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Pakistan Plans to Get PRSS-01 Earth Observation Satellite Launched in July

Pakistan’s Foreign Office announced that the Pakistan Remote Sensing Satellite (PRSS-01) – which will also include the Pakistan Technology Evaluation Satellite (PakTES-1A) – will be launched into orbit in July.[1]

To be managed by Pakistan’s Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO), the PRSS-01 will be Pakistan’s first – and currently, its only – low earth orbit (LEO) satellite in orbit.

According to SUPARCO, the PRSS-01 will comprise of two satellites, i.e. one equipped with an electro-optical (EO) system and the other with a synthetic aperture radar (SAR) suite.[2] The PRSS-01 was originally slated for launch in March 2017, but it was evidently pushed into this summer.

Pakistan formally ordered the PRSS-01 from China Great Wall Industry Cooperation (CGWIC) in April 2016. Then Minister of Planning, Development and Reform (and later, Interior Minister) Ahsan Iqbal had stated that the purchase would also lead to transfer-of-technology (ToT) to Pakistan.[3]

In addition, Iqbal had reportedly outlined that the PRSS-1 would contribute to Pakistan’s socio-economic and infrastructure development as well as strengthen its border security and surveillance capabilities.[4]

In 2017, SUPARCO Chairman Qaiser Anees Khurram stated that the PRSS-01 would “make Pakistan self-reliant in multi-spectral imaging” and enable it to save hard-currency by bringing the capability in-house.[5]


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For Pakistan, not only has a domestically-owned LEO RSS been of interest from a cost-savings standpoint, but a utility perspective as well. In 2013, Dr. Javed Iqbal – then Head of the University of Karachi’s Institute of Space and Planetary Astrophysics – stated the following of imported satellite imagery:

“Currently satellites orbited and piloted by bodies such as NASA only picture Pakistan once every few hours … If we have our own satellites, we can program them to meet our own strategic needs, as well as help our domestic industry with 24-hour coverage.”[6]

According to Pakistan’s Ministry of Finance (via the Federal Budget Proposal for 2018-2019), PRSS-01 has a procurement cost of Rs. 24.26 billion (i.e. $200 million US).[7] The PRSS-01 is being backed by a loan from China valued at roughly 70% of the price of the satellite(s).[8] In terms of price, the PRSS-01 appears to cost markedly less than Western alternatives (Turkey procured the Thales Göktürk-1 for €300 million).[9]

Thus far, SUPARCO has emphasized the PRSS-1’s role in supporting “agriculture, disaster management, urban planning, forestry, water management [and] weather forecast” operations.[10] However, in theory, the PRSS-01 could enable Pakistan to build an imaging intelligence (IMINT) capability, which it can deploy to monitor activities along and across its national borders.

Certainly, a near $200 million US spend on the PRSS-01 would not escape the armed forces’ scrutiny, nor would the fact that to sustain a persistent LEO imaging presence, the PRSS-01 and future LEO RSSs would have to regularly be replaced (due to limited lifecycles of less than 10 years per satellite).

Is Pakistan Developing Satellites?

In March 2018, Pakistan’s previous Interior Minister – Ahsan Iqbal – announced that the PakTES-1A was “an indigenous project from concept till launch by SUPARCO engineers and scientists.”[11]

However, neither Iqbal or SUPARCO outlined Pakistan’s input in the PakTES-1A. Interestingly, a document exists describing how SUPARCO sought an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) to supply it with an EO sensor for the PakTES-1A.[12] According to the document, SUPARCO selected South Africa’s Space Advisory Company (SAC) to supply an EO sensor for use on the PakTES-1A.[13]

To collaborate the SAC angle, there are two accreditable information sources. First, a media report by GB Times in China, which states, “…the smaller, experimental PakTES-1A, built by [SUPARCO] with assistance from the Space Advisory Company of South Africa.”[14] Second, open-source export and import (EXIM) logs show SUPARCO importing a range of equipment, including ‘space imaging models’ and ‘engineering model equipment’ from SAC between March 2017 and March 2018 (see below). Thus, it appears that SAC had a hand in enabling SUPARCO to develop the PakTES-1A, which casts doubt on official indigenization claims.

