Eyes In The Sky: Military Satellite: RSTV – In Depth

Anchor: Teena Jha

Why in the news?

  • Days after carrying out airstrikes on a JeM training camp in Balakot, Pakistan, the Indian Air Force has reportedly presented to the government radar and satellite images showing bombing of the intended targets.
  • The Indian Air Force collected these satellite imagery from independent sources to assess the impact of its operation.
  • The satellite imagery shows S-2000 laser-guided bombs hit the intended targets causing significant internal damage.
  • The move comes amid conflicting reports on the extent of damage caused in the Balakot strikes and the clamour among opposition parties seeking clarity.
  • In this edition of In-Depth, we talk about the importance of satellite imagery in military operations, how the military is using satellites worldwide for remote sensing and surveillance and how many military satellites are in use currently across the world.
  • We also look at the series of advanced remote sensing satellites that India is using currently.

Military satellites are used for several important functions, which include research, metereology, geodesy, in addition to reconnaissance. The military satellite market is currently estimated to be around 15 Billion dollars. It is expected to flourish in the upcoming years as well due to increased demand for satellite intelligence the world over.

Military satellites are designed for surveillance and reconnaissance. They provide information on enemy forces and their capabilities. Also called ‘Spy satellites’, they are used for military observation missions like for instance, monitoring nuclear test ban compliance. They observe the deployment of military forces and keep tabs on weapons development, they also assess damage caused by bombs and provide intelligence about enemy capability. In addition, military satellites are used for remote sensing, analysing and recording information about the earths surface. They come handy in geodesy, as well as research on weather and weather conditions. The best example of a military satellite is the ‘Navstar GPS’. This is operated by the US Airforce. The Navstar GPS consists of an accurate and reliable satellite navigation system that determines the position of military forces on the ground, air or sea. More than 20 of its spacecraft, provide worldwide coverage, including the north and south poles.

The development of reconnaissance satellite was officially demanded by the United States Air Force on 16th March, 1955. The main reason was to have a continuous surveillance of some areas to determine weapons-making capabilities of potential enemies.

The first generation spy satellite was the ‘Corona’ and ‘Zenit’.

A Note on the Corona:

  • The Corona was a US military spy satellite system used for photographic surveillance of China, Soviet Union, and other areas between June 1959 to May 1972.
  • The Corona was operated by the CIA Directorate of Science and Technology along with the US Airforce.
  • The Zenit program was a successive launch of military spy satellites between 1961 and 1994 by the Soviet Union. Before digital imaging systems, reconnaissance satellites sent photographs via canisters.
  • A canister containing a film roll was ejected with a parachute and a pilot intercepted the package before it reached the ground.
  • Now with the transition in technology, spacecrafts employ digital imaging systems and the images are downloaded via encrypted radio links.

Trends in Modern Military Technology

  • Since their introduction, military satellites have become a critical part of national security in many countries. Advances in satellite technology has allowed better and cheaper military satellites nowadays. This has enabled smaller countries also to take advantage of satellite technology. These satellites are now so small that they are referred to as ‘laptops in space platforms’.
  • They cost less than a million dollars and add functionality to existing satellite networks. Another trend in modern military technology is the increase in cooperation between countries.
  • Launching joint commericial ventures among these countries has become common.
  • There are about 3700 artificial satellites orbiting the earth. 50% of these satellites have been used for military purposes at some point in their lifespan. Currently, only about 1100 of these are active.

A Look at some of India’s Defence Satellites: 

India shares borders with 7 countries, stretching for over 15,000 kilometres on land and more than 7500 kilometres of coastline. Although India has major challenges to manage its borders with Pakistan and China, keeping an eye on its other borders is also important. To have all-weather-all-terrain-continuous-monitoring of these borders, India needs constant support from satellites.

In a special mission in the month of March, 2019 ISRO will launch an electronic intelligence satellite named, “EMISAT” for the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO).

  1. EMISAT:
  • This is an advanced electronic intelligence satellite.
  • This satellite is a lost cost alternative which is under development for nearly 8 years.
  • EMISAT is designed to intercept directed microwave transmissions.
  • Another use is to determine the location of ground and naval radars emitters
  • A single EMISAT will be able to determine the probable location of a radio emitter, a cluster of EMISAT’s could mimic functions of a large satellite, by sharing processing, communication, and mission functions at a fraction of the cost.
  1. MICROSAT R
  • Earlier in the year 2019, ISRO launched MICROSAT R for the DRDO.
  • MICROSAT R is an imaging satellite, meant for military purposes, but ISRO has not given out any details about it.
  1. GSAT-7 for Indian Navy
  • India’s first exclusive defence satellite, GSAT-7 was launched in 2013. GSAT-7 was designed to provide communication capabilities over a wide oceanic region, including the Indian landmass.
  • It helped in marine communications and helped the Navy in providing real-time inputs to Indian vessels.
  • It also helped in monitoring Chinese activity in the Indian Ocean.
  • Custom made for the Navy by ISRO, the advanced multi-band state-of-art GSAT-7 provided wide range of services for over 5 years.

