Image Courtesy: NekkeiReview        
by Asim Yousafzai

Prime Minister Narendra Modi proudly announced on 27 March that India had successfully tested a ground-based anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon against its own satellite in low earth orbit. India has now joined an elite group of nations – the United States, Russia and China – who have acquired the capability to destroy their own satellites using A-SAT projectiles.

“Shakti was a highly complex mission, conducted at extremely high speed with remarkable precision. It shows the remarkable dexterity of India’s outstanding scientists and the success of our space program,” wrote Mr Modi in a tweet. Patrick Shanahan, Acting US Defence Secretary, condemned the test, and stressed the need to develop a Space Force. Pakistan played down the importance of the test by calling it “Don Quixote’s tilting at windmills” – a reference to attacking imaginary enemies.

A-SAT Test Establishes India’s Superiority Over Pakistan & Competition to China

While officially it was not directed against any country, Wednesday’s A-SAT test will likely heighten concerns about space security and orbital debris. Since the test was conducted at a height of 168 miles (270 km), most of the debris will likely burn up in earth's atmosphere over the next three weeks, and a small portion may stay up for about a year.

Having A-SAT capabilities will allow India to better defend its satellites and deter harmful actions against space systems. The timing of the A-SAT test can be questioned, however, its motives are unambiguous; India is located next to China and Pakistan.

The Indian missile program is managed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), while the civilian space program, including the space launchers, comes under the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

Pakistan Is Still A Space ‘Pygmy’

The Indian missile arsenal is currently equipped with short, medium, and intermediate ballistic missiles (SRBMs, MRBMs, IRBMs) and cruise missiles, while work on intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) – Agni-5 with a range of 8,000 km – is currently underway. India has also diversified its launch capabilities beyond mobile land-based systems. Subsequently, India is developing ship and sub-launched ballistic missiles, and has collaborated with Russia on long-range cruise missile development.

By contrast, Pakistan’s space ambitions are still nascent; it has thus far failed to develop either a significant scientific or commercial space program. Compared to India and China, Pakistan is a pygmy when it comes to space exploration.

While Pakistan is a net user of satellite information, it produces little of its own and has only one satellite in geostationary orbit as opposed to the six Indian satellites. Resource-crunch and lack of direction has stunted Pakistan’s space program, and its motives seem to remain largely defence-oriented.

Pakistan’s rapidly evolving missile arsenal – solely managed by the military – consists primarily of mobile short and medium-range ballistic missiles. However, it is also making significant strides in its cruise missile capability. MRBMs Shaheen-2 (2000km range) and Ghauri (1,500 km) are operational while MRBMs Shaheen-3 (2750 km), Ababeel (2200km) and Cruise Missile Ra’ad 350km) are in development stages.

Pakistan Piggy-Backing On China: Low Possibility of Space Arms Race in South Asia

Pakistan’s combined strategic forces can potentially target almost any point in India. It is now working on the more advanced technology of Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicles (MIRV) to complicate developing Indian missile defence efforts. China has provided Pakistan with substantial technical assistance on its nuclear and missile programs, and evidence also strongly suggests close cooperation with both North Korea and Iran.

Pakistan has been entirely piggy-backing on China to develop its space program, hence, the prospects of a space arms race look negligible in the South Asian theater. The real space race in South Asia is currently underway between India and China. India’s A-SAT test was primarily an anti-China measure but this doesn’t stop Pakistan from imagining it as an anti-Pakistan measure. 

China placed 22 satellites in orbit last year alone, and has exhaustive plans for 2019 and beyond. In this regard, China overshadows India’s space capabilities by a long shot. India is working on an ambitious lunar human spaceflight mission for 2022. Chandrayaan-1 orbited the moon, and sent noteworthy data back to earth in 2018. Additionally, Chandrayaan-2 is being designed to land payload on Moon in near future.

New Delhi May No Longer Stick To ‘Minimum Deterrence Doctrine’

China and Pakistan are two primary sources of threat to India's space assets. The threat from Pakistan may come in different shapes, vectors and intensities. India's ground infrastructure faces a threat from Pakistan’s non-state actors; Lashkar-e-Taiba – or any other proxy – could attack India's space infrastructure on the ground, and may even target key Indian space personnel.

The 26/11 Mumbai, and 14 February 2019 Pulwama attacks are precursors to such an ‘attack-mindset’. Pakistan could probably modify one its own ballistic missiles into a direct-ascent A-SAT capability, and may acquire sophisticated laser and jamming equipment from China.

India has been working on A-SAT technology since 2007, and, therefore, it will be a Herculean task for Pakistan to play catch-up in a short amount of time.