At 11.10am, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) launched a Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) Interceptor Missile, work on which has been ongoing for at least a decade, from the Dr APJ Abdul Kalam Island (Balasore range) in Odisha.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that this operation was a difficult target to achieve but “was completed within three minutes of the launch,” while the ministry of defence (MoD) said that the missile successfully engaged an Indian orbiting target satellite in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) in a ‘Hit to Kill’ mode.
Sateesh Reddy, DG, DRDO, told TOI: “The mission was critical as we had to demonstrate our capability to protect our space assets, and it was a success. Isro had specifically launched a satellite for us for this purpose on January 24, the MICROSAT-R. It is a new missile, 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 improve relative velocity.”
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.
“Typically we get about less than one second to intercept a satellite given its velocity and to overcome this challenge a host of technologies that go into guidance control, mission computer, systems that aid accuracy and relative timing et al,” Reddy said, without elaborating on specific technologies developed for the mission or the budget for the programme.
Former DRDO chief Avinash Chander, who was instrumental in developing India’s missile capabilities, said Wednesday’s mission can be seen as extension of the DRDO’s long-range anti-ballistic missile programme but that this particular project was only initiated recently.
“But satellite is a different ball game given that the velocity is much higher, the size is small and you have a very short time to collect the data. You need appropriate booster vehicles that give sufficient velocity to reach target in given time, and you must have an anti-satellite vehicle that tracks the satellite and correct the distance. You will only have 10-15 seconds to do this,” Chander said.
While Wednesday’s test demonstrated India’s capability to defend its assets in outer space, it is noteworthy that no country that has boasted of ASAT in the past has ever used it to bring down satellites belonging to other countries—given all the international norms—as it would be considered an act of war.
Modi too reiterated this and said: “India has always been for peaceful space endeavours and that policy has not changed. This is only to demonstrate that we are capable of doing it if the need arises.”
In this context, scientists explained to TOI that these capabilities are also seen to add to the country’s abilities to tackle high-altitude incoming missiles. India had a long BMD programme with multiple missiles already in its arsenal.
“But as of today those missiles cannot intercept a target that is at such altitude. The ASAT, in that sense, is a game changer that can help our forces tackle incoming missiles at a greater height, which serves as a huge advantage,” one of them said.
300 On Mission Mode & Pokhran-like secrecy?
Reddy, while conceding that the work on BMD has been ongoing for years, said: “The project only got the official go ahead about two years ago. And we got into mission mode only six months ago.”
He said that 300 DRDO scientists and staff worked on the project day and night in the past six months and yet it was kept under the lids.
“Even as of yesterday (Tuesday) evening not more than five-six people knew about the test today (Wednesday),” he said.
The last time India carried out a secret test was in May 1998, when the country tested its armed nuclear capabilities in Pokhran. Incidentally, it is that test that laid the foundation for India’s ballistic missile programme, which is today pegged as one of the best in the world.
India’s achievement comes a good 12 years after China and was demonstrated only in the 300-km altitude range, which is much lesser than what China did. On a specific question on range, Reddy said: “Even as of today we have the ability to hit something 1,000km away.”