Wednesday 18 May 2022, 12:50 PM
India’s Military Satellite Programme
By Dr. Ajay Lele | Bharat Defence Kavach | Publish Date: 2/12/2021 4:57:40 PM
India’s Military Satellite Programme

During early 1060s India decided to make investments in space technologies for the purposes of socioeconomic developments and even today India’s main focus to make investments in space technologies remains the same. India became a space-faring nation which it lunched its own satellite by with the help of Indian rocket during 1980. Since then, India Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has launched various satellites for different purposes. Essentially the focus has been to launch earth observation, meteorology, commutation and scientific satellites. For all these years, ISRO’s investments in space technologies has given significant amount of dividend for weather prediction, management of land, water and forest resources, education and tele-medicine.  

Owing to security considerations India is now also focusing on using space technologies for the purposes of militaries.Presently,India faces both asymmetric as well as conventional threats. Due to unresolved border challenges India faces numerous security challenges on its borders with Pakistan and China. Post-independence, on four occasions India was involved in the direct military confrontation (conventional wars) with these states, once with China and thrice with Pakistan.  Also, India was required to fight a conflict at Kargil during 1988. For last few decades Pakistan is consistently impinges on India’s domestic stability by supporting terrorism on India’s territory. The nature of the China-Pakistan relationship vis-à-vis India is that of the enemy’s enemy being a friend. Even today, there are several unresolved bilateral issues with both of them. Particularly, the unresolved boundary disputes with both these states are not making any progress towards finding a long-lasting solution. A 1996 agreement prohibited the use of guns and explosives near the border - to avoid a confrontation spiralling out of control. During the year 2020 witnessed a breach if this agreement and for the first time 45 years shots were fired. At present, the so far dormant India-China border dispute has become alive and is posing major challenge for India diplomacy and military forces.  The security dynamics of the region is as such complicated by the fact that, all three are nuclear weapon states. Also, both India and China have tested their anti-satellite kinetic kill technologies.

At present, terrorism remains a significant threat for India, but other asymmetric threats like the use of weapons of mass destruction, cyber terrorism, and information warfare also loom large. Massive urbanization and industrialization is fast depleting India’s limited natural resources. The topography, terrain and climatic conditions of the Indian peninsula make the country more prone to natural disasters. Threats from climate change, epidemics, and food and energy insecurity also persist. The Indian armed forces are guardians of India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. They also form a part of the country’s disaster management setup and are involved in United Nations peace keeping operations too. To address such a complicated threat and risk matrix, India has evolved a multi-layered security architecture. India’s armed forces are among the world’s largest. They also have a few support services (basically for internal and border security) for specific roles such as the Border Security Force (BSF), Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), and the Indian Coast Guard, among others.

Over the years Indian armed forces’ dependence on technology is increasing manifold. As such, all modern-day military platforms are getting built by incorporating modern technologies. Such state-of-art military platforms and weapon systems require much of assistances from external sources, particularly in form of real-time intelligence. The modern-day battlefield is digital, day & night and all weather. For this, information superiority is mandatory. This becomes possible when the security establishment has C4ISR (command, control, communication, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) structures in place. Space technologies is an important constituent in this regard. Realising the importance of C4ISR to develop network-centric military architecture, India is found using the potential of ISRO for this purpose. Universally, space technologies are getting used by developed militaries in the arena of remote sensing, communications, navigation, and meteorology and for electronic, signals and open-source intelligence. From the 1970s to the 1990s, Indian armed forces were dependent more on tweaking the available civilian data for their military use. As India’s armed forces started modernizing and also as ISRO started transforming, military requirements of satellite systems have also started becoming clearer.

The 1991 Gulf war, actually showcased how best the space technologies could be used in warfighting. Learning from this presently, many states have started investing in space architecture required for the military utility. The 1991 Gulf war, must have influenced the Indian military thinking too. More importantly using space technologies for reconnaissance and for military commutations and navigation is not violating any international treaty mechanism or any broad global norms on the use of space. Hence, having realised that the use of satellites in assistance for the military establishment is ‘just’, India decided to take help from its existing space architecture for security. India is yet to establish any separate space organisation which could exclusively design, develop and launch systems required for the military needs. Currently, ISRO is catering for India’s strategic needs.

