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Pakistan Looks at Expanding Space Development

In its budget for the 2021-2022 Public Sector Development Programme (PSDP), the Pakistani government is looking to allocate funds to study the feasibility of the following space development projects:

  • Establishment of Pakistan Space Centre (PSC).
  • The Pakistan Satellite Navigation Program (PSNP).
  • Development of a spaceport (i.e., a satellite launch vehicle site).
  • Pakistan Multi-Mission Communication Satellite (Pak-Sat-MM1).
  • Pakistan Remote Sensing Synthetic Aperture Radar Satellite (PRSS-S1).
  • Pakistan Optical Remote Sensing Satellite (PRSS-O2).

The government is conducting the feasibility studies through the Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO). These programs are tentative in scope because they are currently limited to only assessing project feasibility and/or defining system requirements.[1]

Despite the uncertainty, Pakistan’s intent to pursue each of these programs date back to at least 2010.

For example, under ‘Space Vision 2040’, SUPARCO had revealed that it would launch at least three remote sensing satellites (RSS) and, ultimately, supplant its older satellites with new systems. The original timeline for launching the follow-on RSS units was in 2012-2020. SUPARCO evidently had to delay its timelines, but it seems that the current PSDP allocations are working towards the original plan.

Currently, Pakistan has one RSS satellite in space, i.e., the PRSS-O1, which China launched from its Jiuquan Launch Site Center (JLSC) on 09 July 2018. The PRSS-O1 is equipped with an electro-optical (EO) payload.

In tandem to the PRSS-O1, SUPARCO also sent up an indigenously developed satellite – i.e., the Pakistan Technology Evaluation Satellite (PakTES-1A). Though SUPARCO terms the PakTES-1A as an RSS, it is unclear how it fitted the PakTES-1A. But in 2017 and 2018, Pakistan imported equipment from the Space Advisory Company (SAC) in South Africa; SAC is known for providing EO equipment for satellites.

Pakistan Space Centre (PSC)

In terms of the PSC, the Pakistani government announced its plans to launch the organization in 2018. The PSC’s main function will be to design, develop, and manufacture satellites. When Pakistan announced the formation of PSC, it also revealed two major satellite programs in the pipeline at the time:

  • PRSS-O2 with the ability to capture images with a “sub-meter” resolution.
  • Pakistan Navigation Satellite System for both “civilian and strategic” purposes.

The interesting aspect of PSC is that its study is not solely funded by Pakistan. Rather, the 2021-2022 PDSP report shows that 62% of the funding is coming from ‘foreign aid’. This latter funding element could be a mix of loans, grants and/or investment from China. If China is gaining a stake in PSC, then that would mean PSC is not a traditional Pakistani state-owned enterprise (SOE), but a jointly-owned enterprise.

Besides delivering funding support from China, structuring PSC in a way that is different from SUPARCO could allow for a more effective organization. Pakistan’s other SOEs suffer from numerous obstacles that prevent R&D growth and indigenous product development. Chief among these blockers to growth are the leadership and management cultures of these SOEs, which stem from the rigid, top-down control by the military. If China is a major stakeholder in PSC, then there is a chance PSC will fundamentally differ in how it operates compared to Pakistan’s other SOEs, especially those run by the military.

In theory, the PSC is supposed to serve an important role. Satellites have a relatively limited lifespan, and that will force Pakistan to regularly replace derelict units with new systems. With a diverse satellite types in play, Pakistan cannot afford to constantly import these systems. In fact, doing so could generate outlays of $200-300 million US per year if all of Pakistan’s intended satellite types come into play, e.g., navigation, EO-based imaging, SAR-based imaging, and satellite communications (SATCOM).

Thus, it makes fiscal and economic sense to shift as much of the development and production process of satellites to Pakistan as possible. However, success is contingent on indigenizing a substantial portion – if not the majority of – inputs so as to save on foreign-currency and drive more domestic employment and technology growth. Pakistan’s current SOE set-up does not allow for this approach, so a different structure for leadership and organizational management would be a welcome change.

New Satellites

If the PSC gets off the ground, then it is possible that its first major satellite program could be the Pakistan Satellite Navigation Program (PSNP). The Pakistani military is increasingly relying on stand-off range cruise missiles and precision-guided bombs. Contemporary munitions of this type use a combination of inertial navigation systems (INS) and satellite-aided guidance. For the latter, most countries are content with GPS, but there is a chance the U.S. could cut GPS coverage in South Asia in a major conflict scenario. Thus, both India and Pakistan are looking into (and in India’s case, working on) domestic satellite navigation systems.

Given the strategic importance of an independent satellite navigation system, Pakistan will likely pursue the PSNP irrespective of PSC. In other words, while domestic development is preferable, the option to cut ahead with an off-the-shelf purchase is likely on the table, at least as a contingency option. Pakistan could also potentially look into collaborating with countries with similar roadmaps (e.g., Turkey).

Regarding the PRSS-O2, it appears that it will be an improvement over the PRSS-O1 in that it will deliver a “sub-meter” resolution imaging capability. Pakistan is also looking to add the SAR-equipped PRSS-S1 to its constellation. The PRSS-O1, PRSS-O2 and PRSS-S1 likely constitute the three RSS systems Pakistan planned to deploy by 2020. If PSC succeeds, Pakistan may design and build the replacement PRSS units locally.

The PakSAT-MM1R will build upon Pakistan’s SATCOM capabilities, which are currently supported by the PakSAT-1R. One major difference between the PakSAT-MM1R and PakSAT-1R is that the MM1R will also include Ka-band transponders (in addition to C-band and Ku-band currently found on the PakSAT-1R). Like Ku-band, one can use Ka-band to remotely operate drones. However, dedicated SATCOMs for military use also include X-band transponders to help with redundancy should Ka-band/Ku-band systems falter (e.g., due to rain fade). Pakistan has yet to announce a dedicated military SATCOM system that has X-band transponders alongside Ka-band and/or Ku-band.

Possible Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV) Program

The feasibility study of a spaceport likely points to the development of a satellite launch vehicle (SLV) site. Pakistan has yet to officially comment on SLV development, at least since the 1990s when it had expressed interest in the idea. The sudden interest in a spaceport could be a sign that Pakistan made progress in SLV systems, at least to an extent where the country can study setting-up a proper launch site.

However, with the spaceport idea still being a feasibility study, the prospect of a Pakistani SLV is still likely a medium-to-long-term prospect. But with a dense satellite production and launch roadmap by 2040, the domestic SLV could be of strategic importance to Pakistan. Thus, a Pakistani SLV is an eventuality.

Overall, Pakistan has an ambitious space program on paper, but its execution will depend on the country’s fiscal resources, domestic R&D growth, and supportive partners. Pakistan cannot take any of these inputs for granted, and disruption in any one area could cause the country’s current plans to falter. But this would be in terms of the indigenous development side; in terms of applications, the Pakistani military is on board.

As stated earlier, even if PSC or a domestic SLV do not come to fruition, the Pakistani military will require the complete range of satellite-based capabilities (i.e., imaging, navigation, and communication) for their current and future requirements. Thus, Pakistan will likely procure these capabilities, albeit with off-the-shelf contingencies if domestic development efforts fail.

[1] “Public Sector Development Programme.” Ministry of Planning, Development and Reform. Government of Pakistan. June 2021. URL: https://www.pc.gov.pk/uploads/archives/PSDP_2021-22.pdf (Last Accessed: 27 June 2021).

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