Hello Friends, What in the World is an Anti-Satellite Weapon and What are We Celebrating Today?


Hello Friends, What in the World is an Anti-Satellite Weapon and What are We Celebrating Today?

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

Wednesday afternoon, usually the slowest point in the work week, received a supercharged shot of adrenaline today thanks to news of an impending announcement from PM Modi. Suddenly, there was a buzz in the air, as the last time Modi made such an announcement, the entire country found itself in an ATM queue for the next three months as it recovered from demonetisation.

Thankfully, today’s address did not contain such dire implications at the grassroots level. It aimed much higher – as high as space to be precise. The big announcement was Modi proclaiming the success of “Mission Shakti”, wherein he celebrated the successful downing of a live satellite by an Indian anti-satellite weapon, or A-SAT.

Honestly, when viewed as a sequel to demonetisation, the “Mission Shakti” announcement was a bit underwhelming. Because even though the success of the mission does place India in an elite club of only four countries (the other three being USA, Russia, and China) with the capability to take down satellites in space, PM Modi had to attribute credit to DRDO, while the big DeMo was entirely the central government’s doing. And the less said about how DRDO was founded in the ’60s by the right-wing’s bete noir Nehru, the better.

So instead, Modi ji chose to celebrate… umm, what exactly? Before this morning, I am not sure any of us could answer the following questions: What exactly is an A-SAT, what in the world does Low Earth Orbit mean, and how ground-breaking is this development?

Let’s address the last before we get to the other two. Political commentator Dhruv Rathee was one of the earliest to link to an old India Today report from 2012, during the UPA regime, which quoted the DRDO chief Vijay Saraswat making the same announcement. “Today, we have developed all the building blocks for an anti-satellite (A-SAT) capability,” Saraswat said in the report. The same report quotes an unnamed government source, who says, “DRDO will field a full-fledged ASAT weapon based on Agni and ad-2 ballistic missile interceptor by 2014.”

If DRDO had already acquired A-SAT technology seven years ago, what exactly are we celebrating today? In fact, there is actually cause for alarm in the wake of his announcement, after further reading of the DRDO chief’s comments in the 2012 report. Back then, the prevailing wisdom was that the A-SAT capabilities should be tested and fine-tuned through “simulated electronic tests”, rather than the destruction of a satellite. According to Saraswat, such a test risked “showering lethal debris in space that could damage existing satellites.”

As of now, details about the type of satellite that was shot down in “Mission Shakti” are scarce.

However, VK Saraswat has moved on from DRDO, and is now a member of the NITI Aayog. In interviews given today, he has stated that the UPA government had failed to give a go-ahead for live testing, which is something that only the Modi-led government greenlit.

As of now, details about the type of satellite that was shot down in “Mission Shakti” are scarce. Apart from the fact that the satellite was in low earth orbit, which means it was in an earth-centric orbit at an altitude of less than 2,000 km, all we know is that Mr Modi stated that this test did not violate any international regulations, and that this was not an act of aggression against any other nation. It was, however, a show of might.

Finally, what is an A-SAT weapon, and how important is it to India’s future? Here, Mr Modi was correct in stating that this is a defence system that will increase in importance in the years to come. He was also correct in stating that India has joined an elite club of nations with A-SAT capability, becoming the latest entrant after China joined with its own successful A-SAT tests in 2007.

Unsurprisingly, the announcement has managed to ruffle Opposition leaders’ feathers. While Mamata Bannerjee announced plans to file a complaint with the Election Commission over the timing of the announcement (questions have been raised that this is a possible violation of the model code of conduct that is already in place due to the upcoming elections), and Rahul Gandhi putting out a pointed tweet that assigned credit to DRDO scientists while wishing PM Modi “Happy World Theatre Day”. This has kicked off another round of political mudslinging, with BJP leader Arun Jaitley hitting back by labelling these criticisms “clerical objections”.

Clerical or not, that the PM chose to spin the implementation of existing technology as a path-breaking development does leave plenty between the lines for observers to read into. Critics have accused the central government of taking credit for the work of Indian scientists — CPM general secretary Sitaram Yetuchury asked, “The country would like to know the special reasons why the Election Commission permitted the achievements of Indian scientists to be politically coloured during the course of the general elections” and in a similar vein, SP chief Tejaswi Yadav made it a point to congratulate DRDO and ISRO scientists by tweeting, “this success belongs to you. Thank you for making India safer.” The discourse triggered flashbacks of last month, when the government was being accused of taking credit for the work of the Indian armed forces, and Opposition parties issued a joint statement against the “blatant politicisation” of the armed forces. Of course, the BJP’s supporters will vehemently deny this claim. Which is how Viveik Oberoi will get another acting gig in five years, when he is cast in the Modi biopic sequel to play the man who took India to the stars.