Tango with Israel

Print edition : May 22, 2009

THE TECSAR SPY satellite at an unkown location.-ISRO

THE charade put on by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) around its twin-satellite launch on April 20, aboard the 15th mission of its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV-C12), was completely uncalled for and, not surprisingly, unsustainable. It was clear from reports worldwide that the main payload of the mission, a 300-kilogram radar imaging satellite called RISAT-2, was a microwave-based high-resolution imaging reconnaissance (or spy) satellite, which India had procured from Israel. Radar-based imaging has an all-weather including cloudy and foggy conditions 24-hour viewing capability as well as an ability to distinguish camouflaged formations from surrounding terrain. But ISRO chose to pretend it was a satellite realised by ISRO in association with Israel Aerospace Industries [IAI][that] will enhance ISROs capability for earth observation, especially during floods, cyclones, landslides and management of disasters in a more effective way (emphasis added).

Why ISRO resorted to obfuscation using words such as realised cannot be fathomed. Insiders say that it was a decision at the highest level of the government. ISRO obviously could not say that the satellite was collaboratively built with the IAI because it clearly was not. For one, ISROs earth observation systems specialists are busy sorting out technical problems with its own radar imaging satellite, RISAT-1, which was originally slated to go on PSLV-C12, and it is extremely unlikely that the organisation has enough specialists to put together another earth observation team for a system with a totally different technology. It now seems that all the problems with RISAT-1 have been successfully solved, and the indigenous radar imaging satellite, which has a high-resolution reconnaissance capability, could take to the skies by the end of the year.

Two, if RISAT-2 were a satellite jointly built by ISRO and the IAI for remote sensing applications, it would have at least found a mention in the annual reports of the Department of Space or in the detailed demands for grants or in the outcome budgets of the last couple of years. It did not figure even in the latest Vote-on-Account statement for the department. More importantly, according to reliable sources, the Hyderabad-based National Remote Sensing Agency (NRSA) is in no way associated with the mission, which would not be the case if it were for civilian remote sensing applications. It would also be highly unlikely that the IAI would transfer any technology or even design features necessary for the integration of the satellite with bought-out parts, such as the highly innovative five-metre-diameter dish-shaped Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) that forms the heart of the spacecraft.

Given that ISROs RISAT-1 weighs 1,750 kg, and other current SAR-based reconnaissance satellites are also of the same order, a SAR satellite weighing just 300 kg is indeed remarkable. The IAI tied up exclusively with the United States Northrop Grumman Corporation in 2007 to supply these SAR-based reconnaissance satellites to the U.S. government. Israeli agencies the IAI and its subsidiary firm Elta, which designed the SAR seem to have developed this advanced technology on their own without any U.S. assistance. As a result, Israel could export to India without any need for a U.S. Department of State export licence.

Interestingly, this is the first time ever that ISRO has not released any photograph of the satellite as is its normal practice in its press releases of launches. What is available are schematic diagrams of the satellite in stowed and deployed conditions or a photograph of a stowed satellite at an unknown location.

As will be at present argued, most probably the entire satellite was bought out by some Indian agency which is clearly not ISRO and is presumably some intelligence agency and ISRO has merely launched it. This is what analysts and media reports also generally believe. But, in keeping with its claims of openness and transparency, ISRO could have stated this up front and this might have been more acceptable from a national security point of view and gone down better in international perception.

PSLV-C12 COMING OUT of the Vehicle Assembly Building in Sriharikota, readied to launch RISAT-2.-ISRO

The political implications of Indias increased strategic ties and dealings with Israel are, however, doubtless serious and undesirable, notwithstanding the fatal attraction of mutually advantageous geostrategic locations of the two countries from a space-based surveillance perspective. This aspect will become clear shortly.

One could also pertinently ask why the great hurry to buy an Israeli satellite, that too at an enormous cost? Indeed, a news report in Spaceflight Now shortly before the launch stated that the satellite cost about $200 million (as compared with RISAT-1s project cost of about Rs.380 crore), and the IAI is likely to have sold the complete package, including ground station communication hardware and software, which would have cost an equal amount or much more. Who has actually paid for the satellite and its associated systems is, of course, a well-kept secret.

