In a special address to the nation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that India had successfully tested an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile, joining the ranks of the USA, Russia and China. ‘Mission Shakti’ saw a Low Earth Orbit satellite nearly 300 km away destroyed within three minutes, using indigenous technology developed by the DRDO.
But how significant is this development? Is the technology new? What does this mean for India’s national defence capabilities? And was this test legal under international norms?
The Quint spoke to experts on Indian space defence to find out.
‘A Demonstration of Capability’
“This is a significant achievement as far as India’s space domain is concerned,” says Group Captain (retd) Ajey Lele, senior fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses and one of India’s leading experts on strategic technologies relating to space.
According to him, this test was required given the era we live in, it was just a matter of having the political will to conduct the test since the DRDO had the capability to do this:
“The international space domain is increasingly looking at military [capabilities] as an important factor. The relevance of space is increasing so much. We are in the era where we are talking that we will have strategic technologies which will give all sorts of benefits. So India needed to demonstrate its capabilities somewhere down the line to its adversaries. China has already done it in 2007, so there was a certain amount of need.”
So was this necessitated to compete with China? “India is not competing with China per se in space,” says Captain Lele, “but there is definitely a need to demonstrate India’s capabilities also. So one has to look at this only from the perspective of a demonstration of capability.”
This appears to be the crux of conducting this test: A visible demonstration of India’s ability to engage in strategic warfare in space, that will now act as a deterrent.
“These are strategic weapons, strategic capabilities,” notes Captain Lele. “Demonstration of a capability is not for the purposes of usage, more from a deterrence point of view.”
Kartik Bommakanti, an associate fellow at the Observer Research Foundation who specialies in space military issues and is looking into India’s space military strategy vis a vis China, agrees with this assessment:
“With regards to China, this test is significant from a deterrence perspective. China had the same capability since 2007, and now India has the ability to retaliate. China will think twice before damaging our satellite assets – for that matter, this puts everyone on notice, that if you trifle with India, you will not escape unscathed. This is momentous in military terms.”
Veteran diplomat Vishnu Prakash, who has served as ambassador to South Korea and consul general in China, also points to the deterrent value of Mission Shakti.
“It’s basically putting a deterrent in place. Just having the capability is not good enough, you have to demonstrate it,” he explains. “Obviously we would have covert capability of compromising satellites, but the overt capability had to be demonstrated.”
The Importance of Optics
This brings us to the next key issue here: visibility.
As some have already pointed out, India has had ASAT capabilities since 2011-12, when the DRDO indicated the Agni V missile could be used to target satellites. The DRDO has also conducted simulations and ‘electronic testing’ to see if we could target a satellite. So why was this test required?
“India has demonstrated a kinetic kill capability. There are various ways of disabling a satellite. But now there is something known as optics,” explains Captain Lele. “I can jam your satellite, but who will come to know about it? So if India tomorrow says that we have developed jamming capability, there is no visual manifestation of that capability. What today India has done is a visual manifestation of our capabilities.”
The importance of visibility is also emphasised by Bommakanti.
“When the prime minister comes out and announces this test, he’s not just laid claim to a deterrent, but we now have a visibly proven space weapon. There are other forms of space weapons that are not visible, like directed energy weapons. But a lot of countries won’t believe you till you’ve shown a demonstrable capacity – we’ve now crossed that psychological threshold.”
Security expert and commentator Brahma Chellaney believes that failure to demonstrate India’s deterrent capability would have risked encouraging China to go after India’s satellites and space assets early in the event of a conflict.
Bommakanti says that he wasn’t expecting India to conduct such a test at this point of time, that this is a step ahead of what the DRDO has indicated we’d be willing to do. Other countries like China have been advancing in leaps and bounds, however, without waiting for anyone, which made it important to prove our capabilities. Nonetheless, for the government to take the plunge required will and determination.
No Global Restrictions, but Still a Risk?
Given attempts to restrict militarisation in space, were there any restrictions on conducting an ASAT test?
“There is no specific treaty which bars us from testing a weapon like this,” says Bommakanti. The Outer Space Treaty 1967, for instance, bans the testing of nuclear weapons in space, but it doesn’t deal with conventional weapons like a kinetic kill ASAT missile. However, there is an ongoing debate on whether such testing should be allowed, and India’s strategy does run some risks.
“There was a substantial risk of being condemned by other nations because you’ve put their satellites at risk, that you’ve launched something which could have affected them,” warns Bommakanti. “Direct ascent tests are dangerous because they can result in space debris after all. So a test like this could play into those concerns, could support a push by countries for a treaty ban on direct ascent testing.”
One advantage of conducting this test, however, is that India is, as a result, ahead of the curve, and has done its testing before any treaty has come into place.
“We seem to have learned a lesson from our diffidence in taking the plunge in going nuclear in the 50s, 60s and 70s. As a result, we have the millstone of NPT around our neck. Suppose we had not done it now, and in the next few years the big powers could have ganged up and again put a ban on any such demonstrations, we would have again been left out in the cold.”
India had not conducted nuclear weapons tests before the signing of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which meant we are not a recognised nuclear power, and has led to problems over membership of the NRC and obtaining nuclear fuel for our civilian reactors. Countries such as France and Japan, which have ASAT capabilities but have not tested them, could be in a similar situation if a treaty against such missile tests is now signed.
Captain Lele notes that the space debris issue shouldn’t arise from Mission Shakti, since the target was only at a 300 km height, which means the debris will be pulled into the atmosphere by gravity. This means that “any debris will get burnt off within a short period of time” – by contrast, the Chinese test was at over 800 km, which meant the debris stayed in orbit, which was a risk to other countries’ satellites.
“India has not violated any rules and has not created a problem for anyone else,” he says.
What Happens Now?
China’s reaction to the test will be extremely important, given the strategically consequential nature of the test. Both Captain Lele and Bommakanti are waiting for the Chinese reaction to ascertain how this will affect bilateral relations, though Captain Lele believes they will take their time to formulate a response – one short statement was released but didn’t go into much detail.
Ambassador Prakash actually believes this will not lead to a strain on bilateral relations, and that this could actually make China view India in a better light:
“If you remember in 1998, we made the mistake of blaming China. This time we have been very careful in what we have said, which is the first thing. Secondly, China is a country which understands power and a projection of power. Some have said that China is a country which respects demonstrations of power and scoffs at weakness. Sure, China will certainly make the right noises, but I don’t think it is going to affect our relations at all.”
Where does that leave us with the rest of the international community?
Ambassador Prakash believes that the major powers were probably not left in the dark. “I have a feeling that we would have at least sounded [out] the friendly P5 members before doing that especially the US, Russia and France,” he said. Further, he argues that India’s track record will ensure the world looks at the test with greater understanding.
“We have committed to no first use, so we are not threatening an attack. The rise of India is not seen as threatening. The rise of India is welcomed by democratic nations, open societies. There will be some noise from certain quarters but I don’t see anything beyond that.”
Captain Lele is of the opinion that India must take a strong stance over the test and assert our right to conduct it as well as our respect for international law.
“We need to handle it very successfully at an international level – that is the call of the hour now. We have done an act internationally, now we should convince everybody that what we did was in the larger interests of India. We have not violated any rules, we have not violated any norms.”