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ASAT launch
Four years after India tested a direct-ascent ASAT, questions remain about India’s space deterrence strategy and what other ASAT capabilities the country’s military may be developing. (credit: DRDO)

Indian ASAT: Mission Shakti should be a comma, not a full stop

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On March 27, 2019, India tested an anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) during an operation codenamed Mission Shakti. Now four years have passed since India emerged as the fourth state in the world to achieve such capabilities after the US, Russia, and China. This could be an opportune time to do some kind of audit about India’s effort towards evolving a space deterrence mechanism. On the face of it, no significant activity has been observed by India to take any next steps towards developing an effective space deterrence mechanism since the test. Here, it is important to give some margin to the scientific community and policymakers since not only India but the entire world had faced unforeseen challenges owing to Covid-19 crisis, which ended up delaying various programs, including in India.

It could be said that India’s political objectives, both signaling to adversaries and increasing its relevance on the global stage in the space domain, were achieved with Mission Shakti.

To recap Mission Shakti: it was a successful ASAT test conducted by India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) exactly four years ago. Microsat-R, an experimental imaging satellite manufactured by DRDO, was launched on January 24, 2019. This satellite was eventually used by DRDO as a target satellite. It was a direct ascent, kinetic kill weapon test and DRDO used a modified anti-ballistic missile interceptor. The satellite was shot at a lower altitude of 283 kilometers to ensure that there would not be any long-term debris menace; within a short time, the generated debris would enter the Earth’s atmosphere. After the test, there was some blame-gaming and India was accused of creating some debris, which could even be detrimental to the health of International Space Station (ISS). Different sources had claimed different figures regarding the amount of debris remaining in the low Earth orbit (LEO) region. Six months after the test, some 50 tracked pieces of debris remained, which reentered in about 12 months.

It could be said that India’s political objectives, both signaling to adversaries and increasing its relevance on the global stage in the space domain, were achieved. In any global debate towards establishing a rule-based architecture for ensuring space security, India now becomes an important cog. Also, possibly, India should be able to disallow materializing of any lopsided treaty mechanism, like the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), in the space domain. Diplomatically, India handled the aftershocks of this test admirably and was able to explain (and convince) many in the world, the rationale behind this test.

Was this only a one-off test for India or there is something more to India’s deterrence mechanism? According to some reports, this idea to conduct an ASAT test was approved in 2016 and became a reality three years later. There is a possibility that there could be some other ideas in making, too. At present, some crystal ball-gazing in this regard is possible, based on available open-source information. However, rather than getting into the zone of speculation, it could be prudent to carry out an assessment based on scientific, strategic, and policy underpinnings.

It may sound hypocritical, but it is a reality that India is against the weaponization of space. But since India needs to ensure that its political borders remain safe, it had no option but to develop a space deterrence mechanism, owing to increasing strategic challenges. India is walking on thin ice by ensuring that its efforts to develop deterrence are not mistaken as efforts towards weaponization of space.

Immediately after the test, DRDO indicated that they were working on programs involving directed energy weapons, electromagnetic pulse (EMP), and co-orbital weapons for ASAT roles. It was claimed that DRDO has a capability to neutralize any object up to around 1,000 kilometers altitude in space. However, subsequently, there has not been much talk about any progress made in regards to development of such technologies. It is important to mention that Mission Shakti was a “bolt from the blue” for everyone within India and outside. A great amount of secrecy was maintained about this project. On similar lines, for obvious reasons, there is a possibility that the Indian scientific community is working quietly on various counterspace projects.

Deterrence is not only about technology, but also perceptions. What are the incremental, visible steps taken by India to build on the success of its 2019 ASAT test?

