Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday announced that India had shot down a low orbit satellite to demonstrate its space warfare capability. Billed as Operation Shakti, Modi said that with this achievement India had entered the group of countries such as China, the US and Russia with similar capabilities.
He said that the A-SAT missile will ‘give new strength to India’s space programme.’ He said, “I assure the international fraternity that our capability wouldn’t be used against anyone but is purely a part of India’s defence initiative.” He added that India remained ‘against arms raised in space’ adding that the Wednesday’s test wouldn’t breach any international law or treaties.
No sooner did Modi complete his address to the nation, his supporters both in the BJP and the media credited the prime minister with today’s achievement. Union Minister Nitin Gadkari was quoted by news agency ANI, “Congratulations to all the scientists for carrying out “Mission Shakti” successfully. India is moving fast towards becoming a world leader and under PM Modi’s leadership, it is on its way to not only becoming a ‘super economic power’, but also a ‘super science power’.”
But what Gadkari or the BJP supporting media did not say was that India had achieved the A-SAT capabilities way back in 2012. Speaking to India Today, VK Saraswat, the then chief of the Defense Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), had revealed that India had achieved all the building blocks in place to integrate an anti-satellite weapon to neutralise hostile satellites in low earth and polar orbits. Saraswat had also implied that India’s anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defence programme could be utilised as an A-SAT weapon along with its Agni series of missiles. This was corroborated by the DRDO, which said that the Indian Ballistic Missile Defense Program can incorporate anti-satellite weapon development.
Saraswat had said, “Today, India has all the building blocks for an anti-satellite system in place. We don’t want to weaponise space but the building blocks should be in place. Because you may come to a time when you may need it. Today, I can say that all the building blocks (for an ASAT weapon) are in place. A little fine tuning may be required but we will do that electronically. We will not do a physical test (actual destruction of a satellite) because of the risk of space debris affecting other satellites.”
However, India’s claims of achieving the capabilities were met with apprehensions by several international experts even then. Questioning India’s “purported” capabilities, as reported by The Diplomat, experts such as Michael Listner and Victoria Samson had pointed out that without conducting a test and demonstrating its A-SAT capability explicitly, India will only be seen as a ‘paper tiger.’
Rajeswari Rajagopalan, senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi based think tank, was quoted in 2011 that India may do an A-SAT test in the next five to 10 years. The test was only to inform the world about the country’s capabilities more than anything else.
The need to achieve A-SAT capabilities had arisen after China had conducted a similar test in 2007.
Experts say that India’s Wednesday test could trigger a race to weaponise the space besides causing hazardous debris in the space. When China conducted its A-SAT test in 2007, 800 kms into the space, it had reportedly left behind approximately 2,500 to 3,000 pieces of dangerous debris in LEO. Reconnaissance and weather satellites and manned space missions are vulnerable to space debris. A report by The Diplomat said that this led to the destruction of a Russian satellite in May 2013 reportedly by one such piece of debris.
While the Wednesday’s test will indeed silence the sceptics about India’s A-SAT capabilities, it is important to understand that India had achieved these capabilities way back in 2012.