April 02, 2020
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Eyes In The Sky

The Prithvi controversy highlights the need for an independent, shared monitoring agency

Eyes In The Sky

Who is monitoring global defence installations? The ongoing controversy over the alleged Prithvi deployment and the reported preparations for a nuclear test by India in December 1995 has highlighted not only the role of high-resolution satellite imagery (with a resolution of less than 1 metre) but also the need for a neutral organisation in providing this verification technique using commercial satellite imagery (with resolutions of 5 metres and above at the moment). The latter is particularly significant given the fact that while in both cases the evidence was based on high-resolution satellite imagery from the US government, none of the actual images were available for public scrutiny.

However, two US scholars (Vipin Gupta and Frank Pabian, with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Liver-more, California) have recently published a report on the alleged Indian nuclear test preparations at Pokhran in late 1995 and early 1996, based on commercial satellite images. This report, "Investigating the Allegations of Indian Nuclear Test Preparations in the Rajasthan Desert", published in Science & Global Security, examined six satellite images over the Pokhran region, from as early as 1961 to March 1996. Its conclusion: "The Khetolai military range is con-figured for unconventional purposes. It contains all of the largescale components for nuclear testing, and several of the largescale components for field missile testing. Thus, nuclear test preparations and planned Prithvi field test are each plausible, non-exclusive explanations for the recent activity at the Khetolai military range." This implies that not only was there some preparation but that this activity was evident even as late as March 1996, just a month before India officially came out against the CTBT. While the accuracy of this finding has been endorsed by several satellite imagery specialists, its credibility as a non-partisan, unbiased report has been questioned by Indian strategists. The fact that both Gupta and Pabian are employees of the US government and would certainly have had access to classified high-resolution imagery lends credence to their argument.

But the authors insist that they did not use any classified material to write their report, which was based entirely on satellite images available commercially. In addition, Gupta lists three arguments to support his claim that the paper was 'unbiased, independent and technically solid'. First, the technical study was conducted in accordance with the fundamental scientific rule of reproducibility.

Second, the study underwent rigorous peer review and drafts were reviewed twice by several of their colleagues. The study also underwent an independent review process by the Science & Global Security journal's international board of directors (although none was from India) who are highly regarded. Third, the paper has been presented in seminars and conferences (mostly in the US) and has also been put on the Web for wide dissemination. Gupta claims that so far the response has been positive and no one has accused the work of being either biased or poorly done.

One possible way to ensure credibility is to have independent or non-governmental organisations or analysts providing this service. However, the high cost of commercial satellite imagery (a single 40 km x 40 km image can cost $3,000 and any good study requires at least two or three such images) and the related cost of analysis is well beyond the budget of most independent analysts, or NGOs. Which is perhaps why government organisations such as the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory or the Sandia National Laboratory (both funded by the US government) are the only ones who can afford to conduct such a study.

Credibility apart, there is clearly a significant role that satellite imagery can play in verification and confidence building, particularly with regard to nuclear testing and missile deployment. In South Asia, were India and Pakistan to reach an agreement not to deploy missiles close to the border (not an unlikely possibility given that the missile deployment may be discussed in one of the future joint working groups), they could decide to use commercially available satellite images to verify compliance. In fact, Dr Bhupendra Jasani, senior research fellow at King's College, London, and a leading expert on satellite image analysis, has proposed that the South Asian verification agency could be modelled on the European Regional Satellite Agency based in Madrid, which went into operation last year with the mandate for verification of the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, crisis monitoring and environmental monitoring.

The South Asian satellite monitoring agency could have its offices in both Islamabad and New Delhi, it could even buy the same images to verify that there has been no movement or deployment of missiles near the border. It would be ideal if the two sides buy the same image so that there are no compliance problems and neither side could accuse the other of fudging the image.

Interestingly, one of the best commercially available satellite images at the moment is from the Indian satellite, the IRS-1C, which has a resolution of about 5 metres (better than that of either the French SPOT or the US Landast) and would be perfect for verifying missile deployment. These images are being sold world-wide by a US company, Space Imaging Eosat, and could be bought by Pakistan (under an agreement) to verify the location of India's Prithvis—a sweet irony indeed.

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