ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A recent deal to borrow $13 million from China to fund two satellite ground control stations may ultimately lead to more advanced space capabilities for Pakistan’s military.
On Oct. 29, Beijing agreed to lend Islamabad the money to build a main ground station in Karachi and a backup in Lahore for the Chinese-built Paksat-1R communication satellite.
Plans call for more satellites, with remote sensing, image-gathering, guidance and ballistic missile launch detection capabilities, according to Haris Kahn of the Pakistan Military Consortium think tank.
“These capabilities are vital to [Pakistan’s] defense, as in some areas, it is at a clear disadvantage with archrival India, which is already able to obtain images from surveillance satellites under its own control,” Khan said. “Being able to match India’s capabilities will have more of a stabilizing effect on the South Asian region.”
Officials with the Pakistani military were unavailable to comment on these aspirations.
Arshad Siraj, secretary of Pakistan’s national space agency, the Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Corp. (SUPARCO), confirmed these are the organization’s long-term aims, but downplayed any military application. Siraj said the focus is mainly on applications for “socio-economic development” and “disaster management.”
Another South Asia analyst, Brian Cloughley, said SUPARCO “has some world-class scientists and is capable of designing satellites,” and he is “sure they have already done so.” But developing more advanced capabilities would require outside help, he said.
Islamabad’s options are limited by Washington’s courtship of India and its sway over other potential Western partners, he said.
“The only alternative is China,” which stands to reap satellite data in return for technical assistance, Cloughley said.
“There is little doubt that satellite cooperation extends to provision and exchange of information gathered by such means,” he said.
The lack of one capability in particular — satellite-signal relay — is holding back Pakistan’s unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which are currently limited to line-of-sight communications. This may be the reason Pakistan’s Burraq long-range armed UAV has not yet entered service.
At least one UAV industry leader believes satellites will not meet that need any time soon.
Paksat-1R, a DFH-4-type satellite built by China Great Wall Industry Corp., carries up to 30 transponders, 18 of which will use the Ku-band that is used to communicate with UAVs. If the satellite goes up as planned next year, the beam will be able to cover the wider South Asia region and parts of the Middle East, Central Asia and China.
But the satellite’s planned orbit will take it far to the southwest, almost over Kenya and looking at Pakistan with a considerable slant angle, said Haroon Qureshi, managing director of East West Infinity, one of Pakistan’s leading UAV and electronics firms.
That distance means Pakistani medium-altitude, long-endurance UAVs, which will likely carry a dish antenna or phased array no larger than about 40 or 45 centimeters, will not be able to maintain a continuous link to the satellite, Qureshi said.
Qureshi noted that the U.S. MQ-9 Reaper UAV has a 1.2-meter Ku-band antenna.
He concluded that Paksat-1R will remain a civilian television and data relay satellite, replacing Paksat-1, a communication satellite leased from Hughes Global Services.
It will, however, fulfill one important function by holding onto the only geostationary slot left for Pakistan.
Pakistan “lost three slots when it failed to place a satellite in the allocated physical location on the Clarke Belt in the space before the deadline ran out in the ’90s,” he said.
Qureshi said he was not entirely convinced of Pakistan’s need for a long-range UAV.
“Perhaps in the next two to three decades, when the rest of the world has a mixed fleet of manned/unmanned aircraft flying joint missions, Pakistan may also feel the need for a 1,000-kilometer-range UAV that must be supported by a satellite communication link,” he said. “We may see a Paksat 3 or 4 with mission-specific antennas to support such |programs.”
Until then, Qureshi said, UAVs built to relay communications could do the job.
The Pakistani “theater of operations is relatively predefined both on the western and the eastern borders,” other than our internal war on terror, he said, and “this planned theater of operations can be covered by flying two UAVs in tandem, one over the theater of interest [even down to low altitudes] where as the second could fly 150 to 200 kilometers behind in more friendly territory at a high altitude to relay the communication to the ground station.”