Why India Needs to Demonstrate Anti Satellite (ASAT) Capability – Publicly

Indian ASAT capability


Opening Comments

On Jan 03 2010, a statement was made by Dr Sawaswat

“India is putting together building blocks of technology that could be used to neutralise enemy satellites,” Defence Research and Development Organisation Director General V K Saraswat told reporters on the sidelines of the 97th Indian Science Congress.

However, he added that the defence scientists have not planned any tests but have started planning such technology which could be used to leapfrog to build a weapon in case the country needed it.

“We are working to ensure space security and protect our satellites. At the same time we are also working on how to deny the enemy access to its space assets,” he said. To achieve such capabilities, a kill vehicle needs to be developed and that process is being carried out under the Ballistic Missile Defence programme.

Sourced from here –

On Feb 10, 2010, Dr Saraswat further said

“With the successful testing of Agni-III, we have the propulsion system which can be used to propel a kill vehicle in the orbit. We have the capability required to guide a kill vehicle towards the satellite,” he told reporters here.

“We have the capability for interception of the satellite. But we do not have to test because it is not our primary objective. There are repercussions of satellite interception like debris flying in the space.

“Today we can validate the anti-satellite technology on the ground through simulation. There will be no direct hit of the satellite. If the nation wants, we can have it ready,” Saraswat added.

Sourced from here.

On 19 April 2012, India carried out the successful test of Agni – 5, an Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM) developed under the country’s Integrated Guided Missile Development Program (IGMDP). While much has been published about the potential deployment of the missile, with the step being taken as an overt undertaking of India to increase the options available to India with respect to it’s northern adversary, one very significant statement added a completely new dimension to this test.

In an interview with the Times of India on 28 April 2012, Mr. Vijay Saraswat, scientific adviser to the Defence Minister and Chief of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) had this to say:

“Today, we have developed all the building blocks for an anti-satellite (ASAT) capability,” 

In the same article another important statement came to fore:

“DRDO will field a full-fledged ASAT weapon based on Agni and AD-2 ballistic missile interceptor by 2014,” 

This was stated by a top government source who did not want to be named. The weapon is unlikely to be publicly tested, he had added at the time.

This was confirmed by Mr. Saraswat who had said at the time that India will not test this capability through the destruction of a satellite as such a test risked showering lethal debris in space that could damage existing satellites. Instead, he went on to add, India’s ASAT capability would be fine-tuned through simulated electronic tests.

Source: Sandeep Unnithan 


Over the last 5 years, India’s influence in the geopolitical arena has seen a steady increase. The high rates of economic growth, the continuation of a projection as a ‘soft power’ and it’s propensity to stick to its traditional stands yet balance them with changing times, have earned it an all-round appreciation as a rising power which is working to take it places at the world stage without threatening others. This has enabled India to gain global recognition and entry into exclusive multilateral/bilateral groups deemed unreachable earlier. The MTCR and Wassenaar arrangement is a step which illustrates the rich dividends being reaped by India. What are also very important to note and understand are the changing facets of global security and India’s participation /role envisioned for the future.

India’s decision making has always been that as a reactive state than being proactive. While this has, to a certain extent, buttressed its image as a ‘soft power’, it has, at the same time, place India in a position far from being able to undertake ideal risk mitigation measures with which country’s defence should have been built up over decades. India adheres to various multilateral conventions or guidelines that seek to ensure continuous space access for all, on the one hand and mitigate potential man-made or natural risks, on the other. India under UN adheres to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST), 1968 Rescue Agreement, 1972 Liability Convention and 1974 Registration Convention. Also, India is a signatory to the 1979 Moon Agreement. [Source] Over the years, with all these treaties we have refrained from using the space angle to our strategic capability and in wake of growing Missile based proliferation capability, we are seeing a sudden urgency to look into some mitigation measures.

From the 90s it was clear that the China-based assistance and transfer of missile capabilities into Pakistan will one day turn our neighbourhood into a hot threat zone. The advent of Short Range Ballistic Missiles (SRBM), Medium Ranged Ballistic Missiles (MRBM) and Cruise Missile technology will ensure, we face situations which will not be very comfortable on the long run for us. The risk aspect would increase in coming decades and unfortunately, we were slow to start reacting to this situation as well and over next 27 years (from 1990), we have still not been able to move into a proper state of credible defence shield against such emerging threats.

Over these years there is a growing concern and logic that China will pass on many more such technological aspects to Pakistan that will further elevate the risk aspect. A key to this understanding is that China was the first Asian country to conduct a nuclear test and North Korea, a very close ally of China and who is believed to have benefited from China the last state to test N weapons in Asia. In between Pakistan and its role in missile and technology proliferation is a well-known entity. Thus, the recent advent of North Korea’s ICBM test will mean soon the same kind of missile technology with further advancements like MIRV (multiple independent reentry vehicles) technology will be further available to Pakistan as well.