An argument that is advanced is that, given the delay in launching RISAT-1, the need for an alternate reconnaissance mission became necessary in the wake of the Mumbai terror attack and amid increasing serious concerns about growing pro-Taliban activities in Pakistan and the need to monitor the movements of terrorists belonging to organisations such as Al Qaeda. Of course, media reports suggesting that infiltration from across the border can be monitored are grossly misplaced, unless it occurs in unlikely groups of large numbers. Given that the velocity of the spacecraft is about 8 kilometres/second, it would be just meaningless to say that a small band of infiltrators could be detected.

Just as in remote sensing, reconnaissance involves repeated surveillance of a given area to detect unexpected or suspicious changes in the viewed region with the aid of image-processing techniques and value addition. These generally require combining data over 4 pixels, which means that the least size that can be meaningfully observed should be at least four times the size of the highest resolution (4 1 m in this case). So, only a relatively slowly changing scenario in terms of group formations or vehicular movements can be detected and discerned.

Notwithstanding ISROs experience with handling TecSAR data, it is likely to be at least a few months before ISRO scientists get familiar with the new RISAT-2 imaging hardware, the new image-processing software and the new communication systems, by which time India should be close to the launch of RISAT-1. Admittedly though, RISAT-1 whose SAR seems to be very similar to Canadas Radarsat-2 in terms of design and technology and whose data ISRO has been receiving is less capable than RISAT-2. Indeed, U.S. analysts say that RISAT-2 will give India a radar-reconnaissance-imaging capability comparable to the imaging radars carried by the most modern versions of the high-flying U-2 spy plane operated by the U.S. Air Force.

India-Israel space cooperation began with the launch by ISROs PSLV in January 2008 of TecSAR, Israels first radar-based spy satellite, which was a technology demonstrator for the novel and advanced design of the SAR. It is interesting to note that TecSAR and RISAT-2 are identical, in terms of appearance as well as actual detailed configuration. Both are 300 kg satellites with a SAR resolution of 1 m to 10 m depending on the mode of operation in terms of different ground-viewing aspect angles and scanning. If RISAT-2 had been configured and built by ISRO with the SAR supplied by the IAI, as is being claimed, this would be a highly improbable coincidence. Even more interesting is the fact that the orbits into which the two were launched are also nearly identical. TecSARs orbit parameters are an altitude of 450 km 580 km, an inclination of 410 and an orbit period of 94.6 minutes. RISAT-2s orbit parameters according to an April 2009 Jonathan Space Report based on tracking by a U.S. ground station are an altitude of 455 km 557 km, an inclination of 41.10 and an orbit period of 94.19 minutes.

An inclined orbit of 410 becomes strategically important for both countries because of their fortuitous relative geographic locations. A Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite in an inclined orbit covers the area lying between 410 N and 410 S extremely well during its repeated orbits and that too quickly. As can be seen from an atlas, this region covers the areas of strategic interest for both countries the entire West Asia region for Israel, and Pakistan and China, except for a part of its north, for India.

From a purely Pakistan-centric security perspective, an inclination of a little less than 400 would suffice. But if China is also a consideration, particularly its missile deployments directed towards the subcontinent as per the threat perception of Indian security agencies, a 410 inclination includes these locations as well and such a surveillance capability would be regarded as useful.

From this strategic perspective, a polar orbiting satellite would be inefficient as it would spend too much time looking at areas that are not important. This is precisely why Israel has chosen such an orbit configuration for its reconnaissance needs.


The up-coming Indian RISAT-1, on the other hand, is designed to be a polar orbiting satellite, with a SAR resolution of 3 m to 50 m in operational-scanning modes and a 1 m resolution in an experimental-scanning mode. Inclined orbits at appropriate altitudes have also the advantage of much shorter revisit periods of the satellite, when the satellite returns to repeat its ground track, as compared with polar orbits.

