27 March, 2019, is a significant day in India’s space history, as India became only the fourth country, to test the Anti-Satellite (ASAT) weapon. The other three countries are U.S., Russia and China. Under the ‘Mission Shakti’ programme, an Anti-Satellite (ASAT) weapon successfully targeted a live satellite, which was in a Low Earth Orbit (LEO). It is speculated that the target satellite might have been the ‘Microsat R’ which was launched in January this year, or the ‘Microsat-TD’ launched in 2018. India could have developed this capability earlier, but nevertheless, the significant aspect is that, the ASAT missile/interceptor was indigenously built and it took just three minutes to hit the satellite – at a range of 300 kms in a LEO. The test was made at a low orbit of nearly 300km probably to contain the space debris, as in the past the space debris from the Chinese ASAT test was nearly 3000 fragments, which was criticised and was a cause of concern. India has developed her Agni V missiles, and has Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) capabilities, under which India has developed the Prithvi Air Defence (PAD) for high altitude interception, and Advanced Air Defence (AAD) for lower altitude interception, so the next logical progression was to demonstrate the ASAT capability.
The achievement is significant in two ways, firstly, nations’ have realised that the modern warfare is space based warfare, as most of the military operations are dependent on space for their C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computer, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) functions, and are dependent on military satellites – which are mostly placed in the LEO, where the range is between 160-2000 kms. So, if any nation has the capability to hit an enemy military satellite, then, this gives a strong signal about the hard hitting capabilities of a nation, as also, it helps in building a strong deterrence capability. More than 1000 satellites are there in space performing both civil and military functions. The civil satellites are used for navigation (the GPS-Global Positioning System), weather forecasting etc., whereas, the military satellites are used for information, navigation and communication, whereby, an adversary’s missile can be tracked and killed – both on land and at sea, as the ocean reconnaissance satellites use the radar and electronic intelligence to destroy enemy’s surface ships. With the development of niche technologies, major nations’ dependence on satellites for military operations is bound to increase in future. Hence, any loss of space assets could prove decisive in today’s warfare, as space is often utilised for full spectrum military operations. Thus, this capability can be both an enabler as well as a vulnerability. Secondly, as the nations’ dependency on space increases and more countries develop this capability, then subsequently there might be negotiations amongst nations’, to go in for arms control, to protect the nation’s space assets. Alternatively, in future there is a possibility of a strong space treaty being formulated on the lines of Nuclear non – Proliferation Treaty (NPT); to prevent nations’ from demonstrating ASAT capabilities. Hence, it had become important for India to conduct these tests, as then, she can be a negotiator (at par with the other three countries), if the treaty gets introduced in future. India already had a bitter experience, as far as its nuclear trajectory was concerned. In the past, India had developed the nuclear capabilities in the 1960s, but due to lack of political decision, the nuclear tests were not conducted, and soon the NPT was formed, which then tried to prevent countries from becoming nuclear, as a result India had to undergo lot of hardships, even today India is unable to become a member of Nuclear Supplier’s Group (NSG), as certain nations have reservations of India being a nuclear weapon state. Apart from these two reasons, India needs to develop these technologies to maintain the deterrence levels and protect her space assets. Since, all major countries are developing kinetic and non-kinetic counter space weapons, it becomes necessary for India too, to develop these technologies and prevent the technological gap from increasing.
Apart from the kinetic counter space weapons, it is essential, to develop non-kinetic counter space weapons also. These include High-Powered Microwaves (HPMs), Lasers and Electro Magnetic Pulse (EMP) weapons. The biggest advantage of using this is that, they can damage the adversary’s satellite without physical contact, which makes attribution difficult. Also, these Direct Energy Weapons (DEWs), has pin point accuracy, which can damage hard targets and destroy missiles at the boost phase. It is for these precise reasons that many countries want to position DEWs in space.
U.S. remains the leader in space technology followed by Russia and China. India needs to monitor the progress of China, as India has an unresolved border with China. As also, India would not like to increase the technological gap, which may impact the deterrence quotient for India. China has increased its budgetary spending on Space and which in 2017 was 11 billion the second highest, next only to the U.S. (which spends nearly $48 billion)[i].China had conducted its ASAT test in 2007, but in 2013, China launched a new type of ASAT system, which Beijing claimed was intended to reach a height of 10,000 kilometers (km) to disperse a barium cloud for scientific research[ii], experts have suggested that this test was most likely a high-altitude direct-ascent ASAT test that could reach satellites as high as Geosynchronous Orbit (GEO), which includes satellites used for missile warning, military communications, and ISR[iii]. Further, in 2016, China launched ‘Aolong-1 spacecraft’, which had a robotic arm, which has a dual purpose of removing space debris, as also the arm can intercept other nations’ satellites. Another ‘Tianyuan-1 spacecraft’, has the ability to fuel live satellites. China has also progressed in developing non-kinetic weapons. China has the technology necessary, to field an operational capability to dazzle or blind a satellite; and experts believe China will continue to work on developing efficient and accurate high-powered laser systems[iv]
Space Technology is a dynamic field and therefore, it is imperative that space faring nations’ of whom India is one, constantly innovate and update their defence technology. India has done well in the field of space and it is certain that Indian scientists must be working on other potent weapons like Hypersonic Glide Vehicles (HGVs), Swarm Technology, Under Water Drones, along with non-kinetic DEWs and the possible use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in space.
[i] Todd Harrison, Kaitlyn Johnson, Thomas G Roberts, “Space Threat Assessment 2018”, April 2018, A Report Of The CSIS Aerospace Security Project, Centre for Strategic & International Studies, at https://aerospace.csis.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Harrison_SpaceThreatAssessment_FULL_WEB.pdf
[ii] “中国再次高空科学探测试验：高度更高数据更多”, 中国新闻网, May 14, 2013, http://www.chinanews.com/gn/2013/05-14/4817925.shtml.
[iii] U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, “2015 Report to Congress of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission,” (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Publishing Office, 2015), athttps://www.uscc.gov/sites/default/files/Annual_Report/Chapters/Chapter%202%2C%20Section%202%20-%20China%27s%20Space%20and%20Counterspace%20Programs.pdf.
[iv] Edwin Cartlidge, “Physicists are planning to build lasers so powerful they could rip apart empty space,” Science Magazine, January 24, 2018, http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/01/physicists-are-planning-build-lasers-so-powerful-they-could-rip-apart-empty-space
@ Dr Roshan Khanijo is a Senior Research Fellow and Research Coordinator at the USI.
(Article uploaded on 29 Mar, 2019)
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that she belongs to or of the USI.