The timing of the A-SAT missile test is reflective of New Delhi’s desire to not allow a repeat of the NPT experience

by Saurav Jha

The Defence Research and Development Organisation’s (DRDO’s) ‘Mission Shakti’ anti-satellite (A-SAT) missile test, which was announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi Wednesday, puts to rest all speculation with respect to whether India can kinetically destroy a satellite in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) or not.

While DRDO had long maintained that it had the technology in place to demonstrate such a capability, Western observers had remained sceptical. ‘Mission Shakti’, however, removes any ambiguity about India’s counter-space capabilities and buttresses India’s case for a seat at the negotiating ‘high table’ for any future space weapons’ equivalent of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT).

The contours of such a ‘Space NPT’ are currently being discussed by the likes of the United States (US), Russia and China, all of whom have demonstrated ‘hard-kill’ A-SAT capability in the past. Indeed, the timing of the Indian test is reflective of New Delhi’s desire to not allow a repeat of the NPT experience where it found itself ‘outside the tent’ of recognised nuclear-weapon states (NWSs) simply because its first nuclear test had not been conducted before the arbitrary cut-off date of 1 January 1967.

Only those countries that had tested before 1967 were admitted into the NPT as NWSs. As the press release (in the form of a ‘frequently asked questions’ summary) put out by India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) on the sidelines of Mission Shakti delineates: ‘India expects to play a role in the future in the drafting of international law on prevention of an arms race in outer space including inter alia on the prevention of the placement of weapons in outer space in its capacity as a major space faring nation with proven space technology.’

In this case, the ‘proven space technology’ bit refers to the ability to intercept satellites in orbit. While addressing the timing of the test, the MEA had this to say: ‘The tests were done after we had acquired the required degree of confidence to ensure its success, and reflects the intention of the government to enhance India’s national security. India has seen an accelerated space development programme since 2014.’

To be sure, the building blocks for ‘Mission Shakti’ have been in place for a while now. As early as 2012, then-DRDO chairman V.K. Saraswat had proposed an A-SAT test using technology derived from various facets of India’s missile programme. Elements drawn from India’s ballistic missile defence (BMD) programme and its long-range ballistic missile programme would have been specifically used to develop an A-SAT interceptor. However, the government of the day was not too keen at that point.

Be that as it may, the interceptor used in ‘Mission Shakti’ is an amalgam of technology developed for DRDO’s BMD and submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) projects. Called the PDV MK-II, this interceptor has a kinetic kill vehicle (KKV) nestled in a heat-shield sitting atop two solid-propellant rocket booster stages.

The first stage (and primary) booster of the PDV MK-II is the same as the first stage booster used in the K-4 SLBM, which will arm the INS Arihant and its successors. The second stage booster is derived from the small second stage booster used in the PDV exo-atmospheric interceptor developed as part of the BMD programme. The KKV used is also the same as the one found on the PDV, and that is why the A-SAT missile used for ‘Mission Shakti’ is called the PDV MK-II. The PDV MK-II is basically a successor to the PDV and is a BMD interceptor, whose development was sanctioned a couple of years ago.

The ‘Mission Shakti’ test involved the interception of a lapsed Indian satellite in LEO, which was orbiting at a speed of around 7 km/sec at an altitude of 300 km. The KKV itself moved at a speed of up to 3 km/sec, which means that both objects closed in at a speed of around 10 km/sec.

This successful test was yet another validation of the imaging infrared seeker (IIR) used by the KKV to home in on the satellite. This ‘strap down’ IIR seeker developed by DRDO uses a 128 x 128 focal plane array and had proved its capability during a successful ‘hit to kill’ PDV test in 2017 when an ‘incoming’ warhead was kinetically intercepted at an altitude of 97 km.

This A-SAT mission also reflects the maturity of the divert and attitude control system (DACS) used by the KKV, which is fuelled by hypergolic propellants, with high thruster valves, which can precisely control the flow of the propellant to the rocket engines used for KKV steering. That steering is precisely what allows the KKV to ‘get in the way’ of a target travelling through space.

Naturally, DRDO’s overall BMD architecture, which includes different kinds of tracking and fire control radars, as well as the necessary communication infrastructure, has been found to be robust enough to accomplish an A-SAT mission. Altogether, DRDO seems confident that it can intercept satellites in a variety of orbits that may be considerably higher than 300 km.

As VK Saraswat puts it, “India has the capability and confidence to target satellites in various orbits that may be moving at a variety of speeds.” Of course, the ability to attack satellites in High Earth Orbit (HEO) will require a different approach, but that is a story for another day.