A decade or so ago, I wrote an editorial comment for a daily I used to work for. It was a call for awarding the team that developed the Polar Space Launch Vehicle the Bharat Ratna. The text-book launch of an Israeli satellite by a PSLV on Monday has only reinforced the conviction that the truly world-class Indian Space Research Organisation should be endowed with the country’s highest award.
Designing an atom bomb or a missile is small change. Both are really World War II technology. But making a sophisticated multi-stage rocket, that can inject a satellite into a precise orbit, is something else. Yet ISRO has always been under the shadow of the Defence Research and Development Organisation and the Department of Atomic Energy. Perhaps it has to do with the big bang, or an atavistic love of destruction their weapons can effect. Any minor milestone, even testing a surface to air missile, rates a front page mention in newspapers, yet the awesome achievements of our space scientists get short changed.
Faced with the same kind of embargoes that have crippled our nuclear power programme, ISRO has developed a substantial space launch capability, skills in fabricating multi-purpose satellites that have contributed a great deal to the country’s well being and development. At present, Indian-made geostationary satellites provide transponders to meet the country’s needs for telecommunications, TV and radio broadcasts and weather monitoring; a constellation of remote sensing satellites provide data for mapping, agriculture and other applications. Since its orientation was self-consciously practical, it is only now taking up space faring as a serious scientific exercise, beginning with the moon mission. In fact later this year, a PSLV-XL will put in orbit the Chandrayaan, India’s first unmanned lunar probe. And all this has been achieved at investments which are laughable compared to the programmes of other countries.
You should not underrate the ISRO’s contribution to the DRDO’s missile programme either. The Agni’s core stage was the same that was used for India’s first Space Launch Vehicle. The second solid-propellant stage of India’s principal long range missile — the Agni II — was also made by ISRO. We can presume from this that their scientists played a role in developing the Agni III as well. But ISRO’s defence role is only now coming to the fore. India’s first military space craft, the Test Evaluation Satellite, was launched in 2001, and later this year, the Cartosat 2A is expected to be orbited. This satellite will provide true blue military quality imagery (resolutions less than a metre) for the armed forces. This is what makes the Israeli connection interesting. The launch of the Israeli synthetic aperture radar satellite by ISRO makes it a certainty that India will also be accessing this technology sooner, rather than later. The SAR is very useful in military terms because it can look through a cloud cover or the darkness of night. The Israeli connection has aided the country in developing better space cameras and other components as well.
As of now India’s military use of space has been for surveillance. There is still an unmet demand for dedicated communications, electronic support and navigation satellites. Global trends are moving in the direction of more intense military use of outer space. ISRO will have to take up that burden as well on behalf of the country.
The contrast with the DRDO and the DAE could not be greater. The latter’s certitude borders on self-defeating arrogance. As for the former, on Republic Day, it once again plans to parade its Tank EX, a supposedly next generation vehicle. I can remember the R-Day parade of 1989 or 1990, when the DRDO displayed the Arjun MBT as though it was a finished product to much applause and publicity. It was paraded again in 1997. Today it’s clear that the tank will never be finished. Short on performance, the DRDO is adept at publicity, while ISRO has consistently achieved its targets in the last three decades.
The recent publicity blitz on the anti-missile system is a case in point. An outfit that has not been able to make a surface-to-air missile which can hit aircraft flying at Mach 1 has suddenly begun to claim that it will provide a shield that will knock down missiles flying at Mach 7 or 8. The immodesty of the claims, such as its superior performance in comparison with the US Patriot Pac 3, is matched by the government’s casual approach towards the larger issues relating to the programme. Should India spend an enormous amount of money on a project that has limited chance of success? It is one thing to develop a limited missile shield against possible rogue launches, and quite another to promise a Flash Gordon type of a shield for the country’s capital. Should we abandon the keystone of our deterrence strategy — mutually assured destruction— in favour of one that creates doubts about the deterrence capabilities of our adversaries’ forces, and compels them to adopt asymmetrical technology responses? Russia, for example, is developing hybrid missiles that are part ballistic and part cruise to foil a putative American missile defence system. You can be sure China will also do so and, with its help, Pakistan.
The story of ISRO has been one of modest beginnings and hard work in the shadow of the Department of Atomic Energy which consumed much of the country’s R&D resources. But its leaders like Vikram Sarabhai and Satish Dhawan created a new system of project management by integrating the ability of the private and public sectors, universities and research institutions in a mission-oriented mode. They did not allow the development of the self-defeating “indigenous” fetish that has consumed the DAE and DRDO and impelled them to, on occasion, reinvent the wheel. Whenever required, ISRO obtained the best available technology from abroad.
The PSLV is a successor to the SLV-3 which was in turn based on technologies that came from the US and France for our sounding rocket programmes. Later the technology of the French Viking liquid propellant engine was obtained to provide for the crucial second stage of the PSLV. The Geosynchronous Space Launch Vehicle extensively uses this technology which has been indigenised as the Vikas engine. In addition it has benefited from Russian assistance in providing the third stage cryogenic motor. This year, the first indigenously developed cryogenic motor will be used for a GSLV launch.
Now that the ISRO has more than proved itself, the government needs to do its bit to ensure that the country can benefit from its achievements. First, there is need to sharply enhance the investment the country makes in the space programme. Countries like France, US, China and Japan treat their space programmes as their crown jewels, while India lavishes unrequited love on its military and nuclear programmes. Besides investment, the government needs to ensure that the personnel involved are paid much better salaries. The Israeli launch is only the beginning of a process that could see India emerge as a major commercial and military power in space. But we need even heavier launchers, more sophisticated technology and better marketing. More than that we need to recognise which parts of our government-funded science and technology systems have worked, and then promote the performers and ruthlessly dump the slackers.
This article appeared in Mail Today January 23, 2008