Addressing India’s Space-Based Surveillance And Reconnaissance Needs

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Space-based assets can be considered an enabler of national power. Space assets have been used since the cold war period to support military operations in the field of surveillance, reconnaissance, communication, navigation and meteorology. Space assets are dual-use, which means they can cater to military and civil needs simultaneously. Since the 1960s India’s military and civilian space activities were largely coordinated by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) but as India’s security concerns grew with two seemingly hostile neighbours, India started focusing on strengthening military support capabilities with dedicated command structures in place although these are still at their nascent stage.

Since the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) in 1991, a lot of focus has been on reducing the military decision-making cycle when engaging the opponent on the battlefield. The new technologies are making Network Centric Warfare (NCW) more effective and satellites have played the most important role in enabling and betterment of the NCW as a concept. The satellites in fact can be considered an enabler of the whole NCW concept which is now paving way for Multi-Domain Operations (MDO).

China’s first Anti-Satellite weapon (ASAT) test in the year 2007 prompted India to establish the Integrated Space Cell (ISC) tasked to have efficient utilization of space-based assets for security purposes and also to find ways in order to provide security to these assets. It was the year 2013 when India launched its first dedicated defence satellite for maritime communication amidst of growing influence of China in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). The GSAT-7 is essentially a communication satellite, the satellite was launched in 2013 to support the Network-Centric Operations (NCO) capabilities of the Indian Navy in the IOR. After the launch of the GSAT-7, India undertook more focused development of dual-use satellites as ISRO mastered the satellite and launch vehicle technologies.

Space-based assets can be considered an enabler of national power

The most important development took place on 27th March 2019 when Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) for the first time conducted a kinetic ASAT test. In the test the Prithvi Delivery Vehicle Mark-II (PDV MK-II) ASAT destroyed a Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite named Microsat-R. This test was codenamed “Mission Shakti,” some experts compared this test to the 2007 Chinese ASAT test. It was also reported by a few western media houses like “the diplomat” that India had also carried out a failed first attempt to destroy a satellite in the LEO on February 12, 2019, before mission shakti which was probably the first ASAT test of India but the government of India never acknowledged the claim.

Perhaps more significantly, India established two new space agencies in 2019, the Defense Space Agency (DSA) and the Defense Space Research Organization (DSRO) which are spearheading India’s efforts to utilise space-based assets for defence purposes. In April 2019, the government established the Defence Space Agency, or DSA, to command the space assets of the Army, Navy and Air Force, including the anti-satellite capabilities. Some believe it is an interim arrangement until a full-fledged dedicated Aerospace Command is in place. Later on, in the same year 2019, NATO announced recognizing space as a new operational domain, alongside air, land, maritime and cyberspace. 

At the inaugural session of the Chiefs of Air Staff Conclave, Aero India 2021 which saw participation from approximately 40 countries. The then Chief of Air Staff (CAS) Air Marshal RKS Bhadauria outlined that “to enhance interoperability further we should look at establishing a methodology for sharing ISR grid as and when necessary.” Inspired by IFC-IOR the then CAS possibly realised the need for an Integrated Aerospace Surveillance Grid for shared aerospace awareness in the region and beyond.

Inspired by IFC-IOR the then CAS possibly realised the need for an Integrated Aerospace Surveillance Grid for shared aerospace awareness in the region and beyond


India has a long border which runs 15,106 km and a coastline of about 7516 km, therefore, space-based reconnaissance capabilities for Wide Area Surveillance (WAS) of the important regions become a national security imperative. India has robust reconnaissance capabilities to undertake space-based reconnaissance if required with a handful of surveillance satellites that have the ability to rezendovor out of its path and capture necessary Vital Areas (VA)/ Vital Points (VP) in the neighbouring areas if required.

India needs to have dedicated LEO-based satellites in service first to safeguard the country’s borders and coastlines with near-real-time coverage, then the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) including the vital chokepoints and the rest of the region including China, especially the Tibet region and to some extent the South China Sea (SCS). As far as China is concerned, China is increasingly using satellites for situational awareness, with its help China is seeking to master the sensor-to-shooter loop as part of its informatized operations to further its envelope of A2/AD over the disputed SCS.

