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Lecture-discussion on “Demonstrated ASAT capability of India and Regional Implications”

Image for representational purpose only. Image courtesy: ISRO/ Financial Express

C3S Event Report No: 009/2019

The Chennai Center for China Studies (C3S) and National Maritime Foundation – Tamil Nadu (NMF – TN) organized a Lecture-discussion on “Demonstrated ASAT capability of India and Regional Implications”, led by Mr. Rajaram Muthukrishnan, Investor and Director, Voice Snap, Chennai; Member, C3S, and moderated by Mr. L.V Krishnan, Former Director of Safety Research Group, Indira Gandhi Center for Atomic Research, Kalpakkam; Member, C3S. The event was held on April 8 2019 at C3S.

Mr. L.V. Krishnan detailed the significance of Anti-Satellite (ASAT) capabilities that countries can develop with a Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) capacity. India’s ASAT program being in the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) stage, it demonstrated capability for geostationary satellites as well. It was stated that India has a long way to go, given that China conducted an ASAT test in 2007, which targeted an object at an altitude of 900km. The design of the satellite and the issue of space debris were discussed.

Mr. Rajaram Muthukrishnan covered a broad range of issues that provided a comprehensive outline of India’s ASAT program. The presentation assessed the ramifications of this ASAT test and analyzed it from a multidisciplinary perspective. Clarity was sought on the difference between capabilities and capacities regarding ASAT technology.

An introduction was given on Olaf Caroe’s ‘Theatres of Power’. With the emergence of technology, two new power circles have emerged- Space and Antarctica. Great powers will look to assert themselves in these new domains and India needs to do so as well. The technology applied by India has demonstrated its ASAT capabilities. Developing ASAT capabilities has implications for strategic choices such as the No First-Use Policy, therefore leading to the second-strike capability which requires satellites for missile delivery. India’s ability to wage protracted integrated warfare is further strengthened as a result of the ASAT test.

Speaking on the timing of the test, it was noted that the international negotiations on space power will be influenced by the significance of satellites as a critical component of a country’s space power. Certain parallels were drawn between the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and present-day space negotiations, suggesting that India should be in a position to shape the negotiations from within.

It was described how India’s ASAT launch was an exo-atmospheric one, involving the use of a ballistic missile with a booster and radar, which guides the missile until the booster is separated from the missile. In the final stage, the Hit-to-Kill (HTK) mode is activated and the heat seeker identifies the target and guides the HTK vehicle. Speaking on the level of indigenization achieved, Mr. Rajaram Muthukrishnan cited Mr.Sathish Reddy, Chairman of DRDO who said that Mission Shakti is of 90% indigenization.

It was stated that the accuracy of the HTK vehicle was better than that of China. The missile had a precision of 10 cm which is remarkable considering the mobility of the LEO satellite. Evidencing the fact that solid fuel was used instead of liquid fuel to control the rocket, the speaker maintained that the ASAT process achieved a high degree of technological sophistry. Additionally, the canister-based firing of the missile indicates that the weapon is operational as opposed to a prototype lab-based model. The speaker highlighted the aspect of industry support for the project which took about two years, and declared that, in one sense, Mission Shakti is as big as Operation Pokhran. Explaining the significance of various international agreements being negotiated today such as CTBT and PAROS, India will have a place among the Permanent Five while Russia and China are pushing to secure their positions as well.

Speaking briefly on the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address after the ASAT test, thew speaker said that it was a positive that no unilateral moratorium was announced on testing like after Operation Parakram. The PM had stated that Mission Shakti did not violate any international agreements. Moving on to the Chinese reaction to the ASAT test, Mr. Rajaram Muthukrishnan pointed out that the initial Chinese reaction was to urge all countries not to weaponize outer space. The Chinese policy has not made it an India-centric point and is consistent with India’s view. On the other hand, the official American view which came from Pentagon said that the space debris created by the test will be burned away. The unofficial view, which came from NASA was critical of the space debris generated by the test. The speaker viewed that the space debris would burn at that altitude and that NASA’s reaction was overblown.

Three major takeaways were given by the speaker:

1. The decision to test the ASAT technology was taken at the right time when international negotiations are going on. 2. From an operational point of view, India has attained the capability. 3. The power differential between India and China have been bridged. The ability to conduct integrated warfare by India is further enhanced.

The way forward for India’s ASAT program, according to the speaker, was to allow manned flights to space, build reusable launch vehicles to provide capability for a manned space mission and build a permanent manned space mission.

C3S Vice-President, Mr. M. R. Sivaraman was of the view that theatre conflicts are now obsolete due to highly destructive nature of bombs. The future is will see localized conflict. With the range of increase in the standard of living and information it is very difficult to wage huge wars and to build consensus among people to support such conflict. Therefore,weaponization of space should be rejected by India and space as a region should be kept free from power dynamics. Mr. L.V Krishnan responded that the nature of human thinking is always dicey and there is always the possibility that satellites will be used as weapons. Therefore, India needs to be prepared for worst case scenarios. He also raised the point of the allocating satellites in space and the ambiguity in who decides where in space a satellite can be placed. Mr. Rajaram explained that there are mechanisms and databases which monitor every satellite in space.

The event concluded with an interactive session.

(Compiled by Aravindhan V. and Rahul Reddy, Research Officers, C3S.)

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