Defending the Defenders: Close Defence of Ground Based Air Defence Weapon Systems
On 12 April 2022, Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov claimed that its Kalibr missiles had destroyed four launchers of Ukrainian S-300 air defence system on the outskirts of the city of Dnipro. Konashenkov also claimed that Russian forces had targeted missile defence systems in three different locations. The claim remained unverified as Ukraine maintained that no S-300 was targeted.
A couple of weeks later Russia claimed that it had destroyed a total of 123 Ukrainian air defence systems (as on 8 March 2022) since the beginning of the conflict while a report by Forbes claimed that Ukraine was losing several S-300 launchers a week. On its part, Ukraine claims to have destroyed a large number of Russian ground based air defence weapon systems (GBADWS) including Pantsir 1M systems during the ongoing conflict. In the fog of war most claims remain unverified and while it may be so in this case there is no doubt that GBADWS of both sides have been targeted and destroyed.
A similar trend of targeting GBADWS can be observed in almost all modern conflicts including the Syrian civil war and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict when the GBADWS were at the receiving end of air and missile strikes. Pantsir 1M system was specifically targeted with the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 and Anka-S combat drones claiming to have destroyed at least 23 Pantsir air defense systems in Syria and Libya with eight more AD missile systems blown up in other Middle East conflicts. All these drone strikes were part of the offensive air operations designed to suppress the adversary’s air defences.
Suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD) is an important aspect of air operations and will continue to remain so but what is of interest is the shift in the weaponry and techniques used to carry out the SEAD missions. Drones and loitering munitions are increasingly being used as they offer relative safety to an air force, as compared to using manned aircraft. Cruise missiles also remain a weapon of choice for SEAD.
As GBAWDS are critical for achieving a favourable air situation that is essential for successful conduct of any operations, air defence systems will remain a prime target and are vulnerable to multitude of threats, it is important to first identify the threats before looking at the techniques to defend them.The main threats to GBADWS are the following:
- Unmanned aerial systems including drone swarms,
- Cruise missiles, and
- Ground threat.
A related issue is the technical limitations of every system that needs to be factored in. All GBADWS have inbuilt limitations in terms of target handling capability, ammunition carriage and availability, operating hours, radar coverage, minimum target altitude and range to list only a few. Due to these limitations not all targets (aerial platforms) within their coverage zone will be or can be engaged.Shown below is representation of what is commonly taken as coverage of S-400 missile system:
It is important to understand that the S-400 cannot or will not engage all enemy aerial platforms in its purported range. This is true for all GBADWS. While it may not be a matter of life-or-death for the GBADWS when the enemy is attacking other targets, it is very critical when the GBADWS itself is being targeted. In most cases it may well threaten thesurvivability of the GBADWS unless adequate measures are taken to defend the site.
Counter SEAD and Survival Techniques
Modern GBADWS have greater range and manoeuvrability, upgraded radar systems, advanced data link and C2 systems than the legacy systems. In addition, advances in automation and computer technology have made many of the formerly sophisticated tasks very simple to perform if not completely handled by a computer thereby easing the pressure on crews. As a result crew training standards are not as critical to operating the system as before. With such systems the more common techniques of countering SEAD i.e. defending the GBADWS are:
- Mobility, dispersal and operating in an emission-control mode making it difficult for the SEAD platform to locate and target the emitters,
- Using long-range (LR) GBADWS to out-range aircraft not equipped with stand-off weapons. Even for platforms with stand-off weapons, the new generation LR GBADWS can engage the aerial platforms well before they can launch the stand-off munition though the number of such GBADWS will be limited and their use will be highly centralised,
- Electronic counter measures
Exploiting the Gap in AD Cover
The measures mentioned above can only work if the GBADWS can engage ALL targets in range but even so some enemy aerial platforms will threaten the GBADWS without being picked by the sensors. The reason can be understood with the help of the following diagram:
(Source: Author’s collection)
The low flying aerial platforms, ‘pop-up’ targets and UAS that may be taking off from the dead zone of the GBADWS will remain undetected for large part of their flight and can thus threaten the GBADWS without the air defences having adequate reaction time to take them down. This implies that even if the GBADWS technically had the capability to engage these threats it may not be able to do so. On the other hand the aerial platforms may be too slow or too low flying that they are outside the coverage zone of the GBADWS. In such cases also the GBADWS can be targeted without the SAM being capable of taking on the threats. Another likely technique is to employ saturation attacks including drone swarms that the GBADWS is overwhelmed and rendered ineffective.
