mission shakti

The morning of 27th March witnessed a palpable buzz in India’s strategic community and think tanks. News trickled in that the Prime Minister would shortly be making an important announcement. The election dates to the Lok Sabha had already been announced and the model code of conduct was in place. So obviously, the announcement could not be a political one. Speculation was rife on what exactly the Prime Minister would say and all news channels were on edge. When the Prime Minister spoke, it was but for a few short minutes, and the statement was on Mission Shakti.

mission shakti

Mission Shakti: India’s ASAT Weapon Program

Mission Shakti is an ongoing anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon program of India. The anti-satellite test was conducted in the early morning hours of 27th March. The Defence Research and Development Organisation’s (DRDO) Ballistic Missile Defence interceptor was launched off the Odisha coast. It was aimed at an existing Indian satellite operating in low Earth orbit (LEO). Within three minutes of launch from the Dr A.P.J Abdul Kalam Island launch complex off the coast of Odisha, the missile hit its intended target, signalling success of the mission. This was a “kinetic kill,” with the missile directly hitting the target. It destroyed it with the force of the kinetic impact, much akin to a bullet hitting another bullet. This technology is only one of many with ASAT capabilities. The Chinese used the same technology when they successfully carried out their own ASAT test in 2007.

PM’s Announcement of Success

The Prime Minister announced the success of the mission in his short broadcast to the nation. He said, “Our scientists shot down a live satellite 300 kilometres away in space, in Low-Earth orbit. With this, India has made an unprecedented achievement today and registered its name as a space power”. The moment marked a major breakthrough in both space technology and the country’s military might. It was the first time that India has ever successfully tested such technology. After the United States, Russia and China, India became the fourth country in the world to have demonstrated this capability. Prime Minister Modi, declared India as an established space power with the success of Mission Shakti. He also congratulated scientists at the DRDO for this achievement. The country now rivalled achievements made earlier by only three countries.

Many in the media as also in the strategic community did not comprehend the import of such an achievement. Perhaps they were anticipating a more dramatic announcement, related to India’s strained relations with Pakistan. However, gradually the realisation set in that India was now in the big leagues, as far as space was concerned. India has already made a series of breakthroughs in its space programme. Making earth imaging satellites and launch capabilities as a cheaper alternative to western programmes, being a few of them.

To Mars, Moon, and Beyond

India has also sent a mission to Mars and to the moon; the country hopes to have a manned space mission by 2022. Why then was this test so important that a person of the stature of the Prime Minister of India had to announce its success to the world? The reasons are not hard to find. The ability to hit a satellite in space is not just a notable military achievement. It is also a major engineering and aerospace feat. More importantly, it gives India deterrence capability and puts the country in the select group of nations. These nations could be party to formulating laws regarding use of outer space, if so required, in future.

Here, it is important to consider how India got left out of being categorised as a nuclear power. When India exploded its first nuclear device on 13 May 1974 at Pokhran, Rajasthan, it perhaps had come a tad too late. Had India tested its nuclear capability in the mid-1960s, it would not have been left out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty’s (NPT) category of “nuclear-weapon state”.

Speaking on this issue, Mr Gulshan Luthra, the Editor of India Strategic, who was then in UNI, asked Mrs Gandhi her reasons for conducting the test. She gave two reasons –

  • To ensure that an aggressive China would not be allowed to hurt India;
  • If this was the requirement for getting the UN Security Council membership, so be it.

India’s attempt to gatecrash into the nuclear club, however, received a rebuff and India was placed under sanctions.

India’s Second Bid for Nuclear Club

More than two decades later, Prime Minister Vajpayee again made a bid to enter the nuclear club. It was through the Pokhran II tests of 13 May 1998, under the codename “Smiling Buddha”. Mr Vajpayee declared India a full-fledged nuclear state; a nuclear doctrine was soon promulgated envisaging self moratorium on further tests. The world community nonetheless came crashing down on India with sanctions, as before. While India weathered the storm, it took many years for the US and other nations to cooperate on the same.

India’s experience with the Non-Proliferation Treaty has demonstrated that it needed to be among the powers with the “proven capability” to be able to sit at the decision-making table. The consequences of a delayed nuclear test were that India remained out in the cold and was prevented from being declared as a nuclear-weapon state. This fact needs to be assimilated to fully comprehended and understand India’s compulsion in carrying out an ASAT test.

