India successfully tests ASAT missile, joins club that includes US, Russia and China - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Wednesday 27 March 2019

India successfully tests ASAT missile, joins club that includes US, Russia and China

Technologies that went into Mission Shakti have been available with DRDO for over a decade

Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 28th March 19

On Wednesday morning, 300 kilometres above the Odisha coast, a ballistic missile defence (BMD) interceptor developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) struck a satellite in low earth orbit (LEO), smashing it into pieces.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the success of the test, codenamed Mission Shakti, on television and Twitter. Declaring that “there cannot be a greater moment of pride for any Indian”, he stated: “In the journey of every nation, there are moments that bring utmost pride and have a historic impact on generations to come. One such moment is today. India has successfully tested the Anti-Satellite (ASAT) missile.”

The prime minister said India had registered its name amongst the space superpowers. “So far, only three countries were in this club – America, Russia and China. Now India has become the fourth country to develop this capability,” he said.  

After the high-profile announcement, many were asking if this was permissible with the model code of conduct in place since March 10, ahead of the Lok Sabha elections. Late in the evening, the Election Commission announced it would probe the matter.

The tracking and interception capabilities that went into Mission Shakti have been available with the DRDO for over a decade. It began developing these after China’s successful ASAT test in 2007. 

On March 18, 2008, then DRDO chief, Dr VK Saraswat (now a NITI Aayog member) had briefed the media in New Delhi that intercepting an incoming missile fired from 2,000 kilometres away required the same technology needed for shooting down a satellite. Claiming that the DRDO already possessed that capability in 2008, Saraswat had said: “We have built, as of now, ABM (anti-ballistic missile) systems with interceptors to engage 2,000 kilometre-class of targets.”

On multiple occasions thereafter, Saraswat reiterated his claim. In February 2010, he had said: “We already have the building blocks for ASAT weapons. We don’t want to test a real ASAT weapon because it will lead to debris in space but can simulate a test on ground using an electronic satellite.”

Space remains a grey area without binding international treaties to govern the conduct of nations. However, there is broad consensus that ASAT tests that involve physically destroying a satellite should be avoided, since that creates space debris that endanger other satellites and space vehicles.

China’s high-profile 2007 ASAT test, which struck the target satellite at an altitude of over 1,000 kilometres, broke it up into more than 3,000 fragments, which still pose a hazard in space.

Emphasising that India had behaved more responsibly, the MEA stated: “The test was done in the lower atmosphere to ensure that there is no space debris. Whatever debris that is generated (sic) will decay and fall back onto the earth within weeks.”

Modi, too, emphasised India’s responsible conduct. “India has always been against the deployment of weapons in space and it has not deviated from that position. Today’s test in no way violates any international law or treaty or understanding,” he said.

The defence ministry said: “The test has demonstrated the nation’s capability to defend its assets in outer space.” However, experts pointed out that Mission Shakti did not test a defensive system that could shield Indian satellites from attack. Instead, it tested a retaliatory capability to shoot down enemy satellites.

“In wartime, the enemy may want to degrade our surveillance or communications capabilities, for example by taking down an Indian Navy satellite. Developing the capability to destroy enemy satellites would hopefully deter him,” said Rakesh Sood, a former Indian diplomat who specialises in nuclear and space policies.

Rajeshwari Rajagopalan, a space specialist with Observer Research Foundation, said that even though there was no international momentum for banning ASAT tests, New Delhi might have decided to conduct its tests now before any ban came into place. Having been left on the wrong side of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, it played safe this time.

“The timing, however, is significant, just weeks before the general elections. With no ASAT test conducted over the last five years, there was no technical compulsion to do so at this time, only an electoral one,” said Rajagopalan.

The MEA statement, however, said the test was conducted because it was important to safeguard India’s growing space programme, including the Mangalyaan and Gaganyaan missions and India’s 102 spacecraft that were “a critical backbone of India’s security, economic and social infrastructure.”

New Delhi has ratified the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which prohibits weapons of mass destruction in outer space, but not conventional weapons. India has participated in all sessions of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. New Delhi has supported UNGA resolution 69/32 on No First Placement of Weapons on Outer Space. In the Conference on Disarmament, India supports consideration of the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS).


Mission Shakti: India shot down one of its satellites 300 km away in space with an anti-satellite missile, the country's first test of such technology

Duration: The test, carried out by DRDO scientists, lasted three minutes and was done in the lower atmosphere to ensure there was no debris in space

Significance: Anti-satellite weapon allows for attacks on enemy satellites — blinding them or disrupting communications — as well as providing a technology base for intercepting ballistic missiles

Select club: India is the only fourth country after the US, Russia and China to successfully develop and test anti-satellite weapon capabilities

Early pioneer: The US performed the first anti-satellite test in 1959. China destroyed a satellite in 2007, creating the largest orbital debris cloud in history




  2. CAPTAIN SANAT BHATE27 March 2019 at 20:34

    Colonel Sir, your are a professional - desist from making political remarks. Steer clear of even quoting what others have said. Staying within your expertise domain will bring you rich dividends.

  3. Why are we mixing national security with electoral compulsion? Definitely the timing is crucial but we do not know what is transpiring behind the scenes to promote such a test now - be it the 25 countries meeting in Geneva now to discuss on Prevention of Arms Race in Outer Space, where India is left out or the likely destruction of our RISAT-1 by space debris deliberately created by China in 2017 or even now the Chinese threatening similar measures against our satellites that are probing the Pakis. How many electorate do you think will grasp the significance of this test? Only some urban jingos, rest really do not care or understand. So why can't we keep aside narrow politics for the time being and for a change be supportive of the fact that this is indeed a big stride for India that will reap benefit for the future, irrespective of whichever party is in power.

  4. Watching panel on Indian TV where for those who are not used to the accent, it seems as if there is a big fight going on.
    What’s happening asks ‘She’
    Me: He just sent off a rocket into space and shot a satellite (visual of rocket blasting off)
    She: Who shot a satellite ?
    Me: Modi
    She: who’s Modi?
    Me: Our Prime Minister
    She: Why?
    Me: The elections are near he wants to impress
    She peals of laughter ....
    (More visuals of rocket blasting off)

  5. Dear Ajai Shukla, I don't agree with this politically motivated article.
    Please have a read of this tribune article:

    We don't want to go over all the political c**p when we come over to read a defence article.


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