Since the 1980s, India has launched more than 40 communications satellites, of which about ten are operational as of 2020. However, the first communication satellite exclusively for military use was launched only during September 2013: GSAT-7, a multi-band military communications satellite developed by ISRO for use by the Indian Navy. This satellite is known by the name Rukmini (also as INSAT-4F). Rukmini can simultaneously network about 60-70 ships and 70-80 aircraft seamlessly. This satellite has nearly 2,000 nautical mile 'footprint' over the Indian Ocean Region. This satellite has a life of around ten years and it is expected that ISRO would be launching a replacement satellite for Indian Navy in coming few years.

ISRO has launched its second military communication satellite, GSAT-7A, on December 19, 2018. This geostationary satellite has a lifespan of eight years and has been exclusively launched for Indian Air Force (IAF). It is providing services in Ku-band and offers a secure mode of communication which is possibly facilitating exclusive-frequency flight communications for the IAF. The IAF’s various bases are spread across India, including deserts, jungles and mountains. The Ku-band links are known to offer uninterrupted connectivity that is less susceptible to disruptions caused by rain. This satellite is helping IAF to link its airbases, radar stations, Airborne Early Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft, and manage the activities of drones. India is expected to launch one or two more military communications satellites in the near future, with the Indian Army expected to be the next beneficiary.

Remote sensing is one arena where ISRO has developed significant expertise over the years. ISRO has more than ten operational remote sensing satellites currently, which provide data in a variety of spatial, spectral, and temporal resolutions. This information is used for many purposes, such as land and water resource management, drought/irrigation monitoring, urban planning, forest surveys, cop health monitoring, identifying mineral deposits, and coastal studies.

Some of these satellites also have a specific defence utility. On October 22, 2001, the Technology Experiment Satellite (TES) was launched was launched by ISRO. This satellite had a resolution of lesser than one meter. India’s pursuit to use satellite technology for defence in a very systematic way could be said to have begun with the launch of this satellite. Over the last decade, India has established one major constellation of satellites called Cartosat (cartographic satellites), which largely is known to have defence applications:


Name of Satellite

Launch Date



Cartosat 1

5 May 2005

2.5 m



10 Jan 2007

< 1 m



28 Apr 2008

80 cm

Perceived to be dedicated satellite for the Indian Armed Forces


12 Jul 2010

< 80 cm



22 Jun 2016

< 80 cm

Used for weather mapping too


15 Feb 2017

< 80 cm



23 Jun 2017

< 80 cm


Cartosat 2F

12 Jan 2018

< 80 cm


Cartosat 3

27 Nov 2019

around 25 cm

For land & infrastructure mapping, enhanced disaster monitoring, and damage assessment


There is a possibility that Cartosat 3A and Cartosat 3B could be launched during the year 2021.All Cartographic satellite are dual purpose satellites and would help both the civil and military sector.  Apart from Cartosat, ISRO has another important group of satellites called radar satellites or RISAT. This is a series of radar imaging reconnaissance satellites built to provide all-weather and day & night surveillance using synthetic aperture radars. For many years ISRO’s focus was towards the development of optical sensors for their various remote sensing (earth observation) satellites. However, these sensors have limitations and are less effective during bad weather, and for collecting information with typical terrain and topographic features. India’s geographical boundaries with the neighbouring states have features like seas, deserts, snowclad peaks and thickly vegetated mountain ranges. Obviously, getting correct information from these areas, especially during night-time, was a challenge. Hence, ISRO started developing SAR (synthetic aperture radar) technology.    

The impetus to acquire radar satellites commenced owing to an unfortunate incidence. During November 2008, India experienced one of the major terror attacks in its history. India’s financial capital Mumbai witnessed 12 coordinated shooting and bombing attacks lasting for four days and killing more than 160 people. Because of security challenges, an immediate need for reconnaissance satellites was felt, and India imported the SAR sensor from Israel. With this the first radar satellite was launched during 2009. The table below provides the details about India’s radar satellite inventory.


Name of Satellite

Launch date





20 Apr 2009

434 km at inclination of 41 degree

300 kg

SAR from Israel


26 Apr 2012

536 km, inclination of 97.5 degrees

1,858 kg (including 950 kg of SAR payload mass)

Indian SAR


22 May 2019

556 km at an inclination of 37 degree

615 kg

Indian SAR


11 Dec 2019

576 km at an inclination of 37 degree

628 kg

Indian SAR


Now called EOS-01

07 Nov 2020



The satellite series is renamed as Earth Observation Satellite (EOS)






Proposed, could be launched during the first quarter of 2021

All these satellites are very high-resolution satellites and have a design life of five years. There was some controversy with respect to RISAT-1, when there emerged some reports that around September 2016, possibly owing to debris, this satellite had gone dead. However, ISRO never confirmed these reports and declared that the satellite had become dysfunctional. A lot of gaps in intelligence gathering still exist owing to the revisit rate, hence there is a need for India to undertake other two proposed launches at the earliest.

