India’s Israeli spy satellite: quid pro quo

Another link in the deepening military ties between India and Israel was established on April 20 when the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) successfully launched a sophisticated surveillance satellite procured from Israel. Fooling nobody, ISRO at first blandly claimed that the satellite “will enhance ISRO’s capability for earth observation, especially during floods, cyclones, landslides and in management of disasters.” While denying that the satellite would primarily serve intelligence purposes, ISRO Chairman Madhavan Nair coyly added that “however, spying depends on the user of the satellite.” National and international media were full of such official versions but there were also some off-the-record statements attesting to the fact that the satellite was indeed meant for military surveillance of India’s borders and coastal areas, necessitated by the recent upsurge in terror attacks and infiltration.

In the midst of this transparent camouflage, there was complete official silence or outright denial by officials on two aspects. First, whether the satellite was acquired from Israel (initially denied but later “an association” with Israel being acknowledged) and second, complete silence on the identity of Indian user agencies. Since there was also no mention of the satellite imagery being sold commercially, a growth area for ISRO’s high-resolution civilian satellites, potential users clearly narrow down to just a very few defence and security agencies. The origins and capabilities of the satellite also underline its primarily military function even though satellites can always be used for dual purposes.

Made in Israel The RISAT-2 satellite launched by ISRO last week definitely has an Israeli radar and is in all probability a TecSAR satellite procured off-shelf from the government-owned Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI), almost identical to the highly publicized spy satellite launched for Israel by ISRO on January 21, 2008. The RISAT-2 not only looks the same as the TecSAR in the pictures available publicly, it also weighs the same (300kg), has a similar sun-synchronous circular orbit (TecSAR has a slightly elliptical orbit) 550km above the earth at an inclination of 44 degrees to the equator, and has the same orbital frequency of about 90 minutes. The similarity of satellite mass and orbital paths meant that ISRO could almost repeat the launch and orbit placement sequences and calculations for the RISAT-2 having done the same earlier for TecSAR.

A senior ISRO official was reported having told the PTI news agency: “When we launched the Israeli (TecSAR) satellite, we found that it’s good… then we asked them to build one for us.” Indian interest in acquiring TecSAR had in fact been expressed as far back as mid-2007 but the actual order is said to have been pushed through after the Mumbai terror attacks of November 2008. The rapidity with which the order was executed has impressed many, but the short time-frame also suggests that few or no modifications were made to the TecSAR fabricated for supply to India.

The system as a whole has been integrated by IAI, whereas the satellite vehicle has been developed by its MBT Space subsidiary and the radar was developed by its defence electronics subsidiary, Elta Systems.

Absolutely no reliable information is available as to costs. One international expert has guessed that the cost would be in the region of $200 million (Rs.1000 crores) which may not be too far off the mark. Israel’s Ofek-6 electro-optical satellite and predecessor to the TecSAR cost about $100 million. ISRO spokespersons refused to comment directly on the issue but ISRO Chief Nair was quoted by sections of the media as saying: “Normally a remote sensing satellite weighing one tonne would cost around Rs.80 crore. This spacecraft is much smaller”. The implicit suggestion that the cost would be below this figure is disingenuous to say the least!

The ISRO chief’s statement may also be hinting that the deal with IAI might not have been a purely cash transaction but involved a barter of sorts, taking into account payments due to ISRO for launching the Israeli TecSAR, believed to be about $14 million (Rs.70 crores), and another two satellite launches due soon as part of the same deal. In any case, the purchase by India of the Israeli satellite definitely involves a quid pro quo arrangement with IAI, indicating that the relationship between IAI and the Indian defence and security establishments has gone far beyond a purely commercial one to a more long-term partnership. Indeed, it is quite widely believed that India and Israel are sharing their data downlinks and image interpretation software capabilities.

RISAT-2 Capabilities We shall return to the India-Israel defence relationship, but let us first look at the capabilities of RISAT-2, and its technological and security significance.

The Israeli TecSAR was developed to use radar imaging technology which represents a significant advance in terms of both coverage and quality of imagery over the earlier Ofek series of optical satellites extensively used by Israel. Radar imaging technology is currently possessed only by the US, EU and Canada.

Earlier military reconnaissance satellites, such as India’s so-called Technology Experiment Satellite (TES) weighing over 1000 kg, carried optical sensors, essentially powerful telescopic cameras which, for obvious reasons, are rendered “blind” at night and under heavy cloud such as during monsoons. Defence analysts have reported that satellite pictures available before the Kargil intrusions produced rather hazy images and did not adequately reveal movements.

Radar imaging uses radio waves to bounce off objects or surfaces, and return after getting modified according to the material they are reflected back from, thus creating images. Since radar waves are not dependent on illumination, they create images during both day and night. And because radars have long wavelengths beyond those of visible or infrared light, they can “see” through clouds, haze etc. In fact, imaging radars can penetrate light camouflage coverings, some foliage and have even produced images of objects several feet below certain types of sand!

It is this all-weather, day-night capability that Israel wanted from TecSAR to keep an eye on Iranian nuclear and missile development. And it is this capability that Indian security agencies want to enable close surveillance of India’s borders and neighbouring areas, the Line of Control in Kashmir, coastal and maritime areas etc. While nobody has spoken about it, clearly activities inside inland forested areas would also be covered.