But there is a further link to this whole equation, Satellites and its role in future warfare.

Threats to Space-Based Assets

The above pictorial showcases the role of space-based assets and its vital importance in a network-centric warfare. Source

Satellites and a cluster of them working as Space-based Assets are the key link for operations. The limitation of Land-based radar systems warrants that Space-based Assets deployed in various form and deployed in different altitudes play a pivotal role in battlefield real-time information and help change the face of conflict with quick decision-making abilities. Space-based Assets itself is vulnerable due to the nature of operations and can be blinded, obstructed and interfered as well. Yet there is a growing reliance on multiple layers of space-based assets over the last decade for real-time information collection, assimilation and uses in active decision making for commanders.


The biggest such threats come from the cold war time when US and USSR (erstwhile Russia) developed ASAT or Anti Satellite Missiles to shoot down the Low Earth Orbiting Satellites (LEO). This capability has over time been improved much more and we have seen China add to its forte this capability.

In Jan 2007, when China destroyed its unused weather satellite it has sent a very massive signal to all countries and threat levels increased multiple levels for us because of this capability being demonstrated in real time and in public.

We need to understand that it’s now over 10 years from the time of demonstration of such a capability by China and we as a country face a high risk to the use of such a capability to cripple our military and civilian satellites bringing to a widespread disruption of our communication, surveillance and real-time information network.

Our limited focus and lack of will for deploying electronic intelligence capabilities gets reflected time and again in our failure to detect infiltrations and troop intrusions in our territories. This causes us unable to basically detect and cross verify all other channels of information that we gather with different risks and challenges.

As a country we have been using space-based assets with dual use of civilian satellites, The GSAT 7 launched in August 2013 and IRNSS + RISAT in later years had been a step in right direction. We need a cluster of satellites to keep a watch over our adversaries and at the same time, we face a grave threat that there exists a capability to neutralise our space-based assets in the hands of China and someday with Pakistan as well. And we have not sent the message across in clear terms that such a capability is available to us as well in clear terms.

If we understand the possible risk aspects pertaining to our space-based assets over time, what we can see is the following risk aspects

  1. Electronic Warfare based Jamming and Interference-based capabilities to jam Transmission and Reception links
  2. Ground station and all other stations for uplink/downlink capabilities to be taken out via a barrage of missiles.
  3. Interference of Sensors on board via use of high energy beams or specialized DEW weapons
  4. Usage of a swarm of smaller micro/nano satellites disbursing chemical particles at the lower altitude to blind the link to and fro to satellite.
  5. Usage of proximity detonation creating enough distortion that satellite changes its orbit for safety.
  6. Use of other space debris to physically harm the satellites via direct or indirect means (using a Carrom game analogy)

Among all these points no 3-6 plays the pivotal role. The use of a high altitude interceptor like a ballistic missile to take out Satellites at different orbits is a credible threat and in future DEW or Direct Energy Weapons doing the same is a known upcoming risk.

I have taken the liberty to divide the whole of these points into two broad capabilities as under

1. Soft Kill Ability
2. Hard Kill Ability

The Soft Kill Ability is the new threat that is emerging and is best described as the threat by use of any medium that blind sensors and other electronic systems onboard the Space-based Assets resulting into partial or complete paralysis thereby making them useless for operations. Now as of the date the Direct energy weapons have still not demonstrated this capability in a full-fledged altitude test form but in laboratories, this concept of dazzle effect has been observed. To mitigate this, most of the satellite components are “hardened” or EMP protected (Electro Magnetic Pulse) but that adds to a good high cost in Capex for satellite deployment. A lower power dazzle effect for unhardened satellites is not something unheard of with the US testing the ground-based Mid-Infrared Advanced Chemical Laser(MIRACL) in 1997, which damaged satellite sensors orbiting at 429 km, indicating that even a commercially available laser system can be used to blind/ dazzle satellites temporarily. This concept has been pursued by many countries including China and India.

In 2006, there was another news which many of us may not remember much. Below is the quoted part

China has beamed a ground-based laser at U.S. spy satellites over its territory, a U.S. agency said, in an action that exposed the potential vulnerability of space systems that provide crucial data to American troops and consumers around the world.

The Defense Department remains tight-lipped about details, including which satellite was involved or when it occurred.

The Pentagon’s National Reconnaissance Office Director Donald Kerr last week acknowledged the incident, first reported by Defense News, but said it did not materially damage the U.S. satellite’s ability to collect information.


