Pakistan Is Losing the Space Race

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Pakistan Is Losing the Space Race

As India’s space program surges ahead, Pakistan’s remains an afterthought.

Pakistan Is Losing the Space Race

This photograph released by Indian Space Research Organization shows its polar satellite launch vehicle lifting off from a launch pad at the Satish Dhawan Space Center in Sriharikota, India (Feb.15, 2017).

Credit: Indian Space Research Organization via AP

India’s space program is thriving as one of the fastest-growing in the world. With a successful Mars mission and various satellite launches in recent years, India is emerging as a new space power.

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) is now a go-to for countries like Germany, South Korea, Japan, and France seeking to launch and deploy their satellites into space. Even companies like Google use ISRO rockets to launch their satellites. This will help India economically, giving it a foot in the door in a rapidly growing industry (Morgan Stanley projects that the space industry will go from being worth around $350 billion today to over $11 trillion by the 2040s).

In June 2016, ISRO successfully launched 20 satellites in a single payload; in February 2017, it launched 104 satellites on a single rocket and thus set a world record. ISRO launched its heaviest rocket, Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle-Mark III (GSLV-Mk III), on June 5, 2017 and placed a communications satellite GSAT-19 in orbit. With this launch, ISRO became capable of launching massive, four-ton satellites.

Meanwhile, India launched a Mars orbiter mission in November 2013, and in September 2014, that space probe began successfully orbiting Mars.

India’s new prominence in space has its consequences, especially for Pakistan. India’s rise as a space power will come at the cost of Pakistan’s interests.

ISRO is mainly involved in launching commercial satellites, those dealing with the weather, space navigation, and communications. However, Pakistani authorities should be alarmed due to the multipurpose nature of satellite. A satellite network provides India with a technological advantage on the ground and, in case of war, can be easily exploited for tactical and strategic gains. With a vast array of satellites, India can keep tabs on its borders through high-resolution imagery, intelligence gathering, navigation, and military communications – thus undermining Pakistan defenses. These satellites will also help India develop early warning systems specifically designed to detect ICBMs during different flight phases or incoming ballistic/cruise missiles.

Currently, the Indian military uses 13 satellites. The satellites utilized by the military for surveillance include the Cartosat-1 and 2 series and Risat-1 and Risat-2; the Indian Navy employs satellites like GSAT-7 or INSAT-4F, a multiband military intelligence satellite developed by the ISRO. According to defense experts, the satellite enables the navy to extend its blue water capabilities and stop relying on foreign satellites like Inmarsat, which provide communication services to its ships.

Such critical military and communications satellites could be decisive in preventing or responding to an enemy attack.

As evidence of its dual use function, ISRO works in tandem with India’s Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) along with the Defense Research and Development Service (DRDS). Both organizations are responsible for the development of emerging and defense technologies (including missile programs, land, air, and sea armaments, electronic and cyber warfare capabilities, etc.) One example of the partnership between all three organizations was the recent successful test firing of the Agni V Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICMB) capable of hitting targets at a distance of up to 5,000 km. In addition to it, India is also testing anti-satellite weapons to foster their space prowess further.

Pakistan’s Space Program

Pakistan’s space program, the Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission, commonly referred to as SUPARCO, predates the Indian space program by more than eight years – it was founded in 1961, while the ISRO launched in 1969. But today, SUPARCO lags behind on all the technological advances that have made the Indian program a potent force.

Due to a lack of resources, bureaucratic hurdles, and mismanagement, Pakistan’s space program, especially when it comes to commercial space exploration, has seen a considerable decline. There have been some commendable successes on military applications, like the development of short- to medium-range ballistic missiles, but such achievements have come at the cost of almost every other facet of the Pakistani space project. For example, it would likely take Pakistan decades to achieve anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities, something that is sorely needed given India’s satellite advantage.

Today there is little interest from the government or policy quarters (both the military and civilian apparatus) to advance Pakistan’s commercial space program and there are few schools, universities, or institutions focusing on the subject. The entire subject of space studies is in neglect; there is no national discourse, debate, or discussion in public circles about building a robust and potent space program. Pakistan continues to lag behind India, despite being the first to set up its space agency.

The SUPARCO website is evidence of the rudderless nature of Pakistan’s space program. It contains very little information regarding Pakistan’s space policy or vision. In fact, there is very little literature available anywhere on the policy-level national space mission. Such indifference toward an extraordinarily important area like space could prove very damaging.

Pakistan must develop a serious space program, especially in the face of a resurgent Indian space program. It is time for the decision-makers in power to give SUPARCO particular attention.

It is essential for Pakistan to acknowledge that the time for face-to-face wars or conflicts is over; new technologies are making modern warfare more or less indirect and deeply reliant on space tools, which provide surveillance and remote sensing; real-time situational awareness; information gathering, processing, and communication; and early warning systems. Satellite have, consequently, become strategic assets playing a crucial role in the outcome of war, making aerospace technological abilities not just essential but a difference maker.

The reason why the Indian space program has become such a success is the belief in and acknowledgement of space as an avenue for a variety of practical applications, from scientific exploration to military applications and economic gain. India has built a national narrative explaining the need for a robust and sustainable space program. Pakistan needs to do just that.

It is vital for Pakistan to understand and acknowledge the importance of a robust space program. Doing so will not only enable national and commercial space exploration but help provide Pakistan with significant military and economic gains, needed now to compete with a resurgent and dominant neighbor.

Raja Mansoor is a freelance contributor.