A Big Year for the Indian Military in Space

The current year (2019) promises to bring much more than anyone could have expected with regard to Indian space applications of a military nature. The totally out-of-the-blue test of an ASAT weapon being case in point. In that spirit, I rounded up some of the important projects that have implications for the military, and are set to go into orbit (not always figuratively-speaking in this case!) this year.

Before I head into discussing what is yet to come, I take a moment to mention what has already been done: On 24th January this year, ISRO’s PSLV-C44 launch mission had placed into orbit a rather mysterious satellite with very little-known specs & even little-know mission profile –

…the Microsat-R

There were many speculations on the purpose of this satellite and its payload, with assertions ranging from a Technology-Demonstration mission to a dedicated Reconnaissance payload. Although, given the unstable orbit of the satellite (a combined result of where it was placed and certain unexpected maneuvers which depleted its fuel), it’s unlikely to have been anything but a Tech-Demo platform. The Microsat-R is the satellite believed to have been destroyed in the ASAT test on 27th March – after merely 2 months in orbit.


Another mission that deserves mention is of course, the ASAT weapon itself. Officially dubbed….

…the PDV Mk-2

…developed by the nodal Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO), the missile is basically an upper stage/nose section taken from the original PDV (an exo-atmospheric interceptor developed as part of Phase-I of the nation’s BMD program), combined with a lower boost stage that appears to be derived from a solid-fuel ballistic missile (most likely the K-4 SLBM, which itself draws on the tech of the land-based Agni-3 and Agni-5 missiles).

Pic credit: Press Information Bureau

The weapon, developed under the shrouded Mission Shaktireportedly destroyed the targeted satellite at an altitude of about ~300 kilometers in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO). The altitude, combined with the decaying orbit of the supposed target (Microsat-R) means that most, if not all, of the debris created by the destruction of the satellite would fall back to the Earth, burning up in the atmosphere, within an year’s time. A test against a satellite in a much higher orbit (like around the ~850 kms mark, where the Chinese conducted their ASAT test back in 2007) would have resulted in the debris to largely stick around for near-indefinite periods, posing massive hazards to spacecraft.

The test, despite being aimed against a satellite, has even greater implications toward the BMD program and the mid-course interception capability against ballistic missiles. This is a pivotal moment in India’s quest for self-sufficiency in offensive & defensive uses of missile technology & rocketry.

PDV (Mk-1), an Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) test-bed first launched in 2014. The predecessor of the PDV Mk-2 ASAT missile

The ASAT test demonstrated a Kinetic Kill Vehicle (KKV) in action, which is a Hit-to-Kill (HTK)-based interception. No mean feat. Obviously, this is only the first step in the nation’s road to having a viable, deployed capability to target & destroy the enemy’s satellites which support their reconnaissance, navigation, and communication abilities – an important ability to have for a country that may well be one of the few nations who will draft a future Space Warfare-NPT. 

Beautifully explained by defence journalist Saurav Jha here: Mission Shakti cements India’s position at the ‘Space NPT’ high table


Now, moving on to what is yet to come…


Scheduled for launch very soon (1st of April), the EMISAT will share a ride alongside 28 other satellite payloads on ISRO’s PSLV-C45 mission. Much like the Microsat-R (which was developed by DRDO, not ISRO), the mission profile and purpose of the EMISAT remain a product of inference. The most logical among which points at an ELINT-based mission & payload. Although the ‘official’ word is concerning “electromagnetic spectrum measurements”.

The EMISAT and its co-passengers on the C45 mission being enclosed in the fairing of the PSLV. Pic credit: ISRO

The PSLV-C45 mission will also carry 24 American, 2 Lithuanian and a satellite each from Switzerland & Spain, alongside the main EMISAT payload. Regarding the speculations on the purpose of its mission, I direct the reader to this well-written piece from Maxima Vigilantia: ISRO’s EMISAT: Electronic Spy in Space

An excerpt:

” The absence of large antenna (unless it has an unfurlable mesh antenna which isn’t visible in render) indicates that EMISAT appears to be designed to intercept directed microwave transmissions. The microwave link between a satellite and ground station is highly directional. To intercept tight beam transmission, eavesdropper satellite has to be placed between the ground station and the target satellite. Another use of EMISAT is to determine the location of radar emitters (ground and naval) and command nodes. A single EMISAT will be able to determine the probable location of radio emitters, however, for increased DF (direction finding) accuracy multiple satellites are required.

