By Ajai Shukla and Bharath Gopalaswamy
Business Standard, 5th May 17
Shortly before 5 p.m. on Friday, the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO’s) heaviest rocket, the Geo-Synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV), will blast off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota for the eleventh time. This time the GSLV’s mission will be to place into orbit the so-called “South Asia Satellite”, a pure communications satellite called GSAT-9, which will provide linked communications to seven regional countries --- the entire membership of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), less Pakistan. India is bearing the Rs 450 crore cost of the launch.
This project in high-technology regional diplomacy is backed by ISRO’s stellar record in low-cost, high-success-rate space launches. In 2013, the agency won global plaudits for sending a low-cost orbiter named Mangalyaan to Mars, becoming the first country to succeed in doing so on its first attempt. In February, ISRO’s workhorse Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) rocket, which has launched 180 satellites so far without failure in 38th consecutive successful launches, established a world record by placing 104 satellites into orbit in a single launch.
Now ISRO’s credentials are being exploited to build bridges across South Asia. Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka will each have access to at least one of the South Asia Satellite’s 12 Ku-band transponders, and a communications backbone created for a secure hotline linking all these countries --- a life-saving facility during emergencies and natural disasters. These neighbours will together benefit to the tune of Rs 10,000 crore ($1.5 billion) over the satellite’s 12-year lifespan. This is the first time a regional technological powerhouse has gifted a communications satellite to its neighbours. There are other consortia that jointly operate satellites, but those are all commercial, for-profit enterprises.
In addition, GSAT-9 will carry a payload for enhancing GAGAN, the acronym for a “GPS and Geo-Augmented Navigation” system. GAGAN accesses the commercial signal of the US Global Positioning System (GPS) and enhances its accuracy ten-fold from about 30 metres to a military-usable three metres. The GPS military signal, which is accurate to just one metre, is only accessible to US military users through a secure “precision code”. Similarly, the GAGAN-enhanced signal would be available only to Indian users.
New Delhi originally conceived GSAT-9 as a SAARC initiative, but Pakistan unfortunately chose to remain outside the project, which it viewed with suspicion as an instrument to create Indian hegemony. Islamabad also reportedly had qualms over data security and other national security concerns. It eventually pulled out, citing its wish to focus on its own space programme --- a far less advanced programme that operates five satellites, though without fabrication facilities and heavy-duty launchers. Without the South Asian Satellite, Pakistan will probably rely on Chinese assistance. Beijing has almost 90 satellites, including five sophisticated Yaogan series satellites that it could share with Pakistan. However, few are convinced by the reasons Islamabad cited for undermining this promising regional cooperation initiative.
How valid are Pakistan’s national security concerns? Apprehensions over adversaries’ satellites have existed for decades. Since the successful launch of the world’s first satellite, Sputnik-I in 1957, satellites have collected imaging information from across borders, even from continents away. Satellites have also grown in capability, adding on multiple roles such as the ability to monitor cloud patterns, remote sensing, space exploration, reconnaissance, and navigation. Inherently, every satellite has a dual-role potential, with only a thin line separating civilian and military roles. With the ability to tweak the controlling software, the country that controls the satellite --- in this case, India --- would call the shots. Even so, given India’s robust indigenous capability in surveillance satellites, it does not need to rely on a collaborative satellite like GSAT-9 to effectively spy on Pakistan. However, given that strategic trust between partner countries is an essential pre-requisite for such collaborative programmes, SAARC was probably the wrong framework for GSAT-9, given Pakistan’s suspicion of everything Indian, even Indian gifts.
Strategic distrust has scuttled promising cooperative proposals in the past. In 1981, France proposed creating an international satellite monitoring agency (ISMA) which would build an image processing and interpretation centre, data-receiving stations, and satellites. The ISMA was intended to bring order to space, which was becoming increasingly anarchical as a growing number of countries strove to establish their own launchers and satellites. Though ISMA was technically feasible, the United States and Soviet Union steadfastly opposed its establishment. The Soviet Union argued that ISMA would provide France the control over military and strategic information, while the United States argued that ISMA would allow countries to partake in espionage or activities that propelled national security conflict. Eventually the ISMA proposal fell through, a casualty to divergent interests across borders.
The South Asia Satellite, however, is bound by common interests. If GSAT-9 meets its objectives, New Delhi will be better equipped to lead regional efforts in humanitarian aid and disaster relief operations (HADR), weather monitoring, and telemedicine projects championed by India. South Asia is a disaster prone region, where a regional satellite would enable a region-wide response. It became evident after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that India alone in the region possessed the capacity, capability and will to lead such a response.
Further, a South Asian Satellite would greatly enhance the region’s capacity for collaborative Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA). Currently, no single country in the region possesses the resources for comprehensive MDA. With 70 per cent of the world’s maritime trade passing through the international sea lanes that converge into the Strait of Malacca, the enhancement of MDA, coordinated by India and enhanced through satellite linkages, would be welcomed not just by littoral states but also by the United States. India has a direct interest in establishing collaborative networks that could monitor, say, the flow of cargo from North Korea to Pakistan, or the movement of fishing trawlers in the waters between Karachi and the Mumbai coast.
Beyond regional communications, HADR and MDA, regional satellite linkages could also be gradually expanded into collaborative weather forecasting and studying the effects of global warming, drawing in partners from the wider Indo-Pacific region like Indonesia and Australia. Enormous opportunities also exist in realms like regional telemedicine projects, in which India is a leader.
Bharath Gopalaswamy is with the Atlantic Council in Washington D.C.