RISAT-2 and TecSAR’s low-earth high-inclination sun-synchronous orbits are typically used for earth observation and surveillance satellites, since they enable good resolution from relatively low altitudes, continental-scale coverage of the earth’s surface, and good frequency of repeat visits to the same locations, the orbits being so timed that preferred ones are always lit by the sun from the same angle.

Synthetic aperture radar Normally, quality and clarity of radar images are a function of the length of the antenna from which radio waves are sent out from different locations along its length. When radar is mounted on aircraft or satellites, antenna size is a major limitation. To overcome this, a series of pulses are sent out as the craft travels and the readings obtained from each pulse are combined to form a picture simulating the effect of using a long antenna, hence the term Synthetic Aperture Radars (SAR). This process calls for a huge volume of computation at high speed, and recent advances in computers have made it possible to obtain good quality radar images in real time.

The TecSAR radar, and therefore RISAT-2, operates in 3 modes, namely spot (covering the same location even as the satellite moves), strip (covering a length of terrain) and mosaic (covering an area), giving resolutions of up to 1, 3 and 8 metres in these modes respectively. While this is not state of art, in which ability to read car number plates is spoken of, it is on par with leading military surveillance satellites in different countries. The US of course has spy satellites with far better resolutions, some even with the ability to “see” underground arms caches and bunkers, but even the US has acquired several TecSAR satellites from Israel. At least one commercial satellite, US-based Ikonos, provides 1 metre resolution, as does India’s military Technology Experiment Satellite (TES), but with the limitations of optical imaging discussed earlier.

Indigenous efforts If readers are wondering why this satellite is called RISAT-2, that is because India has been developing its own radar imaging satellite, RISAT-1. The latter is also officially described by ISRO as an earth observation remote sensing satellite ostensibly to be used for crop forecasting, flood monitoring and disaster management, yet it too clearly has at least a dual civilian-military function.

This indigenous satellite was originally due to be operational by 2007 as announced by then Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee in Parliament in August 2005. It is now expected to be launched towards the end of 2009. Reasons for the delay are not known, but it may be one of the factors behind the decision to procure the TecSAR from Israel and to make RISAT-2 operational as soon as possible. No doubt the security situation at present is highly troubling but would a few months wait have made such a difference?

The planned and expected characteristics of the RISAT-1 may be another factor. RISAT-1 is officially stated as having a resolution of only 3 metres and the satellite itself weighs 1780 kg, maybe containing other payloads. The indigenous effort at developing a radar imaging satellite capability is indeed worthy of credit, but as has happened so often in the past in defence-related areas, questions remain about delivery in terms of time and performance.

So many defence projects of strategic importance for Indian security have been plagued by cost overruns, underperformance and delays sometimes even leading to obsolescence by the time they are introduced, that this has almost become a structural problem in India’s defence research and production systems. As often highlighted in these columns in the past, this problem needs to be addressed seriously and urgently, as it threatens to undermine India’s self-reliance and technological capability in the vital area of national security. It is also one of the factors behind India’s serial defence imports building undesirable external dependence on foreign entities in defence supplies.

Dangerous dependence on Israel In the case of Israel, there are other issues too.

Progressive forces have for long been campaigning against military ties with Israel and have called for India to roll these back in view of the continuing Israeli occupation of Palestine and other Arab territories in flagrant defiance of UN resolutions and international opinion, its criminal aggression and use of military force in Gaza and Lebanon, and its gross violation of human rights in the occupied territories. Israel even faces serious charges of war crimes of deliberately targeting and killing thousands of civilians during its recent military assault on Gaza. Even many Western nations who have traditionally supported Israel have begun to take cognizance of these Israeli atrocities. At the time of writing, British Foreign Secretary has announced his government’s decision to review all current and future military exports to Israel in light of the recent Israeli Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip.

Yet India not continues to deepen its military ties with Israel which is now India’s second largest defence supplier after Russia. This is enabling Israel to further strengthen its already extensive military-industrial complex, now specializing in advanced aerospace, avionics and electronics technologies which it sells in the international arms bazaar on the basis of “battle-tested results” obtained against hapless Palestinians and other countries in the region. India is now a regular buyer of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), missiles and anti-missile systems, radar systems and now satellites from Israel. India’s deepening military ties with Israel not only have moral-ideological dimensions but serious foreign policy implications for India’s relations with friendly countries in West Asia. Iran for instance was deeply disturbed at India launching the Israel TecSAR spy satellite specifically meant for spying on Iran, one side of the quid pro quo arrangement which saw India acquiring RISAT-2 from Israel.

Perhaps even more seriously, these large and regular defence acquisitions from Israel, from IAI in particular, have assumed dangerous proportions that threaten India’s self-reliance and thus its long-term security interests. Can indigenous defence R&D and production, especially in advanced aerospace and electronics, really make progress in the face of these serial imports?

Israeli companies and IAI in particular have also acquired disproportionate leverage in the corridors of power and influence over decision-making processes. The tentacles of Israeli armaments companies reach far and wide in Indian defence circles. Their marketing methods are more than merely aggressive, for instance through a Bollywood-style song and dance publicity video made by the Iraeli government missile company, Rafael (see Serious charges of manipulating acquisition decisions through kickbacks and other means have been leveled against IAI in several deals, notably in the recent anti-missile deal. Yet fresh deals with IAI and other Israeli companies continue to be signed. Can unbiased inquiries be conducted, or action taken if wrong-doing is proved against IAI, given these huge and strategically important deals that India has enmeshed itself in with Israel?