India is becoming a power in satellite development and a significant player in the use of space for military as well as civil needs.
A number of Indian-built military satellites with surveillance, imaging and navigation capabilities are planned for launch in the next few years, to both keep “a watch on the neighborhood and help guide cruise missiles” should the need emerge, says V. K. Saraswat, scientific adviser to the defense minister. “[The satellites] will have tremendous applications.”
Saraswat’s statement confirms that India is becoming a space power. The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), however, refuses to comment about military satellites, saying its space program is for civilian purposes only. This position has its origins in the fact that some of its programs were stymied when the U.S. imposed trade sanctions against India in 1992 for missile proliferation. Some sanctions remain, and the U.S and India, despite talk of trust and confidence, have yet to sign the Joint Space Cooperation pact.
Nevertheless, Saraswat confirms that a “roadmap [for development of military satellites] has been given to the ISRO,” and India has launched satellites under this program. “Defense satellites are locally built and launched from home soil given the security sensitivity,” he says. “The army, navy and air force have their requirements, and it’s not appropriate to say how many satellites each requires, due to security considerations.”
According to a Defense Ministry official, ISRO will launch the first dedicated military surveillance satellite, for the navy, late this year or in 2011. The multi-band satellite will weigh 2,330 kg. (5,137 lb.), be lofted into a geostationary orbit 1,000 nm. above the Indian Ocean, and network warships, submarines, aircraft and land-based operation centers through high-speed data links. Coverage will be 600-1,000 nm. “Maritime threats can then be detected and shared in real time to ensure swift action,” a naval officer says. The projected cost of the satellite is $212 million.
A new aerospace command is standing up that will provide a space-based military capability for monitoring a vast region, from the Strait of Hormuz in the west to the Strait of Malacca in the east, and from China in the north to the Indian Ocean in the south.
Many observers say the military is not ready to handle such a capability. “The space command should be consistent with a strategic aim. We should not venture into it until we cross the threshold of a critical mass, as we are still immature and training is not enough,” a senior military official says.
It will be some time, of course, before the fledgling aerospace command rivals similar commands of more experienced militaries, such as the U.S. It will, however, oversee surveillance, tracking, early warning and related areas, according to a representative of the Indian Defense Strategic Studies think tank. While initially the air force was to head the command, the three forces will jointly manage it.
India has been launching dual-use—military and civil—satellites for a while. One satellite with military uses, but not acknowledged as such by ISRO, was the Earth Observation Technology Experiment Satellite, with 1-meter (3.2-ft.) resolution, weighing 1,108 kg., and put into orbit from Sriharikota Range in 2001 by the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. Cameras in the remote sensing satellite mapped terrain across the northern border of India for possible deployment of troops and weapons