The DRDO’s launch of an anti-satellite missile on Wednesday to destroy a micro-satellite launched by the ISRO earlier this year is a deterrent against attacks on India’s space assets but does not change the country’s traditional stance of using space only for peaceful purposes, according to two former officials of the Defence Research Development Organization (DRDO) associated with the missile programme.
The anti-satellite missile launch has put India in the league of the US, China and Russia — countries with ASAT missiles — and also transformed it from a country that opposed these missiles in 2007, and a country that acknowledged these capabilities in 2010, to a demonstrator.
Despite the existence of capacity to build anti-satellite missiles for over a decade, the missiles were finally built on account of policy decisions of the Narendra Modi government in the last couple of years, a former director of DRDO told The Indian Express.
“The programme was approved recently by this government but the capability has been there for a good time. The work of converting the capability into an interceptor was not carried out (earlier); this has been carried out very successfully now,’’ Dr Avinash Chander, DRDO chief from 2013 to 2015, said.
Since 2010, the DRDO has had the capacity to make an anti-satellite missile but the programme was not taken forward until recently, Chander said. “The programme picked up speed about a year ago. We earlier had all the elements — that means we could reach the distance in space and we had the capability to hit, which was demonstrated in the anti-ballistic missile. But to put them together needed work,’’ he said.
Explained: The ABC of ASAT
According to former DRDO scientist and vice-chancellor of Defence Institute of Advanced Technology, Dr Prahlada Rama Rao, a missile expert, ground work for the development of an anti-satellite missile was laid back in the 1990s, when Dr A P J Abdul Kalam was at the DRDO. “It was Dr Kalam’s vision to have systems to protect space assets. When the air defence missile programme was upgraded to a high altitude of 200 km it was easy to upgrade to satellites but focus was on air defence and it was not possible to fulfil his vision,’’ he said.
“It is good to have the capability because someone should not knock off your satellites,’’ he said.
Chander said there was no existing DRDO programme during the UPA regime to develop the ASAT missile. “Just because you have all the elements did not mean we could hit a satellite. It required more development to convert because satellite speeds are much higher and now that has been achieved. It is a good effort. All components were available and we needed to put them together,’’ he said.
The former DRDO chief said technology used in anti-ballistic missiles and long-range rockets which propel the missile into space are the essential components of the ASAT missile.
Chander said: “The PM stated that India is committed to peaceful use of space, and India has constantly — in all forums — projected this stance. At the same time, India is also committed to protecting its interest in space and Indian capability in space is put under strong deterrence. The tests today have been a demonstration of that capability.”
The move to test the anti-satellite missile does not involve militarisation of space, Rama Rao argued. “The understanding among nations is that you must not keep missiles in space. This is not happening since these missiles are launched from the ground,’’ he said. “Space is still being used only for peaceful purposes like surveillance, mapping and communication.”
According to Rao, the anti-satellite missile programme picked up speed around 2011 at DRDO. “A separate facility was created and dedicated man power was allocated. It was a secretive, high alert program and there was demand to deliver faster,’’ he said.
India’s official position on anti-satellite missile programmes has been ambivalent in the past.
When a Chinese kinetic kill missile smashed its Fengyun satellite in space in January 2007 to demonstrate the country’s anti-satellite capabilities in the guise of destroying an aging satellite, India was one of the countries that protested.
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