While the timing of India’s anti-satellite test on March 27, just a fortnight before voting begins in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, has for obvious reasons become a focal point of public debate, the bigger issue of the test’s implications for the country’s defence has in the process been somewhat obscured.
What does the test named “Mission Shakti” really imply? Is it the prelude to Star Wars over South Asia? A major achievement or just carefully orchestrated hype for electoral consumption? To make sense of it all, sans politics, we need to get into a little rocket science. To begin with, “Star Wars” has long been a reality. Whether we like it or not, space is militarised and a nation like India, confronted by adversaries on both its flanks, has no option but to develop credible deterrence against the use of space weapons. This essentially requires an offensive capability to take out critical space-based assets. India has been quietly but steadily acquiring such a capability for several years now.There are two related aspects of the military use of space — the first has to do with ballistic missiles and the second with satellites. While the development of ballistic missiles is an old story, the means to knock them down is more recent. Most countries with missile capabilities, including the United States, Russia, China, Israel and India, have been developing anti-ballistic capabilities for some years now.
The ASAT programme is a spin-off from the much larger anti-ballistic missile (ABM) programme. The missile used in this case was similar to those used in our ongoing ballistic missile defence programme, except that it was of much longer range. The ABMs are shorter range weapons designed to take out incoming ballistic missiles during the last stage of their re-entry into the atmosphere. The anti-satellite (ASAT) missile was launched at 11.26 in the morning from the Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Island, formerly known as Wheeler Island, which is just off the coast of Odisha at Chandipur, and within three minutes hit a low-altitude decommissioned satellite orbiting at a height of about 300 km.
It was a single-stage solid fuel propelled missile light in weight as it did not have any payload and used its momentum or kinetic force to destroy the target satellite. The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has apparently been developing these missiles, both with and without warheads, which can be deployed and launched very quickly in response to an incoming threat.
More complex than the missile itself is the associated radar target acquisition, tracking and missile guidance systems required to steer the ASAT or ABM towards a target. Once close to the target, the onboard target acquisition system takes over and guides the missile right on it (or near it as would be the case of a missile fitted with an explosive warhead).
Mission Shakti’s success is a big deal no matter what the government’s critics might feel. It suggests India can do serious damage to an adversary’s space assets. More important, perhaps, the test demonstrates New Delhi’s determination to press on with the development of key military technologies for the defence of its aerospace.
Recessed deterrence as practised in the past by successive Indian governments lacked credibility and was ultimately shelved by the Atal Behari Vajpayee government that conducted full-blown nuclear weapons tests in 1998. Then, as now, it was clear that military capability of any sort needs to be demonstrated and not kept under wraps.
This is why nations have military parades, military exercises and weapons testing that are advertised to deter potential enemies. Whether India had the capability or potential to destroy satellites in the past is immaterial as it was not credible.
Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, never a great proponent of the military, is said to have denied any public testing of the country’s anti-satellite capabilities. The March 27 test, in contrast, laid to rest any speculation about Indian capabilities, although the foreign media as always managed to dredge up some expert or the other to belittle the achievement. Having said this, have we, as our Prime Minister said, really become a space superpower? The clear answer is “not yet”.
Most military satellites used for mapping and sensing operate in the low-orbit range, that is between 160 km and 2,000 km above the earth. The lower these satellites orbit the better imagery they can collect and a large number of them are found moving at about 400-900 km above the earth.
India now can hit most satellites flying up to an altitude of 1,000 km, according to DRDO scientists. However, our ASAT cannot yet reach either the medium orbit or very high satellites that are found beyond the atmosphere.
Medium earth satellites such as those responsible for GPS systems orbit at an altitude of about 22,000 km while geostationary satellites, most suited for telecommunications, meteorology and so on, operate well outside the atmosphere at altitudes of 36,000 km. Military communications satellites too orbit at the higher altitudes.
China, on the other hand, has demonstrated it can destroy space objects at very high altitudes. In January 2007, China became the third country, after the United States and Russia, to conduct a successful anti-satellite test by launching a ballistic missile to destroy an inactive weather satellite at an altitude of 865 km. Since then it has launched a number of missiles which are reported to be capable of destroying both satellites and missiles in the exosphere.
India’s anti-satellite capabilities in comparison are still modest and there is clearly a need to expand them further. The same is true of our more critical anti-ballistic missile defence programme. While the Prime Minister deserves praise for prioritising these areas of national security, he and his predecessors are equally to blame for the large gaps that have persisted in India’s overall aerospace defence capabilities.
The aerospace realm today is an integrated arena requiring a combination of both air and space weapons systems. While the success of an anti-satellite weapon is a major milestone worthy of celebration, it cannot compensate for the persisting and alarming gaps in our radar, early warning, electronic warfare, communications or air defence and offence systems.
It would have been commendable if the Prime Minister in his five-year tenure had been as generous regarding the country’s overall military aerospace needs as he has been with sops, subsidies and loan waivers for his electoral constituency.