Mission ASAT: Why India needs a satellite killer

Mission ASAT: Why India needs a satellite killer

Once an ASAT weapon system is operationalised, India's military will have the power to blind the enemy's reconnaissance satellite coverage, delivering a knockout punch before the guns open up on the ground.

India on Wednesday successfully tested an Anti-Satellite (ASAT) Missile against a live satellite in low-Earth orbit. India on Wednesday successfully tested an Anti-Satellite (ASAT) Missile against a live satellite in low-Earth orbit.

The success of Mission Shakti, in which an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile destroyed a satellite orbiting 300 km in space, demonstrates India's capability to protect itself from satellite surveillance in the event of war as well as the ability to cripple the enemy's space-based communications and navigation systems within the opening hours of a conflict.

Once an ASAT weapon system is operationalised, India's military will have the power to blind the enemy's reconnaissance satellite coverage, delivering a knockout punch before the guns open up on the ground. A coordinated attack on the adversary's space assets would hamper his ability to launch missiles or detect the launch of Indian strategic missiles. Without being able to communicate effectively with its military forces, the adversary would have no choice but to back off.

Read More: What is ASAT and how can it be used in war?

Before India, only three nations had demonstrated ASAT capability. Russia achieved the world's first ASAT kill in 1968 when its killer satellite fired steel pellets to cripple a Soviet satellite. In 1985 a missile fired by a US Air Force F-15 destroyed an old American satellite orbiting at an altitude of 555 km. The Chinese test in 2007 involved using a surface-to-air missile to destroy a defunct weather satellite.

Like China, India has also taken the missile route, using the Agni-5 to deliver the boost capability and the kill vehicle. In April 2013, after the successful Agni-5 ballistic missile test, V.K. Saraswat, the then Defence Research & Development Organisation director general and former scientific advisor to the Defence Minister, said that apart from adding a new dimension to India's strategic defence, the missile had "ushered in fantastic opportunities in building ASAT weapons". He added that with advanced seekers the missile will be able to home into the target satellite.

Why target satellites?

Space is an area in which India has world class indigenous capability. However, only in recent years has the country's large constellation of satellites been tapped for military use. As of now the total number of ISRO satellites that can be used for military purposes stands at 14. (In comparison, China has 25 purely military satellites.) These satellites have surveillance and mapping capabilities, and can be used to keep an eye on India's adversaries along the land and sea borders.

In 2013 the Indian Navy received its sole dedicated military satellite, the GSAT-7, which allows secure, real-time communications among its warships, submarines, aircraft and land systems. In 2018, the Indian Air Force got its exclusive spacecraft GSAT-7A which enables the service to interlink different ground radar stations, airbases and AWACS aircraft. It also boosts the IAF's network centric warfare capabilities and enhances its global ambitions.

India's future war plans include a satellite-based dedicated Defence Communications Network (DCN), which will provide secure and reliable inter-service communications. In the meantime, the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) will provide military-grade accuracy to the navigation and targeting capabilities of airborne platforms, thus multiplying their effectiveness.

The flip side to the deployment of satellites for dominance is that it opens up a window of vulnerability. If, say, China is able to shoot down some of India's military satellites, it would partially degrade India's war fighting capabilities in a networked sensor-fused battlefield. This was best illustrated during joint exercises in 2007 between the US Air Force in which outdated MiG-21 jets defeated advanced American F-15s when the latter were deprived of support from satellite and AWACs systems.

Having a robust ASAT capability would act as a deterrent so the adversary doesn't take a pre-emptive shot at India's space-based assets. As well as having the ability to target the enemy's space-based assets such as satellites, space shuttles and space stations, ASAT delivery systems can also manoeuvre in space to defeat the enemy's ASAT weapons - for instance, by providing a protective ring around friendly satellites.

Killer debris

Destroying a satellite in orbit comes with a major risk - space debris, which can hurtle around the earth at 17,000 kph. At such speeds, a metal fragment just 1 cm across will obliterate a spacecraft it collides with. China's ASAT shot in 2007 resulted in a shower of 3,000 fragments that are still troubling spacecraft. Because the Chinese satellite was orbiting in a relatively high earth orbit of over 500 km, the debris will defy earth's gravity for hundreds of years. According to New Scientist magazine, "The International Space Station needs to change orbit regularly to avoid it."

