Anti-satellite missile couldn’t have been fired before: Former DRDO boss

Dr Avinash Chander has a different take on the issue of the Anti Satellite Missile not having been tested during UPA years.

In sharp contrast to the views of a former Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) chief that there was no political will to test the anti-satellite missile (A-SAT) capability during the UPA years, Avinash Chander, an ex-director-general of DRDO, asserted that even though the basic elements were in place at that time, a lot more had to be done before graduating to the level of testing it. Speaking to The Federal exclusively Dr Chander also said that there isn’t any need to go for further testing.

After joining the elite club of space faring nations with the successful demonstration of the A-SAT capability, India doesn’t need to carry out further tests because the DRDO scientists are now capable of ‘designing and enhancing’ other applications through simulation. In the next step, the propulsion capacity of the A-SAT missile weapon system can be enhanced with the help of large boosters. “With inputs from this mission, our scientists are capable of designing other applications through simulation,” Dr Chander said.

A significant fallout of the “Mission Shakti” is that India, in its capacity as a major space faring nation with proven space technology, would now be in the forefront in framing an international law on prevention of an arms race in outer space.

Unlike the situation in 1998 when India had to face sanctions for conducting the Pokhran nuclear tests since the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was already in place, there is no such internationally binding document now. In fact, any such treaty will now have to include the countries that already have the capability. With the successful test of the indigenously developed A-SAT on Wednesday, India has joined the high table of global space powers, becoming the fourth country to have tested an anti-satellite weapon after the United States, Russia and China.

On the concerns over the impact of space debris following destruction of a low earth orbit satellite, Dr Chander, the architect of the Agni missile programme, said India “intentionally took a low earth satellite where the debris does not last long and will decay and burn on entering Earth’s atmosphere.”

The Indian missile targeted a satellite at an altitude of 300 km while the A-SAT test conducted by China in 2007 had intercepted a satellite in the high orbit at about 800 km was intercepted. As a result, the debris left behind by the Chinese mission is still there in the space.

The capability achieved through the A-SAT missile test provides credible deterrence against threats to India’s growing space-based assets from long range missiles.

Excerpts of the interview:

Q: It is said that the DRDO had the A-SAT capability in 2010 itself, what were the factors that led to the decision to not test it?

A: The basic elements were there, but it would have required a lot of development.

Q: Did the Government of India then fear international outcry if it gave the go-ahead for demonstrating the anti-satellite missile system?

A: No comment. You can probably ask the then NSA (National Security Adviser) Mr Menon.

Q: How was the A-SAT test different from the interceptor missile that we tested years ago?

A: Missile interception velocities range from 5 to 6km/sec. In the case of satellite interception, it is typically more than 11 km/sec. Also, the target signature is very small.

Q: Could we have demonstrated the capability through simulation tests rather than actually destroying a satellite in the orbit?

A: No amount of simulation can replace the first actual test.

Q: Pakistan has said this would amount to militarisation of the space. Is there a possibility of pushing other countries to join the A-SAT race?

A: We cannot control what others say and do. We have to make sure that India is capable of protecting itself.

Q: Is there a possibility of India facing international sanctions for undertaking this test?

A: India has not violated any treaty. There is no basis for sanctions.

Q: Is this a signal to Pakistan and China that any snooping attempts by their satellites could be met with a possible missile strike by India?

A: India is committed to peaceful use of space for the benefit of mankind. We are also committed that any threat of aggression will be suitably responded. This test is a vital step in ensuring that.

Q: What are the implications of this test from national security perspective?

A: A-SAT mission establishes India’s capability to counter any threats to Indian space assets. It also portrays the maturity of Indian defence technology in cutting edge capability.

Space has emerged as the fourth dimension of war in physical space apart from the conventional land, air and water. The entire defence strategy is shifting to Networking Centric Warfare with total isolation between sensor, decision maker and the shooter. Further a large number of weapons including our forward strike soldiers are now dependent on GPS/IRNSS (independent regional navigation satellite system) for their performance. It is therefore vital for India to visibly demonstrate the deterrence capability.

Q: What kind of precision does this technology involve and how long did it take for our scientists to perfect it?

A: Intercepting a satellite requires very high precision as the two objects approach each other at relative speed of about 12km/sec which is 43200km/hr. To ensure that we don’t miss the target whose size is only of 1m requires predicting to accuracy of 10000th part of a second and guiding the vehicle to that. It required a tremendous concerted effort, organisation, commitment and scientific innovation to make it happen in a few months as reported.

Q: What next from here? From low earth orbit to higher orbit? Are we working on ASAT targeting higher orbit satellites? What kind of technological upgradation does it involve?

A: A-SAT has three phases of operation. a) powered phase- it consists of two stage propulsion which provide energy to boost it to interception path. b) mid course. c) terminal homing where seeker locks on and guides with correction through special thrusters.

The present propulsion can take it to 1000km orbits. However, it can easily be enhanced, if needed, as DRDO has larger boosters. Terminal phase is generally independent of the orbit. With the present demonstrated capability, India should be able to handle current military satellites.

Q: Only four countries have demonstrated this capability, what will it mean for India in terms of space negotiation treaty?

A: We had been on the wrong side of NPT and MTCR (Missile Technology Control Regime) etc. We are now among the nations who have proven capability. It should give India better bargaining capability.

Q: It is also said that destroying a satellite in the orbit could throw up debris in the space and pose a danger to other satellites. How serious is the debris problem? While taking note of our successful test, the US has raised the issue of space debris.

A: Space debris is a very serious issue which poses severe threat to space missions and nightmare to mission planners. Today, there are tens of thousands of objects (non-active/secondary) orbiting in space, a large part of which was contributed by Chinese test of 2007. India, as an environment conscious country, has planned the test at low earth orbit ensuring that debris will not last more than a few weeks and will burnout during re-entry into the atmosphere.

Q: Is ASAT a spin off the missile development programme?

A: Yes. The basic kill vehicle concepts are derived from the ballistic missile defence development. I feel that the design inputs received from recent exo-atmospheric interception tests might have been vital for this success. However, while ingredients may be known, every mission has its own complexities which can become insurmountable at times.

Q: Does India need to go for further tests or is it just a one-test mission?

A: I don’t foresee the need for further tests.