By Ravi Gupta
Mission Shakti, the historic event held on March 27 that made India the fourth nation in the world after US, Russia and China to successfully demonstrate an indigenous A-SAT weapon employing a "Hit to kill" technology. A matter of great Pride for every citizen, in addition to boosting the public moral and enhancing India's status in the world, it has rattled anti-India forces.
As a matter of fact A-SAT capability, in terms of strategic deterrence, is far more significant (in some ways) than the nuclear weapons capability. However, the reactions from across the world were not as harsh as during the Pokhran nuclear tests. This is attributable to three main factors, namely the resilience and tenacity demonstrated by the country during the post-Pokhran sanctions. This time, India was very effective in its diplomatic communication. Moreover, the world cant sideline an emerging economic and military power which is progressing rapidly under a dynamic, decisive and reformist leadership.
On the other hand, the politicization of the historic achievement, with utter disregard to national interests, and attempts to downplay the importance of the event and unfair criticism led to many misgivings in the minds of Indian people. This write-up is an attempt to bring out the significance of the test in simple words.
What is an A-SAT System?
An A-SAT or Anti-Satellite weapon system is a marvel of modern defence technologies invented to destroy a satellite orbiting in space. The system is indigenously developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation – DRDO. It involves physically hitting a satellite that is travelling at extremely high velocities relative to the Earth’s surface, typically about 10 km per second (kmps) with the help of a ‘Kinetic Kill Vehicle’ and destroying it. Lower the orbit of the target satellite, higher is the velocity.
Sensors located at the ground, on ships, in the air onboard airborne warning and command system (AWACS) and in space carry out this task. Trekking accuracy to the order of milliseconds is needed to know the real-time location of the target that is moving at about 10m every millisecond.
To determine the optimal launch window for the interceptor missile (in terms of place and time of launch) computers equipped with very high processing power and complex algorithms located at appropriate command and control centres do the job in an automated manner. Needless to say that weapon launcher, mobile or static, need to be pre-located in deployment mode.
Once launched, the interceptor is guided by an advanced inertial navigation system to carry the hit-to-kill Kinetic Kill Vehicle (KKV) towards the planned 'interception zone' as determined by the computers.
The officially declared reach of India's A-SAT missile in terms of altitudes is around 1000 km, a band that covers the bulk of the satellites except for the geostationary satellites. The missile has multiple stage rocket motors (three in case of 'Mission Shakti') that keep dropping behind after performing their tasks. Once in space, at an appropriate time, the Imaging Infrared (IIR) seeker takes over as the primary sensor for providing the real-time input to the onboard computer (OBC) for further navigation and guidance that is precise enough to achieve a direct hit.
Interception is achieved in a direct hit-to-kill mode wherein the tremendous kinetic energy originating from relative velocities of the KKV and the target leads to shattering, disintegration and destruction of the target.
An A-SAT system is much more than a missile with each ingredient or subsystem requiring complex and critical technologies closely guarded by nation's that possess them. Thanks to the DRDO and also to the nations who denied India access to such technologies during the early phases of indigenous development of missiles. Today India possesses all the requisite technologies needed for developing any missile.
What so important?
The degree of importance of A-SAT capability is amply indicated by the fact that the success of A-SAT was declared by none other than the Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself in an address to the nation. Today, it’s not just the military but every aspect of governance is dependent on satellites. Destroying satellites of a country can cripple it completely without killing a single person.
The protection of space-based assets including satellites has therefore assumed far greater importance than generally understood which was exploited by vested interests to downplay the importance of A-SAT capability.
Use of A-SAT weapon, unlike its nuclear device, does not carry the attached stigma of mass annihilation. Unlike nuclear weapons which are practically useful in a strategic role only, A-SAT can be used in both strategic and tactical roles.
Already possessing the capability to protect and safeguard its assets in air, land water and underwater, India can now protect its space assets as well. It is because of these reasons that the A-SAT capability is considered even more significant than possessing nuclear weapons capability declared by India in May 1999.
A-SAT and BMD, are they same?
Though similar but not the same! The building blocks for these two systems are largely the same. However, building blocks need to be tuned to the specific requirement and tested as a complete system for each role. Comparing the case with that of a racing car vs SUV, for example, makes understanding simpler though with the risk of oversimplification.
Though both need a high-end engine, suspension, fuel injection system etc, in each case, these are tailored to deliver specifically required performances. Both systems have challenges unique to them. The cost of missing the target by a Ballistic Missiles Defence (BMD) system is unacceptably high and the system has to face an element of tremendous surprise. In case the target happens to be a MaRV (manoeuvrable re-entry vehicle) the BMD system may have to take care of manoeuvrability of the target having a trajectory unpredictable enough to make even selecting the launch window and location by the control systems much more difficult.
A satellite has its trajectory fairly well defined and has little manoeuvrability within the time available once the A-SAT missile is launched. Satellite is, therefore, more or less a proverbial "sitting duck" moving at very high velocity, though its velocity and altitude of interception are comparable to or even higher than those encountered while intercepting long-range ICBMs.
When did India get ready to demonstrate A-SAT
After the nuclear test, the next obvious step was to focus on developing the means to defend India from a nuclear missile. A major program was sanctioned in 2001 entrusting DRDO with development of a two-layered BMD program to be completed in two phases. Longer the range of the incoming ballistic missile, higher is its trajectory and velocity. In the first phase of the program, the capability to intercept 2000 km range ballistic missiles was to be demonstrated. Later, the second phase was to take care of defences against ballistic missiles of longer range missiles.
