Former Research Assistant, IPCS
On 20 January 2008, India and Israel successfully forged a partnership in the space sector when an Israeli spy satellite was launched into space by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). The Techsar satellite was launched 9:15 am local time (0345 GMT) from the Sriharikota space station in southern India.
The significance of the satellite launch is magnified by the fact that this launch was earlier stalled owning to intense objections by Arab states which viewed the satellite to be a direct threat to their defence integrity. An earlier report in an Indian news media claimed that the satellite launch vehicle was dismantled at the behest of American pressure. Such was the pressure on the Indian government to not support the Israeli space aspirations, that according to a senior Indian intelligence official, the launch was "dismantled" completely to prevent even a future launch if the government changed its mind (DNA, 4 December 2007).
The satellite launch is another feather in the growing cooperation between the Jewish nation and India, an alliance which has culminated in Israel becoming the second largest defence supplier to India.
It makes sense for the Indians and the Israeli's to forge an alliance particularly in the space sector. India has been developing its space program as early as the 1950's and while initially catering to civilian purposes; ISRO has also been involved in upgrading India's military prowess. For example, the Agni missile is based on a successful civilian satellite launch vehicle. India can offer its space expertise in exchange for Israeli expertise in their Unmanned Ariel Vehicle Program or else work towards a commercial arrangement, which would significantly boost the international commercial viability of ISRO.
Indeed, the interest of Israel and India in space cooperation was broached when the two countries signed a cooperation agreement in November 2002. When visiting Israel in August 2003, Krishnaswami Kasturirangan, former chairman of the India Space Research Organization, expressed interest in the Israeli concept of small satellites and their employment, adding: ''Israel has much to offer in terms of cooperative programs for the future.'' The Israeli Ofeq spy satellite had attracted Indian attention even before this visit.
Owing to Israel's precarious security environment, the need for high resolution and timely imagery from enemy territory has led them to develop exceptional imaging technology. Indeed, the Israeli Spy Satellite Ofek-7 was instrumental in helping destroy a suspected nuclear bunker in Syria in September 2007.
The new satellite Tecsar is said to be technologically far superior to its Ofek predecessor. It would be the first satellite to incorporate Synthetic Aperture Capabilities. This feature allows the camera to take pictures of targets under cloudy and foggy conditions (Jerusalem Post, 20 September 2007). It would therefore place Israel in the small list of countries with imaging radar reconnaissance satellites able to distinguish camouflaged vehicles from rocky terrain, for example, and to see at night and through clouds and foliage. In addition, the aperture radar has 1-meter resolution and differing spot, mosaic and strip modes. These modes provide a multitude of different radar aspect angles to illuminate targets on the ground. And while further technical details of the satellite remain confidential, it is believed that the satellite also carries a powerful panchromatic camera.
According to some, the Israeli decision to use an Indian launch vehicle is based on the inability of the Israeli Shavit booster to fire the 600lb satellite into space. However, Israeli critics have observed that the decision can be traced to Israel strengthening ties with a major power other than the US. (ABC News, 27 September 2007).
The launch is a boon for India, for according to details of an agreement, Israel would be sharing the satellite imagery with India and in addition, it would provide a financial windfall for ISRO. The need for such a satellite is being felt by India, which was given a rude shock in 1999, when armed Pakistani intruders established bases deep inside the Indian territory in Kargil. When the Indian satellites were used to map the positions of the insurgents, the pictures were hazy and did not reveal any ground level movement - an intelligence failure which proved critical (DNA, 4 December 2007).
In addition, the launch of the satellite made ISRO richer by about USD$14 million. The launch provided an advertising impetus to the reputation of ISRO in the USD$2.5 billion global commercial satellite launch services (Hindustan Times, 22 January 2008).
With reports that the satellite has already started transmitting high-resolution pictures, the Indian space establishment can be proud of its achievement. In addition, the Indian defence establishment can be commended for having successfully dodged the concerns of its Arab allies while pushing ahead with an alliance which would only mean a win-win situation for India.