However, SUPARCO’s collaboration with SAC is not a stagnant track. Rather, this news of SUPARCO seeking SAC’s assistance is positive news in that it demonstrates (1) an intent to pursue satellite development and (2) an ability to foster valuable partnerships with countries other than China.

In terms of the first aspect – i.e. satellite development – the incorporation of SAC indicates that SUPARCO is willing and apparently able to integrate disparately sourced systems into an original solution. Note, an ‘original solution’ need not be an indigenous solution (at least in the beginning), but instead, an ability to internally produce a solution using commercially-off-the-shelf (COTS) parts. On the surface, this might not appear to be an achievement; but for SUPARCO, it demonstrates an ability to build solutions responding to domestic requirements without an external OEM to dictate or force specific subsystem selections.

In other words, if in the future the Armed Forces of Pakistan were to request a satellite communications (SATCOM) system using a specific selection of X-band and Ka-band transceivers, SUPARCO could build it – albeit with imported subsystems, but with sufficient ability to understand how those systems function in a complete satellite to independently (or with external consultancy support) build a design different than a pre-designed and pre-integrated suite from an outside OEM like CGWIC or Thales.

Though this course is not ‘indigenous’, it provides ample flexibility to Pakistan. For example, a ready-made COTS satellite could cost more due to the OEM’s selection of subsystem suppliers, its own labour costs (to integrate the solution in its home country, e.g. France or China), and price mark-ups. In addition, an OEM can push additional price mark-ups for customization or Pakistan-specific feature selections.

However, with SUPARCO seemingly building the ability to become the design bureau that can select and integrate its own selection of subsystems, those ‘in-between’ cost variances (e.g. price mark-ups, foreign labour or production costs, etc) could be negated, thus enabling Pakistan to both save on cost and pursue its strategic civil and military requirements. In the absence of the necessary materials, propulsion and/or electronics industry to indigenously build satellites on a true turnkey basis, the focus on building premier integration and application expertise for future satellites would not be surprising.

The second aspect, i.e. foreign relations, is important. Pakistan cannot join multi-national bodies such as the Wassenaar Arrangement (WA) or Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) as a means to access the requisite technology (e.g. satellite subsystems). However, it can leverage strong bilateral relations to build rapport and, in turn, acquire the necessary systems and services from South Africa, Turkey and Ukraine.

South Africa is among a handful of states openly willing to engage with Pakistan on sensitive matters such as defence. In March 2017 (coincidentally, when SUPARCO began importing from SAC) South Africa signed a comprehensive memorandum-of-understanding (MoU) to push the “acquisition of defence equipment as well as cooperation in Research and Development (R&D), Transfer of Technology, Co-production/Joint Ventures in public as well as private sector.”[15] Thus, it appears that Pakistan had availed an opportunity.

SAC’s product portfolio includes both EO and SAR systems for earth observation satellites, offering a look at SUPARCO’s potential payload options for its future satellites, such as the PRSS-02, which is expected to offer an imaging capture resolution of less than 1m.[16] To drive its expanded space development initiative, Pakistan is establishing the Pakistan Space Centre (PSC) to develop and manufacture satellites.[17] In its new budget proposal, Pakistan’s Ministry of Finance listed Rs. 26.9 billion ($220 million US) for the PSC.[18]

In contrast to earlier periods, SUPARCO – much like the Pakistan Navy (PN) – has evidently emerged as a very important aspect to Pakistan’s national security calculus. In some respects, the two could be connected – e.g. space-based IMINT would offer the PN valuable target information for its submarine and fast attack craft (FAC)-based cruise missile platforms. However, the interesting point is how these bodies, which were not afforded as much attention in terms of importance and funding, are poised to surge.

However, SUPARCO’s rise – and with it, that of PSC – has far-reaching potential for Pakistan’s core security objectives. Be it deploying a space-based IMINT asset to potentially pursuing SATCOM and possibly even a satellite navigation (SATNAV) element, options will open for Pakistan’s military to utilize certain assets – such as cruise missiles, stand-off weapons, unmanned aerial/ground/sea vehicles and others – in ways that are not readily possible today (e.g. beyond-line-of-sight communication).[19]

Though system design and integration expertise is to be expected, it will be interesting to see how Pakistan will fare in terms of domestically sourcing core inputs. It would be advisable to link applicable aspects of the Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF) Project Azm next-generation fighter program to satellite manufacturing, such as electronics and aerostructure materials. This would enable Pakistan to produce a costly element domestically (thus channelling the main expenditure into the local economy instead of a foreign currency loss) and scale the required development across many applications.

