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ISRO’s Cartosat-2 being prepared for launch. India’s government acknowledged for the first time that imaging and other satellites developed by ISRO have been used for national security. (credit: ESA)

ISRO’s commitment to India’s national security

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India’s space capabilities helped its armed forces acquire actionable intelligence on the terrorist launch pads in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir that were destroyed during the recent surgical strikes by India’s military. After the strikes, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) highlighted, for the first time, its role in India’s national security. Its leadership declared that the organization will not be found lacking from securing the country’s national interests. Although security is an integral part of the country’s socio-economic development, ISRO previously held reservations against such declarations owing to the unstable political and diplomatic relationship of India with the West, particularly the United States. The changing perceptions of high-end technologies, due to the geopolitical and security circumstances of India, is the driving factor in this change.

India’s space program was initiated with the vision of utilizing outer space for peaceful purposes at a time when Cold War peers contested for military and strategic superiority in this domain. The father of India’s space program, Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, renounced such competition, stating space technology in this country should be meant for constructing a modern society with solid economic foundations. Accordingly, ISRO concentrated its resources on developing fleets of communications and remote sensing satellites, enabling telecommunications, weather forecasting, transportation, management and conservation of natural resources and natural disasters, urban planning, and more.

India’s space program was initiated with the vision of utilizing outer space for peaceful purposes at a time when Cold War peers contested for military and strategic superiority in this domain.

Owing to this idealistic perspective of high-end technologies, advanced spacefaring countries enthusiastically helped lay the foundations for India’s space program. Although the US and the Soviet Union were rivals in space, they contributed to India of space technology. India, for its part, dedicated the country’s first rocket launching station to the United Nations, reaffirming its support to the work of this international organization. India was one of the 18 members that formed an ad-hoc Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space at the United Nations, which later became permanent. India firmly believes in peaceful uses of outer space and has thus denounced space weaponization. It is one of the leading voices in creating the Outer Space Treaty that banned testing and placing of weapons of mass destruction in outer space or on celestial bodies.

However, the changing regional geopolitics during the 1960s and 1970s kept India from perceiving high-end technologies as purely peaceful. India woke up to the reality of a nuclear China in 1964, with whom it fought a border war just two years earlier. Pakistan remained an irritant with wars erupting in 1965 and 1971, when India was militarily confronted simultaneously on four sides and the US and United Kingdom deploying warships in support of Pakistan. Meanwhile, Henry Kissinger succeeded in opening US-China diplomatic relations facilitated by Pakistan, which concluded as a strategic loss for India.

With its very survival at stake, India went nuclear in 1974 and initiated a guided missile development program in 1983. The missile program benefitted to an extent from the experience of satellite launch vehicle technology being developed at ISRO. As realism entered India’s foreign policy and national security calculus, so did the perception of critical technologies. Sanctions were imposed on ISRO in the aftermath of 1974 nuclear test.

In the 1990s, the US imposed Missile Technology Control Regime sanctions on both India and Russia when they negotiated a contract for India to receive cryogenic engine technology from Russia. Although India argued that this complex technology is inconsistent with the requirements of ballistic missile systems, the sanctions and subsequent nullification of the deal by Russia, giving in to US pressure, led to further deterioration of space cooperation between the US and India. These developments induced a sense of apathy in the political relations as well.

This situation began to change in 2001 when, barely three months after the 9/11 attacks, the Indian Parliament also came under terrorist attack. The sympathy towards each other as victims of terrorism and the desire to fight this global menace opened room for a political dialogue between the US and India. This led to further consolidation of political ties when both the countries began undertaking a series of reciprocal steps in three critical technology areas for building mutual trust and confidence. Civil space cooperation is one of these areas (other two being civil nuclear cooperation and high technology trade), leading to improved ties between the space communities on both sides.

Due to the sensitivity of these developments, India abstains from talking space technology in the context of national security. However, the political bonhomie between the two countries and common struggle against terrorism did create a diplomatic space for India to reverse this custom. In this context, ISRO played a decisive role for India’s security and publicly stated its commitment for the future.

The launch of Radar Imaging Satellite 2 (RISAT-2) in 2009 is perhaps India’s first national security satellite discussed in the public domain. This satellite uses synthetic aperture radar developed by an Israeli company for providing radar images with a resolution of one meter regardless of the time or weather conditions over an area of interest. India obtained this technology from Israel in exchange for launching an Israeli satellite with a similar payload in 2008. The technical specifications and orbital parameters of RISAT-2, coupled with the pace it was built and launched, shows India’s efforts at plugging security vulnerabilities of the country after the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks.

ISRO is no longer inhibited about highlighting the critical role it plays for securing India’s national interests and security.

Now, India also possesses world-class optical imaging satellites launched under the Cartosat series. Cartosat-1, launched in 2005, has a resolution of 2.5 metres. With the technological advances in this series, the currently operational Cartosat satellites can provide scene-specific images with a resolution better than 60 centimeters, along with the capability to capture one-minute video of the designated areas. It was this capability that notably provided intelligence input to the armed forces planning the recent surgical strikes. The next-generation Cartosat series can provide images with a resolution better than 25 centimeters, enabling India to detect specific objects and movement of personnel on the ground. India is also planning GEO Imaging Satellite that will be placed in the geostationary orbit for acquiring near-real-time images of the entire Indian subcontinent and the Indian Ocean.

In addition to these earth observation satellites, ISRO has also built communications satellites for strategic purposes. GSAT 6, launched in 2015, features an antenna six meters in diameter to provide secure communications for a host of strategic end users. The Indian Navy acquired its first dedicated communications satellite, GSAT 7, in 2013, while the Indian Air Force and the Indian Army are also set to acquire such satellites in the near future.

These satellites simply provide sophisticated intelligence inputs for the decision-makers on the ground for crafting military operations, while striving to prevent the adversaries from eavesdropping on these plans. And, as ISRO has already noted, the discrimination between the good guys and the bad guys completely rests with the users on the ground. However, ISRO is no longer inhibited about highlighting the critical role it plays for securing India’s national interests and security.