Musk & Tata Join Hands For India’s 1st Private-Sector Spy Satellite; Race Heats-Up Between Delhi & Beijing

China has made giant strides in building a network of ‘spy satellites,’ a moniker given to satellites used for reconnaissance and surveillance.

As the ties between the two countries have been strained for some time now, India has roped in private players to build military-grade spy satellites for the country, the first in the series built by Tata Advanced Systems Ltd (TASL) is ready for launch in April.

This is an important development for India, which has been tapping the potential of its private industry to meet its growing needs in the space sector.

The Russian telegram news channels are abuzz that India will this year surpass Russia in terms of launches. India has been striving to fill the void created by Russia in the international launch market after the invasion of Ukraine.

But, equally important is the emphasis India is laying on using space for its military ends. Apart from keeping a tab on the adversary’s mobilization and troop movements, the satellites will be used for satellite-linked unmanned aerial vehicles that the Indian Armed Forces will be inducted into its fleet.

The Indian forces are already inducting Israeli Hermes-900 and will be inducting the American MQ-9B in the future.

India’s number of satellites is way less than those operated by China. According to the Military Balance report published by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, China operates 136 reconnaissance satellites in 2022, up from 66 in 2019.

Against this backdrop, the first private spy satellite launch will be a significant milestone for India. According to the Economic Times, the first spy satellite built by TASL is being sent to Florida, where it will be launched in a SpaceX rocket by April.

Reconnaissance satellites monitor developments ranging from troop movements to missile launches from an altitude of 500 kilometers. The information is useful for India to keep an eye on enemy assets during a military conflict and target them should the need arise.

India has been dependent on the US for getting reconnaissance data. The armed forces needed to give exact coordinates and timings for the foreign vendors to obtain imagery. The ground control will be set up in Bengaluru and used to process the imagery sent by the satellite.

Colonel Vinayak Bhatt, retired Indian Army official and seasoned image analyst, called it a “great move.” “We also need more EO (Earth Observation) satellites with higher temporal resolution. We need more data downloading stations and more image analysts. Today, we require AI-assisted satellites that could give an analyst an added advantage over our adversaries,” Colonel Bhatt told the EurAsian Times.

Earth Observation (EO) refers to using remote sensing technologies to monitor land, marine (seas, rivers, lakes), and atmosphere. In the face of simmering tensions with China, India has launched a series of radar imaging satellites (RISAT), expanding the fleet from 12 satellites in 2019 to 16.

India had built RISAT-2 at an accelerated pace following the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. It is India’s first dedicated reconnaissance satellite. The satellite was used for border surveillance, anti-infiltration, and anti-terrorist operations and was deactivated in October 2022.

RISAT-2B, launched in May 2019 from SDSC, is the third satellite in the series and mounts an indigenous X-Band radar. The satellite is used for obtaining high-resolution spot images of the order of 0.5 x 0.3 m resolution and has a mission life of five years. RISAT-2BR1 was launched on 11 December 2019 from SDSC. This satellite also has a mission life of five years and is for similar use, with a resolution of just 0.35 m.

Beijing is expanding its fleet of electronic intelligence (ELINT) and signals intelligence (SIGINT) satellites capable of intercepting electronic information. The People’s Liberation Army’s intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance satellites: “could support monitoring, tracking, and targeting of US and allied forces worldwide, especially throughout the Indo-Pacific region,” a report by the US Defense Department released in October 2023 elaborated.

India’s premier intelligence-gathering satellite, EMISAT, has taken a good look at the positions of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in occupied Tibet.

India also has an ELINT satellite, launched in 2019, which underscored its usefulness by passing over the PLA position in Tibet near Arunachal Pradesh. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has launched 29 satellites, including EMISAT, from the US, Lithuania, Spain, and Switzerland. This was the first time the Indian space agency launched these satellites in three different orbits.

The EMISAT satellite had DRDO’s ELINT package “Kautilya,” which can help measure the electromagnetic spectrum and read the location of radar emitters, both ground and naval.

The Ka-Band frequency of the satellite allows it to scan through inclement weather and various terrain configurations with ease. This satellite also has a mission duration of five years.

The RISAT-2BR1 carried out a pass over the PLA-Navy (PLAN) base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa. The base is the PLAN’s first overseas military base. On July 11, 2020, EMISAT carried out a pass near the Pakistan Navy’s Ormara base (Jinnah Naval Base). The base also has submarine berthing facilities and has reportedly hosted Chinese submarines in recent years.

The Space Age For Indian Military

The Indian Armed Forces’ ambition to have a dedicated satellite network is finally being realized. In 2023, the Ministry of Defence inked a Rs. 2963 Crores contract with New Space India Limited (NSIL), the commercial arm of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), for the development of the Geostationary Satellite (GSAT)-7B. This would equip the Indian Army (IA) with a dedicated advanced communications satellite.

The GSAT-7B will help the Indian Army manage intra- and inter-service communication in network-centric warfare. The Indian Defense Acquisition Council granted Acceptance of Necessity (AoN) for the GSAT-7B under the Buy Indian (Indigenously Designed, Developed, and Manufactured-IDDM) category in 2022.

leo satellite china
Representational Image

The Indian Army conducted a comprehensive study of network-centric warfare and standalone cyber, communications, and electronic warfare systems deployed in the Russia-Ukraine war.

Following this, it proposed to establish robust and secure satellite communications to link forces deployed in the battle area with their headquarters stationed in the interiors. The violent standoff with China has triggered the Indian Army’s thinking on these lines.

The GSAT-7B is expected to be deployed by 2026. It will be the first-ever indigenously designed, developed, and manufactured satellite in the five-ton category and will give the Indian Army the capacity to see beyond the horizon.

Currently, India has only two dedicated military satellites- the GSAT-7 (Rukmini) and GSAT-7A (Angry Bird)- used by the Indian Navy and Air Force, respectively.

Till now, the Indian Army has been dependent on GSAT-7A and other surveillance satellites like RISAT 2BR1 for communication and surveillance operations. The Indian Navy has been using Rukmini, which has a wide range and a footprint of nearly 2,000 nautical miles in the Indian Ocean Region since 2013.

The IAF’s Angry Bird was launched in 2018 and has helped to boost the connectivity between ground radar stations, airbases, and airborne early warning and control aircraft. It also helps in satellite-controlled operations of UAVs.

  • Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
  • She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at)
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