Assessing India’s ‘Mission Shakti’ Space Ambitions

Spearhead Analysis – 29.03.2019

By Fatima Ayub
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, has announced the successful test of the country’s first space weapon, an anti-satellite missile, in a surprise televised address in the middle of the election campaign.

The dramatic nature of the announcement – during a caretaker period when governments are restricted in what they promote – drew criticism from the opposition, alleging BJP’s misuse of TV time in the middle of a campaign for Lok Sabha Elections 2019.

A few weeks shy of the election, PM Narender Modi declared the campaign, code-named “Mission Shakti”, a massive step towards India’s security as a state national victory and it is expected that the incumbent government will seek to showcase the achievement as a key electoral point of discussion.

The action entailed striking an object located at an altitude of 300km and moving at a speed of 25,200km per hour, a precision that requires consummate technological sophistication.

Consequently, India has joined an elite club of nations possessing anti-satellite missile technology (ASAT), which, prior to this development, was the exclusive preserve of the US, Russia and China.

But after the 26th February Indian Air Force air strikes in Balakot, Pakistan, the news only serves to underline India’s growing belligerent, offensive capabilities in an increasingly militarized and politicized environment under the rule of the incumbent BJP.

News from within India has echoed these concerns; An anchor on the news channel NDTV described the space announcement as “somewhat of an anticlimax”. Less than 72 hours since India’s claim to a successful ASAT test, international experts have begun to cast doubt on the Indian claim, and the acting US defence secretary has warned that the testing of anti-satellite weapons can create a “mess” in space after India’s destruction of the satellite. Since the path of debris cannot be controlled, the US military is monitoring more than 250 pieces of debris from the Indian test presently.

Another tweet by a leading Indian broadcaster that went viral read that “the space missile had destroyed two targets: a satellite, and “what remained of the stature and reputation of Election Commission of India”, referring to the apparent moral conduct during election campaigns that Modi’s strategically timed announcement may sway.

The opposition in India too stands divided on the Prime Minister’s televised address; Rahul Gandhi, the main opposition leader, congratulated India’s defence research agency on the launch, adding “I would also like to wish the PM a very happy World Theatre Day,” he stated in a tweet.

Unpacking India’s Space Ambitions

As it stands presently, India possesses a  thriving space programme that first came to the global scene after it launched a record number of satellites in a single mission in 2017. Growth in the indigenous nuclear power programme is sustained with assured uranium supplies. India is already in the midst of active plans for expansion of nuclear power reactors in cooperation with the US, Russia, and France.

There are also claims that New Delhi is set to develop dedicated military satellites for Command, Control, Communications, Computer, Intelligence, Information, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (C4I2SR) capabilities. Currently, India has thirteen military dedicated satellites. According to intel sources, the country is currently developing a plan to launch a manned space mission in 2022.

The recently acquired capability to take down enemy satellites will give New Delhi the capability to further its pursuit of space militarization and subsequent weaponization—- adding to already fragile security situation in South Asia.

India’s Ministry of External Affairs is adamant that the country had “no intention of entering into an arms race in outer space”.

But the cyber and space element of conflict is an emerging yet understudied dimension of geopolitics, and experts must consider it when analyzing the latest security developments involving India and Pakistan and the future trajectory of South Asia.

The growing dependence of militaries on outer space assets for communication and operational tasks make them more valuable. Soon, space is set to become a decisive factor and force multiplier in military operations against adversaries. India is already a prominent member of export cartels; Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and Wassenar Arrangement (WA), which may allow for easy access to sensitive space and satellite technologies from the west.

“The increased use of satellite technology in terrorism, especially cross-border attacks, has compelled India’s defence ministry to activate the technology, which it has developed. India has been using satellites in military operations. The time was right for an anti-satellite demonstration,” Chaitanya Giri, a Mumbai-based space studies expert has said.

What role has the West played in all of this?

