27 July 2019

There is a new joker emerging in outer space: India has an anti-satellite weapon

Mircea Mocanu

Russia is threatening to build hypersonic missiles, China is landing a module on the unseen face of the Moon, while the United States are preparing a mission to Mars and are advancing towards the establishment of a Space Force. In this space context, India surprises by testing an anti-satellite weapon. It even has its own global navigation satellites and a space policy, and is also preparing a bill in this field.

Image source: Mediafax

India is testing an anti-satellite weapon (ASAT)

First comes the report: on March 27, 2019, the government in New Delhi announced that India successfully launched an interceptor missile which managed to destroy an own decommissioned satellite. In military language, India made the first test of its anti-satellite weapon (ASAT). Obviously, the objective of this action was not to eliminate a decommissioned satellite, but to test the capacity to destroy a satellite with a missile launched from a ground platform.

The difficulty in defining ASAT as a general term lies in the fact that its multiple approaches presume dual technologies. However, theoretically, there are several possibilities to retire a satellite from being operational, so there are three categories of ASAT weapons:

a) projectiles launched from Earth (“kinetic kill”, interceptor missiles in this case);

b) attacking a ground control station (different options);

c) using a different satellite to crash into the target and dislodge it from its orbit and/or blind it by destroying its sensors

India’s action, the first of its kind in the country’s history, was part of the Shakhti Mission. According to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the mission’s goal was to “verify the fact that India is able to protect its space capabilities… Defending the country’s interests in outer space is the responsibility of the Indian Government”.

The projectile used was “a defence vehicle” Prithvi model II, which a variant of the Prithvi short-range ballistic missiles, modified in accordance with the Shakhti mission’s requirements as an exo-atmospheric anti-ballistic defence (interceptor) missile.

The launch site was the Integrated Testing Firing Range on the Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Karam Island (the former Wheeler Island), near the coastland of the Odisha state (formerly Orissa), in the north-western Bay of Bengal.

The ASAT test’s target was not specified by authorities in New Delhi, but Pentagon experts stated that, most probably, it was either a Microsat-R satellite (launched in January with the dimensions of a small car), or a Microsat-TD satellite (launched last year).

These options also led to information regarding the target’s location, more exactly the altitude of the destroyed satellite’s orbit. For Microsat-R, the eliptic orbit has a diameter of 262/280 km, while the orbit of the Microsat-TD satellite lies at 353/361 km. As a useful comparison, the Bucharest-Bacau railway has 300km. Both options qualify for the category of Low Earth Orbit (LEO), an area populated by most of the commercial satellites (navigation, communications, geodetic).


The missile’s launch was detected in real time by US soldiers from the 11th Space Warning Squadron from the Buckley Air Base in Colorado. Later, during a hearing in the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Lt. Gen. David Thompson, the Vice Commander of the Air Force Space Command, said that the Pentagon warned all satellite operators in the world of the event immediately after it was detected.

What was the reason for the warning? Debris resulted from the satellite’s destruction.

The problem with debris abandoned in extra-terrestrial space

And now comes the problem of the debris polluting the outer space, which can damage other satellites or endanger, though collision, other space missions. Therefore, from an apparently national event, the ASAT weapon test became an international problem, also endangering the International Space Station (ISS), which is maintained by human crew and shifts between altitudes of 330 and 435 km.

The Indian government said that the few resulted debris will gradually leave their orbits and enter the mesosphere, disintegrating by burning on the way within 45 days. In fact, Gen. John Hyten, commander of the US Strategic Command, stated that he appreciates the fact that India made the test at a low orbit, so that the debris it generated would rapidly start burning, and those which remained would present a minimum risk for space activity. Gen. Thomson also said that ISS was never under a risk of collision.

However, there is still debris resulting from the destroyed satellite, and NASA identified 400 metallic fragments generated by the March 27 event, which are monitored by the US Air Force Space Command. Of these, approximately 60 are larger than 10 centimetres in size, which allows them to be monitored by NASA. Among the 60, 24 could possibly drift towards the ISS’ orbit, which grew the chance of the station colliding with small objects by 44% for ten-day period.

NASA Director Jim Brindestine highlighted the fact that states are negligent with space debris, but then request and benefit from the free surveillance service ensured by the United States for the entire world. However, space debris is a real problem, and collisions could even cause a pool effect, in an environment increasingly more crowded with artificial satellites. Many experts think that the debris could last in space for months or even years, as evidenced by the debris caused by the similar test made by China in 2007. The US official said that “it is terrible, a terrible thing to create an event which sends debris to a height above the ISS orbit… and this type of activity is not compatible with the future we wish to see for manned space missions”.

