India on Wednesday became only the fourth country and space-faring nation to demonstrate capability to shoot down satellites in space. A small test satellite launched by Isro recently into Low Earth Orbit, about 300 km from earth, was shot down by a missile developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).
“An advanced missile, based on the Prithvi Defence Vehicle (of the ballistic missile defence program), was used for the mission”, DRDO Chairman Dr Satheesh Reddy told Deccan Herald over phone from Abdul Kalam Island (Wheeler Island), off the coast of Odisha, minutes after Prime Minister Narendra Modi made the announcement on television.
The missile hit the test satellite which was only a metre across in size and thus demonstrated extremely high accuracy – “a circular error probable of a few centimetres”, as Reddy put it.
Wednesday’s demonstration puts India in a category of only four nations that have anti-satellite (ASAT) capability. The US and Russia developed the capability during the Cold War, China demonstrated its capability in a way similar to what the DRDO did on Wednesday in 2007.
The ASAT capability has grown out of the even more demanding ballistic missile defence program that was started in 2008-9 under the UPA government, with Dr V K Saraswat, former DRDO chairman and currently a Niti Aayog member, heading it. The team had developed ASAT capability with the Prithvi Defence Vehicle missile as far back as 2012 alongside ballistic missile defence capability. While some physical missile interception tests were done, other tests were done through electronic simulations.
The ASAT capability was also validated through simulations as physical testing would cause much space debris. That consideration was obviously overcome to conduct Wednesday’s test. The Modi government must have felt the need for a physical demonstration, planned months ahead but timed for just ahead of elections. China’s ASAT missile hit a target 800 km away, and came in for worldwide criticism on the space debris issue. The debris out of India’s test, too, will hang in for months in space and will need watching.
India has for long advocated against military use of space, but Wednesday’s test has put paid to that. While the US, Russia and China are far ahead in capability, it remains to be seen whether India will follow up the ASAT test with other kinds of capabilities. The US and Russia also have in-orbit anti-satellite capabilities – satellites that can stay up in orbit until they are commanded to approach and destroy an enemy satellite. China, too, is believed to have in-orbit capabilities and is known to be working on laser weapons, too.
Wednesday’s ASAT capability demonstration will probably get India a seat at the table if and when a space arms control treaty is sought to be negotiated by world powers.