Prime Minister Narendra Modi said India has successfully conducted an anti-satellite missile test that put the country in a league of global “space powers.”
In a national address Wednesday, Modi said India had achieved a “historic feat” by shooting down its own low-orbit satellite with a ground-to-space missile in three minutes.
Only three other countries – the US, Russia and China – have the capabilities to use an anti-satellite missile.
Lt. Gen. David D. Thompson, vice commander of US Air Force Space Command, confirmed the test took place and said the US was aware of the possibility that India would conduct it because of several announced flight bans and other information.
US forces were still tracking 270 different objects in the debris field from the test, but he said the number is set to grow as they collect more data. Thompson said the International Space Station was not at risk.
India’s space program has grown substantially over the past decade. In 2014, the nation put a satellite into orbit around Mars and the Indian Space Research Organization has announced that it will send a manned mission into space in the next three years.
Modi said the operation, called Mission Shakti – which stands for “power” in Hindi – would defend the country’s interests in space. The Foreign Ministry said that India had “no intention of entering into an arms race in outer space.”
Concerns over militarization of space
Anti-satellite weapons, called ASAT, such as the missile India tested are capable of attacking enemy satellites by jamming communications or destroying them. The weaponry could also provide a technological base for ballistic missile defense capabilities.
Though Modi said Wednesday’s test was for India’s defense and security, it is likely to be seen as provocative by Pakistan and China and raise concerns about the militarization of space.
“It is an anti-China measure,” said Bharat Karnad, security expert with Indian think tank the Centre of Policy Research. “This means that it provided the country with the capability to shoot any Chinese satellite.”
There have been repeated warnings against China’s growing space military capabilities.
“Given the relevance of satellites and the issue of China in the region, India needed to demonstrate that it has the ability too. Warfare is predicated increasingly on satellites and the use of satellites,” said Uday Bhaskar, director of Indian think tank Society of Policy Studies.
A report released last year by the Pentagon detailed that Russia and China are developing capabilities including “laser weapons to disrupt, degrade, or damage satellites and their sensors.”
The growth of China’s space capabilities and the need to help safeguard US satellites have been cited by the Trump administration as a reason why the US needs a space force.
India is heading to national elections over the next two months and Modi’s announcement is being seen by critics as an attempt to expound his “strong on defense” persona.
“He wants to be seen as a person who has great resolve when it comes to national security. It is very routine that a military success is packaged as a political benefit,” said Bhaskar.
Tensions between India and Pakistan recently escalated to the brink of war over the disputed Kashmir region with the two sides engaging in an aerial dogfight. Pakistan has several satellites in orbit including a remote sensing satellite that was launched in 2018 with the help of China.
A spokesperson for Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that India’s “boasting of such capabilities is reminiscent of Don Quixote’s tilting against windmills,” meaning to fight imaginary enemies.
“Space is the common heritage of mankind and every nation has the responsibility to avoid actions which can lead to the militarization of this arena,” the statement said.
Indian opposition leaders meanwhile dismissed the announcement as a publicity stunt.
Akhilesh Yadav, former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and one of Modi’s severest critics, said Modi’s announcement “got himself an hour of free TV” to “divert nation’s attention away from issues on ground.”
The test comes two weeks before polling begins in general elections and Modi is seeking a second term in power after a landslide win in 2014.
But there has been rising discontent over jobs and falling wages for farmers and the rural poor.