File photo of the Prithvi missile. A variant was used to take out a low orbiting satellite by India. Photo: AFP/HO/MOD

India joined the elite group of three nations with the capability to shoot down a satellite in space, after a missile launched on Wednesday morning took out a target 300km above Earth. So far the US, Russia and China have demonstrated the capability of the anti-satellite missile (ASAT), the last one being fired by the US Navy in February, 2008, when it had to take out an out-of-control National Reconnaissance Office satellite.

While there were worries that debris from the destroyed satellite could create problems in space, Indian scientists from the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) were to quick to point out that this was unlikely. The satellite was in orbit 300km above Earth and debris would burn up on re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. Any remaining debris would make up a very “small cloud” according to one of the scientists.

Interestingly, what raised eyebrows was not confirmation of a capability first declared in 2012, but the fact that it was carried out only three weeks before the general elections. The successful mission was first announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who tweeted that he was going to make an “important announcement” between 11:45 am and 12:00 pm. The tweet immediately sparked wild rumors, with some joking whether they should head towards an ATM or a bunker. The ATM reference was to the ill-conceived demonetization that was launched by Modi in November 2016, the bunker was a reference to Indian Air Force raids into Pakistan earlier this year.

Political Stunt?

Opposition parties were quick to condemn Modi’s announcement as an election stunt. President of the Congress party Rahul Gandhi even took to Twitter to congratulate DRDO scientists for the missile launch, and Modi for “World Theater Day”. The barb was quickly picked up by other opposition leaders.

Most political observers pointed out that the need for the announcement to come from the Prime Minister was an indication that this was more political than strategic. After the Indian Air Force strikes in Balakot, Pakistan, the narrative shifted a little to aid Modi’s political party in key north Indian states, where major losses were expected in the elections. However, as weeks passed after the strikes, the effect of the air raids on the elections were dissipating, and the major issues of unemployment, an agrarian crisis and a poor economy were once again beginning to dominate political discussions.

As key government sources pointed out, the elaborate efforts taken by Modi and his advisors to circumvent the model code of conduct in place for the general elections are an indicator of how political this was. “In the past the scientists would make the announcements and take the lead. This is the first time a Prime Minister chose to announce this, trying to [equate] it to the May 1998 announcement when India tested its nuclear arsenal,” a senior official said. The government also ensured that the announcement was made on the prime minister’s personal YouTube channel, and the national broadcast channels “borrowed” the feed. This helped the government circumvent specific directions that bar the use of official media by the party in power ahead of an impending general election.

The Election Commission of India immediately issued notice and set up a panel of experts to review this as a possible violation of the code.

However, it was also pointed out that India had developed and announced this capability in 2012, when the earlier government was in power. The then DRDO chief, V Saraswat had given a series of interviews claiming that India had developed the capability after the successful test of its ballistic long range missile, the Agni. Saraswat now serves the BJP-led government as an advisor to the Niti Ayog, which replaced the Planning Commission after Modi took over in 2014.

However, in the Wednesday test they used a shorter-range Prithvi missile variant to take out the low orbit satellite. Experts also pointed out that this was not a Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD), which is far more complex. However, India had demonstrated its space capabilities for nearly two decades, even sending an unmanned probe to Mars for less than US$400 million a few years ago.

However, the government of the day then had let scientists take the credit and the political leadership had stayed away from using these successes for political purposes.

Aimed at China

In 2007, when China took out a satellite at 800km above Earth, it had alarmed Indian strategic planners, who began work on developing a similar capability. With nations dependent on satellites for communications, global positioning, technical intelligence, remote sensing and a host of other uses, satellites have become integral to the theater of war.

The US had to take out an NRO satellite in 2008, and the Russians have also displayed a similar capability. However, the US, Russia and China have displayed capabilities of taking out satellites much higher than the one India took out on Wednesday. India’s official reason for targeting a low orbit satellite was to avoid space debris. The test has also led to global debate on restricting the militarization of space. However, an official statement from the US state department was largely supportive of the Indian ASAT test.

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