MILITARY SATELLITES AND THEIR ROLE IN CONFLICTS
SP’s Aviation|September 2020
With varied topography that India is endowed with, satellites used for military purposes, can play a crucial role in situations of ongoing military conflict or even preceding one
AIR MARSHAL B.K. PANDEY (RETD)

A MILITARY SATELLITE IS ONE THAT IS PLACED IN ORBIT IN space to execute functions such as communications, navigation and reconnaissance that are related to a variety of tasks for the military, on the surface of the Earth. The first time a satellite was used for a task related to the military, was a mission for photographic reconnaissance. The United States (US) was the pioneer in this field having forayed into this domain as early as in the 1950s. Later, some attempts were also made by the US to develop satellites capable of fielding weapons to be used against targets located on the surface of the Earth or in space, but efforts in this direction were discontinued in 1967 following the ratification of international treaties banning the deployment of weapons of mass destruction on satellites in orbit.

EARLY DAYS OF MILITARY SATELLITES

The very first formal military satellite programme embarked on by the US in the early 1950s, was dubbed as Weapon System 117L. This programme had under it, a number of sub-programmes one of which was named as the Corona and the initial missions undertaken under this programme were codenamed as Discoverer. This programme included a series of reconnaissance satellites that were designed to be launched and to be inserted into the desired orbit. These satellites were fitted with equipment on board that could capture high-resolution photographs of designated areas on the surface of the Earth, both over land as well as over the sea. On completion of the photographic mission, the satellite would make a re-entry into the atmosphere of the Earth and then release the payload containing the high-resolution photographs of the areas of interest on Earth via a parachute to land on the surface of the Earth either on land or over the sea. The payload could be recovered after landing.

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