India conducted a surprise test of an anti-satellite weapon today, smashing an obsolete friendly satellite to bits. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated that the successful test proved the country was capable of defending itself on “land, water and air, but now also in space.” India is now the fourth country to test anti-satellite weapons.
The test, code-named “Shakti” (“power”) in Hindi, used a missile to intercept a satellite, which experts believe was Microsat-r (SATNO 43947, 2019-006A). Microsat-r was reportedly an Indian spy satellite weighing approximately 1,600 pounds. It was in low Earth orbit at an altitude of 274 kilometers (170 miles).
/4 Microsat-r was reportedly an Indian military military imaging satellite of decent size (740 kg, similar to Chinese FY-1C) and in a low sun-sync orbit (270 x 290 km): https://t.co/vsqhK5EhDE
– brianweeden (@brianweeden) March 27, 2019
The test was surprising because, as far as anyone knew, India had not publicly announced any intention to develop and test an anti-satellite weapon system. The Indian defense blog LiveFist shared what it purported was a photograph of the missile during launch.
India’s anti-satellite weapon is likely based on a ballistic missile defense system. India, whose potential adversaries including Pakistan and China are armed with ballistic missiles, is working on a layered missile defense system. According to The Diplomat the upper tier, designed to intercept missile warheads in orbit, consists of the Prithvi Air Defense (PAD) Pradyumna Ballistic Missile Interceptor and PDV (Prithvi Defense Vehicle).
Missile defense systems are relatively easy to adapt to destroy satellites. Both intercept objects in orbit, smashing them by direct collision. In 2008, the U.S. Navy guided missile cruiser USS Lake Erie launched a SM-3 ballistic missile interceptor, destroying an obsolete American satellite in a decaying orbit. Delhi’s anti-satellite weapon is almost certainly derived from PAD. The similarity in mission between missile defense and anti-satellite weapons makes it easier, and much cheaper, to develop one weapon instead of two.
Today’s test makes India the fourth nation to test anti-satellite weapons, with the U.S. High Virgo air-launched missile in 1959, followed by the USSR with its Polyot-1 in 1963. China first tested its SC-19 anti-satellite weapon in 2005, and a 2007 test against an actual satellite generated 3,280 pieces of space debris, drawing worldwide condemnation.
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