The aforementioned defensive measures can thus be rendered ineffective by the following:
- saturation attacks,
- use of drones,
- employ nap of earth (NOE) technique to approach the target (GBADWS) undetected
- employing attack helicopters
- cruise missiles
With multiple threats, most GBADWS especially the LR GBADWS are ill-equipped to defend themselves. There is thus a need to provide close defence of the GBADWS using both soft and hard kill options.
In April 1965, United States intelligence agencies reported the presence on a new air defence weapon in North Vietnam as reconnaissance flights picked up the deployment of one of the new generation surface-to-air missiles. The deployment pattern made it apparent that it was the SA-2 Guideline. It was not an ‘unknown’ missile system as one of the SA-2s had shot down Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 in 1960. Even earlier, the SA-2s with China had shot down a number of Taiwanese aircraft including a Martin RB-57D Canberra high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft.
(Source – Declassified CIA Archives)
The presence of the SAM in North Vietnam represented an unprecedented threat to the United States Air Forces and the US military commanders wanted to destroy them right away but were denied permission. John T. McNaughton, assistant secretary of defence for international security affairs, even ridiculed the need to strike the SAMs claiming that the deployment of SA-2s was just a political ploy by the Russians to appease Hanoi. The failure to strike early proved costly when the SA-2 downed a USAF F-4C on 24 July 1965.
The F-4C Phantom was one of the four that had been launched for a strike against the Dien Ben Phu munitions storage depot and the Lang Chi munitions factory west of Hanoi. They were accompanied by F-105D Thunder chief fighter-bombers. As they departed after the single pass at the target when the North Vietnamese air defences fired a SA-2. The SAM, not encountered by USAF in Vietnam till date, came up and exploded next to a F-4C destroying it. The remaining three Phantoms were also damaged.
Three days later launched a retaliatory strike codenamed Operation Spring High. As 48 F-105 went in for the strike against the last known location of the SA-2s, the Vietnamese air defences were waiting for them with their 23mm and 37mm AA guns. The strike was a big failure as the air defences shot down six aircraft and damaged more than half of the remaining Thuds suffered damage from groundfire. All the strike achieved was destruction of two dummy sites as the Vietnamese had replaced the SAMs with white-painted bundles of bamboo.
The North Vietnamese had successfully defended the (air) defenders.
The SAMs were a game changer as they now gave the North Vietnamese the capability to take on US aircraft at higher altitudes and deny them the freedom of action enjoyed till now. For this reason itself, the new SAMs were a high priority target for the US and were to be at the centre of the battle between US air forces and North Vietnamese air defences.
The SAM threat multiplied in the coming weeksbut it was not till August 1965 that United States launched Operation Iron Hand to take out the SA-2 sites. Even so the first actual strike against a SAM site was not accomplished until the morning of 17 October 1965 when four A-4E aircraft from USS Independence located and destroyed a SAM site near Kép Air Base, northeast of Hanoi. The operation, and other SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defences) missions continued throughout with both sides adopting new and innovative techniques to come up on top. The North Vietnam was largely successful with the tide turned against them only after the blockade by US Navy.