American SIGINT satellite Orion has a 255 feet diameter unfurlable antenna which can detect signals from a wristwatch-sized radio. Orion satellites are used for intercepting missile telemetry/datalink signals and monitoring microwave traffic. SIGINT satellites like Orion are prohibitively expensive ($750 million each) for a country like India. EMISAT is a low-cost alternative. A cluster of EMISATs could mimic functions of a large satellite by sharing processing, communication and mission functions at a fraction of the cost. 

I leave the reader to draw their own conclusions.



The next-generation of Earth-imaging satellites from ISRO, and successor to the CARTOSAT-2 series. Scheduled for launch sometime in April on the PSLV-C46. The previous generation (Cartosat-2) had panchromatic cameras that could provide a 1m resolution with 9.6 kms swath. The new Cartosat-3 is capable of 0.25m resolutions in panchromatic mode with 16 kms swath – a significant improvement. Resolutions of about 1m in Multi-spectral mode and 12m in Hyper-spectral mode are also available on the 3rd Generation.

The Cartosat-3 project was delayed multiple times owing to requirements toward finishing other pending missions (and recent re-directing of greater efforts toward the 2022 target for Human Spaceflight), and some further delays (possible slip into Q2 2019) cannot be ruled out at the moment. Like the -2, the -3 is only the forerunner of a series, which will include planned 3A and 3B missions as well:

Although the CARTOSAT series never had an explicitly stated strategic mission, the implications for the same are pretty obvious.



The next in line in the RISAT category of dedicated military radar-reconnaissance satellites. The 2BR1 provides continuity of service from the RISAT-2 launched in 2009. The original RISAT-2 was an Israeli TecSAR-1 that had to be procured on an emergency basis owing to the delayed development of the rest of the RISAT family, which were all indigenous. The RISAT series are equipped with a Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) array, and the 2BR1 is no different. It carries the most advanced SAR array ever deployed by an Indian satellite (the older TecSAR radar was already superseded in capability by the indigenous RISAT-1 launched in 2012, yes, the “1” was launched after the “2”).

RISAT-2A. The 2BR1 arrangement of sensors will slightly differ, but the mission will be more or less the same.

The 2BR1, weighing approximately 1.2 tons, is scheduled for a May 2019 launch, and will be followed by additional -1 and -2 series sats, like the RISAT-2A, 2B (X-band) and RISAT-1A & 1B (C-band) in the coming years (2020-21).

Samples of RISAT-1’s typical imagery data

RISAT-1 has a different arrangement of sensors (mostly owing to the different band used for SAR) compared to the 2-series


SSLV – Launch on Demand

For purposes of this article, I would refer to this capability as SLOD (Satellite Launch-on-Demand). This technology, currently being pursued by both India & China, affords the ability to quickly establish a level of satellite-based functions (mostly with regard to Earth-observation and monitoring military movements on the ground) with small cubesats in low(er) orbits, in the event the existing long-term (10-15 year lifespans) satellites are destroyed by an enemy’s ASAT weapons during active hostilities.

The SSLV, the newest member of ISRO’s rocket family, is the platform which will afford India a real strategic SLOD capability. In the context of the inevitable militarization of space, I would broadly categorize the necessary capabilities into four sections:

a) Ability to launch large, long-term satellite payloads
b) Ability to knock down an opponent’s satellites
c) Ability to ‘snatch & grab’ a satellite or other payload in space, and bring it back to Earth
d) Ability to quickly re-establish a limited satellite-based capability set in the event of existing sats being lost to enemy action and fixed launch pads being destroyed

From the above four principle, basic needs for having a sound base for conducting Space-Warfare, India already had A for a long time. B has just been live-tested. C will be afforded once the RLV-TD program matures into a Boeing X37B/C-analogue. And the SSLV will see to obtaining the capability represented in D.

