On Wednesday morning, 300 kilometres above the Odisha coast, a ballistic missile defence interceptor developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) struck a satellite in a low earth orbit, smashing it into pieces. Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the success of the test, codenamed Mission Shakti, on television and Twitter. Declaring that “there cannot be a greater moment of pride for any Indian”, he said: “In the journey of every nation, there are moments that bring utmost pride and have a historic impact on generations to come. One such moment is today. India has successfully tested the anti-satellite (ASAT) missile.”
The Prime Minister said India had registered its name amongst the space superpowers. "So far, only three countries were in this club – America, Russia and China. Now India has become the fourth country to develop this capability,” he said.
The tracking and interception capabilities that went into Mission Shakti have been available with the DRDO for over a decade. It began developing these after China’s successful ASAT test in 2007. On March 18, 2008, then DRDO chief, Dr VK Saraswat (now a NITI Aayog member), had briefed the media in New Delhi that intercepting an incoming missile fired from 2,000 kilometres away required the same technology needed for shooting down a satellite. Claiming that the DRDO already possessed that capability in 2008, Saraswat had said: “We have built, as of now, ABM (anti-ballistic missile) systems with interceptors to engage 2,000 kilometre-class of targets.”
On multiple occasions thereafter, Saraswat reiterated his claim. In February 2010, he had said: “We already have the building blocks for ASAT weapons. We don’t want to test a real ASAT weapon because it will lead to debris in space but can simulate a test on ground using an electronic satellite.”
Space remains a grey area without binding international treaties to govern the conduct of nations. However, there is a broad consensus that ASAT tests that involve physically destroying a satellite should be avoided, as it creates space debris, which endangers other satellites and space vehicles.
China’s 2007 ASAT test, which struck the target satellite at an altitude of over 1,000 kilometres, broke it up into more than 3,000 fragments, which still pose a hazard in space.
Emphasising that India had behaved more responsibly, the MEA stated: “The test was done in the lower atmosphere to ensure that there is no space debris. Whatever debris that is generated (sic) will decay and fall back onto the earth within weeks.”
Modi, too, emphasised India’s responsible conduct. “India has always been against the deployment of weapons in space and it has not deviated from that position. Today’s test in no way violates any international law or treaty or understanding,” he said.
The defence ministry said: “The test has demonstrated the nation’s capability to defend its assets in outer space.” However, experts pointed out that Mission Shakti did not test a defensive system that could shield Indian satellites from attack. Instead, it tested a retaliatory capability to shoot down enemy satellites.
“In wartime, the enemy may want to degrade our surveillance or communications capabilities, for example by taking down an Indian Navy satellite. Developing the capability to destroy enemy satellites would hopefully deter him,” said Rakesh Sood, a former Indian diplomat who specialises in nuclear and space policies.
Rajeshwari Rajagopalan, a space specialist with Observer Research Foundation, said that even though there was no international momentum for banning ASAT tests, New Delhi might have decided to conduct its tests now before any ban came into effect. Having been left on the wrong side of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, it played safe this time.
“The timing, however, is significant, just weeks before the general elections. With no ASAT test conducted over the last five years, there was no technical compulsion to do so at this time, only an electoral one,” said Rajagopalan.
The MEA statement, however, said the test was conducted because it was important to safeguard India’s growing space programme, including the Mangalyaan and Gaganyaan missions and India’s 102 spacecraft that were “a critical backbone of India’s security, economic and social infrastructure.”
New Delhi has ratified the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which prohibits weapons of mass destruction in outer space, but not conventional weapons. India has participated in all sessions of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. New Delhi has supported UNGA resolution 69/32 on No First Placement of Weapons on Outer Space. In the Conference on Disarmament, India supports consideration of the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS).
Mission Shakti: India shot down one of its satellites 300 km away in space with an anti-satellite missile, the country's first test of such technology
Duration: The test, carried out by DRDO scientists, lasted three minutes and was done in the lower atmosphere to ensure there was no debris in space
Significance: Anti-satellite weapon allows for attacks on enemy satellites — blinding them or disrupting communications — as well as providing a technology base for intercepting ballistic missiles
Select club: India is the only fourth country after the US, Russia and China to successfully develop and test anti-satellite weapon capabilities
Early pioneer: The US performed the first anti-satellite test in 1959. China destroyed a satellite in 2007, creating the largest orbital debris cloud in history