India is investing massively in surveillance equipment both at national level and within the country, Video surveillance is expanding in cities, and it is also putting R&D and operational funds into major projects like a new mountain-top border radar system and now, a satellite platform that, it is claimed, will be “fitted with an intelligent sensor that will pick up conversations and communications across the borders.” Presumably this means a system rather like the US satellites that have been in operation since the 1980s that ‘vacuum’ up microwave communications signals from mobile telephones, rather than some kind of impossibly powerful microphone! Interestingly the story in the Hindu continually refers to the new devices, whether they be radar or satellites, as “network-centric”, and is peppered with references to “electronic warfare”, showing that Indian military planners have almost entirely swallowed US strategic doctrines that emerged from the 1990s. With the USA now operating openly in Pakistan, the source of recent terrorist raids into India, and tensions ratcheting up with China, it seems that the US is backing India as its major regional partner, or at least that India is aping US methods.
My headline is a slightly more accurate version of the way that news of the new ‘Space Fence’ system has been headlined, for example here in Computerworld. The Space Fence system, whose first stage is a $30 Million US project for Northrop-Grumman, will replace a 1961 VHF radio infrastructure known as the Air Force Space Surveillance System built in 1961.
Although the spin is that the system is all about tracking space debris, this is actually part of the DoD’s satellite tracking operations – which certainly does cover debris, insofar as they are a threat to US satellites, but is also crucially to make sure that an accurate picture of the increasing number of smaller ‘micro-satellites’ from an every-expanding number of countries can be obtained. In that sense, this program is indeed a ‘fence’, a further attempt to enforce the notion that space is effectively US territory.
India has launched its first major military surveillance satellite, RISAT-2, a platform for high-resolution Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), which puts it up there with the kind of things that the USA were launching over 10 years ago. Of course although, as The Times of India comment shows, being part of the club of orbital space powers is a consideration, the main motivations are most immediately, dealing with the threat of Pakistani Islamic extremists, and in the long term, regional competition with China, which has its own active satellite launch (and satellite-killing) program. One thing which about which the paper is entirely correct is that Indian high tech is more advanced than China’s and this home-grown satellite marks a small but significant shift in global surveillance power towards India. Whether, for a country still struggling with massive poverty and inequality, it is what anyone ‘needs’ or is any more than an expensive strategic symbol is another question.
Top story on many news channels today is the collision of a US Iridium telecommunications satellite with an obsolete Russian military satellite. Iridium is an interesting company that is almost permanently bankrupt (due to the rise of GPS-enabled mobile telephones) yet whose largest single customer is the US Department of Defense, which uses a Hawaii-based gateway for a secure network using NSA-approved handsets.
Even more interesting however is that the story mentions the obscure work of the Space Surveillance Network or SPACETRACK, formerly operated by US Space Command (USSPACECOM), now along with all of that influential body’s operations, part of US Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM). This global network of 25 bases using Phased-Array Radar and other tracking systems includes the RAF station at Fylingdales in North Yorkshire.
SPACETRACK continually watches earth orbit for new objects, which are then added to the US space catalogue. It also tracks debris fields, which are increasing in number and becoming more of a hazard for new space craft, and therefore problems for both military and civilian communications, weather, mapping and surveillance systems. This collision would seem to have been in relatively low orbit which causes the most problems. Cleaning up earth orbit would be a very good idea, but few people seem to have any serious ideas as to how it might be done. Some even argue that such a clean-up could destroy a valuable source of historical information!