Mission Shakti: How China's long march on ASAT missile technology threatens elite club

China became the third country to test the ASAT joining an elite list comprising of US and Russia after it tested its first anti-satellite (ASAT) missile in February 2007.

China-The third country to test ASAT

China had tested its first anti-satellite (ASAT) missile back in February 2007 when it killed a weather satellite to demonstrate its military space prowess. The government of China quickly announced that it won't be testing any more ASATs after international uproar over debris disrupting satellite communication.

China thus became the third country to test the ASAT joining an elite list comprising of US and Russia.

China's test sent shockwaves around the world and the ripples were felt in the Indian defence establishment as well with several military and intelligence including weather and communication-related satellites already placed in the orbit. In one stroke China had the ability to obliterate India's space development over several decades.

It changed on Wednesday as India conducted Mission Shakti, an anti-satellite missile test carried out by DRDO.

Moreover, the test was done in the lower atmosphere to ensure that there were no space debris.



Arms race started during 60s-70S between the US and erstwhile Soviet Union

The arms race in space is not a new phenomenon. It started during the 60s and 70S between the US and erstwhile Soviet Union with the InterContinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs).

As the missile race between the cold warriors started taking a nuclear dimension, the US in the 90s set up BMDO (Ballistic Missile Defence Organisation).

The US had taken a leap in ASATs way back in the 50s and 60s developing interceptors. 

In the 80S, it used aircraft - the F-16s to launch short-range missiles. Later it used ship-fired missiles to destroy a spy satellite and is now developing higher range missiles capable of destroying targets which can target Chinese and Russian satellites.


US's first anti-satellite designed as nuclear-tipped ballistic missile

The United States performed the first anti-satellite tests in 1959 when satellites themselves were rare and new.

Bold Orion, designed as a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile re-purposed to attack satellites, was launched from a bomber and passed close enough to the Explorer 6 satellite for it to have been destroyed if the missile had been armed.

The Soviet Union performed similar tests around the same time. In the 1960s and early 1970s, it tested a weapon that could be launched in orbit, approach enemy satellites and destroy them with an explosive charge, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-profit research and advocacy organisation.



China's ASAT threat to US, Russia?

Although China joined the ASAT race late, since the 2000s it has ramped up its capability several times and is now perceived to be a threat to the US and Russia. US has in the past few years openly said that China was covertly testing the ASAT missiles.

In 2014, US State Department spokesperson had cautioned China over "testing of destructive anti-satellite systems", however, China denied conducting any such tests. China's state-run news agency Xinhua said the military had announced a successful missile intercept test.

China had reportedly tested the DN2 missile predecessor to DN3, although it was officially denied by the Chinese government.

China’s Ministry of National Defense said the test had “achieved the preset goal”.

Later,  Air Force Lt. Gen. Jay Raymond at a conference declared that “soon every satellite in every orbit will be able to be held at risk.”


China again tested antisatellite missiles in 2017

In 2017, reports suggested that China had tested at least two antisatellite missiles - SC–19 and DN–2 exactly ten years after it first tested the devastating missile in 2007.

Reports said China launched the new anti-satellite missile Dong Neng-3 (DN3) from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in Inner Mongolia. 



China is estimated to have spent $11 billion on space, 2nd highest after the US

A US strategic study -  Space Threat Assessment 2018, claimed last year that in 2017 China is estimated to have spent $11 billion on space which was the second highest after the US which spent $48 billion.

The report said China was backed in its space programme by private investment which was supporting "Chinese space start-ups, including a $182 million investment in a Chinese company called ExPace Technology."

The report claimed China began testing ASAT capabilities in the mid-2000s. 

"China's first two tests of the SC-19 direct-ascent ASAT system occurred in 2005 and 2006 and were unsuccessful. In its third attempt in 2007, China destroyed one of its own satellites and produced a cloud of hazardous debris in low Earth orbit (LEO) that still threatens other satellites in that orbital regime today," it said.


China developing three or more direct- ascent ASAT systems?

The US report claimed that China had tested ASATs in October 2015, December 2016, August 2017, and February 2018 and it could be developing three or more direct- ascent ASAT systems simultaneously.

The report said the country had acquired satellite jammers from Ukraine in the late 1990s and it currently has the "ability to jam common satellite communication bands and GPS signals."

"In 2010, following the BX-1 test, China launched the SJ-12 satellite, which conducted a series of remote proximity maneuvers with an older Chinese satellite. Some have speculated that this mission was designed to test co-orbital jamming or other counterspace capabilities," the US aerospace report said.