Space: India Builds Its Own GPS


January 16, 2011:  India recently announced that it is going to have its very own Global Positioning System (GPS) by 2014. This was driven more by feelings that India was lagging too far behind China. While India’s $355 million Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) was a right step in the right direction, of reducing the technology lead China has, India needs to calibrate its strategic programs to cope with China, which is the biggest potential threat.

Under the IRNSS program, India will have a constellation of seven satellites, to be raised to eleven later, which will give unprecedented operational war-time leverage to the Indian military, apart from serving as an excellent infrastructure for a host of civilian applications like in the fields of civil aviation, agriculture and fisheries. Unlike the American GPS, the IRNSS will have a limited range and that explains the ‘R’ in IRNSS. However, it will provide an absolute position accuracy of more than 20 meters throughout India and within a range extending to about 2,000 kilometers around India. The IRNSS will make a huge contribution to the country’s counter-terrorism efforts as it will quickly pass specific data about impending infiltrations in border areas so that the security forces are able to deal with the infiltrators even before they enter the Indian territory. In short, infiltration by terrorists will become a thing of the past once the IRNSS gets operational by 2014.

The IRNSS will, however, be eclipsed by China’s satellite navigation system Compass that may also get operational around the same time. The Chinese Compass will have a string of as many as 35 satellites, including five geostationary ones and the rest Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) satellites. Compass will cover the entire globe. The necessity of a military satellite navigation system for a nation comes to the fore during war times. Depending on a foreign SatNav system like GPS can leave Indian aircraft and weapon systems at a disadvantage. The American military grade GPS can be restricted to only U.S. forces and close American allies.

A ray of hope had arisen some eight years ago when the European Galileo GPS  emerged as the potential rival to the GPS. India and China became partner countries in the Galileo program with ten per cent share each, but the project has encountered one delay after another, and is still not past the prototype stage. Moreover, the European consortium never agreed to allow India or any other country have military usage of Galileo. The strategic importance of the IRNSS is enhanced all the more against this backdrop. India needs to spend much more in the IRNSS program. For example, Russia has nearly returned its GLONASS GPS system to full use, and is increasing other space related operations. GLONASS was at full strength (24 satellites) in 1995, shortly after the Cold War ended in 1991. But the end of the Cold War meant the end of the regular financing for GLONASS. Maintaining the system required launching replacement satellites every 5-7 years. There was no money for that in the 1990s. By the end of 2002, only seven GLONASS birds were still operational. Russia has since sent billions to rebuilt and maintain GLONASS. India will face the same problems, for once you build something like IRNSS, you have to spend a lot more to keep it operational.– Rajeev Sharma





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