For the particular case of TecSAR and RISAT-2, the naive revisit period is about four days as compared with 18 to 22 days for polar orbiting satellites such as the Indian remote sensing satellites. With a low mass of 300 kg and a diameter of just 1 m, TecSAR is extremely manoeuvrable so that the viewing angle can be altered very quickly if required. This would render the revisit period even shorter. Presumably, RISAT-2 has the same manoeuvrability. The above reasoning would have been the geostrategic fatal attraction for Indian intelligence agencies.

The fatal attraction is mutual. For Israel this comes from the east-facing launch site at Sriharikota. If Israel were to launch satellites on its own using its Shavit launcher, as indeed it has been doing with its Ofeq series of reconnaissance satellites (of similar weight) with optical, ultraviolet and infrared viewing capabilities, it would have to be in an east-to-west retrograde orbit, which would be against the rotation of the earth and a drain on the on-board fuel resources. The orbits of the Ofeq satellites had an inclination of about 1410 to 1430 (which is equivalent to a west-to-east orbit with an inclination of about 400) and about the same altitudes and orbit periods but with lifetimes of only one to three years. But by launching eastwards with ISROs help, the satellites lifetime increases. According to an April 2006 paper by Y. Sharay and U. Naftly, the original Israeli plan before ISRO came into the picture was to launch TecSAR westwards aboard Shavit into a 143.30 inclined orbit. TecSARs life is now stated to be about five years.

According to reports, there is also an intelligence-sharing arrangement between the two countries, and information from TecSAR is probably being exchanged already by the intelligence agencies. It is believed that under this arrangement Israel is also sharing its data downlink and change detection software capability with ISRO. The pro-Israel Indian political executive obviously sees this as a win-win situation for the two countries and, clearly, the launch of RISAT-2 fits into that logic and thinking.

Indeed, when TecSAR was launched, news reports from elsewhere, quoting the U.S.-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said that India was also interested in purchasing a TecSAR-class imaging radar satellite design from Israel for its own military reconnaissance operations to focus specifically on Pakistan and China. In fact, the TecSAR and RISAT-2 launches may not be the end of ISROs tango with Israel. Soon after TecSARs launch, Ami Haldersberg, Director of Remote Sensing at the IAIs MBT Space Division, stated that with increasing need for quick revisits of a given location, a constellation of such satellites that are launched in quick succession was very much on the cards. He suggested that the TecSAR-class satellites, being modular in design, could also be quickly modified to carry an optical payload to supplement the radar imageries.

India-Israel cooperation actually began with the visit of Shimon Peres, the then Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, to ISRO on January 9, 2002, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government was at the Centre. A few months later, an umbrella space cooperation agreement was signed, the details of which are not known.

In 2003, then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visited India, the first Israeli Prime Minister to do so. This was soon followed by another space cooperation agreement in 2003 when the then ISRO chief K. Kasturirangan visited Israel. This agreement included a contract for an ISRO launch of the Israeli astronomy satellite TAUVEX carrying an ultraviolet telescope. TAUVEX is yet to be launched. The other details of the agreement are, however, not known. Since for Israel an Indian launch seems to be ideal, and India was only too ready and willing a partner in such an engagement, this agreement presumably includes launches by ISRO of all future Israeli reconnaissance missions as well.

SCHEMATIC OF TECSAR in deployed configuration and (right) a detailed schematic of TecSAR.-EO PORTAL, EUROPEAN SPACE AGENCY

The growing India-Israeli ties under BJP rule have since been sustained and even stepped up by the present Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government in the past five years, particularly in defence acquisitions and joint military exercises and training. This was also the period when India-Israel science and technology cooperation for joint investment in research and development projects was initiated (2004) and a joint venture was launched between the IAI and Tata Advanced Systems for offset production in defence- and aerospace-related areas in India against various strategic acquisitions (February 2008).

But widening India-Israeli strategic ties will only lead to a vicious cycle of increasing backlash that in turn will make pro-Israeli politicians push the country even closer to Israel. The sooner the Indian scientific community realises the grave political and national security implications of this and takes a principled stand on such matters, the better it will be for the country.

A letter from the Editor

Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.


R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor