With A-SAT test, India takes leap in space defence: Mission Shakti can nullify Chinese cyber attacks at time of war

A-SAT strikes can nullify the usual space-based cyber attacks which, according to Chinese strategists, constitute the first stage of 'comprehensive war'

Bharat Karnad March 27, 2019 17:20:08 IST
With A-SAT test, India takes leap in space defence: Mission Shakti can nullify Chinese cyber attacks at time of war
  • The anti-satellite project (Mission Shakti) is a crucial but the second step in India's plan to upgrade its capability in the real of space warfare

  • The first step — still incomplete — is a plan that will eventually obtain for India a constellation of 13-15 LEO and high earth orbit (HEO) satellites

  • Part of this plan is to launch India's own global positioning system to remove dependency on US GPS or Russian GLONASS

  • India's dependence on foreign GPS has proven costly in the past, including the failure of the second test of the Agni missile in the early 1990s

  • A-SAT strikes can nullify the usual space-based cyber attacks which, according to Chinese strategists, constitute the first stage of 'comprehensive war'

The successful culmination of the programme to test-prove India’s anti-satellite weapon capability — Mission Shakti — was announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday. He informed the nation of a "live" low earth orbit (LEO) satellite being blown in the space with a direct hit. It vaults the country into an exclusive club of now four countries boasting of such wherewithal.

This is the second but still infant step taken by India in the realm of space warfare. The first step, though still incomplete — in a plan that will eventually obtain for India a constellation of 13-15 LEO and high earth orbit (HEO) satellites, to cover the Indian landmass and the extended region bounded by the Indian Ocean, the Caspian Sea, the Central Asian Republics, Southeast Asia and China — is to provide India with its very own Global Positioning System (GPS). This will be a major capability upgrade for the country in the space warfare realm.

With ASAT test India takes leap in space defence Mission Shakti can nullify Chinese cyber attacks at time of war

Representational image. Wikimedia Commons

An Indian GPS will preclude India's dependence on the American GPS or Russian GLONASS (Global Navigation Satellite System) which has cost the country plenty in the past and can prove disastrous in a future war. It may be recalled that the second test of the Agni missile in the early 1990s failed. What is not widely known is that it did so, in the main, because the US GPS it was relying on “blinked” at a crucial moment just when the missile was pulling a critical manoeuvre. It provided a lesson the Indian government seems unwilling to learn that to rely on the US or any other big power for critical technical assistance is to be foolhardy.

In any case, it spurred the Indian government to do the right thing: launch a bunch of satellites to secure the country its own GPS pivotal for minute or major course correction in order to guide missiles accurately to distant targets.

The anti-satellite weapon is, in some ways, the flip side of GPS. If the latter denotes civilian-cum-military utility, an A-SAT weapon represents a purely offensive military capability. It can take out the adversary state’s GPS and disrupt their internal communications traffic, the working of the financial market and, otherwise, centrally hurt their economy — and all this by simply destroying the enemy’s satellites and their various sensors and their role as telecommunications nodes.

Further, A-SAT strikes can nullify the usual space-based cyber attacks which, according to Chinese strategists, constitute the first stage of “comprehensive war”.

The LEO satellite that was successfully targeted is one of the earliest sent up and was nearing the end of its useful life. The LEO satellites India has launched have been built in technical collaboration with the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) specialising in the Ofeq (Hebrew for horizon) satellites, small-sized platforms with onboard sensors capable of high-resolution imagery. LEO satellites are particularly useful in "seeing" and mapping the enemy’s side of the battlefield – its major force dispositions, etc, and can be the principal source of tactical information in war or peacetime. The significance of the Indian A-SAT hitting an LEO satellite is precisely to signal China that the PLA forces can be blinded because Chinese LEO satellites can now be preemptively destroyed.

The Indian A-SAT is derived from the country’s anti-ballistic missile defence system featuring Prithvi missiles that are supposed to shoot down incoming missiles with two-shot probability — the first shot fired in the exo-atmospheric regime which if it fails triggers the second shot in the endo-atmospheric milieu. But, ballistic missile defence is workable as a concept but not in real life, because too many BMDs will be needed to bring down even a few enemy missiles. A-SAT, on the other hand, is a handy means of keeping a leash on the Chinese over-the-horizon military capabilities.

This brings the game around a whole circle because India's A-SAT development was prioritised after China first demonstrated its capacity to destroy satellites and space-based platforms with a kinetic-kill vehicle in 2007.

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