India launches Israeli-made satellite for eyes in the sky

April 20, 2009

India launched an Israeli-made spy satellite on Monday that will help it keep a close eye on its borders stretching from Pakistan in the west to China in the north and east.

The launch is significant for several reasons. First off, the all-weather advanced satellite that the Israelis themselves use for surveillance on nations such as Iran is an eye in the sky that Indian security planners have been demanding for long. India has its own sophisticated satellite imaging programme that gives pretty high resolution pictures, but, as a defence scientist once told me, they tended to go a bit blind in bad weather, especially during the monsoon.

The Israeli satellite is supposed to be an all-seeing all-weather platform that at a height of 550 kms lets you see things like a motorbike on the street. New Delhi apparently asked the Israelis to speed up the satellite after the Mumbai attacks in November when gunmen arrived on the shores of the country’s financial capital in boats.

The idea obviously would be to watch the borders, both land and sea on the west. But satellites such as these can also tell you about troop movements. Logically any big movement on the border with China would fall under its footprint.

Secondly, the launch underscores the tightening defence links between India and Israel, which, in the space of 17 years when India gave diplomatic recognition to Israel, stand transformed. Israel is India’s second biggest defence supplier, behind Russia which had long enjoyed a virtual monopoly.

For Israel, India is the biggest arms market.

Israel is also giving India the Phalcon Airborne Warning and Control System, a force multiplier seen as so strategic that the Americans leaned on Tel Aviv to abort a similar deal with China.

It is not just a one-way street. Last January, the Israelis wanted to launch their military satellite like the one that went up on Monday. They chose the Indians to launch it, in a show of confidence  in the Indian rocket. More significantly reports at the time said the Israeli satellite was meant for reconnaissance over Iran, causing irritation in Tehran which has had long standing ties with New Delhi.

But the ground has been shifting since the mid 1990s, especially after India’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party  took power and reached out to Israel, seeking its expertise in a range of areas especially high-tech capabilities to fight militants.

For years India, home to one of the world’s biggest Muslim populations, had shunned any public dealings with Israel, and stood firmly behind the Arab bloc in its long running dispute with the Jewish state.  But the BJP said India and Israel were natural allies and set about making up for the lost decades.

The Congress, which had traditionally followed a pro-Arab posture, continued the policy of deepening engagement with Israel when it took power five years ago and indeed has fast-tracked arms supplies from that country to meet the security challenges.

There also seems to be a great deal of public support for closer ties with Israel. A poll said to have been ordered by the Israeli Foreign Ministry found that Israel enjoyed the greatest support in India, ahead of the United States, Russians and Mexicans

[India launches Israeli-made satellite on Monday and file picture of protest in Kashmir against Israeli strikes in Gaza]





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