India’s ASAT Test

Spearhead Analysis – 26.04.2019

By Shirin Naseer
Senior Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a televised address on March 27 to announce the successful conduct of India’s anti-satellite (ASAT) missile test. The test targeted and destroyed one of India’s own satellites operating in the low-Earth orbit (LEO). The exercise dubbed Mission Shakti achieved all of its objectives, and is believed to mark the advent of India’s “new space age”.

Commenting on the ASAT test, PM Modi noted:

“#MissionShakti was a highly complex one, conducted at extremely high speed with remarkable precision.” He continued, “It shows the remarkable dexterity of India’s outstanding scientists and the success of our space programme.”

The Indian Prime Minister also took to Twitter to say, “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”.

Space programs launched by the Indian authorities have traditionally been concerned with fulfilling the requirements of India’s various civilian and development projects. In the last decade however programs have had more national security-related and strategic inclinations. Satellites put in place have increasingly begun catering to India’s military communication and surveillance needs. The Indian Navy’s first military satellite was launched in the year 2013. This was not only a result of India’s growing technological capacity, but was also India’s response to growing competition in the region between other spacefaring powers looking to increase influence on the ground by also increasing capabilities to project power in outer space.

Following the success of Mission Shakti, the US State Department released a statement supporting the furthering of a strong US-India partnership in the near future. The statement noted, “As part of our strong strategic partnership with India, we will continue to pursue shared interests in space and scientific and technical cooperation, including collaboration on safety and security in space.”

Over the past decades, China has expanded its spending on its space program as an important facet of the modernization of its People’s Liberation Army (PLA). China was the target of international uproar after it destroyed its own satellites in its first successful ASAT test in January 2007. China’s test increased the quantity of debris in the earth’s orbit by about 10 percent—resulting in the largest space debris in history. Before China, in 1985 the United States conducted the ASAT test and left about three hundred pieces of debris, which took seventeen years to burn up in the earth’s atmosphere. China’s ASAT test hence led to worldwide concern regarding not only the lack of transparency in China’s operation and the debris cloud the operation created, but also over the possibility of a space arms race. Perhaps owing to international condemnation, in February of the same year China announced that it will not conduct any more tests. By then however China had already demonstrated to the world its technological prowess, its military might and the capability of its space program.

Both in the realm of geoeconomics and geopolitics, China and the United States are fiercely competing for world leadership. As seen with US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, it can be argued that the nature of warfare is changing. There is now a degree of openness towards integrating space capabilities, and China is not only learning from US operations but is also eager to challenge US domination of space technology.

With China debating strategies and making efforts to match the United States and its activities in outer space, India’s unease in relation to its own national security concerns is legitimate. In his 10-minute televised address, Modi gave credit to the scientific establishment, and at the same time also emphasized that while the ASAT missile test was not aimed towards any specific state it was a step towards safeguarding India’s own national security interests. It is important to note that only two weeks after Beijing conducted the ASAT test, India’s air force announced intentions to protect India’s space operations by putting in place an aerospace command of its own. India’s ASAT program took off right after China’s ASAT test—hence confirming suspicions in political circles regarding China’s ASAT motivating India’s ASAT demonstration.

India has a longstanding rivalry with China, rooted in border disputes and exacerbated by not only China’s closeness with Pakistan but also by both countries’ emerging and competing economies. Mission Shakti targeted a functioning Indian satellite at a height of 300 km in low-Earth orbit within 3 minutes. The target was selected in low-Earth orbit to ensure that the build-up of space debris is prevented. India feels pressed to advance space operations as a show of its strength—to match that of China perhaps and at the same time to also project itself as a responsible global player. India maintains that it expects all debris from the test to burn up in the earth’s atmosphere in 45 days.

Despite India’s success in reorienting its space program, it still has a long way to go before it is able to build the right institutional architecture to support and benefit from its established space programs in a substantial way.

The Indian government laid the foundations for the development of an Integrated Space Cell within the Ministry of Defense about a decade ago, but the Cell according to reports has still not been able to perform its functions with the efficiency and effectiveness it was intended for. The development of a triservice aerospace has also been the subject of debate for about two decades now. Still, India is arguably much closer to establishing a Defense Space Agency than it is to building a Command. India has also kept its involvement in discussions pertaining to global space governance fairly limited. It has however consistently made clear that it stands against the weaponization of space.

The ASAT test places India in a position where it has become more important now than ever before that India actively partakes in discussions relating to security, and ensures it projects itself as a peaceful and responsible power. 

Additionally, it is important to recall the ASAT test was not India’s first attempt at using a direct-ascent, hit-to-kill interceptor to destroy a satellite. It was actually in early February when India’s Defense Research and Development Organization carried out its first attempt to destroy a satellite in low-earth orbit—a mission in which it unfortunately failed. This test took place before the Pulwama terror attack, claimed by the Pakistan-based group Jaish-e-Mohammed. Following the terror attack, India and Pakistan began assembling their nuclear forces and strategies to assist their individual policies of deterrence.

Analysts and government officials in Pakistan have been pushing the international community towards a greater focus on India’s steady and highly concerning strategic development for decades. The ASAT test demonstrated to the world that India’s Ballistic Missile Defence Interceptor not only can reach an altitude higher than previous BMD tests, but also that it can travel at a velocity considerably faster than previous tests. Moreover, established in 1969, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) is the sixth largest space research organization in the world. It hosts the largest constellation of civilian satellites in the Indo-Pacific region, and holds the world record for launching 104 satellites from a single rocket. Moreover, it has to its credit the success of the Mars Orbiter Mission. Furthermore, satellites themselves fulfill a wide range of functions; including military, civilian, scientific and even commercial. A wide range of services and devices “ranging from missiles to mobiles, banking to navigation, meteorology to disaster management” can be reliant on satellites. All of these factors are likely to have serious repercussions for Pakistan’s security and strategic concerns, and for the nature of  the India-Pakistan relationship.

With outer space becoming increasingly significant in securing civilian and strategic interests between countries, it can be said with certainty that India has now joined Russia, China and the United States in having the ability to use hard power in space. While India’s emergence in this mix marks an interesting time in global politics, in order for India to fully benefit from space power it must first put in place a Space Command that is well integrated in its government, and a space doctrine that allows it to join the high tables of global politics on topics of security and space technology actively and substantially.