The maiden flight of an indigenously developed exo-atmospheric interceptor (phase-I) was held on November 27t, 2006. By the time the historic ‘game changer' maiden flight of India's own indigenous long-range ballistic missile Agni 5 was held on April 19 2012, both the exo and endo-atmospheric interceptors had been repeatedly tested and DRDO was already working on enhancing and refining the technology building blocks for meeting challenges posed by longer-range ballistic missile threats.
In response to specific media queries during Press Conferences and other media interactions that followed the maiden Agni 5 test in 2012, the then DRDO Chief Dr Vijay Kumar Saraswat stated the fact that DRDO was well equipped to take up the challenging task of demonstrating A-SAT capability if mandated by the Government. Rest is history.
Deliberately hiding half the truth and presenting the remaining half with the stamp of a renowned person or institution is considered as the most effective means for propaganda, especially when the topic is hi-tech and target audience is educated and intelligent. Yes, it's only a small fraction of truth that debris is formed each time a satellite is destroyed in space in an A-SAT mission.
The major fraction of complete truth is that each time anything is sent out in space, it doesn't readily come back and stays in space as debris for durations that depend on the object's altitude, speed and direction. These include the various stages of Satellite Launch Vehicles and the ICBMs, the heat shields of the satellites and other miscellaneous parts that become junk after their intended purpose is fulfilled.
Additionally, each satellite itself turns into space junk after its operational life. In nutshell, each and every activity carried out to harness the benefits of space for humankind create debris and adds up to the debris already accumulated since the very first object was launched into space.
Once devoid of propulsive power, debris is destined to slowly move towards the earth and get burnt due to the air resistance.
So, in contrast to the anti-India propaganda, the complete truth is that there are countries that have created thousand times more space debris as compared to few hundred odd pieces formed as a by-product of Mission Shakti.
The debris is at about 150 km lower in altitude, much lower than the orbit used by most of the satellites, as well as that of International space station which was about 15,000 km away at the time of A-SAT interception.
The fact that DRDO, in order to minimise the debris, decided to carry out the experiment at a very low altitude of about 280 kilometres - a much more challenging task due to higher velocities involved as compare to higher orbits chosen by other countries for their A-SAT missions; speaks volumes about capabilities of our scientists and their commitment to respecting nature and all its elements.
This is further reinforced by the fact that extra efforts were made by the DRDO teams to ensure that the debris formed is minimum and decays rapidly without causing damage to any space assets of other countries. Dr G. Satheesh Reddy, the current DRDO Chief and a renowned expert in Avionics and Navigation Technologies had recently disclosed that the team A-SAT had worked practically 24x7 for about six months and had carried out hundreds of intensive simulations to ensure the success of Mission Shakti as well as to work out right modalities for minimising debris.
The 21st century has witnessed the emergence of at least two more dimensions - Space Warfare and Cyber Warfare which are expected to dominate the future war. Advancements in Robotics, Artificial intelligence and Communication are rapidly transforming the armed forces which are getting increasingly dependent on space assets. Thus, a capability to deny any adversary the access to its space assets is a must.
Mission Shakti in terms of enhancement in technological capabilities signifies a giant leap forward opening doors to newer possibilities.
Politically speaking, the bargaining power of a nation in any negotiation is directly proportional to that nation's relative strength. That the rules of the games played by nations in the international arena in an era of globalisation and interdependence are decided by the strong ones has been amply demonstrated during recent times. Our country had to suffer on nearly every such occasion, be it the creation of Missiles Technology Control Regime - MTCR or the formation of Nuclear Suppliers Group - NSG or the power of wielding a veto power in the UN Security Council. An A-SAT capability provides a giant boost to a nation's diplomatic and political strengths.
Is the A-SAT capability an effective deterrence?
Deterrence, in simplest terms, is a projection to the adversary the unaffordability of price of its aggression. Deterrence works only when a nation is able to project its determination to use the available tool in moments of need! A-SAT capability, akin to nuclear weapons, is an extraordinarily powerful tool of credible deterrence. Effectiveness emanates from the hand holding the umbrella, ie., the political leadership.
Is A-SAT operationally ready?
Technologically - Yes. Operationally - Let adversaries keep guessing. More the ambiguity about the real status, the magnitude of preparedness and the extent of deployment, greater is the deterrence value.
Is 'Hit-to-kill' the only way?
Currently, A-SAT with direct hit-to-kill is the only mature system. Other technologies being pursued have inherent limitations and technological challenges that are yet to be overcome. Nevertheless, DRDO must vigorously pursue and master such technologies as each alternative will have its own merits and limitations.
One such option is taking over the controls of adversary's space assets or making them temporarily non-functional through a cyber attack. Directed energy weapons based on high energy lasers or microwaves, with systems located on the ground, in space or on the Moon and strategically positioning killer satellites in space.
Peace demands price that only strong ones can afford. India has always been a peace-loving nation believing in good for all. This idea was pursued at the expense of military power. We paid a heavy price for neglecting our security and for allowing our decision makers to continue taking wrong decisions. Which history we wish to repeat in future: the glorious one or the dark one, will depend on whether we as a nation choose to be strong.
Author is ex-scientist DRDO