Following last-minute US pressure, the launch of an Indo-Israeli spy satellite with synthetic aperture radar was aborted literally at the launch pad stage.
TechSAR was to be launched with Israeli help last month
NEW DELHI: India’s strategic space-based surveillance (SBS) programme has suffered a huge setback.
Following last-minute US pressure, the launch of an Indo-Israeli spy satellite with synthetic aperture radar (SAR) was aborted literally at the launch pad stage.
Images from the satellite, with sub-metre picture resolution, would have significantly boosted India’s intelligence-gathering abilities. The satellite is capable of obtaining sharp images of civilian construction activities, including nuclear plants, that may have a strategic bearing. It can also scan cloud-covered mountain peaks. Lack of this capability enabled Pakistan-backed militants and army regulars to entrench themselves on the heights of Kargil, necessitating a huge armed response with many casualties.
If the SAR satellite had been launched on schedule, it would have been a first for both Israel and India.
This is the second strategic programme to have received a setback after American intervention in recent times. Earlier, India curtailed the range of its missiles under development to 5,000 km under US pressure. It has advised military scientists not to think of developing a full-fledged inter-continental ballistic missile above 800 km range.
When DNA contacted a senior official involved in India’s strategic engagements with Israel, he insisted that the satellite launch, slated for end October or early November, was aborted because of “technical glitches”. He added: “Our decision to abort the launch at the last minute was not guided by any American pressure.”
However, at least three sources privy to the entire programme confirmed that the launch of TechSAR, mounted on a PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle), was aborted after American intervention. TechSAR is technically an Israeli satellite being launched by the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) for a fee, but the imagery captured by it would have been available to Indian intelligence. Most importantly, this was to be the first in a series of spy satellites India was to launch with Israeli collaboration.
The need for satellites with SAR technology was felt very strongly after Kargil, when Indian agencies were caught napping as Pakistani intruders entered Indian peaks and set up bases. The images, available then from the Indian Remote Sensing (IRS) satellites and spy planes, were hazy and did not reveal any ground level movement – an intelligence failure which proved critical.
The proposal for cutting-edge space-based intelligence gathering was then put on the fast-track and made possible through strategic cooperation with Israel. The Jewish state is one of the rare few in the world with SAR technology and was also working on TechSAR. The microwaves sent from SAR can penetrate cloudy areas like Kargil and garner images. When these images are processed using advanced software, they can produce very sharp photographs even if there is cloud cover or dust storm.
The satellite was to be the first of three produced exclusively by or in partnership with Israel for meeting India’s intelligence requirements.
Sources say that TechSAR, weighing 260 kg, had arrived in India a few months ago. It was moved to the
Satish Dhawan Space Centre, Sriharikota, for launch. A dependable source told DNA that the satellite was “mounted” on the PSLV when the American pressure came. “We had to literally dismantle it,” he said.
The countdown to a satellite launch begins three months before it is fired into orbit. A senior official in Delhi told DNA that India is “presently dependent on other countries for sub-metre resolution pictures. That is our handicap. We firmly believe that we must have our own system in place.”
“We have planned three satellites for now. We hope to have even more. Having more than one such satellite in orbit would reduce revisit time (when a satellite is orbiting) and we would have more data to make an analysis. This would give pictures of less than a metre’s resolution of rail lines, new roads, new services, and any civilian construction activity that could be of a nuclear nature in neighbouring countries,” another official said.