NEW DELHI - India on Monday launched an Israeli-made RISAT 2, or radar-imaging
satellite, on board its domestically built rocket the Polar Satellite Launch
Vehicle, from Sriharikota, a barrier island off the southern Indian state of
The launch is seen as a vital step towards securing India's borders and
deterring cross-border infiltration in the wake of the deadly terror strikes
which have rocked India in recent months, particularly the Mumbai attack on
November 26, 2008, that killed up to 200 people and destroyed property worth
The 300-kilogram RISAT will orbit about 550 kilometers above the Earth. It was
designed by Israeli Aerospace Industries and is
equipped with Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) technology. SAR systems, according
to experts, take advantage of the long-range propagation characteristics of
radar signals and the complex information processing capability of modern
digital electronics to provide high-resolution imagery. The photos provided by
the technology have such a high-resolution that even car number plates can be
According to defense experts, it was a lack of the SAR capability in Indian
satellites that stopped the nation from detecting Pakistan militants who had
entrenched themselves in Kashmir prior to the Kargil war, an 11-week conflict
between India and Pakistan in 1999.
The need for satellites with such technology has since been acutely felt in
India. India's current surveillance satellites cannot function to their optimal
level at night or during the monsoon season. The RISAT-2 will also be able to
detect and monitor incoming ballistic missiles.
The RISAT's "all-weather capability" will enable it to process images,
irrespective of cloud cover or inclement weather. In addition to defense and
surveillance, the satellite can be used in disaster management situations like
floods and in agricultural planning, a boon for India where nearly two-thirds
of the populace are farmers.
The new satellite will become part of India's fleet of successfully launched
satellites. India began its space program in 1963, and its ISRO (Indian Space
Research Organization) recently joined the United States, Russia, China,
Ukraine and the European Space Agency in offering commercial satellite launch
The successful launch last November of the Chandrayaan-1, India's first
unmanned moon probe, demonstrated that India had the capability to penetrate
the global satellite market. Chandrayaan-1 made space history as the cheapest
contemporary lunar mission ever launched. With a budget of some $100 million,
its price tag was almost half of China's Chang'e 1 mission ($187 million) and
about one-fifth of Japan's Kayuga ($480 million). Experts say low labor costs
are the major reason for India's comparative price advantage in satellite
production and launching.
The ISRO was initially set up to carry out scientific research, but now also
earns money from commercial launches in a global market worth an estimated $2.5
billion each year.
The RISAT launch also has geopolitical overtones, due to the Israeli
connection. The importance of the satellite has been magnified by the fact that
earlier Indo-Israeli satellite ventures were scrapped due to objections by Arab
states which viewed them as a threat to their "defensive integrity".
The RISAT's launch has given Indo-Israeli relations new momentum in the
strategic areas of space and defense. India helped Israel launch its own spy
satellite TecSAR, another SAR-enabled satellite, last January. In a
controversial break from its longstanding military space policy of strategic
self-reliance, Israel launched TecSAR aboard India's Polar Satellite Launch
Vehicle rather than its indigenous Shavit rocket.
Two more Indo-Israeli satellites will be launched over the next two years,
according to defense ministry sources. Aside from cooperation in space
exploration, India has bought over US$5 billion worth of Israeli military
equipment since 2002. Israel has reportedly helped train Indian military units
and given Indian commandos instruction in counter-terrorist tactics and urban
The beginnings of Indo-Israeli defense cooperation dates to the Kargil era when
the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party government, under premier Atal Bihari
Vajpayee, acquired "anti-terror" Israeli expertise for operations in Kashmir.
During the Kargil conflict, New Delhi sought Israeli support to defend against
a Pakistani invasion. In return, Israel reportedly supplied military equipment
and unmanned aerial vehicles. India has used a variety of Israeli surveillance
devices along its border with Pakistan.
When the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, led by Congress leader
Sonia Gandhi, swept into power in 2004, India-Israeli cooperation in the field
of defense was again pursued. Air-to-surface missiles, anti-missile defense
projects, advanced radars, electronic warfare systems and third-generation
night-fighting capabilities are all on the collaboration agenda. By 2008,
bilateral trade between India and Israel had exceeded $4 billion and Israel was
India's second-largest military supplier.
Heightened fears of terror attacks in India have propelled cooperation with
Israel to greater heights. India's defense budget was ratcheted up 24% this
fiscal year by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's UPA government as its military
fast-tracked acquisitions in the wake of the Mumbai massacre. The $29.4-billion
defense allocation comprises 15% of the entire budget for the financial year
beginning April 1. Finance Minster Pranab Mukherjee has stated that the amount
could be increased even further.
"We are going through tough times," said Mukherjee in February. "The Mumbai
terror attacks have given an entirely new dimension to cross-border terrorism."
Neeta Lal is a widely published writer/commentator who contributes to
many reputed national and international print and Internet publications.