[1] “Pakistan to launch indigenous remote sensing satellite next month.” Associated Press of Pakistan. 24 June 2018. URL: http://www.app.com.pk/pakistan-to-launch-indigenous-remote-sensing-satellite-next-month/ (Last Accessed: 25 Jun 2018).

[2] “Pakistan Remote Sensing Satellite (PRSS-1).” Pakistan Space & Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO). Government of Pakistan. URL: http://suparco.gov.pk/pages/rsss.asp?rssslinksid=2 (Last Accessed: 25 June 2018).

[3] “Pakistan, China sign contract to launch PRSS-1 System.” The News International. 21 April 2016. URL: https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/114296-Pakistan-China-sign-contract-to-launch-PRSS-1-System (Last Accessed: 25 June 2018).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Sana Jamal. “Pakistan to launch 2 Satellites in early 2018.” Gulf News. 05 October 2017. URL: https://gulfnews.com/news/asia/pakistan/pakistan-to-launch-2-satellites-in-early-2018-1.2101103 (Last Accessed: 25 June 2018).

[6] Osman Husain. “Space: Above and Beyond.” Dawn News. 26 December 2013. URL: https://www.dawn.com/news/1076532 (Last Accessed: 25 June 2018).

[7] “Public Sector Development Programme.” Ministry of Planning, Development and Reform. Government of Pakistan. June 2018. URL: http://pc.gov.pk/uploads/archives/PSDP_2018-19_Final.pdf (Last Accessed: 28 April 2018).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Peter B. de Selding. “Turkey’s Gokturk-1 Reconnaissance Satellite Finally Cleared for Export.” Space News. 23 April 2015. URL: http://spacenews.com/turkeys-gokturk-1-reconnaissance-satellite-finally-cleared-for-export/ (Last Accessed: 31 December 2017).

[10] “China to launch two remote sensing satellites for Pakistan in June.” GB Times. 24 May 2018. URL: https://gbtimes.com/china-to-launch-two-remote-sensing-satellites-for-pakistan-in-june (Last Accessed: 24 June 2018).

[11] “Pakistan, China sign contract of Pakistan Multi-Mission Satellite.” Radio Pakistan. 23 March 2018. URL: http://www.radio.gov.pk/23-03-2018/pakistan-china-sign-contract-of-pakistan-multi-mission-satellite-paksat-mm1 (Last Accessed: 26 June 2018).

[12] Alleged Request for Proposal by SUPARCO outlining how SUPARCO evaluating electro-optical (EO) payload options from the Beijing Institute of Space Mechanics and Electricity (BIMSE) and others. Ultimately, SUPARCO had selected an EO solution from South Africa’s Space Advisory Company (SAC). URL: https://www.scribd.com/document/306131770/Print (Last Accessed: 27 June 2018).

[13] Ibid.

[14] GB Times. May 2018.

[15] Joy Nonzukiso Peter. “A memorandum of understanding on Defence and Defence Industrial Cooperation with Pakistan.” Department of Defence. Government of South Africa. March 2017. URL: http://www.dod.mil.za/news/2017/03/mou_pakistan.htm (Last Accessed: 26 June 2018).

[16] “Indigenous facility planned to develop satellites.” Associated Press of Pakistan. 14 May 2018. URL: http://www.app.com.pk/indigenous-facility-planned-develop-satellites/ (Last Accessed: 27 June 2018).

[17] Ibid.

[18] “Public Sector Development Programme.” Ministry of Planning, Development and Reform. Government of Pakistan. June 2018. URL: http://pc.gov.pk/uploads/archives/PSDP_2018-19_Final.pdf (Last Accessed: 28 April 2018).

[19] “Indigenous facility planned to develop satellites.” Associated Press of Pakistan. 14 May 2018.

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