Space-based reconnaissance capabilities for Wide Area Surveillance (WAS) of important regions become a national security imperative


China Yaogan Constellation: satellite Observation

To boost the Chinese anti-access and area-denial capabilities by augmenting the Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile systems (ASBM). As of October 2019, China had 15 Yaogan-30 military satellites in orbit. These satellites further assist the ground-launched DF-21D/DF-26B missiles and ship-launched YJ-21 Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile (AShBM) to engage targets, forming China’s backbone in the implementation of Anti Access/Area Denial (A2/D2) over the SCS. It is believed that China will eventually operate 18 triplets of these satellites to counter the American Carrier Strike Group (CSG). The satellite could provide constant surveillance of the Pacific and the SCS and also possibly cover some parts of the northern Indian Ocean.

The Yaogan-30 satellites provide a revisit time of half an hour for an area of interest in SCS that enhance China’s Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA). The U.S. at some point had 9 to 11 ELINT satellites. China aims to have space-based ELINT capabilities covering the whole of the earth, China has shown keen interest in covering the horse latitude; given a cluster of 3 ELINT satellites, the constellation can provide coverage of about 3000 km and more. India requires such satellites in order to strengthen its MDA in the vast IOR supported by ground assets, imagery satellites and global PNT capabilities to ensure effective ISR and long-range Target Acquisition (TA) capabilities at sea.

India has launched the first ELINT satellite called EMISAT in 2019 however only one satellite would not suffice the need. The most important task of ELINT satellite is Direction Finding (DF) for which multiple satellites would be required giving near/real-time surveillance capabilities. The ELINT satellite will also help in providing warning against the enemy’s Air Defence (AD) composition on the ground and use of enemy electronic systems including vital EW and signal support infrastructure used by guided missiles, guided missile launchers, fighter aircraft, their long-range and short-range navigational aids, anti-aircraft and aircraft fire control radars, Etc. The ELINT satellites become important as it has the ability to provide a full snoop into the rival’s EW infrastructure, hence revealing the vital Order of Battle (ORBAT).


It is high time that India acquires dedicated COMINT/SIGINT satellites to help heighten the vigil within and across the country’s international borders. Space-based COMINT/SIGINT satellites form an important asset for strategic reconnaissance. China has the most extensive Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) capability in the Indo-Pacific region as it operates 8 Shijian-6 (probably for ELINT/SIGINT role) and 7 Shijian-11 satellites for the COMINT role as of 2020 in support of the China Communist Party (CCP) ever-growing mobile reconnaissance needs which is subject to China’s internal stability as well as to conduct cross-border reconnaissance. As per some reports, China operates several dozen SIGINT ground stations targeting India, Russia, Taiwan, Japan Etc. and has plans to cover the whole SCS in the coming time.

It is believed that GSAT-6 and 7 have some COMINT capabilities. Reportedly, India is also working on Communication Centric Intelligence Satellite being developed by the DRDO. The CCI-Sat will be able to capture images; eavesdrop on communication (for example, a conversation between two satellite phones) and perform surveillance. It is specially designed to curb terrorist infiltration into India from Pakistan. It was expected to be fully operational by 2014. The subject of satellite COMINT overlaps with the country’s internal surveillance and reconnaissance needs therefore the government needs to ensure effective structures of scrutiny in place while operating these satellites to ensure democratic and liberal principles are secured as outlined by the constitution.


As of 2020, India had at least 17 remote-sensing satellites but most of them were rather dedicated to civilian purposes. India will require a large number of imagery satellites to achieve real-time coverage of areas of concern as mentioned at the starting of the brief. For Wide-Area Surveillance (WAS) 24-hour 7 days a week and near-complete coverage of some areas by LEO-based optical satellites is a need in today’s security scenario.

To enable reasonable military support capabilities, India had 4 CARTOSAT Optical Satellites providing the highest resolution of 0.5-0.65 m, covering 250kms with 1m resolution. Given the revisiting capabilities of the CARTOSAT satellite, it can revisit a particular area every 04 days which means providing images of a particular area every 24 hours with 04 satellites. In 2019, India launched CARTOSAT-3 which can provide an image resolution of 0.25m, which can be considered as best in the world. Other than this India also had 1 RESOUCESAT-2A optical imaging satellite operational in orbit that provides an image resolution of 2.25m and a recently launched Hyperspectral satellite. India had also operationalised Radar Satellite (SAR) called RISAT2A.


