“Invincibility lies in the defence; the possibility of victory in the attack.”
Understanding the Air Defence Battle
The wars in the last three decades have demonstrated the indisputable dominance of aerospace power. Its capability to shape the sequence of events in the battlefield and its enormous impact on the operations of surfaces forces have brought in a paradigm shift in the fundamental war-fighting concepts. The role of aerospace power in the Gulf War (1991), Kosovo (1999) and Iraq War (2003) undoubtedly demonstrated the significance of overwhelming the adversary’s Air Defences for achieving complete air dominance. These wars were fought under grossly asymmetric conditions which may not be the situation in the future wars in Asia. Air Defence (AD) operations would remain central and critical to the survival of offensive forces. The technological revolution in the field of military aviation, anti-radiation weapon systems, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), ballistic and cruise missiles, and space-based Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) technologies have added new complexities in the planning and execution of Air Defence
While the AD of the country is the responsibility of the Air Force, providing terminal AD cover to certain strategic assets and low and medium level cover to Army assets in the Tactical Battle Area (TBA) is the responsibility of the Army AD. Due to the large number of assets that merit AD protection, the Army AD is in the process of evolving from point AD to a concept of Area AD cover by theaterisation of AD assets. This involves central allocation of the AD resources within to provide area coverage within the theatre with point defence to critical assets, along with dynamic allocation and re-allocation based on the varying air threat, to meet the overall requirement.
The Air Defence setup relies upon engaging the airborne platforms before it can release its armament, thereby denying it the opportunity to carry out effective targeting. This has been possible with a large variety of sensors of the three services which provide Early Warning (EW) of the threats, providing multi-spectral acquisition and tracking, while reducing the efficacy of the adversary’s ECM quests. However, these systems are in the process of integration, in being able to talk to each other, to provide an automated integrated EW solution. The threats are then countered by aircrafts and AD weapons of the three services, highlighting the need for central control and coordination.
Decoding the Future Air Threat
In today’s context, the acceptability of losses, civil or military, has reduced considerably. However, with the advancement of technology, the Air Threat is expected to multiply manifolds. The possible manifestations of the future Air Threat are:-
Stealth Aircraft. Improved designs to include contoured airframes, heat suppression exhausts and radar absorbent materials are enabling aircrafts to achieve low detectability. The employment of nanotechnology has further enhanced this capability. These are likely to pose a potent threat due to their ability to enter own airspace undetected and target key installations during critical stages of battle.
Stand-off Capability and Smart Munitions. The new generation munitions employed with new generation avionics and fire control systems have the capability to engage targets at standoff ranges, without entering the threat envelope of the AD weapon systems. This combined with the improved accuracy of smart munitions owing to inertial/GPS guidance has increased the air threat to important assets.
SpaceThreat. The use of space for warfare, while prohibited, has already seen showcasing of capability to destroy satellites. Capabilities to employ satellites to carry out strikes are also being developed. In today’s era where warfare is largely dependent on communication and data transfer, the weaponisation of space and its usage for strikes, poses a formidable, though remote, challenge.
Attack and Armed Helicopters. These platforms, besides having greater endurance and agility will have limited exposure due to mast sights and greater lethality due to improved fire control systems and weapons. Guided munitions will enable engagements by rockets and missiles with greater lethality, while permitting the helicopter to remain outside the effective range of AD gun systems. The short exposure duration precludes their engagement by many of the existing missile systems.
Ballistic and Cruise Missiles. AD cover against ballistic missiles involves complex calculations of trajectory. The problems are compounded in case of exoatmospheric ballistic missiles where the trajectory on re-entry into the atmosphere becomes unpredictable. Tracking and prediction of future position of cruise missiles poses even greater challenges due to programmable flight paths. Since the Surface to Surface Missile (SSM) threats are difficult to engage with kinetic means, alternate means of engagement need to the developed.
UAVs/ UCAVs. UAVs and UCAVs have a low radar cross-section and fly at high altitudes making detection and tracking difficult. They are relatively cheaper being remotely piloted and can thus be employed on dangerous missions for a variety of surveillance and strike tasks. Owing to the profile of the drone, they remain outside the height ceiling of AD Guns while engagement by missiles is not cost effective. They represent the future of air warfare especially for close air support in the Battle Zone.
Drone Swarms. With increased miniaturisation of drones, it is becoming increasingly possible to employ them for a variety of tasks with different payloads. They can be employed in large swarms to saturate the air space, which makes their engagement by a limited number of AD weapons futile. Armed with a small payload of explosives carried to the target with pin-point accuracy, can lead to catastrophic results. The conventional AD systems are inadequate to handle such a threat and new options for the same need to be explored.
The technological advances in the field of avionics and armament takes place at a very fast pace and counter measures aiming to defeat today’s technology are already in effect by the time they are developed and produced. Thus, there is a need to plan for countering threats likely to be faced in the years to come to offset the time lag in production. With a view to counter the emerging future threats, some capabilities that must be acquired in addition to the LTPP are:-
Early Warning Sensors. Modern radars systems such as milllimetric wave, active phased array and multi band radars with ECCM measures need to be procured for the TBA. Systems like the Sunflower over-the-horizon low frequency radar of Russia are capable of defeating stealth, Terra & Spectra of Israel AN-TPY-2 of US and Sampson & S1850M of UK are some of the modern EW sensors available in the world. Advanced nations are also increasingly relying on airborne radar systems such as AWACS, JSTARS and aerostats for long range early warning. While India has also acquired some of these systems, there is a paucity of numbers and integration issues with the ground forces.
