Between now and early 2020, the space above India looks set to see an unprecedented rush of satellites meant solely or mainly for the country’s military. Starting May, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) plans to send up at least eight earth observation (EO) satellites of varied hues and at the rate of almost one a month. Communication satellite GSAT-32 is also in the offing next year to replace GSAT-6A, which was lost in a failed launch and was meant to mainly serve the ground forces. Until now, such defence-use satellites were spaced out over a few years; or were put up only once a year as in the case of the CARTOSAT-2 series high-resolution imaging satellites.
Looking at the last three launches, we could even say the train has already started. HysIS, launched in November; MICROSAT-R in January; and the EMISAT sent into orbit on April 1 2019 are all for what is called “strategic use”.
While traditionally, payloads for ISRO’s satellites come from the Space Applications Centre, the payloads of the MICROSAT-R and EMISAT were from the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), said officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Soon after EMISAT’s launch, ISRO Chairman and Secretary, Department of Space, Dr K.Sivan, announced that the next mission would be the radar imaging satellite RISAT-2B, followed by a high resolution mapping satellite CARTOSAT-3. Both are understood to be useful militarily and seen as overdue assets.
In a recent interaction, Dr. Sivan had told that the space agency does not distinguish how ISRO’s EO satellites serve various departments and national agencies. “To us, every satellite is just that, another satellite of national relevance. We don’t worry about its demarcation [as a military or a civil one],” he said. This is also how successive Chairmen of ISRO have argued the case for ISRO’s production of ‘military’ satellites.
Objects of Desire
CARTOSAT-3 will have 30 cm resolution, which is at a par with the world’s best, according to public information already put out by ISRO. It means the satellite can clearly ‘see’ and capture images of guns, devices, objects or human movement at that scale from space. There are already half-a-dozen CARTOSAT-2 series satellites in orbit, though these possess a lower resolution capability than the upcoming CARTOSAT-3. Radar imaging satellites like India’s RISAT series can provide almost an uninterrupted view of earth, day or night, rain or shine, a handy feature for the forces to detect border infiltration. And so, we should see many more RISATs or next-gen CARTOSATs coming up as the military’s objects of desire from the UR Rao Satellite Centre in Bangalore. A few of them would serve civil agencies as well. RISAT-2B, which was earlier planned after RISAT-2A and was not due before next year, is now slated to fly in May. Explaining the move, Dr. Sivan said, “We brought a few of them forward based on the demand, either from the civilian or other side. After all, if their national requirement is now, what is the point in putting them up later?” While the RISAT-1 of 2012 is dead, RISAT-2 of 2009 (said to have been imported from Israel) still works. A number of foreign satellites that have been flown to space on the PSLV are also for earth observation, space situational awareness and ship monitoring, which again may be useful as military information. Dr. Sivan said ISRO launches satellites for any legitimate customer, Indian or international. “Often, what is useful for civil purpose can also be useful for strategic purposes. To us a satellite is just a payload and makes no difference,” he said.