Thus the soft kill capability was tested in real time. Fortunately, earth atmosphere is the natural protective shield for many of these satellites with loss of energy while propagating through different strata of the atmosphere.

But this is one field which will see emerging research and demonstration with the advent of high powered lasers which can withstand this loss and yet provide credible option to take out LEO satellites up to certain specific altitude.

The Hard Kill Ability also known as Conventional Kinetic Energy Weapon is simply a weapon which can have Hit to kill (HTK) ability or a proximity detonation to take the space-based asset out completely. The newest entrant to this capability is the use of pulse detonation to completely fry the onboard systems to cause an explosion and making the circuits dead and system invalid for any more useful.

The Chinese demonstration of 2007 was an HTK capability via the use of a ballistic missile. A point to note is that such a capability is expected to flow to Pakistan who also has an ambition for its own Space launching vehicle program and many times politicians and generals are heard giving sound bytes. As of now, SUPARCO is yet to demonstrate this capability but with China grandfathering program and the illicit network of illegal technology transfer, this capability should not be very far off. This puts us on emerging twin threats from both sides of the border and hence we must look at this risk aspect more closely.

As of today, our military uses Space-based assets more for Communication, Imaging Surveillance, and Navigation.

With overtime, our network-centric approach where we use multiple nodes from ground-based communication systems as well and divide communication dependency among all platforms, the Space-based assets need for communication links will come down a lot.This enables us various different bands of frequencies for communications and enables us to have a way out even if the space-based communication assets are taken out completely.

In terms of Imagery and Surveillance, we must use multiple points of data assimilation like MALE, HALE, Aerostats, Pseudo High Altitude Satellite, LEO Satellite Swarm, MEO and GEO satellites with different sensors. To make the option even more attractive and improve availability, a sharing arrangement with friendly nations like France, Israel, USA, Russia etc may be planned and envisioned as a backup measure.

Navigation can also follow the same path as imagery and also share arrangement with different user nations for a backup measure.

Now, what is the scope of hard kill ability for India? This is the question we try to explore in next section.

Indian Agni Missile and LEO – MEO orbit

Any ballistic missile has a typical flight path like this below

Pic source – Rajaram Nagappa – Introduction to Missiles

The very important point in this whole flight path is the Apogee or the highest point from which it starts the re-entry back and moves towards the target.

Consider the following table of apogees of Agni Missiles


Table 1 – Apogee of various Agni missile tests [Source ]

The table above demonstrates that each of these missiles over successive tests has demonstrated a wide range of apogees capable of 1000 km in test and theoretically able to reach much more in altitude as well.

Theoretically using the research article of Rajaram Nagappa – Introduction to Missiles [Source], we get to see the following table

The point of interest is 2000km and 3000 km missile apogees – approx 500 km and approx 700 km.

Source – Chart from determining characteristics of ballistic trajectories in a vacuum

Extrapolating the same should see a 4000 km missile may be reaching almost 900-1000 km and a 5500 km reaching 1100-1200 km easily. If the missile reaches say 8000 km, apogee can be much higher as well and may reaching even higher in the range of 1300-1500 km.

If we consider the recent Hwasong 14 ICBM test, we get a peculiar apogee picture


Now looking again at table 1 we see the following

  1. Between the theory of 2000 km range and 500 km apogee, Agni 2 demonstrated already twice that apogee altitude in test and reached 1000 km.
  2. Technically for a 5500 km Agni 5, the test apogee is 800 km and theoretically, with Agni 2 result, we might see it reach 1400-1600 km range easily.
  3. The study above and also the Hwasong 14 missile test for July 4, 2017, seems to suggest a 7000 km range missile might have an apogee of 3000 km approx as well.
  4. This implies a max apogee mission for Agni 5 can be looked at for up to 3500 km altitude easily based on an 8000 km range approximation.

Of course, all these depends upon various other factors as well like the angle of launch, elevation etc. But it’s pertinent to note maximum range comes at minimum energy or MET (minimum energy trajectory).Using a simple model, we can also understand the following.

Source – Wikipedia

We see for a 10m range the height was 2.5m and for lofted trajectory height was 4.7 m or 1.8 times. Using a basic understanding model, the Agni 5 at 8000 km and MET apogee of 1400 km should cross 2300-2700 km as well as the lofted trajectory. This understanding puts a clear view out that anything in the range of 2500-3500 km in altitude can be taken out with Agni 5 easily.

New Emerging Threat

A recent understanding based on the open study does suggest a very worrying situation.

On November 24th, 2017, a Chinese CZ-2C rocket launched a trio of spy satellites. The payload was designated Yaogan-30-02, and was injected into a 600 km orbit with a 35° inclination.

These new generation recon satellites indicate a very different perspective.

