,an acronym for radar imagery satellite,could be said to belong to the class of high-tech spy satellites. Its technology is noticeably updated: it has “synthetic aperture radar” technology. ISRO’s earlier launches used optical remote sensing technology; with this they graduate to microwave payloads. SAR is an active sensor,which helps to gather accurate information about the target — dielectric constant,roughness,and geometry,enabling target identification through fog and haze (and clouds). In the past,cross-border infiltration has taken place during times when bad weather could be used as a shield; this should help cut that down. (Also,for the first time information on soil moisture will be made available,which is helpful for agriculture.)

ANUSAT,in contrast,designed by Chennai-based Anna University,and is a 40-kg “micro-satellite”. ISRO’s intention with the launch is to involve universities,to promote and encourage intra-disciplinary technologies. (There are plans afoot with students from IIT-Kanpur and Mumbai.) It carries a digital store and forward payload for amateur communication.

It has been widely reported that this satellite has been put in orbit because of the pressing security requirements post-26/11. However,what needs to be emphasised that no country in the world has yet reached a stage where it can launch satellites on demand. Besides,satellites aren’t precisely available “off-the-shelf”. ISRO has been working on indigenous SAR technology for years,and intends to launch RISAT-1 soon; that is expected to be a 1,780-kg satellite,and would become a major milestone in the country’s remote sensing capabilities,with a C-band SAR payload that can operate in a multi-polarisation and multi-resolution mode. However,the integration of this satellite appears to have been delayed; RISAT-2 might have been launched as a stopgap arrangement.

This launch has been much-discussed and debated because of the ‘spy’ satellite angle. In reality,satellite technology is dual-use; this so-called spy satellite offers imagery much like others. How this information is utilised depends entirely on the end-user: it could be agricultural,or cartographic,or for defence. In the Indian context there appears to be some official silence about the end-user but that is understandable. The issue is: is it always necessary to flaunt what you have?

ISRO mandate is space exploration for peaceful ends. It has achieved considerable success,and is playing a significant role in enhancing India’s soft power. However,when space is also being increasingly viewed as a military asset there is a need to have a well-thought-through space security policy. ISRO’s hands are tied because if it takes an official position on security issues then it might lose international support for its various other space activities,and its future programmes could suffer because of various export control restrictions.

India has already established a space cell to cater to its defence requirements; this concept needs to be developed further. One sensible route is the establishment of a separate military space commission. This should become a multi-agency platform involving the armed forces as well as various internal security organisations. For reasons related to both conventional and unconventional warfare,we need to invest in space technologies,without being apologetic about it. I don’t suggest that India take a position on the ‘weaponisation of space’,but we must look at space assets as an additional tool that can cater to the country’s security requirements. This is entirely possible,and need not violate any international norms.

It took India almost four decades to tell the world that it had separate military and civilian nuclear programmes,and that both can coexist. The world has not sustained objections to it mainly because of India’s impeccable non-proliferation record. In space-related technology,too,India should not lose time; it must develop a separate military space programme. Today,when the Indian state is surrounded by problems at its

borders with varying degree of difficulty — and also problems within like Naxalism — it is important not only to invest in space technologies for security purposes,but even more so,to announce it.    

The writer researches non-traditional threats to national security at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses,Delhi

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