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Mission Shakti – Going Beyond Pokharan

The kinetic kill that saw a low earth orbit satellite being taken down in a matter of few minutes by an indigenously ballistic missile defence interceptor, also saw several shibboleths being taken down both domestically and internationally as India announced its entry into an elite club of handful of major global powers.

The operation code named “Mission Shakti” that combined capabilities across DRDO and ISRO among others was a striking echo of “Operation Shakti” that also saw India joining the club of declared nuclear powers in the late 1990s. Mission Shakti is however markedly distinct from the Pokhran tests underscoring how a new India is carving out geopolitical space for itself in the global order.

While the nuclear tests by India of the past were conducted under the cloud of restrictive global treaties, the anti-satellite capability demonstrated by India comes ahead of such treaties being drawn up. India’s entry into the club of declared nuclear weapon powers came belatedly when significant costs were sought to be imposed by the early entrants to the club on later applicants. The sanctions that followed the Pokhran tests in the late 1990s and the global reactions that ensued were an attempt to box and stare down India into a submissive corner. An emerging India however stood its ground and weathered global opprobrium to chart a multi-decadal growth story. This time around the story is markedly different.

A new and assertive India learned its lessons well from Pokhran to act pre-emptively with time on its hand on demonstrating its anti-satellite capabilities rather than wait to react belatedly at a later time when its hands were likely to be tied. By acting now at a time and place of its choosing India has kept its options open rather than at a time when they would have been few and far limited after restrictive international treaties have been drawn up. In this respect,Mission Shakti goes beyond Pokhran to establish a new benchmark on new India’s will to assert itself geopolitically while reserving a seat at the high table of space faring nations. This demonstration by India while it remains committed to non-weaponisation of outer space adds tangible heft to India’s ability to negotiate the future treaties on space governance.

Predictably much of the commentary in the wake of the anti-satellite test focused on the optics of the announcement rather than on the underlying strategic calculus. Few strategic analysts, both domestic and international, have highlighted the implications from a deterrence standpoint with India’s demonstration of ballistic missile defence capabilities through this test. Of particular interest should be the comments by Prof VipinNarang an associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) made on social media where he draws attention to an earlier research paper on how India has been developing counterforce capabilities and on how the current anti-satellite test has “huge implications” for ballistic missile defence.

One other respect in which the geo-political fallout of Mission Shakti is different from the fallout of Pokhran is in international reactions. Most significant among these is the statement from the United States State Department that saw a shared interest with India in space technology and continued collaboration in security and safety in space. Underscoring the strategic partnership with India, the United States it would seem endorsed India’s anti-SAT demonstration in a marked departure from its reactions two decades back to Pokhran-2. While legitimate concerns have been expressed on space debris, India reiterated its commitment to responsible development of defence capabilities by ensuring the target was low earth orbit satellite with most debris expected to re-enter earth’s atmosphere within 30 days.

The deterrence capability demonstrated by India through the A-SAT has another dimension to it beyond space and ballistic missile defence. Not too long ago India was faced with the threat of a communications satellite hosting a foreign free to air DTH service with its footprint over large parts of India. The free to air nature of the service meant several channels could be downlinked and viewed within the land mass of India without the service having to be licensed in India. More significantly, it also meant several channels carrying anti-India propaganda were being beamed into India posing a national security threat with limited legal recourse. Deft diplomacy addressed the issue with the satellite provider ultimately shutting down the service, but the instance underscored the threat rogue communications satellites could pose in the future. The A-SAT capability demonstrated by India is a credible deterrent against information warfare being waged through such rogue satellites.

In the wake of Balakot Airstrikes, Mission Shakti sends a strong signal within immediate neighborhood and beyond that a new and assertive India has its eyes on the likely conflicts of the future even as it sheds the strategic ambivalence in its response to conflicts of the past.

By 

Shashi Shekhar Vempati  CEO of Prasar Bharati (India’s autonomous Public Service Broadcaster). Views expressed in the column are personal.

(This article was first published in Business Standard)

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