ISLAMABAD — Pakistan has launched an ambitious satellite program as part of ongoing efforts to wean itself off dependence on foreign-owned assets for civil and military applications.
Pakistan’s domestic space agency, the Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission, or SUPARCO, will receive a budget of just more than $40 million for fiscal 2018-2019.
Of this, some $22 million has been allocated for space centers related to the Pakistan Multi-Mission Satellite in Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore, plus the establishment of a research center in Karachi.
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However, the final cost of all three aspects of the project is reported in local media as being in the region of $470 million.
No response from SUPARCO was forthcoming when asked by Defense News regarding details about foreign cooperation on this endeavor, although existing information on planned remote sensing satellite programs list an electro-optical sensor-equipped satellite, and a synthetic aperture radar-equipped example.
An existing communications satellite partially co-developed in Pakistan, PAKSAT-1R, was launched by China Great Wall Industry Corporation in 2011.
“It is essential for all countries that they free themselves from dependence on U.S.-location satellite programs,” said Brian Cloughley, author, analyst and former Australian defense attache to Islamabad.
“I have no doubt this has been [in] the cards for some time and that the Chinese are helping.”
Defense News previously reported that Pakistan’s military had access to China’s BeiDou satellite navigation system for military applications, which had special implications for the effectiveness of its sea-based deterrent.
Pakistan also has a long-standing satellite development agreement with Turkey, which has its own recently unveiled observation satellite program.
However, at present it is unknown if anything has resulted from this, or if it will be pushed further down the road.
Cloughley believes it would take a long time to come to fruition, making cooperation with China more likely still.
Also, on cost grounds alone for the new program, Cloughley believes it likely that reliance on China will grow.
“The big question about this development is about where the money is to come from. Pakistan’s economic situation is dire, and commitment to such a program will not meet with [International Monetary Fund] approval. The China connection will probably deepen even further,” he said.
Whether China’s satellite technology will meet Pakistan’s requirements is unknown.
Brian Weeden, director of program planning at Secure World Foundation and an expert in space technologies and satellites, is unaware of the details of any satellites China may be building for Pakistan. However, he “would rate China’s technology in these areas as fairly good.”
“They’re not yet as capable as the most advanced American or European commercial technology, let alone the U.S. or European military satellites, but the Chinese technology is rapidly improving,” he said.