 GSAT-7 A for the Indian Air Force

  • In December 2018, ISRO successfully launched its second advanced defence satellite exclusively for the Indian Airforce, called the GSAT-7 A.
  • GSAT-7A is the 39th Indian communication satellite of ISRO to provide services to the users in Ku-band over the Indian region. Most of the functional requirements of the communication payloads and the other systems have been derived from ISRO’s earlier geostationary INSAT/GSAT satellites.
  • Dubbed the “Angry Bird”, this satellite allows the Indian Air Force to interlink different ground radar stations, ground airbase and Airborne early warning and control aircraft.
  • It also facilitates exclusive frequency flight communication for the Indian Air Force.
  • The mission life for GSAT-7 A is 8 years.
  1. CartoSat-2A: 
  • This was the first exclusive military satellite that was launched in April 2008. This was followed by CartoSat-2B in July, 2010.
  • CartoSat-2A was the first dual-use satellite, with capabilities of monitoring missile launches in India’s neighbourhood.

Upcoming Missions of ISRO

  • In its upcoming missions, ISRO will Risat-2A, which will boost India’s surveillance technology.
  • The satellite will carry a sophisticated radar which will help in the observation of an area, irrespective of low light and weather conditions. It is currently under the control of the National Technical Research Organization.

The Indian Armed Forces is expected to remain prepared to handle asymmetric threats as well as conventional and nuclear warfare scenarios. In addition, there is significant dependence on military forces, for disaster response management. Space is an important domain that can assist India’s Armed Forces to address all of these challenges.

At present, India has over 13 satellites, which can be used for mapping surveillance and border areas, and are primarily used for keeping an eye on enemies on both land and sea. However, there is a clear need for India to increase its investment in the military satellite arena. More importantly, India needs to invest in systems beyond navigation and communications and expand its existing infrastructure.

Countries that use military satellites:

Military satellites are mostly used for communication, navigation and intelligence gathering. Some of them were also developed for early warning of approaching missiles.

Perspective on U.S.

  1. The US Navy used the first navigation satellite, in 1960. By 2013, the earths orbit had 950 satellites of different types. The first military satellites were photographic reconnaissance missions. Modern spy satellites can today do more than taking pictures. It can collect telephone, radio and internet signals. Through this, commanders can guess as to what is happening on the ground.
  2. However, the United States started the first formal military satellite programs. The U.S. wanted to know as to how fast the Soviet Union was making missiles and where it was sending them?
  3. The U.S. has 123 military satellites. The first formal military satellite projects, were launched in the U.S. in the 1950’s.
  4. The first project was known as Weapons System 117L.

  • On February 28th, 1959, the first satellite, Discoverer-1. Discover-4 was the first U.S. camera-carrying satellite. It was launched in 1959, but didn’t reach orbit.
  • However, Discover 14 went up in 1960 and returned photos.
  • There have been several projects in the U.S. for example: Corona, Canyan, Aquacade; Orion, Magnum; Trumpet and Wideband Global.

Russia’s Military Satellites:

  • Russia owns 74 military satellites. Russia under the Soviet Union started a military space station program in the 1960’s.
  • The program was known as ‘Almaz’ and was keen on using space stations instead of satellites.
  • The program was active, as from 1973 to 1976, there were three stations named to Salyut 2, 3 and Salyut 5.
  • On March 16th, 1962, Russia launched its first satellite named Kosmos 1.
  • On December 2nd, 2017, Russia launched its satellite to detect, track, and destroy missiles.
  • The satellite will also warn the government of attacking missiles. The satellite is named Kosmos 2524.

China’s Military Satellites:

  • China has 68 satellites for military use. The Chinese space program, dates back to the 1950’s. The military operated satellites are named, “Yaogan”.
  • Yaogan 30D, 30E and 30F was launched on November 24th, 2017. These three satellites are said to be experimental satellites to be used for intelligence gathering.

Read more Gist of Rajya Sabha TV to help you ace current affairs in the IAS exam.

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