Given the novel profile of India in space-based surveillance systems, India has still a long way to go. Consider the Hyperspectral satellite which India launched in December 2018- known as HysIS as compared to China’s Commercial Remote-Sensing Satellite System (CCRS) a Hyperspectral satellite which was launched in 2016 can collect data on 328 electromagnetic bands as compared to 55 spectral bands of HysIS, offering a very high resolution of up to 15 meters as compared to 30m of HysIS.

China is working on a satellite network project in 2025 that may encompass at least 138 satellites that can provide all-day, all-weather image acquisition capability to observe any part of the world with 10 minutes revisit capability, as part of its Jilin program. The Jilin-1 microsatellites can transmit panchromatic images with a resolution ranging from 0.50 to 0.75 meters. Some reports state that China is also working on a satellite-based LIDAR system to enable it to track submarines at a depth of 500 m with help of satellites. Even U.S. and Russia had tried to develop such a system.

Like China’s Gaofen-4 Geostationary surveillance satellite, India has a geostationary surveillance satellite called GISAT-1, total of two such satellites are planned to be made operational for providing 24×7 coverage of the region. The GISAT is the first Indian imaging satellite class for geostationary orbit with a high temporal resolution, meant for providing close to 24×7 imaging. It is considered better than its counterpart Gaofen satellite of China. The GISAT carries an imaging payload consisting of multi-spectral (visible, near-infrared and thermal), multi-resolution from 50 m to 1.5 km. It will provide pictures of the area of interest on a near real-time basis including border areas under cloud-free conditions, at frequent intervals, to some estimate providing selected sector-wise images every 5 minutes.

Better up-linking and down-linking speeds from such Earth Observation satellites can bolster with the use of Terminal and Data Relay Satellites (TDRS). India will eventually require 3 TDRS satellites in orbit as per a study conducted by the National Institute of Advance Studies (NIAS), Bengaluru.

Given the novel profile of India in space-based surveillance systems, India has still a long way to go


India does not have space-based ballistic missile tracking capabilities despite being surrounded by two nuclear-armed countries. India should have 24×7 surveillance over the possible launch sites of Pakistan and China. China is working to develop a space-based early warning capability that could support these operations in the future. China has launched six satellites in the TJS series since 2015, and all are widely speculated to have early-warning capabilities. The TJS 2, TJS 5, and TJS 6 satellites appear to be of the same type, likely with missile warning sensors. Low-resolution illustrations of TJS 6 satellite show payloads that are similar to infrared instruments onboard U.S. military early warning satellites. It may be a technology demonstrator but India cannot remain behind in this technology given the number of threats.

As Gp. Capt. GD Sharma at the Centre for Joint Warfare Studies (CENJOWS) notes that India’s capability in the surveillance and reconnaissance part of the ISR is close to the world standard except that the thermal (infrared) part of the spectrum is poor and needs to be strengthened for use by BMD systems. Hence, BMD-assisted space detection should be high on India’s priority list. India’s BMD system, once deployed, should include sensors, space-based surveillance, monitoring and detection systems, ground- and space-based tracking systems, intelligence assessment centres, command and control centres, and interceptor units. The SIGINT and ELINT satellites can assist to provide missile launch surveillance and early warning capability which naturally would strengthen the nuclear deterrence and missile defence posture.

The U.S. on other hand is developing a complex web of satellites to provide missile early warning which is seen as part of strengthening the defences against not only ballistic missiles but also hypersonic missiles. It is working on a Space-based Early Warning System as part of Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS). The Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor (HBTSS) satellites will be cued by SBIRS, the Defense Support Program Satellites, and the Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared system to detect and track missiles from their earliest stages of launch through interception. Reportedly, Russia is also keen to develop such a system but is unable to make credible headways in this direction because of ongoing sanctions imposed on Russia due to Russia-Ukraine War.

India does not have space-based ballistic missile tracking capabilities despite being surrounded by two nuclear-armed countries


The Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) is the fourth and final “foundational” understanding the US has with India. Under the BECA, the two countries can exchange maps, nautical and aeronautical charts, commercial and other unclassified imagery, geophysical, geomagnetic and gravity data and more with each other. The inputs provided under BECA by the US space-based assets can significantly bolster India’s space-based ISR capabilities and mission planning. The BECA can give India access to classified geospatial data as well as critical information having significant military applications. With this India will be able to keep a close watch on the movements of Chinese warships in the Indian Ocean and vital Pakistani installations.

