With the US talking about a Space Force and China working on advanced A-SAT tech, India must build on Mission Shakti’s success
To set the record straight, India had arrived as a space superpower long before Mission Shakti—the first successful test of anti-satellite attack capabilities by India. The country, after all, is one of the nine countries/international economic unions in the world with any kind of orbital launch capability. What Mission Shakti did—by demonstrating India’s capability to defend its interests off Earth—was to reaffirm India’s position in the elite space club. A missile launched from the APJ Abdul Kalam Island on India’s eastern coast destroyed a defunct Indian low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite, orbiting 300 km off the planet’s surface, in under three minutes. Just three other nations—the US, Russia and China—have demonstrated anti-satellite (A-SAT) capabilities. It is particularly China’s capabilities, against the backdrop of its own complicated relationship with India and the strategic support it continues to offer Pakistan, that make India’s A-SAT success significant. Impairing communications, surveillance, espionage and other crucial information transfer by attacking the satellites of an enemy/hostile nation will be an advantage in a world where, despite the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 forbidding space warfare, the US has had A-SAT technology from the 1950s-60s, Russia from the 1970s-80s and China from 2007—and the US has of late talked of building a Space Force, hinting at off-Earth militarisation goals. Given the increasing reliance on satellites for military intelligence gathering and even the operations of high-precision weaponry, A-SAT seems something of a must for any nation invested as heavily in space technology as India. Destruction of a country’s satellites can also throw it into chaos by disrupting essential daily functions, from telecommunications to grid-supply of power.
The Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) has been A-SAT ready since 2010, but India had not embarked on an actual test so far. Former DRDO chief VK Saraswat had, in 2012, said that India was not keen on this because of the space debris such tests create. In fact, debris from China’s 2007 test hit a Russian satellite in 2013 and altered its orbit. The US, too, had ceased testing of any new A-SAT capability in 1985, citing concerns of space junk created by blasting satellites hampering normal satellite functioning for itself and other countries. China, though, could have reignited the race with its 2007 tests, with at least two countries—India and Israel—having announced A-SAT development programmes since. And given how heavily invested the US remains in space—over 80% of the LEO satellites are the US’s—for both everyday functioning and strategically, it is likely that the country would have revived A-SAT development. Indeed, many commentators have viewed its 2008 Operation Burnt Frost, in which it eliminated one of its own satellites that had become dysfunctional and was posing a threat to the safety of the other satellites because of orbit-degradation, as a signal to the rest of the world that it was recommencing A-SAT development.
While some may argue that A-SAT weaponry brings closer the threat of space warfare, the fact is that that threat has been real for decades now. In fact, both the US and China are reported to have developed A-SAT capabilities for beyond LEO satellites. Even as India has assured that its A-SAT programme is not aimed to target or threaten any country, it must build on its series of successes. Isro’s successes with placing gargantuan payloads in orbit was the precursor to demonstrating that it can deploy heavy weapons systems. Now, Mission Shakti’s success should become the precursor to developing beyond-LEO A-SATs.