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India: top secret anti-satellite weapon mission codenamed Project XSV-1

On Wednesday March 27, Prime Minister Narendra Modi used a national address to announce India had “established itself as a space power” by sending an indigenously designed ballistic-missile interceptor up 300 kilometres (190 miles) to destroy a satellite orbiting the Earth, India Defence News reports.

India DRDOs top secret anti satellite weapon mission code named Project XSV 1
March 27, 2019, a date which will live in India's history, as the Project XSV-1 was successfully implemented with the destruction of a satellite by an ASAT weapon indigenously developed (Picture source: via The Indian Express)

The move -- with political overtones just weeks ahead of a national election -- sends a stark message to India’s nuclear-armed rivals, China and Pakistan, and changes Asia’s strategic calculus by proving India has the ability to knock out enemy satellites.

India’s anti-satellite (A-SAT) mission was a top secret one, kept under wraps for nearly 31 months, Indian Defence News reports. Only a handful of scientists knew about it, which was codenamed ‘Project XSV-1.’ For the rest of the team, it was another BMD (Ballistic Missile Defence) campaign, with some upgrades. None knew that a space strike or a ‘kinetic kill’ was in the offing.

The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) officials were told to maintain top secrecy about the project soon after Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave the go-ahead sometime in 2016. Propelled by PM’s go-ahead for the ‘kill’, the DRDO carefully scripted the flight path for one of the top-priority and secret military missions of the millennium. DRDO was told in no uncertain terms that at no point any details about A-SAT missions will be shared on public domain or spoken about. Missile scientists making presentations at various seminars were told to be ‘sure’ about the content that was going out on the public domain, Indian Defense News reports. None knew that A-SAT was in the making, barring a few. There were only six core members who knew what ‘Project XSV-1’ was all about. (The ‘SV’ apparently meant Shakti Vehicle and ‘1’ stood for the first mission.)

After the NDA government came to power in 2014, the DRDO top brass was warned officially many times not to divulge ‘too many details’ pertaining to sensitive strategic missions. Frequent directions went from the PMO (Prime Minister’s Office) and NSA’s office to stay low-key on national missions. The government wanted all ministries, including MoD (Ministry of Defence), to follow strict guidelines when it came to information decimation. Internally, the DRDO is said to have completely camouflaged the mission and almost everyone believed that it was an exo-atmospheric interceptor missile, part of the larger BMD program.

The last six months (end of September, 2018, to March, 2019) were crucial for the A-SAT mission. The DRDO teams were growing in confidence and all proven technologies were carefully scrutinised and fault lines drawn. The missile weighed around 18 tonnes with a height of around 13 metres. It pulverised the Microsat-R, weighing one tonne, within almost three minutes (168 seconds) after the launch.

Thousands of messages poured in on ISRO’s Twitter handle, complimenting the scientists for the successful A-SAT mission. “We are happy that DRDO has achieved a mammoth mission. Even the tracking and hitting a satellite with a missile is not an easy job as it involves many complex scenarios,” an ISRO official said.

Team ISRO is already on a mission mode with PSLV-C45 scheduled to launch 29 satellites on April 1 from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota. The DRDO’s EMISAT is the lone Indian satellite on board this mission. So what next for Project XSV-1? “Nothing has been planned yet. The capabilities are proven and demonstrated,” said an official. Now, it is clear that this fist successful ballistic-missile test changes strategic calculus in Asia. Delhi has ‘established itself as a space power,’ Modi says. And a warning has been sent to China and Pakistan as well.

DRDO labs played a key role in successful test-fire of an anti-satellite weapon system

The Research and Development Establishment (Engineers), known as R&DE and based at Dighi in Pune, developed the ground system for the ASAT, The Indian Express reports. Two facilities of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) in Pune, along with the agency’s unit in Nashik, have played an important role in the development of the anti-satellite weapon system, or ASAT, which was successfully test-fired on Wednesday. The ASAT comprised a Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) Interceptor developed by the DRDO.

The Research and Development Establishment (Engineers), known as R&DE and based at Dighi in Pune, developed the ground system for the ASAT. The High Energy Material Research Laboratory (HEMRL), located at Pashan, and the Advanced Centre for Energetic Material (ACEM) in Nashik have, together, contributed to the motor systems and some other components. All these facilities belong to the Armament and Combat Engineering (ACE) Cluster of the DRDO, which is also headquartered in Pune.

HEMRL, which works in the field of technology related to high explosives, propellants and pyrotechnics, has developed propellants and motor systems for almost all missiles including Prithvi, Agni, Akash and Nag, developed by the DRDO till now. For the ASAT, the HEMRL, along with ACEM, have contributed to the design and development of rocket motors, propellant and state separator systems, said a DRDO scientist. The ACEM, which is the newest DRDO facility and was commissioned in 2009, mainly works in the area of composite propellant processing.

The R&DE, an engineering systems laboratory of the DRDO, has developed the launch vehicle that is part of the ground system of the ASAT. The electro-mechanical engineering wing of the facility has developed the system. “The work on these systems for the ASAT was done over the past one-and-a-half years. But the preparation for the test on Wednesday was on for six to seven weeks. These laboratories in Pune, along with the Armament Research and Development Establishment (ARDE), which is also part of the ACE, have contributed to several key DRDO projects together in the past.” said a senior DRDO scientist.

Among other things, the R&DE has contributed to several in-use defence systems like mobility and counter-mobility systems, chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear defence systems, launch systems for weapons and unmanned aerial vehicles, robotics and unmanned systems. Two of the systems developed by the facility and widely used by security agencies across India is Daksh, a remotely operated bomb detection and disposal system, and Netra, a surveillance UAV.

The HEMRL, on the other hand, has worked in development and testing of solid propellants for rockets and missiles, solid propellants and cartridges for gun ammunition, along with design, development, and fabrication of a range of instrumentation and electronic equipment for study and evaluation of high-energy material.

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