On March 27, 2019, India successfully tested an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon, a demonstration of its ability to destroy orbiting satellites at an altitude of 300 km. The test has been promoted by the Indian government as proof that it has joined a club of nations like the US, Russia, and China who possess such capability till now. The test named “Mission Shakti” has shown the political will and geostrategic prudence of India. ASAT, developed by the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) used ‘kinetic kill’ technology for the ASAT. The technology physically destroys a target satellite through collision. Counter space technology used to destroy or incapacitate satellites is tested but the system is yet to be employed during any international conflict. ASATs are a product of the Cold War and were initially developed by the US in the late 1950s under WSS-199 and subsequently developed at different stages with changes in delivery systems and range up to which this kind of system can be used in space. But the Soviets were the first to test the technology of ‘satellite kill’ in 1968 and their first ASAT weapon became operational in 1973.
China has already tested an ASAT system on Jan. 11, 2007. The test was seen by the US as increasing the risk of an arms race in space and China has conducted several non-debris producing tests since then. Most importantly, in May 2013, China tested a delivery system for an ASAT to an altitude of more than 10,000 km. The test demonstrated a very high technical capability of China’s ASAT technology. As noted in the report of Secure World Foundation of March 2014 which appreciated the technical capability of 2013 test “while there is no conclusive proof, the available evidence strongly suggests that China’s May 2013 launch was the test of the rocket component of a new direct ascent ASAT weapons system derived from a road-mobile ballistic missile. The system appears to be designed to place a kinetic kill vehicle on a trajectory to deep space that could reach medium earth orbit (MEO), highly elliptical orbit (HEO), and geostationary Earth orbit (GEO). If true, this would represent a significant development in China’s ASAT capabilities” The LEO and MEO system can affect the geo-stat and GPS system and HEO will be employed to target satellites which are at an altitude of more than 20,000 km.
Pakistan’s space program, the Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission, commonly referred to as SUPARCO, is working closely with China. In 2018, China launched PRSS-1 and PakTES-1A which were launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in northwest China. Though it was stated that the data will be used for China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) surveying and construction but its strong possibility for strategic use cannot be ignored, which will have security and strategic implications for India. When the satellite is positioned over Pakistan it can send back real-time images for its user. There have been mixed reactions from both the neighbors of India viz., China and Pakistan. China has shown a somewhat more calm reaction by a statement of its Foreign Ministry Office, “we have noticed reports and hope that each country will uphold peace and tranquility in outer space”. Whereas Pakistan has been somewhat in protest and negating the test capability, “We hope that countries which have in the past strongly condemned demonstration of similar capabilities by others will be prepared to work towards developing international instruments to prevent military threats relating to outer space” and calling the tests as “boasting of such capabilities is reminiscent of Don Quixote’s tilting against windmills”. Both the countries have their own strategic concerns, for China, it means the end of ASAT hegemony in the region and Pakistan will have direct security implications which is working closely with China in the context of strategic use of space technology.
The testing of an ASAT has been considered by statesmen and strategic thinkers as a watershed event like the nuclear testing by India in 1998, as outer space is becoming the fourth area of warfare. Mission Shakti is the idea whose time has come given the strategic matrix which is developing in the Asian continent. The Asian strategic chessboard is made up of conventional military hardware, non-state actors, hybrid warfare and domination in the outer space. The three countries possessing nuclear weapons have a history of military conflict and competition. The maintenance of strategic hegemony in space warfare is the context where all three will be looking forward to outsmarting one another. The possession of nuclear weapons by India, Pakistan, and China has somewhat neutralized the conventional military superiority. Technology-based warfare like ASAT systems will be new weapons of war in the future which will be used to disable and deny geostrategic data and cripple essential services based on satellite communications.
India carried out land-based surgical strikes backed up by geo-stat data in 2016. Balakot strike of February was carried out by Precision Guided Munitions (PGM) which used GPS based coordinates. All these tactical events reflect the new normal of use of technology in hybrid warfare. The use of satellite-based observation technology for tactical operations and for making armed forces ‘blind’ for operational backup, one will be required to incapacitate the adversary’s surveillance technology. The ASAT system can be used both for offensive and defensive purposes simultaneously during conventional and anti-terror operations. Hence the main purpose of an Indian ASAT system will be to deny the data in terms of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance for operational purposes during the time of conflict.
After the ASAT test, India needs to form its own “security doctrine” which it lacks till now, and more precisely a doctrine for the use of space for strategic purpose must be well defined, so that the vision for future usage and development can be made amply clear to prove its credibility as a responsible and mature state.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.
The author is a Second-in-Command in the Border Security Force (BSF). He has 19 years of experience as a practitioner in border management and security. Mr. Kumar has significant experience in serving at major Western Border States of India as a field and staff member.