DRDO's top secret A-SAT mission codenamed 'Project XSV-1'

Onmanorama Exclusive | DRDO's top secret A-SAT mission codenamed 'Project XSV-1'

Bengaluru: India's anti-satellite (A-SAT) mission was a top secret one, kept under wraps for nearly 31 months to be precise.

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.

"The PM was convinced by the detailed presentation given by DRDO. NSA (National Security Advisor) Ajit Doval too was present in the meeting," an official familiar with Mission Shakti, confirmed to Onmanorama on Thursday.

Propelled by PM's go-ahead for the 'kill' and Doval's directions to stay 'chill,' 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. None knew that A-SAT was in the making, barring a few," the official said.

'Stay low-key'

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.

Probably the new trend of ministers breaking the news and journalists following it up with, had already set in!

Known for 'tall claims' till then, the DRDO went into a shell with the scientists told to focus on work rather than their 'image-building,' exercises.

"Things changed drastically since 2014 and people knew that everything was getting monitored. Everyone was answerable to everything that was in their domain. Not just in the case of DRDO alone, even DPSUs (Defence Public Sector Undertakings) as well," the official added.

Mission mode

Onmanorama Exclusive | DRDO's top secret A-SAT mission codenamed 'Project XSV-1'

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.

"It was virtually a 24x7 mission for many. Leaves and TDs (temporary duty) of those who were part of the mission were restricted. Some of the scientists were also part of other ongoing campaigns of DRDO and their TDs too were monitored," said an official.

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 programme.

BMD cover

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.)

For the DRDO, it wasn't an easy task to mask a mission of such scale with so many scientists and teams involved. It was even tougher to stay under the media radar!

The BMD cover was best suited as PDV (Prithvi Defence Vehicle) was known to all and hence the mission was officially called PDV-MKII.

To many, it was a high-altitude BMD PDV-MKII mission till the end. To many others, it was a new avatar of desi BMD interceptor missile.

And, only to a handful it was 'XSV-1' engaging Microsat-R, a live DRDO satellite in LEO (low earth orbit).

New missile

So what's XSV-1? The DRDO claims it as a completely new missile.

"It was developed specifically for A-SAT mission. Some technologies of BMD interceptor were used. There were many new technologies part of the maiden kinetic kill," said an official.

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.

Even many at the DRDO Bhawan in New Delhi too were clueless about the A-SAT mission aka Project XSV-1.

"Yes, not even many top officials were aware. It was interesting to see many HQ staff making calls to find out the details, soon after PM's announcement, which wasn't the case before. There was complete secrecy about this mission," said a scientist, on technical duties at the DRDO headquarters.

Engagements of the DRDO and Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) too were under wraps. Despite the nation-wide accolades pouring all through for the DRDO and ISRO scientists, there was 'radio silence' from the space agency.

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 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.

(The writer is an independent aerospace and defence journalist, who blogs at Tarmak007 and tweets @writetake.)

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