Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced on Wednesday that India had successfully tested a ballistic anti-satellite weapon by destroying a satellite in orbit. The announcement comes just as India is about to head into elections, and days after reaching a fragile pause in a series of military exchanges with neighboring Pakistan. The action is seen as a potential game changer for the balance of power in the region, with India now essentially having the ability to “blind” Pakistan to military movements and disrupt communications.
While much of the world was paying scant attention, India and Pakistan spent the latter half of February dancing very close to the line of all-out war. On Feb 14, a suicide bomber identified as being part of an Islamist group based in Pakistan attacked a police convoy of security vehicles in the Pulwama district of India, resulting in 40 deaths. After a series of protests, counterprotests, and small-scale skirmishes, a dozen Mirage fighter jets from the Indian Air Force crossed into Pakistan on Feb. 26 and dropped bombs on what was claimed to be a militant training base. The death toll from that attack was estimated to be around 300. Pakistan scrambled its own jets to pursue the Indian planes. The next day, Pakistani fighters crossed into Indian air space, and dropped bombs on unidentified targets. India responded, and in a series of dogfights that slid across borders, an Indian jet was shot down over Pakistani territory and the pilot taken prisoner.
At the beginning of March, Pakistan returned the pilot, a move that was seen as a step toward de-escalating a series of events that were rapidly sliding toward broad conflict. However, tensions have remained high, with both nations directing massive amounts of weapons toward their neighbor. On March 5, the Pakistani navy said it had detected and repelled an Indian submarine entering Pakstani coastal waters, a charge which India has denied.
The pending elections in India have brought an additional level of internal tension to the situation, and Modi pushing the anti-satellite weapon can be, and certainly will be, read as a provocation that challenges Pakistan on technical grounds. Modi has declared the successful shoot down as a “moment of national pride” and an event having “historic impact on generations to come.”
The action will certainly be seen as a threat to other Asian powers, especially China, as India becomes the fourth nation to demonstrate anti-satellite technology in the race to militarize space.