The solid-fuel SSLV can be fully prepared for launch on a 15-day notice. Compared to the 70-day preparation it takes for a current full fledged liquid-fueled space rocket like the PSLV. The modular stages of the SSLV are designed to be assembled by a skeleton crew in a matter of 72 hours, and the launch and pre-flight checks can be managed by a single Personal Computer (these details excerpted from a report quoting ISRO’s chairman, link below). Like many technologies in this field, the SSLV is a thoroughly dual-use system. But for the purposes of this article, I’m only going over its military/strategic uses.

SSLV will offer cost-effective satellite launch options in India: Antrix CMD

The SSLVs, owing to the nature of their solid-fuel stages, are more akin to a ballistic missile than a rocket – and to that effect, the SSLV (or a specific military variant developed from it) can be used by the Air Force in two different ways:

  • Strategic stockpiles of parts, such as the fuel/oxidizer stages, rocket motors, payload fairings and of course, the satellite payloads themselves, can be maintained in secure locations, ready to be assembled by a fully military-employed crew in the event of hostilities and rising tensions. These assembled LVs can then be either moved to military-owned launch pads (like the United States’ Vandenberg AFB) or put on mobile platforms for a more survivable launch system.
  • The fully assembled rocket, already mated with pre-determined payloads, can be stored in hermetically-sealed canisters (much like Agni-5 ballistic missiles or Brahmos cruise missiles) mounted on 16×16 or bigger all-terrain vechiles (like the Russian Topol-M ICBM). This is likely the more complicated of launch/storage options (not least because for precise orbital injections, liquid-fuel based Velocity Trimming Modules are used. But this could be mitigated by the future use of Ion thrusters (aka Hall Thrusters) on the payload bay. Similar thrusters, already being developed by ISRO, are generally used for in-space satellite propulsion for orbit-raising and trimming purposes), but also this is the more survivable one.

I’m sure the ideas for a submarine-launched SLOD is already floating in your heads by now.

Speaking of the rocket itself, it’s going to be 34m long, with a 2m diameter and weighing about 120 tons, with a payload capacity of 500 kgs to a 500 kms LEO orbit. Various payload-configurations are possible within that capacity, depending on the weight of the satellite(s):

The SSLV is set for a debut launch in Q3 (most likely August) this year, followed by another scheduled test either in Q4 or early 2020. In my opinion, the small SSLV deserves more watching that the big GSLV Mk-3s. Even in the civilian sector, the commercial implications bought forth by the SSLV will be tremendous.


SCE-200 Semi-Cryogenic Engine

The next step in big rocket propulsion for ISRO. Although it doesn’t have a direct strategic/military implication, it certainly has an indirect one – bigger rockets mean bigger payloads, and eventually & inevitably, bigger military payloads. The first tests of the engine are likely to occur this year at ISRO’s Propulsion Complex in the high-altitude region of Mahendragiri.

In a single (left), and a clustered configuration (right)

The SCE-200 traces its lineage way back to the original Soviet RD-120 family of rocket engines. The designs (which although did not include engineering models and related documentation, which meant India had to develop a lot of tech to go with the design and adapt it) were transferred to India by Ukraine’s Yuzhnoye Design Office/Bureau – which had a hand in Soviet engine development before the 1991 break-up. The Yuzhnoye design is called RD-810, and it was this design which was transferred.

The Chinese YF-100 and YF-115 engines, used today on Long March-5/6/7 rockets are also derived from the same RD-120 family.

All in all, the 2,000kN SCE-200 engines and its future derivatives will play an extremely crucial role in powering India’s future launch vechiles, such as the planned MLV family, with GTO payload capacities reaching 16 tons and LEO capacities reaching 41 tons (bigger than Ariane 64):

…besides having implications for the various re-usable launcher technologies being worked on at the moment by ISRO. Truly interesting times ahead.

Join the Discussion on our Forum:

By Parthu Potluri

Student, Defence & Space Enthusiast