Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced on March 27 that India had successfully shot down one of its own low-grade decommissioned satellites with the help of an indigenously made missile produced by Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). It was unclear which missile from the family of missiles India possesses was employed for this. With a process code-named Mission Shakti, India became the fourth country in the world to develop this specialised technology and successfully test it, after the US, Russia and China. The test was carried out off the coast of Odisha and on a low orbit satellite 300 km above surface level.
To a public, even of the reasonably well-informed variety, the downing of our own satellite by an Indian missile and going into celebration mode must appear rather strange. The military-strategic implications of the achievement will take a little time to sink once the brouhaha over the application of Election Commission norms to the announcement, gets over.
A simple explanation from a military point of view is given here. Remember, having an eye in the sky in the form of satellites is a major advantage for militaries, which possess such capability. Besides the operational strategic domain involving close surveillance, there is navigation for aircraft, surface vehicles, vessels at sea and personnel on foot. Pinpoint targeting of long-range missiles is possible because of these. With the development of armed drones, the US operators have been located in Florida, US, and homing the drones to their targets in Afghanistan with the help of satellite surveillance and navigation. Surveillance from space has distinct advantage, in that it is like a permanent drone in the sky and covering an area well beyond imagination. It makes the verifiability of agreement on limitation of troops, or early warning signals of troop movement much more credible. India’s massive mobilisation before it can go to war with either adversary is vulnerable due to satellite pick up. In today’s world the Internet and many other networks are dependent for their area coverage on satellites. Modern wars without network centricity are almost unthinkable. Similarly, war without the cyber domain activated for offensive or defensive tasks cannot be imagined today. Satellites provide the capacity for wide area coverage and can assist with both offensive and defensive exploitation of the cyber domain.
Since so much now depends on satellites, making your adversary’s eyes, ears and nodes in the sky vulnerable to incapacitation through a physical attack (by kinetic contact) or other means was an obvious measure that militaries would pursue. When a satellite or satellites are taken out or rendered unusable, the resultant effect is most felt on the Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capability of a nation or force. It helps in the efforts to remain ahead in the information and decision cycle. There are networks for command and control, control of artillery, logistics and communications, without which military operations are rendered almost ineffective. The US has been pursuing a programme focused on this from as early as 1959. The first test missed a satellite by a couple of kilometres but in 1962 and 1963 successful tests were conducted with ballistic missiles going up to a vertical height of 400 miles. It was the time of President Ronald Reagan that research took a different turn with the ‘Star Wars’ programme which was designed to destroy all incoming projectiles or unfriendly equipment in space through kinetic of directed energy means.
China commenced testing in 2007 but its very first test left a tremendous amount of space debris from the destruction of a low orbit older satellite. Debris in space resulting from the use of ASAT weapons, even for testing purposes, is a major challenge as even small particles can ram against functional satellites and damage them. It is reported by the UN Outer Space Affairs Department that only 1400 of the 19000 artificial objects being currently tracked in space are functional satellites, the rest mostly being debris. A set of UN guidelines on space debris have been formulated. India’s ASAT test was in a very low earth orbit thus mitigating the danger emerging from the resultant debris after the test.
So why has India undertaken the ASAT test? Firstly, much like nuclear weapons, ASAT could remain a strategic weapon for only deterrence and not be involved in actual war fighting although its direct life-threatening capability is lower by volumes. It is important to demonstrate the capability for deterrence especially since China has been developing its capability for fairly long. Secondly, it is always possible that a Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) kind of international agreement may force a moratorium on development and testing of ASAT in the future. That would leave India in the lurch and future testing against the treaty would draw sanctions and international ire. A physical test with data all canned gives a boost to strategic capability. While the MEA may have made the right move by discounting any objective or country being focused upon by India’s ASAT programme, it is important that the successful test has been done at a time when the subcontinent has just emerged from its latest crisis involving a near showdown between India and Pakistan. Pakistan is known for its copy cat approach and it could just be tempted to acquire such a capability of its own; of course with the assistance of its all-weather friend, China. Affordability is not something Pakistan usually looks at despite its almost paralysed economy.
There are fast emerging technologies in this field and we have to hear more about India’s progress in the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) domain for a future ‘iron dome’ concept. The US and Russia have the capabilities of launching an ASAT from the ship, land and space, while India, presently, has used a land installation. No doubt progress towards that will also be made as ISRO has demonstrated.