Riding on the success of DRDO’s first ever successful anti-satellite (A-SAT) missile test, dubbed as Mission Shakti, India becomes the fourth country in the world to achieve such a modern and specialised feat. This puts India it in an ultra-elite group of ‘space superpowers’, consisting of the US, China and Russia.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a televised mid-day address, informed the nation that India had shot down a low-orbiting satellite (LOS) in a demonstration of its growing power in space on Wednesday.
With this, India has acquired the capability of the world-class Anti-Satellite Missile System (ASMS), which can shoot down enemy satellites. The satellite, reportedly a decommissioned Microsat R, was in orbit at 300 km.
Lauding the completely indigenous effort that had pulled this off, he commended the scientists who have given the world’s its fourth anti-missile weapon maker, while equipping India to “smash those forces which threaten our peace and harmony.”
A step for DRDO, a giant leap for Centre?
Critics, however, questioned why the PM went to such dramatic lengths of taking the nation by surprise with a national address, when a press release issued by the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) would have sufficed. Or even just an email.
“A while ago our scientists shot down a live satellite at a low-earth orbit. I congratulate all scientists who have made this possible and made India a much stronger nation,” Modi said after a 45-minute wait in a rare televised address to the nation, weeks before the national elections are scheduled to be held in April and May.
Responding to complaints over the politicisation of this achievement by both parties, sources in the Election Commission said that issues related to national security and disaster management do not fall under the ambit of the model code of conduct. However, the timing of the mission and the questionable urgency of a public address (last time Modi did so was to announce demonetisation) is suspect, while the hijacking of all credit and superfluous display of military resolve play right into BJP’s strongman narrative before the polls.
Credit where it’s due
“This is a big moment for India. Something that all of us should be proud of. We are not just capable to defend on land, water and air, but now also in space,” Modi said in his address, while assuring everyone that the test does not breach any international law or treaties.
It became steadily apparent that Modi wanted to present the ruling government as the one making India secure on all fronts, with such futuristic projects. National security, according to a Pew survey, has polled as one of the top priorities for voters.
Nonetheless, the credit for Mission Shakti must lie entirely with the scientists at DRDO and ISRO, who have been working on the programme for years. Neither BJP nor Congress should take the credit, claimed advocate Prashant Bhushan.
Several Opposition leaders including Trinamool’s Mamata Banerjee, however, questioned the point the Centre was trying to illustrate by destroying one defunct satellite. “Only one satellite was destroyed, that wasn’t necessary, it was lying there since long,” she said.
The timing of political will behind Mission Shakti
Congress leaders didn’t miss a beat in pointing out that both the DRDO and ISRO were set up by India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, resulting in heavy trolling over social media. The party’s claims that the A-SAT programme was initiated by the erstwhile Manmohan Singh-led UPA government were also vanquished after former DRDO chief VK Saraswat appeared in a television interview, claiming that UPA hadn’t greenlit the testing in 2012.
“Every experiment in science and technology has two parts. One part is simulation, which was done and carried out in 2012 and based on that I had said that we have the capability,” he told Times Now referring to the proposal UPA allegedly sat on. It was the subsequent government which had the courage to see this through, Saraswat claimed, thanking Modi’s vision and tenacity.
Former ISRO chairman G Madhavan Nair‘s response, however, rings most coherently. Saying India had anti-satellite missile capability as far back as 2007, Madhavan said there was no political will at the time to demonstrate it. This confirms that when China shot down an ageing weather satellite by launching a missile a decade back, India too had the technology to undertake a similar mission.
The problem of unwanted space debris due to lack of innovation?
This is significant in the context of a News18 report, which criticises the DRDO’s programme that follows in the dubious footsteps of the US, China, and Russia for a mission that creates more space debris and adds hidden costs.
The European Space Agency said that, as of January 2018, there are about 29,000 objects larger than 10 centimeters, around 750,000 objects that range between 1 cm to 10 cm, and about 166 million objects between 1 mm to 1 cm in size. In fact, China’s test was followed by global condemnation for adding more than 3,000 pieces to this debris stock.
If the debris happens to collide, a domino effect would generate an exponentially bigger number of collisions. Furthermore, these pieces orbit the planet at a speed of more than 8 km/s and could cause more satellites to go down in a phenomenon known as the Kessler Syndrome, essentially meaning no more Google Maps.
International response to the ‘militarisation of space’
As India joins an exclusive group of space-faring nations, Pakistan and China have already issued caution and reacted guardedly to this development.
China, which conducted its first such test in January 2007 and destroyed a defunct satellite with an anti-satellite missile, responded to a question from PTI on India’s successful test-firing.
The Chinese foreign ministry, in a written response, said, “We have noticed reports and hope that each country will uphold peace and tranquillity in outer space”.
Pakistan issued a call against military threats in outer space, hours after Modi’s address. Urging no militarisation of space, Pakistan’s foreign ministry issued a statement saying, “Space is the common heritage of mankind and every nation has the responsibility to avoid actions which can lead to the militarisation of this arena.”
Without referring to India by name, Pakistan also called for all nations which condemned demonstration of similar capabilities in the past, to develop international instruments aimed at preventing such military threats.
Charity Weeden, president and co-founder of space consulting firm, Lquinox, echoed these sentiments, telling Verge: “What I’m concerned about is the normalisation. Well the Chinese did it; well the Russians did it; now the Indians did it. Who’s next?”
In New Delhi, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said in a statement that India has no intention of entering into an arms race in outer space. “We are against the weaponisation of Outer Space and support international efforts to reinforce the safety and security of space based assets,” the MEA said. Howver, the possible impact of the PM’s dramatic feat on the upcoming polls and the far-flung effect on global space defence can only be conjectured at this point.
Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius
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