Science

Two ‘Shaktis’ — many similarities, some contrasts

M Somasekhar Hyderabad | Updated on March 30, 2019 Published on March 30, 2019

Power ride The A-SAT, with advanced technologies like Infrared Imaging Radar seekers, was successfully tested from the Wheeler Island, off the Odisha coast

2 decades after the nation made big-bang nuclear entry, it is a space superpower, too

In two decades, India has flexed its technology muscle twice. The first time in the depths of Earth and the, second, high in the sky. The country resoundingly announced its entry as a nuclear power in 1998 and as a space power in 2019.

There are several interesting parallels in the two historic shifts in India’s march, or as critics term it ‘Jingoism’, in the global comity of nations with strategic scientific capabilities.

The first prominent feature being the BJP-led government’s bold and calculated decisions, on both occasions.

On March 27, the BJP-led NDA Government, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, announced that a satellite in the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) at 300 km was destroyed in three minutes using an advanced missile and confirmed India as a space power.

The A-Sat, a new three-stage missile built by defence scientists with advanced technologies, flew 300 km in three minutes, targeting a tiny moving Indian satellite. The PM proclaimed to the nation via a broadcast: “India has joined US, Russia and China as the fourth nation to have this capability.”

Operation SHAKTHI

In contrast, in 1998 Atal Behari Vajpayee, who was leading a coalition of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), with the BJP as the single largest Party surprised everyone by going in for the nuclear explosions.

In the deserts of Pokhran on May 11 and 13, India carried out a total of five explosions, including a thermonuclear, or Hydrogen, bomb. Vajpayee announced that India had conducted three tests successfully to become a full-fledged nuclear nation.

Pokhran-1, code-named ‘Smiling Buddha’, was carried out in Pokhran in 1974 under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. It attracted severe sanctions. Coincidentally, both the ‘top secret’ operations have been code-named Shakti.

In 1998, Pokhran-II, PM Vajpayee had R Chidambaram and APJ Abdul Kalam from the Atomic Energy and Defence establishments to execute the nuclear tests. R Santhanam from the Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO), coordinated the effort.

The foundation for the underground, simulated tests was laid by the Congress (I) regime under Prime Minister, PV Narasimha Rao. Kalam was the then Scientific Advisor to the Defence Minister and DRDO and Chidambaram, the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC).

Shakti 2019 was led by G Satheesh Reddy, Scientific Advisor to the Defence Minister and Chief of the DRDO, in co-ordination with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). Interestingly, the entire exercise seems to have been executed in two months. The downed satellite was launched by ISRO in January 2019.

Timing and Implications

An entirely new missile called A-SAT, measuring 12-13 metres, with advanced technologies including RLG-based Gyroscope and Infrared Imaging Radar seekers, that gave it the ‘homing and kill’ ability of a moving object was indigenously built and successfully tested from the APJ Abdul Kalam (Wheeler Island) Island, off the Odisha coast.

The basic technological capability to destroy satellites was established around 2011-12 by the DRDO, when it demonstrated an interceptor missile destroying an incoming missile in simulations. VK Saraswat, then DRDO chief and mentor to Satheesh Reddy, had announced that it was possible to destroy enemy satellites with missile power.

The timing of the A-SAT missile test has raised an outcry from the Opposition as the elections to the Lok Sabha will begin on April 11.

The claim that India has become stronger and that its security concerns are more secure under the leadership of Modi is the theme that the BJP is building up as a key campaigning pitch.

The Indian Air Force’s dramatic strike on a terrorist camp in Balakot, inside Pakistan, as a strong retaliation to the Pulwama attack on a CRPF convoy that left about 50 Jawans dead, is another demonstration of strength, says the BJP.

While the Opposition parties have carefully lauded the efforts of the IAF and the defence scientists, they are attributing political motives to the Modi regime. Modi and the BJP are leading the NDA, with the party having won 282 seats and independently getting a majority in 2014 and the country a reasonably strong, growing economy.

International response

On the international front, the Star War act has attracted a subdued response. The US said it was tracking the event and the issue of space debris, while stating its position as a key partner in India’s space and defence programmes.

The big question is: will these decisions by the Modi Government give it political dividends?

In contrast, Vajpayee was leading the BJP, and the NDA, with his party way short of a majority on its own, after the elections in January-March of 1998. Within two months of assuming an ‘unstable’ PM position, Vajpayee decided to conduct the tests.

While it won appreciation at home, the move attracted international condemnation, with the US in the lead.

The US was taken by surprise in 1998, unlike in 1995-96, when it had reportedly detected the preparatory work undertaken by the Congress (I) government of Narasimha Rao and put pressure on it to halt the test.

The NDA government’s political vulnerability and struggling economy got it into many challenges. The Indian nuclear establishment had to brave a series of curbs and sanctions for nearly a decade thereafter.

The provocation for Vajpayee to conduct the tests was more to establish the country as a strategic power in the sub-continent, while trying to win the favour of the people and political allies in the long run. However, just over a year after Pokhran, India ended up engaging Pakistan in the Kargil (May-July, 1999) conflict.

The Vajpayee government fell, when the AIADMK led by J Jayalalitha withdrew support and in the September-October 1999 elections, the NDA came back to power, with the BJP marginally increasing its number to 182 from 180 in 1998. But Vajpayee completed a full term till 2004.

Published on March 30, 2019
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