Politically, however, the Trump Administration does not want to scold India for the problems it caused, as India is the biggest democracy in the world, and the US is now having problems with China. Gen. Hyten said that he understands India’s need to defend itself in outer space, as the US is also doing, and NASA backtracked on a prior decision to suspend its cooperation with India.

In any case, Washington realizes the global danger caused by space debris and is working towards an international treaty which would regulate the countries’ responsibilities for outer space activities concerning debris, and intends to draft a globally accepted “code of conduct” which would be respected by all states. US authorities are showing the fact that there are countries testing anti-satellite weaponry which create space debris, but turn to the United States to gain the necessary information regarding this debris. In the US, in the institution which maintains an up-to-date catalogue with all the space debris is the Joint Space Operations Centre in Vandenberg, part of the US Strategic Command. According to the third directive for space policy, drafted by the Trump Administration, part of these responsibilities will be transferred to the US Trade Department, due to the economic nature of space activities.

The new paradigm in India’s Outer Space Policy

Let us return to India. A Standard Chartered report shows that India, which will have an economy worth USD46.3 trillion in 2030, will surpass the United States, which will reach only USD31 trillion by then, as China would be first with USD64.2 trillion.

This economic boost is also transposed into the space ambitions of authorities in New Delhi, whose vision in the outer space field was expressed by the founder of the Indian space program, Vikram Sarabhai: “We do not have the ambition to compete with economically advanced countries… but we are convinced that, if we want to play a significant role as a nation, and within the community of nations, we must the first to apply the most advanced technologies to help solve the real problems of man and society”.

Now, India’s space policy is following several directions: satellite navigation, sending an Indian astronaut to space within an own program, developing the private sector, an Indian mission on the Moon, technological performances such as multiple launches with one with shuttle, exploiting mineral resources and, of-course, the anti-satellite weapon.

The Indian navigation system. Regarding the first direction of interest, the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) is an autonomous regional system with the operational name NAVIC (NAVigation with Indian Constellation), a word meaning sailor or navigator in Sanskrit, Hindi and other Sanskrit languages.

IRNSS provides a precision of 20 meters on positioning throughout the entirety of India’s territory and neighbouring areas, which according initial ambitions extend to 1,500 km around the Indian sub-continent. One of its purposes is for India to have the absolute control of the terrestrial and space segments, and for all receptors to also be made in India. The Indian system is compatible with GPS and offers a public service and a restricted service, for the government, mainly for military use. The NAVIC system is approximately two times more precise than Navstar GPS, by adding a circuit and additional software in the IRNSS receptors.

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) began organized launches after 2010 and, at the beginning of 2018, NAVIC became operational, with seven satellites on the orbits, plus two other reserve satellites on the ground. The plans in perspective include extending the constellation to 11 satellites, and also extending coverage to 6,000 km from India’s borders, in a trapeze approximately framed by the Black Sea, Mozambique, Western Australia and North Korea.

In the NAVIC constellation, three of the satellites are geostationary, and four others are on inclined geosynchronous orbits, with combined movement in an eight-form. Looking into perspective, India intends to establish a global satellite navigation system, GINS (Global Indian Navigation System), with 24 satellites.

The perspective of a space mission with Indian astronauts. ISRO began to develop an Indian manned mission program in 2004, within a series of missions named Gangayaan. For its 75th independence anniversary, in 2022, India will send a human crew in a space mission.

It will use the GSLV MK III rocket, sufficiently powerful, which was tested two times until 2018. Also last year, India tested the crew’s rescue system. The envisaged mission requires three astronauts and a flight between five and seven days, on an orbit between 300 and 400 km (where the ISS also operates). To prepare for the 2022 event, India will carry out unmanned missions starting with 2022

Developing the private space sector. India began its space technology transfer towards private producers, and the first successful measures were in the field of satellite navigation. It even launched a navigation satellite built by a private company, and until 2020 it will also make its first launch vehicle, a version of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) rocket. Another achievement of Indian private companies was to contract equipment for NASA.

Developing advanced technologies. Mentioning the PSLV brings the discussion in the area of interest for developing advanced technologies. This rocket has the record of 104 (!) satellites launched with a single rocket, in 2017. Among these, three were Indian satellites, and 101 were nano-satellites belonging to five other states (US, the Netherlands, Israel, Kazakhstan and Switzerland). All of the 101 satellites were placed exactly on their intended orbits. Another record in the area, achieved by ISRO, is to launch 29 satellites on different orbits with the same rocket type.

