A-SAT test showcases India’s space prowess

The ruling side seems set on a needless course to convince the country that it is a better guardian of the nation’s security than its rivals.

With the successful testing of an anti-satellite (A-SAT) missile on Wednesday, India demonstrated its capability to knock out or “blind” a potential adversary’s satellite in space in order to degrade its communications capabilities. Military and civilian programmes for even daily use applications these days are lodged inside satellites orbiting in space at varying altitudes.

India knocked out a micro satellite of its own launched only this January to demonstrate its capability, which is a marriage of missile and space technologies, and became only the fourth country after the United States, the former Soviet Union (now Russia) and China to do so. The satellite our scientists “killed” was 300 km in low orbit above the earth. The Chinese had demonstrated a similar capability in 2007 by hitting a useless satellite of theirs 500 km above.

It’s an open question whether a proven capability to strike a satellite in the lower reaches of space, which we have just demonstrated, automatically means we can also hit satellites placed in higher orbits. Having embarked on this path, perhaps it’s a matter of time when we will need to shoot missiles at higher-placed satellites, just to be doubly sure.

There was really no urgent “security” dimension to the A-SAT test, even if that’s the dummy sold by the government to the Election Commission, which seems to have accepted it with willingness and alacrity.

Seen from the country’s perspective, the A-SAT test could well have happened two months afterwards, or even later. There was no enemy knocking at the gate. But from the ruling party’s and government’s perspective, time was slipping away as the casting of the first ballot in the seven-phase election is exactly a fortnight away.

The ruling side seems set on a needless course to convince the country that it is a better guardian of the nation’s security than its rivals, notably the Congress, overlooking the fact that the vivisection of Pakistan in 1971 and the first nuclear test at Pokhran in 1974 (when India was a much poorer nation) were executed by Congress governments.

Even the A-SAT capability was ready by 2010, as defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman, finance minister Arun Jaitley, and present and former top scientists of DRDO, which conducted the test, attest. That the Manmohan Singh government didn’t go ahead and test may not be due to a “lack of political will”, as some have suggested. That factor would come into play only if there was an immediate security requirement. At the moment the A-SAT test seems more to be in the realm of perfecting a science and technology capability.

And lest we get carried away, this isn’t “Star Wars” prowess. That will involve parking weapons in outer space. No country is yet capable of that. Let’s not get breathless about things.

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