NEW DELHI — Joining the select space club of United States, Russia and China, India became the fourth country in the world to shoot down a satellite in low Earth orbit with a missile, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced Wednesday.
The Shakti (which means “power” in Hindi) mission lasted three minutes, and the target was blown up in its orbit 186 miles from Earth, he said, describing it as a “proud moment” for India. The satellite shot down in the test was one the country’s existing satellites. Modi said India developed this capability for defensive purposes.
“We are not just capable to defend on land, water and air, but now also in space,” said Modi, noting the technology was developed “indigenously.”
The test was “overdue,” said Kartik Bommakanti, an associate fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a think tank based in New Delhi. “India had the latent capacity years ago, and Modi is reaping the benefit of that.”
He added: “It is crucial from the national security aspect and the ability to wage war in the future.”
The successful test comes amid broader concerns about the readiness of India’s armed forces for modern battles. It recently engaged Pakistan in its first aerial dogfight in decades. Pakistan shot down an Indian jet and took an Indian pilot into custody.
The incident led to criticism of India’s older aircraft. Though the air force defended its readiness and capability, questions over antiquated military equipment echoed the findings of a March 2018 parliamentary report that categorized 68 percent of the army’s equipment as “vintage.”
In response to news of the test, Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry released a statement discouraging an arms race in space.
“Every nation has the responsibility to avoid actions which can lead to the militarization of this arena,” the statement read. “Boasting of such capabilities is reminiscent of Don Quixote’s tilting against windmills.”
The United States first tested antisatellite missiles in 1958, and China did so as recently as 2007.
The latest feat demonstrates India’s growing ambitions and footprint in space, where its neighbor China is seen as dominant. Last year, the government set aside a budget of $1.43 billion for the country’s first manned mission to space by 2022. The space research organization aims to send a three-member team to space for a week.
Modi tweeted about the coming “important message” an hour before his televised address, leading to intense speculation in the media. The last time Modi suddenly addressed the nation was in November 2016 when he announced the ban on 500- and 1000-rupee notes called demonetization, and plunged the country’s monetary system into chaos for months.,
India goes to polls on April 11 in elections that will last a month before the results are declared on May 23.