Undoubtedly, the rapid technological advancement of India backed by its Western allies raises alarm bells for Pakistan and China, and all other stakeholders in the regional peace process as the ASAT test is likely to fuel the growing regional rivalry between India and China, deepening the lines of divide between the assumed Indo-Us and Sino-Pak alliance. Initially, the Indian space program achieved goals in the civil space program for economic purposes, but the gradual shift towards militarization is aided by the tacit support of the United States, and its elevated interest in India’s space program and the growing cooperation between the two space agencies since India’s first attempted Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) in November 2013. Since 2008, the exceptional treatment towards Indian membership at the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG)by the US is challenging credibility of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. A strong Indian military is an important American interest and space is increasingly a contested arena for political-military competition.

But as it remains, despite PM Modi’s trumpeting of the test, China has formidable counter space capabilities and Indian space systems are still highly vulnerable both in peacetime and in conflict. India’s A-SAT test does not alter this basic reality.

US experts stand in agreement.

Ashley J Tellis, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who holds the Tata Chair for Strategic Affairs, stated that ever since China’s A-SAT missile test of 2007, India had been contemplating its own A-SAT test primarily to deter potential Chinese attacks on Indian space assets in the future.

The test is unlikely to make any changes to the balance of power in the region. And as such it is more of a demonstration. But with elections weeks away and the incumbent government having already unleashed a hyper-nationalized, anti-Pakistan agenda the scene is set to sway public opinion by playing on security concerns—the ASAT test can be seen as a symbolic threat to the fragile relations between Pakistan and India.

The move shows a capability to shoot down military and civilian communications, and early-warning satellites during a crisis or war, and could also help advance India’s missile interceptor programme – all of which will likely accelerate the arms race in Asia.

“If Pakistan starts hitting Indian satellites, India can knock out Pakistan’s very few satellites. China can knock out all of India’s satellites whereas India cannot do the same to China. So it’s kind of a weird balance for India if it’s interested in getting into the anti-satellite deterrence game (because) it doesn’t really have an advantage in either of its dyads,” Professor Narang at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology stated.

The risk of miscalculation remains high, amid fears that any misstep could trigger all-out war, the first between the two countries since they both developed nuclear weapons—in fact, the first between two nuclear-armed states, ever.

Despite the politicization and exaggeration of the news, the fact remains that the test and the actionable use of ASATs is a ‘proof of concept’, which allows for advancement in creating a credible deterrent.  India’s history of diverting civil nuclear technology for military purposes is a stark reminder not only for the blow to the concept of nuclear deterrence in South Asia, but also calls Pakistan’s preparation of its equivalent in question. In recent years, India’s extension of space cooperation between its national space center (ISRO) and that of other Western states such as Russia, France and its tacit training and technical support to North Korea despite a clear violation of a United Nations Resolution in 2016, preventing nuclear assistance to DPRK are symbolic of India’s bid to consolidate its augmentation of its space program in space exploration. If New Delhi’s deal with Russia is achieved in this context, the first Indian manned space mission, Gaganyaan, will give India an edge in the development of space technologies.

Up till now, Pakistan’s foreign ministry has responded only by referring to the protagonist in a 17th-century Spanish classic – that India’s boasting of its space capabilities is reminiscent of Don Quixote’s tilting against windmills”. The belief in and acknowledgement of space as an avenue, from scientific exploration to military applications and economic gain, requires Pakistan to first build up its national narrative for the necessity of a robust space programme. The era of conventional warfare is closing out as fifth-generational warfare sets its sights on strategic prevention, early-warning systems and asserting dominance in technological warfare.

India in recent decades has done just this – curating a national defense model that puts its aerospace technological abilities at the center of its progress.

Particularly with regards to the strategic domain, ensuring a credible and survival deterrent comprising a nuclear triad should be a critical objective for Pakistan. Recent years have seen a steady deterioration of geopolitics, adding uncertainties and grave misgivings about the future. Sooner than later, the strategic domain may not comprise only conventional and nuclear but increasingly the cyber and outer space dimensions. Also slipping from the front burner is the reduced salience of nuclear weapons, even though serious questions dog their utility except in ‘deterrent only’ mode. Given these uncertainties, it is advisable that Pakistan too must effectively maintain its credible minimum deterrent.