India test-fired the three-stage interceptor missile from the APJ Abdul Kalam Island off the Odisha coast at 11.10am. A little over an hour later, PM Narendra Modi announced the success of ‘Mission Shakti’ in a televised address to the nation.
The 18-tonne missile, with two solid rocket boosters, tore into space to hit the 740-kg satellite, flying in a low earth orbit (LEO), bang in the middle barely three minutes after its launch over the Bay of Bengal.
Defence Research and Development Organisation chief Satheesh Reddy told TOI that while work on the ballistic missile defence (BMD) programme was going on for years, “the project only got the official go-ahead about two years ago. And we got into mission mode only six months ago”.
Reddy also said all technologies for the A-Sat mission were developed indigenously. “In the A-Sat test, we achieved an accuracy of a few centimetres, meeting all technical parameters and objectives. We have the capability to do it at much higher altitudes but conducted the test in LEO or lower atmosphere to ensure the space debris decays and falls back to earth,” he said.
A top defence scientist added, “The mission was a direct-ascent kinetic kill. The relative velocity between the missile and the orbiting Microsat-R satellite, which was launched by Isro on January 24 for the test, was around 10km per second.”
The launch, about two weeks ahead of the first round of polling in Lok Sabha elections, was read by political circles as likely to reinforce the tough on national security image of BJP and Modi after the air strikes on a Jaish-e-Muhammed terror camp in Balakot in Pakistan.
Modi’s decision to address the nation almost immediately sparked a fresh political fight with some opposition parties claiming it was a violation of the model code of conduct and Congress chief Rahul Gandhi praising DRDO scientists but slamming the PM for “political theatre”.
Government sources said the significance and international ramifications of the missile launch required the PM’s “authority and credibility” to assure that India’s objectives were peaceful and defensive and did not violate international commitments. This task could not be left to an official and needed the PM to explain the test’s ramifications.
The strategic significance of the ‘satellite killer’ missile is considerable as it gives India the capacity to match China’s ability to strike down ‘enemy’ satellites. Though China achieved this capacity 12 years ago and has made big strides in the field, Wednesday’s test gives India the technological competence to target satellites, knocking out an adversary’s eyes and ears in space.
Though the A-Sat missile was tested for a 300km altitude, DRDO scientists are confident it “can go up to 1,000km” if required. “We need the capability to neutralise surveillance, communication, navigation and other military satellites during a conflict to render enemy forces deaf and blind as well as disrupt their precision-targeting capabilities,” a defence source said.
India is worried about the huge strides made in the military space arena by China, which tested its first A-Sat missile in January 2007 and also has robust programmes for kinetic and directed-energy laser weapons as well as nano-satellites.
Modi said with the A-Sat test, India had become the fourth country to acquire this “global space power” status. “The new capability we have developed is not directed against anyone. India has no intention to threaten anyone,” Modi said, reiterating India’s opposition to weaponisation of space and arms race in outer space.
The ballistic missile defence (BMD) interceptor missile was launched from A P J Abdul Kalam Island (Balasore range) in Odisha. Modi said the operation was a difficult target but “was completed within three minutes of the launch,” while the ministry of defence (MoD) said the missile successfully engaged an Indian orbiting target satellite in low earth orbit in a ‘hit to kill’ mode.
DRDO chief Reddy said the mission was critical to demonstrate India’s capability to protect its space assets and was a success. “Isro had specifically launched a satellite for us for this purpose on January 24, the Microsat-R. Although we have used some sub-technologies as background, it is a completely new missile. We have different configurations, ability to go to higher altitude, greater accuracy and improved relative velocity,” he added.
The interceptor missile was a three-stage missile with two solid rocket boosters. The MoD claimed that tracking data from range sensors has confirmed that the mission met all its objectives.
India has had the “building blocks” for ASAT capability through spin-offs from the over 5,000-km Agni-V strategic missile and the two-tier BMD programmes for several years now. India did not cross the red line due to its self-imposed moratorium as well as the worldwide condemnation of China’s first A-Sat test in 2007.