WASHINGTON — India joined an exclusive group of world powers with military space capabilities on Wednesday, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared a successful anti-satellite missile test.
Space is seen as a key military domain by the world's superpowers. While anti-satellite missiles are by no means new, only a few countries have been able to develop, test and prove the capability. Satellites make up the backbone of GPS, communications, intelligence and more — making the ability to destroy spacecraft a coveted military strength.
India's test, dubbed "Mission Shakti," was carried out by the Defense Research and Development Organization, or DRDO. the research and development arm of the country's military. Still, while simultaneously touting the military strength the test demonstrates, India declared that it is "against the weaponization of outer space," Shambhu Hakki, a spokesperson for the Indian Embassy in Washington, wrote in an email.
"India has no intention of entering into an arms race in outer space. We have always maintained that space must be used only for peaceful purposes," Hakki said.
The latest revelations from India, however, come as the United States, China and Russia sprint to equip their arsenals with anti-satellite missiles.
In October, CNBC learned that a never-before-seen missile photographed on a Russian MiG-31 interceptor is believed to be a mock-up of an anti-satellite weapon that will be ready for warfare by 2022.
The Russian anti-satellite weapon, which is attached to a space launch vehicle, is expected to target communication and imagery satellites in low Earth orbit, according to one source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. For reference, the International Space Station and the Hubble Space Telescope travel in low Earth orbit.
Images of the mysterious missile on a modified Russian MiG-31, a supersonic near-space interceptor, appeared in mid-September.
In another effort, Russia successfully tested a different anti-satellite weapon twice in 2018, according to two people with direct knowledge of a classified U.S. intelligence report.
The Kremlin's PL-19 Nudol, a system U.S. military intelligence assesses will be focused primarily on anti-satellite missions, was fired from a mobile launcher in December. The launch marked the seventh overall test of the system, according to one of the people who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The anti-satellite missile flew for 17 minutes and 1,864 miles before successfully splashing down in its target area.
The Pentagon has recently emphasized in its unclassified version of the missile defense review that anti-satellite capabilities "could threaten U.S. space-based assets."
The 108-page report, which marks the first overhaul of America's missile defense doctrine in nearly a decade, specifically calls out Russia's ambition to develop anti-satellite weapons.
"Russia is developing a diverse suite of anti-satellite capabilities, including ground-launched missiles and directed-energy weapons, and continues to launch 'experimental' satellites that conduct sophisticated on-orbit activities to advance counterspace capabilities," the report says.
Although conducted at the relatively low orbit of 300 kilometers, the debris from India's weapons test may "pose a threat" to anything in higher orbits, Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center, told CNBC. The test's altitude is just below the orbit of the International Space Station, which circles the Earth at about 400 kilometers up.
"The test was done in the lower atmosphere to ensure that there is no space debris. Whatever debris that is generated will decay and fall back onto the earth within weeks," India's Hakki said.
However, it is still too early to know for sure "what the debris field looks like" from the destroyed satellite, Brian Weeden, a space policy analyst at the Secure World Foundation, told CNBC. Weeden noted that the majority of commercial satellites operate above 500 kilometers of altitude. But he warned, like McDowell, that "there's always the chance that some debris from the test got thrown up into a higher orbit," Weeden said.
A recently unclassified report from the National Air and Space Intelligence Center, or NASIC, explained how China conducted an anti-satellite test in 2007 that produced a great deal of space junk. At an altitude of about 800 kilometers, China destroyed one of its own weather satellites with an anti-satellite missile. Although the test was successful, the satellite shattered into thousands of pieces, which continue to zip around in an orbital cloud of deadly debris.
"A huge percentage of the debris in low Earth orbit is still attributable to that one test," Frank Slazer told CNBC earlier this year. Slazer is the vice president of space systems at the Aerospace Industries Association.
On Wednesday, Slazer said he believes India's demonstration was more intended to show the "capability to counter China or Pakistan, not really the U.S."
But the test represents an unsettling trend for governments and corporations operating in space, as risk increases that valuable assets "could be third-party victims" of nations demonstrating military capabilities in space.
"The more tests like this happen then the more risk there is that there could be impacts on either [rockets] going to space or satellites in low Earth orbit," Slazer said.
— CNBC's Michael Sheetz reported from Englewood Cliffs, N.J.
The image of the Russian MiG-31 in this article was republished with permission by Ship Sash.