While here talking about space-based assets, the US aerial, undersea and ocean surveillance systems are also considered top-notch and can provide crucial inputs. The US U2 plane has been conducting reconnaissance operations across the world; it has world’s highest-flying UAVs, the fleet of Poseidon aircraft along with Triton UAVs have been conducting surveillance across the seas, after operating SOSUS undersea surveillance network, it is now upgrading its undersea surveillance grids, its cyber-surveillance capabilities (CYBINT) which shall also be covered under the BECA. The combined inputs in reference to BECA can have a force multiplier effect, with relevance to the tactical, operational and strategic domains. Further, engagement with QUAD-like platforms can increase the quantum of information sharing and also help to realise the concept of Indo-Pacific Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA).

However, all this is possible only when the US political priorities match with that of India otherwise the experience of 1999 Kargil is still remembered by the Indian strategic community when the US denied GPS access to India making our aircraft, missiles and other systems almost blind in midst of war. While BECA provides a force multiplier solution but we must understand that in this multipolar world, the key to survival is ‘Atmanirbharta’. India cannot expect a second country to fight its wars. Such help is of immense importance but will only act as an alternative or to a better extent as secondary support, the primary will still remain India’s own capabilities in this domain.

India cannot expect a second country to fight its wars. Such help is of immense importance but will only act as an alternative or to a better extent as secondary support, the primary will still remain India’s own capabilities in this domain


Military operations across the world today already rely heavily on satellites but the satellite internet will just push this concept to the next level. The satellite internet will enable better integration among the forces and its assets paving way for reinforced Command, Control, Computers, Communications, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities leading to better integration of the forces paving way for improved Effect-based Operations (EBO).

Some key players in providing commercial satellite internet are Starlink of SpaceX, OneWeb, TeleSat, Kuiper of Amazon and SpaceNet by Astrome. As per Ernst and Young (EY) LEO-based internet services are projected for India’s satellite services market to grow and cross USD 5 billion by 2025. Military operations across the world today already rely heavily on satellites but the wide availability of satellite internet will just push this concept to the next level. The satellite internet will enable better integration among the forces and their assets paving way for reinforced C4ISR capabilities paving way for improved Effect-based Operations (EBO).

The satellite internet service can usher “satellite internet-based net centricity.” The satellite internet will not only strengthen existing military communications over the air, land or sea but it will also reinforce already employed Surveillance and Target Acquisition (TA) systems and other Technical Intelligence (TECHINT) assets. The satellite internet hence will enable Bulk Data Transfer, Cloud, and IoT services on the battlefield which are essential to modern military operations. It will also help in cross-communication in real-time among these platforms with better faster and larger data packets at very low cost making overall communications easier and accessible at a given point hence enabling better Battlefield Decision Making, while also allowing surveillance systems to better connected throughout having information of all activities of concern in a given region.

Further, with disruptive C2 technologies like Cyber-Physical Systems (CPS), IoT, Military Internet of Things (IoT), cloud computing, cognitive computing, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) supported by next-generation communication technologies enabled by satellite internet will not only reinforce connectivity which will help to get better synchronization among the existing defence systems but will help to make Command and Control (CC) more effective while also help in making autonomous weapons systems more lethal. The 5 G-enabled satellite internet could usher a different level for Lethal Autonomous Weapon (LAW) systems.

Communication systems are a lucrative target to any military manoeuvre as they are considered to be the backbone of the forces on which most of the modern battlefield systems rely. The satellite internet not only enable better integration among the armed forces assets but also reduces the risk posed by Anti-Satellite weapon (ASAT) of various kinds, as targeting large constellations of LEO- based satellites will not be possible therefore communications can go uninterrupted in a given battlefield environment be it urban or distant. Even if it is targeted, then countries might switch to other commercial platforms available and in future may also reserve the launch of such a constellation to meet the need in the crises. Hence, satellite internet can ensure uninterrupted communication even in the event of a natural or man-made disaster or war involving the use of ASATs and even nuclear weapons. Therefore, satellite internet can be leveraged for both war and peacetime military operations.

The satellite internet service can usher “satellite internet-based net centricity

Cite this Paper: Bansal, S. K. (2023, March 13). Addressing India’s Space-Based Surveillance And Reconnaissance Needs. Strategic Focus. Retrieved from


  • Shantanu K. Bansal

    Founder of IADN. He has more than 10 years of experience in research and analysis. An award winning researcher, he writes for the leading defence and security journals, think-tanks and in-service publications. He is a senior consultant at the Indian Army Training Command (ARTRAC), Shimla. Contact him at:

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