Before India successfully conducted an ASAT test, there were only three countries that had demonstrated this capability. These three could have come up with an international mechanism that would ban additional ASAT tests. That, however, would have been detrimental to India’s national interests. Now, with the success of Mission Shakti, India will be party to any future laws governing the use of space. That is why the ASAT test assumes great significance. In the event of an NPT for space coming into force and being made part of the world order, India will remain part of the group that cannot be banned from developing and demonstrating its ASAT capability.

Outer Space Treaty

The world, by and large, did not react negatively to India’s ASAT test. This simply indicates how far the country has progressed in this field. There were concerns in some quarters with respect to the space debris created by the test. However, they were pacified by the fact that the test was conducted in low earth orbit. Moreover, the debris is unlikely to exist for more than a couple of months or so. This is in sharp contrast to the ASAT test carried out by China in 2007. Although in LEO, the test was at 700 km and its space debris still exists.

As of now, most countries of the world abide by the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. This Treaty represents the basic legal framework of international space law. The Treaty prohibits the placement of weapons of mass destruction in the earth’s orbit, or in installing such weapons on the moon or any other celestial body or otherwise stationing them in outer space. It exclusively limits the use of the Moon and other celestial bodies to peaceful purposes and expressly prohibits their use for testing weapons of any kind, conducting military manoeuvres, or establishing military bases, installations, and fortifications (Article IV).

However, the treaty does not prohibit the placement of conventional weapons in orbit, which can in future lead to the weaponisation of space. The treaty explicitly forbids any government to claim a celestial resource such as the Moon or a planet. However, a state that launches a space object retains jurisdiction and control over that object.

Res Communis Doctrine

Since the coming into force of Outer Space Treaty, 1967, international laws regarding use of outer space by nations and individuals are revolving around ‘res communis’ doctrine, which means that space belongs to mankind and not to one individual or country. This doctrine was the product of those times and was noble in intent. But strides in technology, as well as the evolution of the socio-political and economic environment, have brought forth fresh challenges. It may, thus, necessitate a review of the Treaty. Today, the utilisation of space impacts on most aspects of our lives, especially in telecommunications, financial services, navigation, remote sensing and a host of other areas. All such activities depend upon space infrastructure, which makes it vital for nations to see that such assets remain protected.

Destruction of space assets have not just military implications but could also cripple the economies of the targeted countries. ASAT weapons pose the prime threat to space-based assets, which makes it vital to protect such assets. Deterrence is an effective tool to ensure such an outcome. With India’s successful ASAT test, it has acquired the capability to deter other nations from targeting Indian space assets. Since China’s ASAT test in January 2007, India has been concerned about the security of its space assets. India has made a huge investment in the outer space domain including in services and ground infrastructure. With the demonstration of its ASAT capability, protection of such assets is to some extent assured through deterrence.

It is important to consider whether there could be a change in the res communis doctrine, whereby nations could claim zones as national territory to protect them. Should such a contingency arise, India will be party to making laws, with a position to protect its interests.

After Mission Shakti, Came Chandrayaan

India has since long been mindful of its quest to be a leading power in world affairs. While the focus has been on economic development, there has also been a consistent effort in increasing its footprints in space. India’s lunar mission, Chandrayaan-1 reached the lunar orbit on 8 November 2008. It mapped its chemical, mineralogical and photo-geologic properties for over nine months. Orbiting at 100km away from its surface, the 675 kg spacecraft lost contact on 29 August 2009.

The Chandrayaan-2, India’s second mission to the Moon will take off in the current year. It is a totally indigenous mission comprising of an Orbiter, Lander and Rover. At the 100 km lunar orbit, the Lander housing the Rover will separate from the Orbiter. After a controlled descent, it will soft-land on the lunar surface and deploy the six-wheeled Rover. The Rover will then move around the landing site in semi-autonomous mode as decided by the ground commands. This will perform the objectives of –

  • Remote sensing the moon
  • Collecting scientific information on –
    • Lunar topography
    • Mineralogy
    • Elemental abundance
    • Lunar exosphere
    • Signatures of hydroxyl and water-ice

In 2013, the Mangalyaan Mission to Mars was successfully launched.

