The successful test of the Anti-Satellite (A-SAT) Missile this week is a big boost to India’s ballistic missile defence programme, which was launched in 1999 in the wake of Pakistan’s maiden nuclear test in 1998 and China’s leaps in this sphere.

With ‘Mission Shakti’, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), India’s state-run research and development organisation for defence, has churned out a missile that can take out targets in extended ranges of the Exo-atmosphere, the space stretching beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.

There is no one definition for the Exo-atmosphere, but it is believed to begin at an altitude of 80-100 km beyond sea level.

The A-SAT missile fired Wednesday took down an Indian satellite 300 km into space, in what is known as the Low Earth Orbit (LEO), the zone within 2,000 km of the Earth’s surface.

“There is no doubt that this test is a big win for the Indian ballistic missile defence (BMD) project. This is a new missile with a much larger range,” former DRDO chief Avinash Chander told ThePrint.

India’s latest leap with the A-SAT is especially significant because inter-continental ballistic missiles like China’s Dong Feng series travel through space before re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere to hit the target.

“BMD works on two levels, Endo-atmospheric (within Earth’s atmosphere) and exo-atmospheric… This new missile has taken out a satellite moving in space at a speed of roughly 10 km a minute, at a much higher altitude than ever tested before,” Chander added.

Two-Tier Strategy

According to the FAQ released by the Ministry of External Affairs soon after PM Narendra Modi’s address on the A-SAT, the mission was carried out with a DRDO “ballistic missile defence interceptor… which is part of the ongoing ballistic missile defence programme”.

As explained by Chander, India’s ballistic missile defence program is supposed to be two-tiered, meant to equip the country to destroy an incoming missile in both the exo-atmosphere and endo-atmosphere.

India’s BMD arsenal consists of a Prithvi Air Defence (PAD) missile to take out incoming missiles at a range of about 80 km in altitude and an Advanced Air Defence (AAD) missile for altitudes of 15-25 km.

In 2017, India had tested a new Exo-atmospheric interceptor missile named the Prithvi Defence Vehicle (PDV), which reportedly intercepted a missile at an altitude of 100 km during trials.

The first missile test for a BMD system was conducted in November 2006, when a Prithvi-II missile was successfully intercepted by the PAD in the endo-atmosphere at an altitude of about 48 km.

‘Testimony To India’s Advances’

Speaking to ThePrint, Lt Gen Satish Dua (Retd), the former chief of Integrated Defence Staff, said the A-SAT was “testimony to the technological advancement made by India”.

“This has a much longer range (than earlier missiles). The satellite was at 300 km,” added Lt Gen. Dua, who witnessed the the 2017 PDV test.

Defence expert Sushant Sareen, a senior fellow at the think-tank Observer Research Foundation, stated that the A-SAT was a major advance but threw in a word of caution, saying India, like others, was a long way from having a very credible anti-ballistic-missile shield.

“No doubt that the A-SAT gives a fillip to our BMD program, but we are a long way from having a system that we or any other country can vouch that not a single missile will get through,” he added. “It is an ongoing process.”

Sareen said the nature of technology was such that even as one side develops something, the other is already working to counter it. “It is a cat and mouse game.”

This January, Pakistan test-fired a nuclear-capable, close-range ballistic missile, NASR, which it claimed was “capable of defeating, by assured penetration, any currently available BMD (ballistic missile defence) system in our neighbourhood or any other system under procurement/development”.

Sources in the DRDO, however, said the A-SAT missile was created especially for targeting satellites, adding that there is a big difference in taking out a satellite whose trajectory can be calculated and an incoming ballistic missile.

While PAD is a two-stage anti-ballistic missile, the interceptor missile used as A-SAT was a three-stage missile with two solid rocket boosters.

“More refinement of the systems is needed for it to be hugely capable of taking out a ballistic missile outside the atmosphere at such high altitudes,” one of the DRDO sources said.