Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement on Wednesday, 27 March, of India conducting an anti-satellite (A-SAT) test to destroy a satellite 300 kilometres above the earth, notwithstanding the fact that it came just weeks before the general elections, is momentous and strategically significant.
Why is it so consequential? Simply because there are only three other countries –namely the United of States of America, Russia and China – that possess such a capability, and of these the last is locked in a longstanding boundary dispute with India.
The test also prepares India for the wars of the future, because space is both a domain as well a medium for war-fighting.
Wars may start terrestrially, but can potentially escalate to the space domain. Space is also a medium, in that it is where India’s satellites, which are its eyes and ears, orbit the earth, enabling the Indian armed services to conduct operations on land, sea and the air.
It is in this context that the importance of Mission Shakti has implications, it prepares India to militarily contest any foe who might consider threatening its space assets. In addition, the A-SAT establishes space deterrence, preventing India’s adversaries from contemplating attacks against space-borne infrastructure.
Equally, significant is the 300 km altitude at which the interceptor destroyed the satellite. The Americans for their part, in February 2008, used a software modified sea-based missile defence interceptor from a US Navy Aegis Class destroyer to intercept their satellite at an altitude of 240 km. Both, the Americans in 2008 and the Indians in 2019, conducted their test at altitudes that would obviate a debris scare for other space-faring countries. Indeed, the debris released from the Mission Shakti interception is unlikely to remain in LEO for more than a few weeks, and at best months.
This contrasts with the Chinese A-SAT of January 2007, which generated enormous debris because the Chinese intercepted their target, an ageing weather satellite at a significantly higher altitude of 850 km, which most space debris experts believe would take a 50-100 years to clear.
Thus, the Modi government took the right precautions by avoiding the debris-generating catastrophe the Chinese test caused.
The Imminent Role of Nehru’s Govt in Mission Shakti
Despite the success of Mission Shakti under Modi, it could never have happened without dedicated investments in the Indian space programme by successive Indian governments, dating back to Jawaharlal Nehru.
Nehru, the first Indian prime minister along with Vikram Sarabhai, the first Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), which came into existence in 1969 and in turn became a part of the Department of Space (DoS) in 1972, established the foundations of the country’s space programme. Given the Indian space programme’s humble origins in the early 1960s, a bureaucratic entity known as the Indian National Committee for Space Research was established as part of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE).
Under Nehru, the first and critical phase of the Indian space programme was initiated by the establishment of administrative apparatus for managing space-related science and technology. He created, with foreign financial assistance, a programme for overseas training of Indian technologists and scientists, so they could gain experience and develop expertise in basic rocket missions.
The following year in 1963, his government also established the sounding rocket programme known as the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launch (TERL) Centre in Thiruvananthapuram. Between 1963 and 1975, over three hundred sounding rockets were launched from TERL.
These launches, combined with overseas training they acquired, were invaluable for Indian scientists and technologists in gaining experience about the complexities and demands of rocket technology.
The benefits accrued down the line under Nehru’s successors as Indian space technologists learnt to test more complex launch platforms. Driven by India’s visionary first prime minister and sustained by his successors, it is hard to visualise how the Indian space programme could have achieved critical mass without Nehru’s push.
Why Both UPA and NDA Deserve Credit
Mission Shakti’s success is also owed to the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government’ investments in Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) during its tenure, and the UPA leadership’s awareness of China’s A-SAT mission conducted in January 2007. After all, the DRDO used a modified exoatmospheric missile interceptor from the BMD programme sustained by the Congress-led UPA between 2004 and 2014.
Further, it is evident that India had the basic technological accoutrements to develop an A-SAT in 2010. The country could’ve conducted an A-SAT mission in 2012 if political clearance was given, the then DRDO chief VK Saraswat said on Wednesday.
Thus, the Congress-led UPA laid the foundations for the success of Mission Shakti, but it was unable to muster the political courage or did not deem it a priority to make the decision to undertake the test. The UPA government’s skittishness in actually authorising the test has prevented it from reaping the benefits of the successful A-SAT.
However, people need to recognise that Mission Shakti could never have happened without the UPA’s contribution. Thus, the UPA and NDA both deserve credit for this success.
Congress President Rahul Gandhi was quick to congratulate the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), if not the government, implying the importance Mission Shakti holds for both the Congress and the BJP on matters of defence preparedness and national security.
(Kartik Bommakanti is an associate fellow at the Observer Research Foundation. He specialies in space military issues and is looking into India’s space military strategy vis a vis China. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)