Gaganyaan Mission

The Indian government has also sanctioned the Gaganyaan Mission, which will take Indians to outer space. The first unmanned mission of Gaganyaan is set for December 2020 and the second for July 2021. The first Gaganyaan mission with astronauts on the other hand is for December 2021. For Gaganyaan, the launch vehicle and the crew capsule will be India-made. Till date, India has undertaken 103 spacecraft missions, the latest being the launch of the EMISAT on 1 April 2019, an electronic signals intelligence (ELINT) satellite. India’s achievements in space have thus been tremendous and have firmly established India as a premier space power.

There is no denying the fact that India has carved a niche for itself in space and missile technology. It has launched the largest number of satellites in one mission (104) and has also launched satellites for a group of countries for free, in the form of SAARC satellites. All this got a push by India’s desire to strengthen its national security and ensure that space remains a global commons. But the capability also has important military implications.

Military Uses of Space

Space is the ultimate high ground and for the last few decades, space assets have been used for reconnaissance and surveillance, communications, navigation, meteorology, and geodesy. Electromagnetic radiation from terrestrial objects can be recognised from space in any of the three wavelength bands to which the intervening atmosphere is transparent –

  • Visible band
  • Certain infrared bands
  • Microwave radio band

This is why they find use in military surveillance.

Such remote sensing techniques are suitable during peacetime but can also be appropriate for wartime purposes such as tracking the movement of fleets, offensive columns or even monitoring air and naval bases. Remote sensing technologies can be effective for both tactical and strategic intelligence, but for the former, being time-sensitive, it would need the support of other sources such as aircraft and remotely piloted vehicles.

For imagery, the resolution quality of a picture is directly proportional to the altitude. Here, LEO satellites are more useful for photo-reconnaissance, but for continuous coverage of an area, a larger number of satellites would be required. Radar satellites can provide night time and all-weather imagery. Satellites can also detect discrete signals in the three atmospheric bands, which makes them useful for detecting pulses which emanate from air defence radars, a flash of a nuclear burst or the launch of an ICBM.

Mission Shakti Seeks to Redress An Imbalance

It is in communications where satellites play an extremely important role. The trend is towards higher frequencies in military communication satellites due to higher limit to their data-carrying capacity. Also, transmitting antennas for higher frequencies can be smaller without sacrificing performance (the ratio of the transmitter dish’s size to the wavelength of the radio waves it is transmitting). It is easier to protect higher-frequency links against hostile jamming. In addition, higher frequencies suffer less distortion in passing through an ionosphere disturbed by nuclear detonations. Satellites also play an important role in navigation for supporting reconnaissance and for weapon delivery. Military operations also require met data which satellites can provide.

In any future conflict, space will play a vital role and the side which has space warfare capability has an edge over the rest. Future wars will see attempts by all the parties to disable the opponent’s satellites. This, however, does not necessarily need physical destruction of a satellite which throws up a host of challenges with respect to space debris.

Five Major Laws of Space

For India, it is important to be a player in the game, so that it sits on the high table during framing or modification of rules concerning the use of outer space. As part of military capability, it would enable India to protect itself from satellite surveillance in the event of war as well as the ability to cripple the enemy’s space-based communications and navigation systems within the opening hours of conflict as also allow India to monitor the activities of its adversaries. India’s ASAT test was perhaps also a reaction to China’s test in 2007, with a capacity of potentially altering the strategic balance in the Indo-Pacific. Mission Shakti has sought to redress the imbalance.

There are fears that the Indian ASAT test could lead to a space race and eventually the weaponisation of space. India accordingly must use its influence to calm such fears. There are today five major laws of space, the most important being the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. The others relate to the following –

  • Rescue Agreement (Rescue and return of Astronauts)
  • Convention on the International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects
  • Convention on the Registration of Objects launched into Space
  • Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (the “Moon Treaty”)


The UN General Assembly has also adopted several resolutions that are non-binding but are generally followed by the international community. However, as technology advances further, there will be changes to the Outer Space Treaty or a new treaty may well be drafted. It is important to understand that such changes or drafting will co-opt those nations that have demonstrated space capability and India now falls into that select group.

Space – the ultimate high ground

All future conflicts will make use of space assets to a greater or lesser degree, based on capability. It is vital for India to be at the cutting edge of space technologies to better preserve its national interests.


Maj Gen Dhruv C Katoch

Maj. Gen. Dhruv C Katoch is Director, India Foundation, Editor SALUTE Magazine and Secretary-General of Indian War Veterans Association (IWVA).

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