Prime Minister Narendra Modi's announcement today that India has successfully tested an anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) has suddenly drawn the spotlight on space warfare. The Prime Minister said that the successful test showed India's military prowess and the country had entered an elite ASAT club. Until now, only USA, Russia and China had operational ASAT systems.
But, what is ASAT and how does it boost India's military might? It's essentially a missile that can destroy or jam an enemy country's satellite in space. Since most of the communication networks are satellite-based, this can have a disastrous impact on the country whose satellite gets targeted.
US first tested the ASAT technology in 1958 which was followed by USSR in 1964. China joined the club in 2007. Before India, the last known ASAT test was conducted by Russia in September 2018 where a new type of ASAT missile was carried by MIG-31. No country has used ASAT yet in a military conflict.
How can ASAT be used in war?
ASATs can be used to intercept and jam communication or military satellites of enemy countries in the time of war and stop them from communicating with their soldiers. It can also be used to access critical information about troop movements or incoming missiles.
The anti satellite weapons can even undertake pellet cloud attacks on enemy's low orbit satellites. Other ASAT capabilities include cyber-attacks on space systems, Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) explosion devices, directed energy (laser based) weapons and targeted missiles for destruction of satellites to sabotage the enemy's military operations. Although no ASAT system has yet been put to use in the actual war, several nations have shot down their own (defunct) satellites to exhibit their ASAT prowess in a show of power.
The range of an ASAT is limited and depends on where it is launched from. Satellites above the range of 20,000 kilometres are out of range. The US and Russia have the capabilities of launching an ASAT from the ship, land and space, while India, presently, has used a land installation.
Why does India need ASAT?
India's neighbour China already possesses ASAT weapons. Back in 2007, China had tested an ASAT that was capable of shooting down satellites at an altitude of over 800 kilometres in the lower earth orbit (LEO). China has disregarded international criticism and carried out these tests. Hence, it can be argued that today's test was necessitated by the Chinese postures on ASAT. Also, with today's test India may have pre-empted possible treaty on space weaponisation, much like the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), which would have stopped India from demonstrating its ASAT ability in the future and giving the United States, China, and Russia sole ASAT-weapons-state status.