On Aug. 30, India’s GSAT-7 communications satellite was successfully launched by the European space consortium Arianespace from Kourou spaceport in French Guiana. India is not a novice to the field of communications satellites; however, this particular satellite is significant due to its strategic character. 

GSAT-7 was designed and developed by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and is expected to operate for seven years in its orbital slot at 74 degrees east, providing UHF, S-band, C-band and Ku-band relay capacity. What is exclusive about this satellite is that it is a dedicated system for use by the Indian navy — the first custom satellite made available for the Indian armed forces. Its Ku-band capacity is expected to provide high-density data transmission facility, both for voice and video. This satellite has been provided with additional power to communicate with smaller and mobile (not necessarily land-based) terminals. 

India’s navy has a long history of investments in technology. In fact, India’s maritime history dates back more than 5,000 years. Ancient Indian scriptures have various references to ocean expeditions and activities associated with the navies and their investments in innovative technologies. The Royal Indian Navy established in the 19th century during the British occupation became the Indian navy on Jan. 26, 1950, when India became a republic. India’s navy is one of the most important arms of India’s security architecture and one of largest navies in the world, with an array of ships and submarines in its inventory. India’s first aircraft carrier was commissioned in 1987. Over the years the Indian navy has played a significant role both during wartime and peacetime. It did a commendable job during the 2005 Asian tsunami relief effort and also in various antipiracy operations. It is obvious that this technology-savvy service would demand a dedicated and secure communications system for its activities. 

This dedicated satellite is expected to provide the Indian navy with an approximately 3,500- to 4,000-kilometer footprint over the Indian Ocean region and enable real-time networking of all its operational assets in the water (and land). It also will help the navy to operate in a network-centric atmosphere. The Indian peninsula is an extremely tricky region for operations because of its geographic location. One of the deadliest terrorist operations on Indian soil, the infamous 2008 Mumbai attack, was launched using the Arabian Sea route. It is expected that GSAT-7 will be helpful for gathering communications and electronic intelligence in respect to moving platforms in the sea, particularly through its UHF facility. GSAT-7 also will help the navy to monitor activities over both the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal region. Broadly, India’s strategic area of interest extends from the Persian Gulf to the Malacca Strait, and now a significant portion of this region will be covered by the navy’s satellite. 

GSAT-7 is the 71st satellite designed by ISRO since 1975 and highlights the expertise the agency has gained in satellite manufacturing over a period of three to four decades. This is also the 17th ISRO spacecraft lofted by an Ariane vehicle. Arianespace has launched a few “made in ISRO” satellites for ISRO’s foreign clients as well. This Indo-French space collaboration has continued since 1981. However, this dependence on Arianespace also demonstrates India’s limitations with respect to launching heavy satellites using an indigenous launcher. India successfully demonstrated its rocket science capabilities in 1980 when it became a spacefaring nation. Unfortunately, for all these years India has been successful in launching satellites weighing less than about 2,000 kilograms using its own launchers, but it has been largely unsuccessful with its Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) program. This is because India is yet to master the art of developing cryogenic engines. Only recently, on Aug. 19, India was forced to cancel its GSLV D5 flight just two hours before launch because a leak was found in the second stage of the rocket. 

It was reported that GSAT-7 had been ready for launch since 2010 but the unavailability of the indigenous launcher was the issue. It is obvious that India would have been interested to launch this strategic asset from its own soil using its own launcher. However, the failure to develop a fully reliable GSLV platform was responsible for the delay and India finally had to turn to a foreign agency to undertake the launch.  

Overall, India appears to be a late starter in the arena of exploiting the dual-use capability of satellite technologies for military purposes. The threat matrix for India indicates that it needs to remain prepared to face the challenges of both conventional and unconventional threats. Since its independence in 1947 it has fought four-and-a-half wars with its neighbors and has encountered numerous terrorist attacks. Also, India’s geographical location — a peninsular region surrounded by the earthquake-prone Himalayas — poses disaster-related challenges not only for its civilian administration but also for the military. Naturally, satellite technology will play an important role in enhancing India’s military preparedness, and the investments in GSAT-7 should be viewed with this backdrop.  

Ajey Lele is a research fellow at India’s Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses and author of the book “Asian Space Race: Rhetoric or Reality?”

Ajey Lele is a research fellow at India’s Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses and author of the book “Asian Space Race: Rhetoric or Reality?”