While the war raged on in Vietnam, the SAMs were at the centre stage in another conflict halfway across the globe. The Arab states were still reeling from the shock defeat during the six day war of 1967 when the 1967 Arab League summit formulated in September the “three no’s” policy: barring peace, recognition or negotiations with Israel and Nasser decided to undertake a war of attrition against Israel with the aim of a full Israeli withdrawal from Sinai. The Egyptian plan for an offensive across the canal had to be put off following the success of Israeli Operation Boxer but Egypt continued with the artillery barrages targeting Israeli positions all along the canal. As the Egyptians had a far better equipped artillery with heavy-calibre weapons than the Israelis, the only option for the Israelis was to use their air force as ‘flying artillery’ to try and correct this imbalance. Israeli Air Force carried out counter-battery strikes from 13 August 1969 onwards. As ensuring air superiority over the canal was important to enable the conduct of these counter-battery missions, the Israeli Air Force regularly targeted the air defences.
With a not so effective air force, Egypt had turned to (the then) USSR for help. Among the weapons supplied by the Soviets were the SA-2, SA-3 and the more modern SA-6, SA-7 and ZSU-23-4B Shilka gun systems. Most of the air defence systems were operated by the Soviet ‘technicians’ of the 18th Special Anti-Aircraft Division as the Egyptians had not yet been fully trained to handle them.Having observed the lessons of Vietnam, the Soviets had deployed the SAMs in ‘boxes’ all along the Suez Canal with short range mobile AD systems deployed ahead to provide close defence. In its very first encounter, a SA-7 detachment shot down an Israeli A-4 on 19 August 1969.
(Source- Operation Kavkaz at http://www.hubara-rus.ru/kavkaz/boi-nad-sueczkim-kanalom.html)
The detachment in question was of the 7th Platoon (Strela-2) that had newly arrived in Egypt. Its personnel had not completed their training as yet but given the continuing Israeli raids had been tasked to cover a SA-2 site located 22km northwest of Suez city. After a detailed reconnaissance to select the most suitable site, the platoon occupied its position on 9 April 1969. On 19 August the Observation Post (OP) picked up two Mirages approaching the SAM site at an altitude of 800-1000m, followed by pair of A-4 Skyhawks. As the aircraft came within the engagement zone, the 2nd detachment fired a SA-7 salvo shooting down a Skyhawk. The pilot Nissim Ashkenazi managed to eject and was taken prisoner. He had taken over as CO of No 102 Sqn just a couple of months earlier. Though the Soviet accounts claim to have shot down two more aircraft in the same engagement, they were only hit and damaged by the SA-7s. The S-75 site remained unscathed. The Israeli account attributed this loss to ground fire. The SA-7 remained ‘unknown’ to Israel yet.
The firing positions of the Strela-2 MANPADS detachments were selected by the Soviets at a distance of 4-12 km from the SAM site with Observation Posts (OP) echeloned in the most likely approached. In some cases, a small number of MANPADS were located in close proximity to the SAM site to take on aircraft inside the dead zone of the SAMs. The first time the Israelis identified a Strela hit was on 15 October when a Super-Mystere was damaged by ‘a surface- to-air missile of the US Redeye type.’ All IAF squadrons were instructed to raise attack altitude to over 6,000 feet and to minimize the aircrafts’ “heat signature.”
These new systems (i.e. the Strela 2Ms) proved to be effective in providing close defence to the SAM sites as a result of which the frequency and intensity of air attacks on the SAM sites came down. According to the Soviet sources, the Strelas shot down 15 Israeli aircraft in 1969 and 5 in 1970. The lesser number of aircraft in the second year was due to the change in tactics adopted by Israeli aircraft as they now stayed away, attacking from greater height. More important than the number of aircraft shot down, the efficacy of Israeli air attacks and SAM losses came down.
The practice of providing AD weapons for close defence was followed during the India-Pakistan war of 1971 also. By now, Indian Air Force had inducted SA-2 and SA-3 SMAs of Soviet origin and realising the need to protect these assets, AD Troops equipped with L/70 guns were deployed at select SAM sites for their close defence.
The practice of using short range AA systems for close defence was continued during the Yom Kippur War. Operation DOOGMAN 5 launched by Israel on 7 October 1973 to destroy the Syrian SAM batteries on the Golan front ended in a failure as Israel could only destroy 1 SAM site for the loss of 6 aircraft with another six aircraft destroyed. This failure meant that the Israeli Air Force did not attempt another large-scale operation against SAMs for the remainder of the war.
