India Joins Big League: ‘Shakti’ Pradarshan

 By Brig. Akhelesh Bhargava

On March 27, 2019 at around 1145 AM IST, India conducted Mission Shakti, an anti-satellite missile test, from Dr. A P J Abdul Kalam Island (off Balasore Coast) launch complex.  In doing so, India entered the elite club of an exclusive group of space faring nations consisting of USA, Russia and China that are capable of knocking off satellites in space. The test has pre-empted a possible new treaty that would have fore-closed India’s option for testing Anti-Satellite (ASAT) missile.

Prime Minister Modi, in his address to the nation said “Today is 27th March. A while ago, India achieved a historic feat. India today registered itself as a space power. Till now, three countries of the world- America, Russia and China had this achievement. India is the 4th country to have achieved this feat.” He further said, “though India has had the technical capability to develop ASAT weapons since 2012, agencies had in the past not been given the political go ahead for the project.”  Prime Minister Modi also emphasized the following: –

*           ‘The missile is not directed against any nation and that India remains against the use of arms in space’.

*           ‘Mission Shakti was a highly complex one, conducted at extremely high speed with remarkable precision. It shows the remarkable dexterity of India’s outstanding scientists and the success of India’s space programme’.

*           ‘The ASAT missile will give new strength to India’s space programme and the capability won’t be used against anyone and it is purely India’s defence initiative for its security’.

Peculiarities of LEO Satellites    The low earth orbit (LEO) is below 2000 km above earth surface either circular in shape (or elliptical, where apogee and perigee height may vary.  The following are important aspects of LEO: –

*           They have an orbital time of less than 128 minutes (capable of completing 11 or more circuits in a day).

*           These satellites are mostly used for data communication such as e-mails, video, navigation data, remote sensing and move at very high speed (The mean orbital velocity needed to maintain a stable LEO is about 7.8 km per second (26 mach), but reduces with increased orbital altitude).

*           As such their position with respect to earth unlike Geostationary Satellites is not fixed.

*           The importance of LEO can be judged by the fact that all crewed space stations to date (including International Space Station), as well as the majority of satellites, are operating in LEO.

*           A LEO requires the lowest amount of energy for satellite placement. It provides high bandwidth and low communication latency. Satellites and space stations in LEO are more accessible for crew and servicing.

*           The LEO environment is becoming congested with space debris because of the frequency of object launches. This has caused growing concern in recent years, since collisions at orbital velocities can easily be dangerous, and even deadly.

LEO Satellite as Target.   When a spacecraft goes into low Earth orbit, it won’t stay there forever. As objects orbit the Earth, they interact with the atmosphere. There is a small air drag force which is compensated by thrust boosters from time to time.  When the fuel in these thrust motors is over, it signals the end of Satellite’s life.  Thus, every satellite has a life and after that it keeps moving in its orbit which keeps shortening and as it enters the atmosphere, burns out into fine debris.  One such LEO Indian Satellite, ‘Microsat’ an earth observation satellite (weighing 740 kg) launched on 24 Jan 2019 was used as the target.  The height of the target was approximately 274 km, at range of 300 km and speed in region of 7.8 km per second.

The Achievement     The secrecy achieved in ASAT demonstration is at par with what India achieved when conducting a nuclear device test.  The ASAT missile used was similar to Agni V (fired on 19 April 18 and which achieved an altitude of 600km), integrated with electronic and radio frequency based guidance system of Air Defence-2 missile (most probably the Defence Research and Design Organisation’s (DRDO’s) Ballistic Missile Defence interceptor was used, which is part of the ongoing ballistic missile defence program).  ‘Shakti’ was a difficult mission to achieve but was completed within three minutes of the missile launch.  It implies that the ASAT missile has a speed in excess of 5 Mach.  The existing long range radar with range of 600 km was used.  Besides the officials from Space Security Coordination Group (SSCG), representatives of DRDO, Indian Air Force (IAF) and National Research and Technical Organisation (NTRO) were involved.

The Test.  This is a technological mission carried out by DRDO. The test required an extremely high degree of precision and technical capability.  The test was done in the lower atmosphere to ensure that there is no space debris. Whatever debris that is generated will decay and fall back into the earth within weeks. The test was highly successful and achieved all parameters as per plans.  Since India has proven ‘kinetic kill’ space technology capability, the same was used to achieve the objectives set out in this mission.  The test has been done firstly to verify that India has the capability to safeguard our space assets and secondly it was done after India acquired the required degree of confidence to ensure its success, and reflects the intention to enhance national security.

The Future     India will need to conduct further tests to attain much higher reach of ASAT capabilities. The building blocks of the ASAT weapon was in place for a while (since 2012).

ASAT as a Military Weapon.  So far, India did not have a long range high altitude Surface to Air missile in its inventory.  The ASAT will provide a big boost.  Imagine a LEO satellite, travelling at 7.8 km per second speed (approximately 26 mach) and at nearly 300 km altitude, being engaged with precision; what will happen to any fighter aircraft or tactical ballistic missile (speed less than 3 mach) and Airborne Warning and Control System/ Airborne Early Warning (AWACS/AEW) (still slower) flying at Altitude much lower.  It is therefore expected that Pakistan will make hue and cry in all international forums.

