by Manoj Joshi

There is one thing you have to hand to Prime Minister Narendra Modi: His vast marketing skills. They were evident this week when he took a routine, if significant, step in India’s strategic program, and inserted it into the campaign for the general election that is just weeks away.

Naturally, he did not say that he was doing so, and even now the Election Commission is probably tying itself into knots to see how to play this one. The promotional skill was evident in the naming of the event as “Mission Shakti”, an attempt to conflate the importance of India’s first anti-satellite (A-Sat) test with the far more consequential and game-changing nuclear tests of 1998 which were code-named “Operation Shakti”.

A PM taking credit for an achievement during his tenure is not unusual, neither is the use of a national security event to seek a boost in the polls. But there are some other troubling issues that need to be considered as well. The test where a missile destroyed a satellite in low-earth orbit (LEO) was essentially a technology demonstration exercise, akin to the test of the Agni technology demonstrator in 1989, or that of the first Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) test in 2006. Neither of them saw an over-the-top prime ministerial response. Instead of deterring the adversary, you end up alarming them, well before your own system has matured. Given the as yet limited range of the Indian radar and the capability of its hit-to-kill missile, we have some way to go before we can claim to have an effective A-Sat system. The Indian way of broadcasting capabilities yet to be fully developed varies sharply with the Chinese who hide theirs for as long as they can.

On the other hand China has not only demonstrated in 2007 that it can knock out a satellite as India has done, it has also established several other technologies to “kill” satellites. Among these are satellites that come close to “inspect”, refuel and repair other satellites. This ability means they can also harm them and so they are seen as A-Sat systems. China is also quite advanced in the area of directed energy weapons like high powered microwaves, radio frequency weapons and ground based lasers to dazzle optical satellites and fry the electronics of the others. They carried out a successful experiment in blinding one of their own at an orbit of 600 km as far back as 2005. Americans suspect that a 2013 test of a sounding rocket going up 30,000 km was, in fact, related to threatening GPS and communications satellites which are in medium and high earth orbits. It’s one thing to knock out a satellite in LEO, but destroying or disabling those in the geostationary orbit 36,000 km away is different by orders of magnitude.

Technology demonstration has its value. It is often the sensible means of warning off adversaries, without needlessly destabilising the environment. Also, it is much cheaper. The problem is that it doesn’t work when the adversary to be deterred is a neurotic neighbour called Pakistan. As for China, it will be some time before it actually feels threatened by an Indian A-Sat capability. Far from deterring, India’s civil nuclear programme in the 1950s and 1960s encouraged Pakistan to initiate its military nuclear programme well before the Indian nuclear test of 1974. Likewise, following India’s technology demonstration of the Agni in 1989, Pakistan got M-11 missiles from China in 1991, along with a factory to manufacture the M-9, which were ready to use well before India had a ready to deploy missile. And when India tested nuclear weapons in 1998, Pakistan responded within weeks with its already pre-tested Chinese bomb.

So don’t be surprised if India’s A-Sat technology demonstration is followed by one in Pakistan. The technologies to destroy LEO satellites are not all that complicated, especially since Pakistan’s “iron brother” China has all of them. It has a tested SC-19 missile which is both a BMD system and a satellite killer. The resulting situation will not be particularly comfortable for India which has, according to one count, 94 satellites in orbit today, as compared to just six for Pakistan.