- PM announced successful missile test days before elections on March 27
- US government sources say similar test failed on February 12: Report
- DRDO, which conducted the test, is yet to respond to request for comment
A month before India's successful test of an anti-satellite missile, right in the middle of election season, a similar test had failed, a leading expert from the Federation of American scientists has claimed. Quoting US government sources, Ankit Panda has written in The Diplomat magazine that a missile tested on February 12 failed after flying for 30 seconds and did not intercept its target, a satellite, likely in low Earth orbit.
Several international observers dispute a statement by the Defence Research and Development Organisation or DRDO at the time that this initial test had met all its objectives.
Anti-satellite tests are some of the most complex to carry out. While India indisputably knocked out an indigenous satellite on March 27 with a "hit to kill" anti-satellite missile, as announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as Mission Shakti, the results of the previous test point to a failure, experts say.
Writing in The Diplomat, Ankit Panda said, "According to US government sources with knowledge of military intelligence assessments, the United States observed a failed Indian anti-satellite intercept test attempt in February." Mr Panda said India did, however, give the United States "a vague heads up" of this impending test.
Based on data collected following the launch of the missile on February 12, US experts were able to conclude that this was an attempt at testing an anti-satellite weapon. The Diplomat report says the test "failed after about 30 seconds of flight".
What is clear, however, is that failed missile tests, particularly anti-satellite missile tests, are some of the toughest to complete and involve being able to detect an enemy satellite while precisely targeting it as it flies in Earth orbit. This involves being able to generate complex algorithms for the missile to make a successful intercept. The "kill vehicle" also needs to be reliable with an advanced seeker to precisely strike the targeted satellite.
Earlier, an article in The New Indian Express, quoting defence officials, had described the February 12 missile test as a success. "The missile had a smooth take off from the launching Complex-IV of the test facility. After a good cross over, it went off. Since an electronic target was used for the test instead of an actual target, the crossover validated the trial," it said.
This statement has been disputed by international experts. According to Vipin Narang, an MIT Professor who focuses on nuclear proliferation and strategy, "Interestingly, there seems to have been a pre-drafted press release that actually made its way to The New Indian Express for what turned out to be a failed 2/12 (February 12) ASAT test."
Ankit Panda said that on February 12, the date of the first test, Indian authorities had notified an exclusion zone in the Bay of Bengal, in effect telling the world that India planned to conduct missile tests in the designated area. This exclusion zone was exactly the same as the exclusion zone announced ahead of March 27 when India did bring down a test satellite.
International observers also point out that the Microsat-R satellite, which India knocked out with the successful test in March, flew over this same area on February 12 as well - clear evidence that it was meant to be targeted in the earlier test. This intercept, The Diplomat article said, could never be completed.
NDTV has asked the DRDO, which carried out the missile tests, for comment. There was no response at the time of this article being published.