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International relations

Modi hails India as a 'space superpower' after satellite kill

Missile test helps New Delhi boost defenses against Beijing

NEW DELHI -- Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday proclaimed that India had joined the global space elite after shooting down a low-orbit satellite with a missile.

"India has become a space superpower," he said in a rare televised address to the nation. He said the country was now the fourth after the U.S., Russia and China to develop its own antisatellite (ASAT) missile.

Modi's announcement comes just two weeks before the world's biggest democracy begins voting in seven-phase general elections from April 11. While the development may not sway many voters ahead of the poll, analysts say it will enhance the country's defense capabilities against neighboring China as space increasingly becomes a battlefield.

The prime minister praised the engineers behind the Mission Shakti project, saying it was "highly complex" and conducted at extremely high speed with remarkable precision. It has yet to be independently verified.

"Our scientists shot down a live low-earth orbit satellite 300 kilometers away in space a while ago using ASAT missile," he said. "The operation was completed in just 3 minutes."

Modi's strong security stance has boosted his chances of winning a second term in the elections that end May 19. Public support for him soared after he ordered airstrikes against alleged terrorist targets in Pakistan.

"This will bolster India's defense," Modi said, while adding the newly acquired capability is not directed against any country. "India stands tall as a space power. It will make India stronger, even more secure and will further peace and harmony."

India's External Affairs Ministry said in a statement that the test was carried out by the country's Defence Research and Development Organization using one of India's existing satellites.

The ministry added: "We are against the weaponization of outer space and support international efforts to reinforce the safety and security of space based assets."

Brahma Chellaney, a specialist in international security and arms-control issues and a professor of strategic studies at New Delhi's Centre for Policy Research, said India's successful "kill" with an ASAT weapon was significant.

"Space wars are not just Hollywood fiction. The U.S., Russia and China continue to pursue antisatellite (ASAT) weapons," Chellaney wrote on twitter after the announcement. "Space is being turned into a battlefront, making counter-space capabilities critical."

An Indian rocket carrying a geosynchronous communication satellite blasts off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota on March 29, 2018.   © Reuters

India is among several Asian countries that have to face up to the reality that the earth's orbit is becoming a more dangerous place, especially as competition for control of space heats up between the U.S., Russia and China.

China's showed off its growing prowess in January when it successfully landed a craft on the far side of the moon, and it has plans to launch a Mars explorer next year.

The U.S. is even more vocal. In December, President Donald Trump ordered the creation of Space Command, a precursor to a full-fledged Space Force. Vice President Mike Pence said Tuesday that the U.S. would send astronauts back to the moon within five years.

The announcement drew muted reactions from India's neighbors.

Pakistan said every nation has the responsibility to avoid actions which can lead to the militarization of space. "We believe that there is a need to address gaps in the international space laws with a view to ensuring that no one threatens peaceful activities and applications of space technologies for socio-economic development," Pakistan's foreign ministry said without directly referring to India.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry, writing in response to a question from India's PTI news agency, said it was aware of reports of the missile test and hoped "that each country will uphold peace and tranquillity in outer space." 

But Tensions between India and Pakistan remain high, and Wednesday's move may now prompt Islamabad to ask Beijing for more defense assistance to mitigate any Indian technological advance.

Chellaney also warned of other risks in developing space defense capabilities.

"Without building deterrence by demonstrating an ASAT capability, India risked encouraging an adversary like China to go after Indian space capabilities early in a conflict," he said. "To 'defend' its satellites, India has to deter China's use of its direct ascent missiles and laser weapons."

Pankaj Jha, a professor of defense and strategic studies at the O.P. Jindal Global University in Haryana state, said this capability was very much needed and there had been discourse in strategic circles since 2007 -- when China first tested ASAT -- as to when India would wake up to these requirements.

But on the domestic political front, Jha said it would "not drastically influence voters" as happened with the Feb. 26 airstrikes in Pakistan.

"The general public is not so aware of these asset tests and how they build India's capacity [in space]."

Even so, an Indian opposition leader said she would lodge a complaint with the Election Commission.

"Today's announcement is yet another limitless drama and publicity mongering by Modi desperately trying to reap political benefits at the time of election," Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal state and a potential prime ministerial candidate, wrote on Twitter.

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