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Star trek of the hare and the tortoise

By M P Anil Kumar
Last updated on: July 02, 2009 12:59 IST
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One way to understand a facet of Albert Einstein's theory of relativity is through the contention that all objects in our universe travel at the speed of light.

To shed light on this, he yoked space and time into a single entity -- the space-time continuum. Any object not utilising the space dimension to travel at the speed of light has to travel in the time dimension. The slower an object travels in space, the faster it travels in time (travelling in time axis means ageing). In other words, the faster an object moves, the slower the passage of time for it.

When it comes to the military space programme, as we shall see soon, the Indian establishment seems to be travelling mostly in time, not much in space!

The hare and the tortoise
China initiated its space programme in 1956 under the auspices of its ministry of aerospace industry. In 1993, the China National Space Administration was carved out of this ministry as the nodal agency. Here is a dossier of the important milestones China pegged out during its space odyssey:

  • April 24, 1970: Its first satellite -- Dongfanghong-1 -- soars into space.
  • January 25, 2000: China places in orbit its first military communications satellite Zhong Xing-22, primarily to establish People's Liberation Army's command and control network to link all combat forces.
  • October 15, 2003: China becomes the third country to undertake manned spaceflight. Lieutenant Colonel Yang Liwei, aboard the Shenzhou-5 spacecraft, notches up this distinction and becomes the first taikonaut.
  • September 28, 2008: Lieutenant Colonel Zhai Zhigang becomes the first Chinese spacefarer to spacewalk.
  • Hitherto China has undertaken three manned space missions.

And China intends to build an orbital space station by circa 2015.

Though its origin can be traced to 1962, the Indian Space Research Organisation, ISRO, was formally founded four decades ago on August 15, 1969. India's achievements in this field are impressive, but not as stellar as China's. Below is a diary of the important milestones India pegged out during its space odyssey:

  • April 19, 1975: A Soviet rocket launches Aryabhata, the first Indian satellite, from the Kapustin Yar cosmodrome.
  • July 18, 1980: Rohini becomes the first Indian satellite to be placed in orbit by an Indian rocket.
  • April 2, 1984: Squadron Leader Rakesh Sharma, hitchhiking aboard Soviet Soyuz T-11 spacecraft, becomes the first Indian spaceman.
  • October 22, 2008: ISRO successfully launches Chandrayaan-1, India's maiden moonshot.
  • April 20, 2009: PSLV places RISAT-2 (an acronym for A radar imagery satellite) in orbit. Unlike ISRO's earlier optical remote sensing technology, RISAT carries microwave payload and it uses 'synthetic aperture radar,' whose active sensor is designed to identify targets like cross-border infiltrators, through even fog and clouds. In short, RISAT could be said to belong to the class of spy satellites, thus giving fillip to military surveillance.

China: duplicitous or aggrieved?
Fanhui Shi Weixing-3 series, China's new generation of recoverable photoreconnaissance satellites, are reported to have attained one-metre resolution. Unlike the US, China is yet to master the submetre resolution technology.

China has taken significant strides to achieve space-based ELINT (electronic intelligence), COMINT (communication intelligence) and IMINT (imagery intelligence) capabilities. Not just intelligence gathering, the Chinese leadership is well aware of the critical nature of space-based C4ISR -- Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance -- systems.

Space-based espionage, telecommunications, intelligence, military network -- you name it -- China is surging ahead to aggressively implement its C4ISR strategies and policies, both short-term and long-term.

Yet Beijing proclaimed in 2006 that it supported the use of outer space for peaceful purposes only. Now sample the following:

  • China has reportedly succeeded in attaining the know-how to produce jammers that are capable of disrupting navigation satellite system like the GPS.
  • China secretly fired a laser weapon in mid-2006 to 'blind' the optical sensors of the Key Hole series of American spy satellites, to obscure furtive photography when they overflew China. Since the Bush administration needed Chinese diplomatic elbow to rein in Iran and North Korea, it kept mum but the American military wasted no time in executing tests to examine the extent of the Chinese threat.
  • Reports allude to Beijing, in the past few years, investing heavily in weapons like parasitic satellites, which are essentially nano-satellites designed to disable enemy satellites. These tiny satellites can attach themselves to enemy satellites, and then destroy the host on receiving the go-ahead from its master.
  • January 11, 2007: China destroyed its own ageing satellite orbiting at approximately 860 kilometres above earth. The anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon (a non-explosive 'kinetic kill vehicle') that smashed the 750-kg Feng Yun-1C polar orbiting meteorological satellite into smithereens was assumedly launched from a DF-21 medium-range ballistic missile. After three unsuccessful tests earlier, China this time used a projectile as ASAT weapon. Never mind if this exospheric machismo had scattered and suspended hundreds of debris, thus endangering several low-earth-orbit satellites.

Well, such doublespeak and rampageous conduct conform to characteristic Chinese jiggery-pokery. However, to be fair to China, the People's Republic was rudely awoken on May 7, 1999, by the 'accidental' demolition of its embassy at Belgrade by three 'smart' JDAMs (Joint Direct Attack Munitions) released by an American B-2 bomber. (JDAM uses satellite guidance and onboard triaxial inertial navigation system for precision delivery.)

Further, Japan launched four IGS-series spy satellites ostensibly to shadow North Korea but no one missed its dual-use against China. Furthermore, as it foresees a showdown with the US over Taiwan sometime, China is desperate to diminish the enormous asymmetry in military space capabilities vis-a-vis the US, and to deter the US with its relatively small but destructive space-based arsenal.

The same Chinese arsenal and capabilities can be swivelled against India.

Part II: Let us develop a military space programme

M P Anil Kumar is a former Indian Air Force fighter pilot.

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M P Anil Kumar