India has shot down a live satellite in space as part of a successful test of new missile technology, prime minister Narendra Modi has announced.
The operation, dubbed Mission Shakti, makes India part of a “super league” of nations to have achieved such a feat, Mr Modi said, alongside the US, Russia and China.
The announcement comes weeks after India engaged in aerial clashes with Pakistan over the disputed border of Kashmir. “This new technology is not directed against any particular country,” the prime minister said.
The target of the test was “one of India’s existing satellites operating in lower orbit”, a foreign ministry source said, rather than an asset belonging to another country. Experts said a mini-satellite was put into low orbit one month ago, likely for this purpose.
Mr Modi’s address, which he trailed as an “important statement” on Twitter, was simultaneously broadcast on All-India Radio and all national TV stations.
India is currently in election season, with polls opening in just over a couple of weeks, and under Indian law the government cannot make any policy or political announcements that might be seen as seeking to win votes.
Questions will be raised over the timing of the test, so close to a general election. “That India had the ability to do this was already very well known,” said Pallava Bagla, NDTV‘s science editor.
Madhavan Nair, the former chief of the Indian space agency Isro, said that “Mr Modi has chosen to take this step ... To show that we have capabilities in this area,” and that if another country targets India’s satellites, India could “respond in a timely manner”. He described it as a “great achievement for the country”.
China conducted its first successful anti-satellite test in 2007, prompting protests from other world powers. The US and Russia had both tested similar technology by the 1980s, despite a 1967 UN treaty banning such activities.
Washington ended its anti-satellite tests in 1985, citing concerns over the risk of creating large amounts of space debris. A source in India’s foreign ministry said its own test was deliberately conducted in the lower atmosphere “to ensure whatever debris that is generated will decay and fall back onto Earth within weeks”.
The US, China and Russia nonetheless continued to pursue anti-satellite (Asat) weapons, said Brahma Chellaney, a security expert at Delhi’s Centre of Policy Research.
“Space is being turned into a battlefront, making counter-space capabilities critical. In this light, India’s successful ‘kill’ with an Asat weapon is significant.”
While India is in campaign mode, announcements by the government relating to national security do not require prior permission from the Election Commission.
Nonetheless, Mr Modi concluded his TV statement by listing his administration’s security achievements, appearing to blur the lines of what could be considered a political statement.
Since India’s clash with Pakistan in February, the prime minister – who is seeking re-election – has gone to great lengths to make national security one of the key election issues.
Last week, he changed his Twitter profile to “Chowkidar (Watchman) Narendra Modi”, and many of his ministers and supporters followed suit.
Opposition parties, including Rahul Gandhi’s Congress party, have attacked the government on its record of jobs creation, farmers’ welfare and women’s rights.
In a tweet from its official account, Congress said it “congratulate[s] Isro, DRDO (military research agency) & the Govt on the latest achievement for India”. It noted that the Indian space programme and Isro itself were founded by past Congress leaders Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi.
Rahul Gandhi followed that up with a tweet of his own, saying he was “extremely proud” of the DRDO research agency before adding a subtle dig at Mr Modi, wishing him “a very happy World Theatre Day”.
Akhilesh Yadav, head of the socialist Samajwadi Party, was among the more outspoken opposition leaders to respond to Mr Modi’s announcement. The prime minister had, he said, “got himself an hour of free TV to divert nation’s attention away from issues on ground ... By pointing at the sky”.
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