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India Enters New Era of Space Navigation

Gp Capt Ajey Lele (Retd.) is a Consultant at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • July 08, 2013

    For many centuries the sun and stars position guided humans to navigate the sea and travel the land. Even today, migratory birds take help from the ‘sky’ in their long-distance flight. Subsequently, the magnetic compass and the sextant assisted travel. But the real revolution in navigational techniques happened during the sixties with the invention of the space navigational system by the US military, famously known as the Global Positioning System (GPS).

    Almost after fifty years of the GPS, the Indian space agency ISRO is found making great strides in the navigational field. On July 1, 2013, ISRO successfully launched its first navigational satellite Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS-1A) into the geosynchronous orbit and plans to develop a constellation of seven satellites with a possible addition of four more satellites later. India is expected make IRNSS fully operational by 2015.

    For any space navigational system to successfully undertake global operations it has to develop a constellation of a minimum of 24 to 26 satellites. However, India is developing a regional system with 7 to 11 satellites based on the region’s requirement. Normally, GPS satellites are positioned in the Medium Earth Orbit (MEO), around 20,000 km above the earth’s surface. The IRNSS, however, is unique as three satellites will be in the geostationary orbit (36,000 km above the earth’s surface) and four satellites in the inclined geosynchronous orbit.

    The GPS is a Cold War creation. One of the basic purposes behind developing this system was to assist the US submarines to launch a missile attack on a target with minimum error. Now, the GPS is used in the civil aviation and shipping sector as well as in fields like geodesy, cartography, land and water resources management, etc. For many years the GPS remained mainly a military gizmo with limited civilian utility. It was only after May 2000, when the US turned off the Selective Availability Feature (intentional degradation of the GPS signal), that the GPS market grew rapidly, particularly in the transportation sector. Presently, various GPS features in the civilian domain are available with reasonable accuracy. Increase in the market volume also lead to lowering of prices both for hardware and software. During 2012, the volume of global navigation market exceeded 80 billion dollars. Interestingly, the defence market share is approximately only 2% of the entire volume.

    Irrespective of a small volume, the GPS has critical defence utility. The volume of market in the defence sector should not be viewed in ‘isolation’ as an indicator of its defence utility. As such in the civilian area there are far too many customers globally while in the defence sector very few countries are the actual users of GPS technology. All modern day state-of-art defence equipments are dependent on space navigation technology. The GPS is important not only for the operations of military platforms like ships, aircrafts and tanks but also for accurate targets. The modern day war fighting concepts like network centric warfare are feasible only if the space based navigational aids are available.

    The US does, however, allow for accessibility of the GPS facility mostly for civilian purposes but the quality of signal made available is always in a degraded profile. Such signal is of no use for military purposes. In the case of the IRNSS, the position accuracy is expected to be in range of 15 to 20 meters while the GPS provides a signal approximately with 36 meters accuracy.

    IRNSS is expected to provide various applications which include terrestrial, aerial and maritime navigation; disaster management; assisting hikers and travellers; vehicle tracking and fleet management; and providing visual and voice navigation for drivers which can be also integrated with the mobile phones.

    One of the biggest advantages of the IRNSS, once the system gets fully operational, is to reduce the dependency on the GPS. This would make India largely self-sufficient in navigational arena. Currently, India also uses the Russian system called Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS). ISRO has also developed a GPS supported geo-augmented navigation system (GAGAN) to assist the navigation of civilian air traffic over Indian airspace. It is expected that after both these systems become fully operational a potential synergy between IRNSS and GAGAN would evolve.

    Recently, the US Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to India for the Strategic Dialogue and the resultant joint statement issued on June 24 mentions that both India and the US willl take measures to ensure the compatibility-interoperability between the US GPS and the IRNSS. While not completely dismissing the GPS, there are two specific limitations in the Indian context. First, owing to the degraded signal or due to ‘selective denial’ of the services, defence activities do suffer. Second, there are some ‘dead zones’ (no signal) within the country where geographic limitations do hamper signal strength and quality. The IRNSS is expected to overcome both these difficulties.

    In the field of global navigation, China has already made significant progress with its COMPASS (Beidou) system. China proposes to develop a global system consisting of 35 satellites and is already half way through. The system has been declared operational for the Asia-Pacific region. Importantly, the Chinese have committed to provide Pakistan with a ‘military quality’ signal.

    India’s entry into the field of space navigation was much awaited. It is expected that ISRO will be able to launch the remaining six satellites within the next two years and operationalise the system to its full potential. Once up and running, the system is expected to meet India’s defence and security requirements and also offer various social and commercial benefits.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.