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An Overview of India’s Counterspace Strategy and ASAT Tests

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
April 24, 2020
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Global Counterspace Capabilities:
An Open Source Assessment

Secure World Foundation
April 2020

Full Report

The following excerpts from the report summarize India”s growing counterspace programs and its anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons tests in 2019.

Country Summary

India has over five decades of experience with space capabilities, but most of that has been civil in focus. It is only in the past several years that India has started organizationally making way for its military to become active users and creating explicit military space capabilities.

India’s military has developed indigenous missile defense and long-range ballistic missile programs that could lead to direct ascent ASAT capabilities, should the need arise. India demonstrated that ASAT capability in March 2019 when it destroyed one of its own satellites.

While India continues to insist that it is against the weaponization of space, it is possible that India is moving toward an offensive counterspace posture and unclear whether they will stop just at having proved an ASAT capability.

Anti-Satellite Tests

On March 27, 2019, the Indian Prime Minister announced that they had successfully conducted Mission Shakti, where an interceptor launched from the Kalam Island launch complex successfully intercepted one of India’s satellites at an altitude of about 300 km.

The missile used was from India’s indigenously developed missile defense system, a PDV MK-II, and that the satellite target was Microsat-R, which was a medium-sized (740 kg) Indian military imaging satellite launched into a low Sun-synchronous orbit in January 2019, just a few weeks before the test.

In a fact sheet released about the ASAT test, the Indian government explained, “The test was done to verify that India has the capability to safeguard our space assets. It is the Government of India’s responsibility to defend the country’s interests in outer space,” but went on to say, “We are against the weaponization of Outer Space and support international efforts to reinforce the safety and security of space-based assets.”

Shortly after the test, anonymous U.S. government sources stated that they had detected an earlier failed ASAT test in February 2019 where the PDV failed thirty second into flight. The Indian government had issued a NOTAM just before this flight and the time of the launch correlated with an overflight of Microsat-R, another indication that it was launched into orbit to be a target for an ASAT test.

Indian officials downplayed concerns about large amounts of debris being created by this test, stating that the test was at a low enough altitude that most of the debris would reenter in a few days, with the entirety of it coming back down within 45 days at most.

Microsat-R was similar in mass to the FY-1C satellite destroyed by China in January 2007, which resulted in more than 3,000 pieces of orbital debris larger than 10 cm (See Chinese Direct-Ascent ASAT; section 1.2). However, Microsat-R was at a much lower altitude when destroyed, 300 km versus 800 km for the FY-1C, meaning orbital debris generated will have a shorter lifespan.

The U.S. 18th Space Control Squadron (which is charged with tracking orbital debris) tracked roughly 125 pieces of debris from this test; as of February 2020, there were still 10 pieces being tracked, and at least some pieces had been thrown to an altitude of 1000 km due to collision dynamics, as happened with the February 2008 intercept of USA 193 by the United States (See U.S. Direct-Ascent ASAT; section 3.2).

A prime motivation for the test was likely to ensure India would be grandfathered into any future ban on DA-ASAT testing. Indian officials are still upset that India was left out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-nuclear weapon state and believe, probably rightfully so, that if they had tested a nuclear weapon prior to the treaty’s 1968 inception (as opposed to when they did test it, in 1974), they would have been grandfathered in to be a nuclear weapons state, and have taken that lesson to heart.

Successfully demonstrating their own DA-ASAT capability might have been a political prerequisite for India to support discussions on a future ban.

New Space Defense Organizations

In April 2019, India started a Defence Space Agency (DSA) that would coordinate the space assets of the three branches of the Indian armed forces and work on space protection policies for Indian space assets. It will eventually have 200 personnel assigned to it and will incorporate the Defence Satellite Control Centre and the Defence Imagery Processing and Analysis Centre.

It was followed by the establishment in June 2019 of the Defence Space Research Organisation, which would conduct research and provide technical support to the DSA. With these new organizations, it is possible that India is shifting to a more offensive approach to its counterspace capabilities, but it is too soon to be certain.

The fact that India reportedly held a tabletop exercise (IndSpaceEx) to game out space warfare possibilities and identify gaps/weaknesses in its space security in July 2019 does indicate a willingness to at least theoretically consider using these capabilities.

Statements by G Satheesh Reddy, head of DRDO, in April 2019 that “We are working on a number of technologies like DEWs, lasers, electromagnetic pulse (EMP) and coorbital weapons etc. I can’t divulge the details, but we are taking them forward,” do lend credence to the idea that India is considering many different options.