DRDO has a Centre for High Energy Systems and Sciences (CHESS), which is working on futuristic weapon systems, mainly high-energy laser systems. They are known to be experimenting with directed energy weapons (DEWs). They are developing high-powered DEWs that can disable enemy missiles or drones. It is not known if India is working towards developing a ground-based DEW system, which can address LEO targets, or if there are plans to develop space-based platforms. Since the mid-1980s, there are some conjectures that DRDO is developing a Kilo Ampere Linear Injector (KALI). This is a linear electron accelerator or a particle accelerator that can emit powerful relativistic electron beams to damage the target’s electronic system. It is perceived that KALI would be a great weapon for destroying aircraft and missiles through soft-kill. It’s not known if there is any possibility of modifying such technology for space use.

Some four or five years ago, DRDO is known to have established an organization to cater for research and development in the military space arena and currently this agency is expected to be working on various technological options. In general, no specific details are available to understand DRDO’s possible agenda in the domain of counterspace capabilities towards strengthening India’s deterrence.

There are some areas of counterspace technologies that India need not focus on. Kinetic-physical technologies are those mainly intended to create permanent and irreversible destruction of space-based systems or ground systems. India need not undertake any ASAT test in the future by using direct-ascent anti-satellite (DA-ASAT) missiles. By undertaking Mission Shakti, India has already made a statement and any more testing (leading to debris generation) is not advisable. Maybe India could undertake a few flyby missions for technology maturation. There is a need for India to focus more on electronic and cyber means. Such technologies could help them creating interference and jamming capabilities.

Mission Shakti was a great beginning. But has India successfully established any space deterrence strategy tailored to recognize the unique characteristics of its strategic compulsions over last four years? The answer is possibly no. For some time now India’s focus has been towards establishing India as a business hub for the space industry. This step was required and a major push in that direction is visible and should be welcomed. On the other hand, what is happening on strategic side? Presumably, DRDO should be developing counterspace technologies and could possibly make them public, when the development reaches the level of testing. The issue is whether the guarded silence is necessary. Is it helping your deterrence posturing?

Deterrence is not only the above technology, but also about perceptions. What are the incremental, visible steps taken by India to build on the success of its 2019 ASAT test? What are the structures made by India to further the cause of space deterrence and are they sufficient? There is a need to have some nationwide debate on these aspects, which perhaps is presently missing.

India has created the Defence Space Agency (DSA) in 2019 and has also conducted its first simulated space warfare exercise. It is assumed that, during last four years, DSA must have been busy in the process of capacity-building. At the end of 2022, India launched the Space Defence Mission, a military space program to develop innovative solutions for the country’s defense forces through industry and startups. Under this program, 75 challenges have been identified for private industry. The industry players are expected to deliver in areas like launch systems, satellite systems, communication and payload systems, ground systems, and software. Nevertheless, all these efforts look to be too little for India to showcase its deterrence capabilities.

What are the structures made by India to further the cause of space deterrence and are they sufficient? There is a need to have some nationwide debate on these aspects, which perhaps is presently missing.

India has major concerns about China’s military space agenda. One of the main reasons for India to undertake ASAT test was, obviously, the China threat. The India-China border dispute remains unresolved after seven decades. Fortunately, it remained dormant for many years. However, in 2020 the Galwan Valley Conflict erupted, in which 20 Indian soldiers were killed. This was the most violent border fight with China since the 1962 India-China war. China is working towards equipping itself to fight any possible war in space. It is not the purpose here to get into the details of China counterspace program. However, it suffices to say that one of the main reasons for the US to establish a separate military vertical and establish the Space Force was the China angle.

It is important for a state like India not to view space deterrence in isolation. Modern-day warfare is multidimensional warfare. India’s both adversaries are nuclear weapon states. China has made major progress in the field of hypersonics, posing direct challenges to the existing missile defense architecture and hence questioning the efficacy of the prevailing nuclear deterrence mechanism. China is making major advancements in various strategic technology domains like robotics, lasers, artificial intelligence, and quantum.

Against this backdrop, is the capacity of space deterrence showcased by India so far enough? From the strategic perspective, India conducting an ASAT test was necessary, but the geostrategic canvas indicates that it is definitely not sufficient.

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