The other fallout of the use of Strelas was that strafing, so effectively carried out by Israel in 1967, was all but negated. In the end it was the use of armour that gave an opening to the Israeli Air Force as the tanks rolled back the SAM batteries. Israel claimed to have destroyed 34 SAM batteries. With no close defence from the armour threat, this was inevitable.
The other conflicts that followed notably the operations in Bekaa Valley, Iraq and Kosovo did not see the use of Soviet tactics of providing close defence to the SAMs due to which the SEAD missions against SAM sites were largely successful. Another reason for the success of SEAD missions in recent times has been the use of drones for strike against SAMs. The Nagorno-Karabakh and Russia-Ukraine conflicts are two such recent conflicts where the main SEAD operations were carried out by using drones and the presence, or absence, of anti-drone systems was critical for the defence of GBADWS.
An added threat that has taken serious dimensions is from the non-state actors using drones as was seen in Syria and Saudi- Yemen conflict. One of the major incidents was in 2018 when drone attackswere carried out by the ‘rebels’ against the Russian base at Hmeimim. While most of the drones are downed by Russian or Syrian air defences before reaching their target, some managed to penetrate the defences though these were neutralized by soft kill systems.
Providing Close Defence
Provision of integral close defence troops (or detachments) equipped with man-portable SAMs and AA guns to the SAMs was first tried out in Egypt, and then in Vietnam. The Soviets integrated SA-7 detachments in the AD Batteries organic to Tank and Motorised Rifle Regiments (Brigades) with the battery having a platoon each of the ZSU-23- 4 Shilkas and the SA-9 SAM. Thesquad of three SA-7 SAM gunners was placed directly under the regimental headquarters. As the Soviet manual noted “The SA-7 SAM squads of the three motorized rifle companies supplement the coverage provided by the ZSU-23-4 section or platoon. The three gunners of SA-7 squad may be placed near the ZSU-23- 4 section or platoon. The ZSU subunit leader may be given some degree of control over these SA-7 gunners in such a situation.”
The weapon system used for close defence changed over the years as new systems got inducted. One such system is the Pantsir 1M that was developed for air defence of point and area targets, mechanised troops or as defensive asset of higher ranking air defence systems like S-300/S-400(emphasis added). They are used in “tandem” to ensure both – better coverage and close defence. As a report by the Jamestown Foundation noted that Pantsir 1M is deployed along with Electronic Warfare (EW) elements is support of S-300/-400 systems.
While it may be Similarly, for other LR SAMs there would a need for dedicated short range AD systems (SHORAD) for close defence and to enhance target handling capability. This is important as the short range, immediate threats should be taken on by the SHORAD that are within the capability of SHORAD and other AD weapon systems so that the LR SAM can focus on more important threats.
Close defence of LR GBADWS is an important aspect that needs to be ensured by deploying suitable systems like VSHORAD and C-UAS systems as mutual defence and layered defence alone will not provide the required level of defence to the GBADWS. While the selection of the SHORAD may depend on the asset to be defended and other factors, there is an inescapable requirement of integrating close defence resources for the LR SAM.
The present spectrum of air threat is such that hard kill weapons alone will not ensure defence of the GBADWS and soft kill systems will also be required for the same. Similarly, it will be erroneous to assume that drones are the main, if not the only, threat, and deployment of C-UAS systems will suffice. There is a need of a mix of weapon systems i.e. both hard and soft kill systems for close defence of LR SAMs.
Using the valuable assets i.e. the LR SAM for self-defence will result in not only frittering away its resources (missiles available to the SAM unit) but will create a void in air defence cover for the field formations and strategic assets.
End Note. The classification of Long Range, Medium Range, Short Range, Very Short range AD Systems may vary. For sake of discussion, any weapons system with range more than 40-50Km should be considered as long-range for the purpose of requiring integrated close defence assets.