Identification Friend or Foe (IFF).
While the present IFF system relies on transmission of a query signal from the ground and reply transmission by the aircraft, the same is prone to deception and errors due to versions/vintage of the equipment. The future IFF should be based on Non-Cooperative Target Recognition (NCTR), where the profile of the target such as Radar cross-section, reflectance, emissions and precise special measurements of components is compared with existing database, without letting the object know it is being profiled. While this technology is still is the nascent stages, it must not be lost sight of, in the development/ procurement process.
Communications and Decision Support.
The integrated data from the sensors needs to be transmitted through a robust and secure communications network, in real time, to a decision authority, in static as well as mobile mode. All leading AD systems across the globe such as Iron Dome, S-400 complex and Patriot provide automated decision support solutions for threat analysis and counter measures. These systems can be programmed to automatically intercept incoming threats including ballistic missiles.
Electronic Warfare Systems. All forms of air threat today including unmanned platforms are vectored onto the target through a communications link and terminal guidance with on-board sensors. Effective denial of the electronic spectrum to the adversary is the most effective way of protection against threats such as drone swarms, where use of kinetic means is uneconomical. Systems like the Krasukha and Kvant SPN series developed by Russia, are ground-based Electronic Warfare systems whose primary targets are airborne radio-electronics of UAVs. Procurement of such systems optimised to defeat airborne ISR systems must be explored.
Anti – UAV/UCAV/Drone Swarm.
Intercepting pilotless platforms poses unique challenges due to difficulty in acquisition and engagement. Two forms of counter measures are feasible viz. soft kill and hard kill. Soft kill measures aim at disrupting the data link and electronic payload through jamming/ electronic deception. The Skylock by Israel is one such system that consists of RF jammers and laser burner against drones, besides the acquisition and tracking systems. Gun systems with very high rates of fire such as Metal Storm of Australia can produce a wall of steel to prevent entry of drone swarms. Such effective options against the most likely future adversary, drones, must also form part of the acquisition plans.
Counter Rocket, Artillery and Mortar (C-RAM). Besides aircrafts and helicopters, there exist other hybrid threats from the third dimension such as rockets and missiles. C-RAM is a set of systems used to detect and/or destroy these threats in the air before they hit their ground targets. The system comprises of high resolution radars capable of multiple target handling integrated with high accuracy weapon systems. Projects such as MANTIS of Germany, THAAD & Phalanx of US, Iron Dome of Israel, Porcupine & Draco of Italy are already in advanced stages. Considering Pakistan’s inventory of Hatf, Shaheen and Ghauri missiles and A-100 & KRL 122 rockets, India must plan to acquire the C-RAM capability to counter such threats to the land forces.
Destruction of the enemy air assets is commonly based on kinetic means viz guns and surface to air missiles (SAM). Other than the SR/ QR/ MR SAMs and Gun-Missile systems planned for induction, there is a need for Long Range Missiles to cover the thrust lines of the offensive forces, as part of the theaterisation concept. The THAAD of US, Antey-2000 & S400 of Russia, Arrow-3 of Israel and Aster-30 of France are suitable options. High efficiency weapons such as EM rail guns being developed by the US can fire projectiles at speeds of upto 5600mph, ensuring better engagements. Research and timely development of such systems must be planned to replace the conventional gun systems.
Directed Energy Weapons. These include beams of focused high energy lasers, electromagnetic pulses, microwaves or charged particle beams to damage the on-board electronics of the airborne threat. Although they require a high amount of energy to function, they are relatively free of other logistics requirements of spares and ammunition. The Kali project of India, Athena by Lockheed Martin, Dragonfire of UK are efforts in this direction and must be factored in to enhance future capabilities.
While it is true that sustained and relentless offensive action brings victory, one cannot overlook defence. There is no denying the fact that a successful offensive cannot be launched without first ensuring security of the striking forces. In the context of Air Defence, the knowledge that the adversary would suffer a high degree of attrition of air assets is a major contributory factor to deterrence.
The race for supremacy between the third dimension vectors and their counters on the ground is an ongoing one, with technology and threats providing essential impetus. There will always be a gap between desirability and availability of AD resources which needs to be bridged with meticulous planning, procurement and training. The weight of these resources is expected to swing in favour of non-kinetic means of defence in the future, which would require a substantial shift of our training and planning methods. In the interim, development and absorption of new technologies and weapon systems is the need of the hour.
While countries keep the development of cutting edge technology under wraps, testing and field trials of these weapons such as Directed Energy Weapons suggest the country’s prowess. Since such technologies are often denied to other states, the only course is to be sufficiently self-reliant in development of such technology. This mandates a sound research and production setup to remain ahead in the on-going race for technological superiority.
Brig. Sumeet Mathur was commissioned into the Corps of Army Air Defence in 1989. The officer has performed many major staff and instructional appointments. Presently the officer is commanding a Mechanised Air Defence Brigade.