It needs to be emphasised that India’s remote sensing satellite inventory is grossly insufficient for India’s existing and futuristic needs. India shares borders with seven nations, stretching for more than 15,000 kms on land, as well as more than 7,500 kms 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. Most of these borders are open borders, and the intrusion of terrorists can take place from those regions too. To have all-terrain, all-weather, continuous monitoring of these borders, India needs many more sophisticated remote sensing satellites.

For militaries, satellite-based navigation is the need of the hour. Globally available satellite systems have limitations in regards to military specific use. Hence, India has put in place an Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) which is also called as NAVIC (NAVigation with Indian Constellation). This is a seven-satellite regional system, with all seven satellites currently in orbit. This system offers two levels of service, a “standard positioning service” for civilian use and a “restricted service” that is encrypted for military use. Particularly, post Uri attacks and Doklam crisis possibly the Indian government is mulling for aa dedicated satellite bandwidth for the Border Security Force (BSF), Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) for better border surveillance. This is expected to enable the border guarding forces to monitor the movement of Pakistani and Chinese troops in real time, track terrorist infiltration, map terrain and communicate effectively in remote areas.

In fact, much before these attacks there was an increasing realisation that the border forces have issues with communications and real time intelligence and there is a need for find a solution for such challenges. In view of this it was proposed that there is a requirement for dedicated bandwidth on 5 different beams for various Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs). In this regard, compatible sets are being designed by Defence Electronics Application Laboratory (DEAL), Dehradun and manufactured by Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL). For this purpose, the Ministry for Home Affairs (MHA) had constituted a Task Force under the Chairmanship of Joint Secretary (Border Management), members from ISRO and BSF to identify areas for application of Space Technology based tools for effective border management and surveillance. The report of the Task Force has been submitted to Secretary (Space) and Chairman, ISRO, on 8.9.2017. It is expected that ISRO would launch a dedicated satellite in near future to exclusively cater for the MHA requirements.  As such BSF has already established a Laser Wall project where the satellite technologies assistance is visible. Since barbed wire fencing could not be installed in many infiltration prone areas due to treacherous terrain or marshy riverine topography an eight infra-red and laser beam intrusion detection system has been put in place. This system is “up and working” along as many vulnerable and sensitive areas of the international border (IB) in Punjab. This Laser walls (or fence) is being monitored by BSF possibly by using satellite technologies.

Recently, a Defence Space Agency (DSA) has been established for the Indian Armed Forces which is exclusively looking at the requirements for the militaries from the space domain. Structures like this are relevant to cater for the military needs from the satellites. However, now that India has successfully conducted its anti-satellite test on March 27, 2019the structures like DSA are doing to become insufficient take India’s military space agenda further. This is mainly because the space has emerged as a main domain for the future warfare. Hence, in spite India being against weaponization of space, India has no option to remain prepared for space warfare in the future. Since, China has emerged as one of the key players in the space, India has no option and need to look at the threat of space warfare very seriously. For establishing a strategic space programme, India needs to develop various counter-space capabilities like electromagnetic pulse systems, lasers, jamming techniques and cyber options. In addition, satellite-hardening technologies and space debris removal techniques are required to be mastered, too. Spaceplanes, satellite swarms and launch-on-demand services are required for network-centric warfare. India should also develop the ability for the human spacecraft to move from one orbit to another. Possibly, owing to such challenges India would be required to establish a sperate force called the India Space Force (ISF) in near future.

All in all, space has emerged as an important domain in the military preparedness. Indian armed forces are having increasing dependence on satellite systems. There is a need to enhance the capabilities in space from military perspective. India needs to invest in systems beyond reconnaissance, navigation, and communications systems. India needs to expand its existing infrastructure (related to military space) and add more electronic & signals intelligence satellites and also weather satellites. There is a need to develop the ‘launch of demand’ capabilities. India could also invest more towards designing and launching small satellites for specific military needs. There is a clear need for India to increase its investments in the military satellite arena.





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