Unlike China, which is a reckless military power and a known proliferator of weapons of mass destruction to rogue states like Pakistan and North Korea, India has acted in a responsible manner. The DRDO targeted a micro satellite in a low 300 km orbit, and the debris from the test will re-enter earth's atmosphere in two-three weeks.

India's test breached no space laws. There are a number of international treaties that ban the use of weapons of mass destruction in space but not ASAT tests. The good news is that the test may prompt the United Nations to draw up a new space weapons treaty that will ban future ASAT testing. After all, it was India's 1974 nuclear blast that resulted in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which was aimed at slowing Indian nuclear capability. To be sure, we live in a different world today where the US is in India's corner; the stridently anti-Indian hawks at the State Department in Washington did not register a token protest.

Alternative ASAT technology

Since debris will harm all countries that use space, India can pursue other means of crippling enemy satellites. According to the Massachusetts based Union of Concerned Scientists, the following technologies are being actively pursued by the world's leading nations:

Satellite jamming: This involves interfering with radio communications between a satellite and users on the ground. Both the United States and Russia have this capability. In 2002, the US deployed the ground-based Counter Communications System that can cripple satellite data links.

Manoeuvring satellites: These are satellites that could approach an enemy satellite and fry its electronics by firing a burst of radiation in its direction. A number of countries, including Japan and the European Union are developing "close-proximity manoeuvring technology".

Ground-based lasers: Lasers can interfere with satellite sensors or damage a satellite's body through heat. They can either temporarily blind the satellite or permanently damage its sensors. In 2006, China blinded a US satellite with a ground-based laser.

Limits of ASAT

India's test is a demonstrator of intent and capability - it puts China on notice that two can play the game. While ASAT ground-to-space weapons can easily destroy low earth satellites, they have their limits. Most spy satellites are located 800 km above earth and if their orbits are raised tactically, an ASAT missile will veer off the target by a wide margin. GPS satellites usually orbit 20,000 km above earth and communications satellites are at even higher altitudes of 36,000 km, which makes it impractical to target them. Plus, the US and Russia have plenty of redundancies built into their communication and intelligence gathering systems so that even if an adversary is stupid enough to knock out most of their satellites, enough will survive to ensure a massive retaliation. China and India are expected to achieve such redundancies. ASAT missiles are therefore not a game changer in military terms.

Leadership must back scientists

The real significance of Mission Shakti is that such a capability would not have been possible without the giant strides India has made in ballistic missile defence (BMD). With the country caught in the crosshairs of both Chinese and Pakistani missiles, DRDO has one of the world's most active BMD programmes, relying on the Prithvi Air Defence (PAD) missile for high altitude interception and the Advanced Air Defence (AAD) Missile for lower altitude interception.

The two tiers of defences are aimed at intercepting incoming missile launched from 5,000 km away. The system also includes overlapping network of early warning and tracking radars, as well as command and control posts. The ability to destroy an incoming ballistic missile with another missile is akin to hitting a bullet with a bullet. There are just four countries that have this ability - Russia, the US, China and India. The ASAT weapon is thus a spinoff from DRDO's advances in missile defence technology.

Also, India has had the capability to test an ASAT weapon for many years, but clearance was hard to come by as the political leadership developed cold feet for reasons known only to it. Saraswat had said in January 2010: "India is putting together building blocks of technology that could be used to neutralise enemy satellites. We are working to ensure space security and protect our satellites. At the same time we are also working on how to deny the enemy access to its space assets."

Hours after the ASAT test, in an interview to a media channel, the former DRDO boss said it was "a disgrace" that UPA-II had blocked Mission Shakti. While India's defence procurement bureaucracy has for decades starved the military of critical imports, the political leadership sunk to a new low by trying to forestall a major indigenous technology.

ASAT weapons and BMD are interlinked and any attempt to stymie one will impact the other.

(The writer is an Australia based defence analyst)

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Mission Shakti: Why the ASAT missile test is important for India