The Indian mission on the Moon and sending a probe to Mars. A remarkable ambition of India’s space policy is to carry out a 100% Indian mission on the Moon. In this regard, the Chandrayaan-2 Lunar Mission wants to land a module/robot during this year, with the launch planned between July 9 and 16, depending on the weather. Chandrayaan-2 will be a more advanced version of the previous mission, Chandrayaan-1, launched on October 22, 2008, at the Satih Dhawan Space Centre. Chandrayaan-2 will include three modules: an orbital module, a landing module (Vikram) and mobile land (rover) module Pragyan. The payloads will be comprised of 13 Indian scientific research equipment and one NASA experimental equipment, The rocket will also be a GSLV MK III, also used in the launch of the Mangalyaan probe, which will orbit the planet Mars, within the MOM-2 mission (Mars Orbiter Mission-2).

The economic aspect of the Indian space mission. Concerning lunar exploration, one objective of India’s space policy is its interest in the mineral resources of the Earth’s natural satellite. For example, Helium-3 is present in the Moon’s soil, which can be used to produce transportable energy to Earth. It is known that the Moon’s natural resources can provide an important economic advantage for countries which can exploit them. On the other hand, even the closer outer space is important for technological resources with an economic impact in fields such as pharma production, 3D-printing human organs, producing materials which cannot be made in gravity and, probably, some more discrete applications.

The military aspect of India’s space presence. All the development directions previously mentioned also require progresses in security, in protecting these achievements against the hostile actions of other states. The military aspect also means formalizing the activity through official documents. Therefore, immediately after the March 27 test, Prime Minister Narendar Modi order his national security advisor, Ajit Doval, to being drafting an Indian space doctrine. India’s Parliament is also currently drafting a space activities’ law.

India’s space policy requires growing its operational capability to ensure access to outer space and projecting power to serve India’s space interest. That is why the successful testing of anti-satellite weapon points to an essential policy shift for India, from peaceful research in the shadow of other more developed countries, to expressing its capability to protect its own satellites and space activities. Speculations regarding the change of policy in New Delhi suggest that India’s intentions are shifting from counterforce targeting to countervalue targeting, meaning that it does not pursue military goals, but economic ones, by producing the economic losses to the enemy (stock market crashes, satellite navigation, meteorological services, communications services).

From an operational standpoint, the success of India’s anti-satellite weapon proves this country’s capability to destroy objective situated in outer space, therefore certifies India reaching the status of space power. The DRDO organization has ASAT capabilities since 2012, but postponed the test for unspecified reasons.

India is now the fourth country with ASAT technology, after the US, China and Russia.

The missile used by India has similar technology to that used by the United States for its ASAT test at the Vandenberg Base on March 25, 2019. Previously, the US made a similar test in 2008, when it used an SM-3 Interceptor within the Burnt Frost Operation, to destroy its own 193 satellite, situated on an orbit above 250km in height.

On January 11, 2007, China launched an anti-satellite missile from its Satellite Launch Centre in Xichang, in the centre of the country. The missile destroyed an own decommissioned weather satellite. ASAT Missiles are part of China’s strategic strike force, named “The Assassin’s Flail” (shashoujiang).

Russia also carried out its “Satellite killer program” (presumably abandoned at the end of the Cold War) and made several tests with the PL-19 Nudol ballistic missile, named “the direct ascent weapon”, but there is no date regarding tests on real target-satellites.

Conclusions: India – space power

There are discussions on the opportunity of carrying out the test before India’s elections in the spring, which could have been due to internal politics. On the other hand, India’s efforts are taken into consideration also within the context of China’s economic, military and technologic boost, so for geopolitical reasons, pertaining to foreign policy. Whatever political reasons there may be, India’s space achievements and perspectives are an important reality.

The political perception in New Delhi is clear: following the March 27 test, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that: “India is rising high and standing tall as a space power! This will make India more powerful, safer and India will promote peace and harmony”.

ASAT technologies are developed based on anti-missile missiles, most of the time defensive, but still are confirmations of the general tendency to weaponize outer space. According to an independent expert, “at this moment, we are not ready for the challenges posed by the rapid spread and level of sophistication of anti-satellite and space weapons,” regardless of whether they are already operation or planned.

DRDO General Director Avinash Chander eloquently summed up the new geostrategic stance India took after the March 27 ASAT test, which “signifies two things: India is capable to identify a satellite threat and is capable of intercepting the hostile satellite”. His statement was completed by another Indian military official: “India is completely geared for war – be it underwater, naval, aerial or in space…  Outer space prevails among operational spaces because it enables intelligence, surveillance, information war and cyber activities”.

Therefore, together with progresses achieved in the other directions, the success of the ASAT test marks a radical shift of India’s space policy, as well as one in the field of national security, as it confirms its counter-space capabilities. These accomplishments resonate with India’s other recent actions, which also signal a major change in India’s geopolitical stance as a major Asian power.

Translated by Ionut Preda