These 3 satellites are a part of gathering signal intelligence but have a very different meaning and perspective.

The orbit of all 3 satellites indicate they have divided the whole earth at 120 degrees apiece

But it’s very important to point these satellites are too far apart for any meaningful triangulation of signal and would need 3 visits to the same place

What was finally understood is that these 3 satellites are a part of a much bigger sigint purpose and can be best described by this figure below

  • 3 Yaogan-30s on September 29, 2017 (dubbed the green Yaogan-30-01 triplet)
  • 3 more Yaogan-30s on November 24, 2017 (the red “Yaogan-30-02” triplet), and
  • 3 more Yaogan-30s are expected to be launched soon (dubbed the future blue Yaogan-30-03″

Ground tracks after phasing of Yaogan-30-01 (green) , -02 (red), and -03 (blue)

All 6 satellites (and 3 later) will have a 600 km low earth orbit (LEO) with a 35° inclination. This implies a cluster of 9 satellites in LEO orbit can use a very able revisit mode and cover much bigger areas of interest. Thus this will become a regular SIGINT purpose and use the lower orbit for taking high-resolution images.

I am quoting a startling observation from the same article

What can also been seen in the first image is that because of their low inclination, the satellites have a good coverage of the Pacific, India, China, North Korea and even Japan, but the most northern and southern parts of the globe are not covered: the satellites spend their time in the band of latitudes relevant to Chinese national security concerns.

If this is not alarming there is one more angle to this whole LEO based Space Assets role. 

Popular Submarine Observer and Analyst Pete Coates in his blog gentleseas believe there is a deeper meaning to all these Space-Based Assets creation and deployment.

In his blog, he observed the following based on satellite observation article

  • Each triplet is not flying in close formation so this suggests they are not used for signal intelligence triangulation to pinpoint the source of an electromagnetic signal (eg. a surface ship).
  • Each of the 3 satellites in each triplet is too far away for triangulating signals since the satellites are not even in the line of sight of each other.
  • Also at 600 km this is below the 1000km optimal orbit for signal intelligence satellites & instead, each satellite of each triplet has been phased 120° apart, providing maximum revisiting
  • 3 x 3 revisits means a high revisit rate (almost constant)
  • high revisits from a 600 km orbit suggest small optical [Comment also perhaps including infra-red for the night and synthetic aperture radar (SAR)) satellites see through rain and shallow water].

Now what is very interesting is the comment by Peter Coates

Perhaps likely optical/infrared naval viewing targets include surface ships, surfaced submarines and even snorkels. Other sensors including SAR might be useful detecting shallow running submarines including submarine wakes. 

Thus there is a growing apprehension that China using hydrophones (like SOSUS network) can alert the LEO satellite who can potentially target the place for a better image resolution and look for submarine wakes. This will help in pinpoint intelligence and help track almost all ships on the surface and any submarines surfaced or in normal snorkel mode of operations.

This is a very big risk for all of our submarines and surface ships. Literally, they will be tagged and tracked real-time implying our credible retaliation mechanism is severely compromised.

Such a grave security risk will undermine our triad completion and deterrence completely and will lead to a situation where each of our assets will be detected and taken out first in a situation of war. One should not have any doubt that Pakistan will get access to this kind of SIGINT and High-resolution Imagery access thereby compromising our positions severely.


The public demonstration is at times the best form of deterrence. Going forward India should look at four measures

  1. Build a swarm of Space-based assets with high chances of the survivable network via ground-based nodes in case vital nodes or assets are taken out via soft and hard kill approach.
  2. We must demonstrate a Kill Vehicle test of our abilities reaching up to MEO lower strata to ensure our capability is physically verified and a message can be sent across that India can take space-based assets out for sure.
  3. We must find our more ways and means to see if we can reconfigure RVs to emit dazzle type pulses with sufficient power to further the effect of soft/hard kill space-based assets in a 2 step process and make the ASAT ability even more powerful
  4. We also need to find ways and means to crack the code of Multiple Kill vehicles in order to use our Ballistic Missile as ASAT to target multiple LEO MEO satellites at one go or do multiple missions.

The difference in saying we have a proven weapon capability versus building blocks available for as and when a need arises – showcases two different extreme points of the same deterrence posture. Our Statements stating we will protect our space-based assets and neutralise all threats is just another paper statement unless we clearly demonstrate the same in real time.

Going forward we must realise the constellation of Space-based Assets undermine our security by a big margin and if we don’t plan ahead and mitigate the risk now itself, our slow reactive stance may turn out to be counterproductive.

The demonstration of ASAT ability is the first step towards the whole stance. It’s time to go public and send across a clear message for all our potential adversaries.



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