India’s Standing on Space Related Issues. Though India is on board and agrees to almost all the treaties related to space, but now it will be consulted in a more meaningful manner.  In treaty like Prevention of Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS), which has been a Chinese agenda, to create a new hegemony, in the manner Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) did. The testing of Shakti will ensure India’s concerns are taken note of.  Besides, India already implements a number of Transparency and Confidence Building Measures (TCBMs) and following points need to be noted on the same: –

*           The principal international treaty on space is the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.  India supports the substantive consideration of the issue of PAROS in the Conference on Disarmament, where it has been on the agenda since 1982.

*           Registering space objects with the UN register, pre-launch notifications, are measures in harmony with the UN Space Mitigation Guidelines.

*           Participation in Inter Agency Space Debris Coordination (IADC) activities with regard to space debris management.

*           Undertaking Space Object Proximity Awareness (SOPA) and Collision Avoidance Analysis (COLA).

*           Numerous international cooperation activities, including hosting the UN affiliated Centre for Space and Science Technology Education in Asia and Pacific.

*           India has been participating in all sessions of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.

*           India supported United Nation General Assembly (UNGA) resolution 69/32 on 02 Dec 2014 on ‘No First Placement of Weapons on Outer Space’.

Implications and Reactions        The Anti Satellite (ASAT) test took the world by surprise given that India in the past has maintained that space should be a frontier for peace and should not be militarised.  Some implications and reactions are as given in succeeding paras.

India   The following has been clarified in no uncertain terms: –

*           India’s space program is rapidly growing which has further accelerated rather rapidly in the last five years. So far India has undertaken 102 spacecraft missions (only 54 are active presently) consisting of communication satellites, earth observation satellites, navigation satellites, experimental satellites, apart from satellites meant for scientific research and exploration, academic studies and other small satellites. India’s space program is a critical backbone of India’s security, economic and social infrastructure.

*           India has no intention of entering into an arms race in outer space. It has always maintained that space must be used only for peaceful purposes. It is against the weaponisation of Outer Space and supports international efforts to reinforce the safety and security of space based assets.

*           India believes that Outer space is the common heritage of humankind and it is the responsibility of all space-faring nations to preserve and promote the benefits flowing from advances made in space technology and its applications for all.

*           India is a party to all the major international treaties relating to Outer Space.

*           The test is not directed against any country. India’s space capabilities do not threaten any country and nor are they directed against anyone.

*           At the same time, the government is committed to ensuring the country’s national security interests and is alert to threats from emerging technologies. The capability achieved through the Anti-Satellite missile test provides credible deterrence against threats to our growing space-based assets from long range missiles, and proliferation in the types and numbers of missiles.

Western Countries.           The western countries including US termed the test, ‘as claimed by India’.  They allegedly expressed doubts on India’s capability of achieving the objective as the world was visibly surprised with India’s momentous feat; and need not be accorded any significance.  The feat is particularly notable as highly advanced countries have not been able to take this technological leap.

China.    As of November 2018 China had 280 operational satellites (nearly double that of Russia and one third of US). China was the last nation to demonstrate ASAT capability and had first conducted a test in 2007.  China is planning to upgrade the Beidou-3 Navigation System by using high resolution cameras on its satellites.  It will initially be using the Kuilong System and then further upgrading it with the Hongyan Satellite Constellation.  By 2022, the Hongyan System will have 60 Satellites (carries the augmentation device and works on algorithms to reprocess signals in less than a minute and would achieve accuracy up to mm level) to cover space over China and later this number would swell to nearly 300 plus to have a Global reach.  All these will virtually saturate the LEO space at altitudes ranging from 300 to 800 km.  It would imply that every point including our strategic assets would be like an open book to China, until India has a treaty of sorts to blank out these areas.  The ASAT capability will ensure that China agrees to our terms and conditions.

Pakistan.       As expected, Pakistan has accused India of escalating the arms race.  Pakistan operates approximately 10 satellites of Chinese origin.  It fears the ones in LEO can be knocked out during high tension scenario.   Besides, Pakistan’s Ballistic Missiles, AWACS, AEWS, Transport aircraft and even fighters; all are now under ASAT missile umbrella.


The test signifies that India has tested and successfully demonstrated its capability to interdict and intercept a satellite in outer space based on complete indigenous technology.  It provides credible deterrence against any threat to growing space based assets from long range missiles.

Tomorrow, if any non-proliferation of space weapon usage is enforced, India can’t be corralled into the ‘not-have’ category. China has been pushing this, after having developed ASAT technologies of its own. This demonstration was addressed to China over any other country. It was best done now than later.

India expects to play a role in the future in the drafting of international law on prevention of an arms race in outer space.  This includes inter alia on the prevention of the placement of weapons in outer space in its capacity as a major space faring nation with proven space technology.