India’s Space Capability: Warning Signals Amidst Success – Analysis


By Air Marshal M. Matheswaran (Retd)

The success of the Mars mission of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has elicited singular praise from the prime minister and all quarters in the country. The mission is certainly a great achievement, considering the fact that it was done within limited budget and against enormous technological challenges. However, India’s space capability needs to be seen in the correct perspective in order to draw the right conclusions for addressing its related policy issues. Space capability has evolved over the last half a century to play a dominant role in the country’s security, economic, developmental and technological spheres. Great powers of this century will have to be dominant players in space.

Very often space capability of a nation is measured from a military perspective. But we forget that the real space security is achieved through strong economic and technological controls in the space domain. This is where ISRO’s performance in the last decade gives cause for concern, particularly when ISRO is generally perceived as an efficient organisation characterised by its methodical planning and development. However, a recent Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report (2014) belies this image. The report clearly blames ISRO for its poor planning and inability to meet India’s telecommunication requirements that has forced Indian TV channels to become dependent on foreign satellites for transponder capacities.

The ‘Digital India’ dream of the current government can become a reality only if ISRO enables rapid growth of India’s TV industry through satellite-based telecommunications, in particular the Direct-to-Home (DTH) segment. For example, the Ku-band has vital importance in the field of data provisions, and satellite is the most economically viable and efficient means to reach the nook and corner of the country. Exploitation of the full spectrum of the Ku-band by utilising FSS (fixed-satellite service) and BSS (broadcasting satellite service) bands can easily make good the requirements of the DTH players, VSAT players, and the strategic users such as defence and other governmental agencies. Also, the dream of Edusat reaching every village can be fulfilled at a low cost in this manner.

Space technologies have evolved and matured significantly over the last two to three decades. Today, inputs from space or to put it more correctly, space services have become indispensable facets of our everyday life. The economic and commercial aspects of space power have become critical elements of national power. Space security of a nation, therefore, depends on the extent of dominance it exerts over space commerce. For example, television is an important social media that is critically dependent on space services. The rapidly expanding television services are dependent upon satellite-based transponders. From economic and security perspective India should have had majority of the TV channels beamed through its own satellites. To achieve this it should have created the requisite space capability to be a major player in the space services market. However, as the CAG report points out, India has failed to emerge as a significant player in the global satellite market.

The Indian television industry is a rapidly expanding one. From 300-odd channels in 2008, the television industry more than doubled to 821 licensed channels in 2012. This is expected to grow to 1,600 channels by 2017, of which 1,300 are expected to be operational. The channels operate, largely, on C band and also on extended-C and Ku bands. The DTH services operate on Ku band and this segment is likely to grow at a rapid rate. Before 1999, a “Closed Sky” policy was in vogue wherein the entire transponder requirements were met by ISRO satellites. Hiring of transponders from foreign satellites was not allowed. However, seeing the mismatch between a rapidly growing television industry and ISRO’s launch plans, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting asked for an “Open Sky” policy for hiring of foreign transponders. In spite of Department of Space’s opposition, the government of India took a practical stand and declared an “Open Sky” policy in 2000 with a caveat that all hiring be done for short periods through ISRO. The objective was to shift to Indian satellites at the earliest, which has not materialised.

The CAG report has rightly blamed ISRO for poor planning and execution. It had planned for a target of 500 transponders on domestic satellites in the 11th plan period (2007-12) and further increasing it to 800 transponders in the 12th plan period (2012-17). In practice, it has been able to operationalise only 187 transponders during the 11th plan period. For example, in the fast growing and strategically important Ku-band segment ISRO has been able to provide only 48 Ku-band transponders in the 11th plan period as against the planned target of 218 transponders (just 22% of the target), thus forcing DTH operators to shift to foreign satellites. All this has translated into higher costs as well as a huge revenue loss for the country.

Today, majority of Indian commercial television channels are beamed through foreign satellite transponders. In C-band, only 160 channels out of 660 operational channels are carried by transponders on Indian satellites, which is barely 25%. Similarly, out of 76 Ku-band transmitters used by DTH (as of July 2013), only 19 (25%) are on Indian satellites. This shortfall is largely due to ISRO launching only three satellites as against the planned target of nine satellites in the 11th plan period. The failure to meet planned targets and the problem needs to be put in the correct perspective.

For long (in the early 1990s) India was seen as a strong contender to capture the growing satellite launch market by virtue of its low cost and better success rate. But this has failed to materialise so far. To this day India’s launch capability is limited to its workhorse PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle), which can put only up to 1.5-ton satellites into orbit. The major launch market relates to the geostationary orbits, which will require ISRO to cross the 4-ton payload barrier in its GeoSynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) launch capability. ISRO’s attempts to achieve this through cryogenic engine development, with Russian cooperation, in the early 1990s were scuttled by the Americans using the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) provisions to force Russian withdrawal. It was known that this would push ISRO behind by more than two decades and thus, put India out of the global satellite launch market as a strategic player.

ISRO’s GSLV is slated to be the main launch vehicle. Its successful launch in January this year is just the preliminary step of proving its cryogenic development. It will need few more developmental launches (over 2-3 years), before it can establish its payload launch capability of at least 3-tons. There is also the problem of poor reliability and longevity of INSAT (Indian National Satellite System) satellites, which reduces further the Indian transponder availability.

ISRO’s failure to effectively strategise its transponder availability has hurt Indian strategic interests and turned out to be a windfall for foreign satellite operators. Not only have they garnered more business but have also occupied five orbital slots in the Indian skies, and this would become difficult to get vacated in the future. That Antrix (marketing arm of ISRO) has negotiated these contracts for its revenue generation is no consolation. ISRO could have addressed this issue by launching more of its Geo satellites through EU or others so as to ensure higher transponder availability and keep strategic orbital slots in our control.

It will need to put more focus to accelerate India’s GSLV capability and satellite reliability. The issue is stark and clear – 75% of transponder capability on foreign satellites is not only a commercial loss but more importantly it is a huge strategic and security risk for India’s space capability and national interests.

*Air Marshal Matheswaran (Retd), was Deputy Chief at HQ Integrated Defence Staff dealing with Policy, Plans, and Force Development from 2012 until retirement in March 2014. He is currently an Advisor to Chairman HAL and Advisor to Aerospace Task Force of FICCI. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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