NEW DELHI: India is set for a quantum jump in the way it undertakes drone operations by upgrading from existing ground control stations to satellite-control of military unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to boost their range, endurance and flexibility. 

This significant capability boost will come with the launch of GSAT-7A, an advanced military communications satellite built by ISRO, in November. “The satellite is specially geared for RPA (remotely-piloted aircraft) operations,” said a defence ministry source. 

The GSAT-7A, developed for IAF at a cost of around Rs 700-800 crore, will be the country’s second dedicated military satellite after GSAT-7 or ‘Rukmini’ was launched for the Navy in 2013. 

This comes at a time when India is in advanced negotiations with the US to acquire armed Predator-B or weaponised Sea Guardian drones, which are high-altitude, long-endurance UAVs that can fire ‘Hellfire’ missiles or ‘smart’ bombs at enemy targets before returning to their bases to re-arm for the next mission like manned fighter jets. 

Predator and Reaper armed drones used against Taliban targets in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region are controlled through satellites and flown by ground-based “pilots and weapon operators” at the Creech Air Force Base in Nevada (US) over 7,500 miles away. 

But Indian armed forces as of now control their Israeli-origin surveillance drones like the Heron and Searcher-II UAVs through a network of ground and ship-based stations, which limits their operations to ‘radio line of sight’ missions. 

“With the GSAT-7A up in space in geosynchronous orbit, IAF will be able to hugely extend the reach, flexibility and endurance of its UAVs for beyond line of sight missions. The footprint of the satellite, with steerable beams, will cover India and its extended neighbourhood,” said a source.

IAF will get another satellite, GSAT-7C, within a couple of years to boost its network-centric operations. The force is also involved with the plan to launch an additional five satellites at a later stage to augment the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) or ‘NavIC’ project being put in place through a constellation of seven satellites to rival the US-owned Global Positioning System (GPS).

There are over 320 military satellites currently orbiting the earth, with the US owning 50% of them, followed by Russia and China. India, however, has lagged far behind in utilisation of the final frontier of space for military purposes, refusing to even approve the long-standing demand of the armed forces for an Aerospace Command, as earlier reported by TOI.

The Indian armed forces for long have been largely using “dual-use” remote sensing satellites like the ‘Cartosat’ and ‘Risat’ series, while also leasing some foreign satellite transponders, for surveillance, navigation and communication purposes. China, in sharp contrast, has taken huge strides in the military space arena, testing even ASAT (anti-satellite) weapons against ‘low-earth orbit’ satellites since January 2007. 

“China is developing multiple counter-space capabilities to degrade and deny adversary use of space-based assets during a crisis or conflict. In addition to the development of directed-energy weapons and satellite Jammers, China is also developing direct-ascent and co-orbital kinetic kill capabilities,” warns the latest report by Pentagon.