Modern technology has brought about two major changes in the air defence segment of the modern battle milieu. These changes described below, have transformed the very nature of the air defence engagement warranting a change in the rules for conduct of this battle. With advancements in technology in the fields of aviation, missilery, rocketry and unmanned aerial systems the modern aerial threat has undergone a total makeover in which fighter aircraft are not the only objects to threaten the objects on ground. Unmanned constituents of this threat cannot be deterred and have to simply be destroyed, to prevent them from performing their tasks, and some of them can be engaged only by ground-based air defence weapons.
Our hostile neighbours have the capability to seriously threaten our airspace as well as assets anywhere on the ground…
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization defines air defence as, “all measures designed to nullify or reduce the effectiveness of hostile air action.” These include ground and air-based weapon systems, associated sensor systems, command and control arrangements and passive measures (e.g. barrage balloons). It may be used to protect naval, ground, and air forces in any location. However, for most countries, the main effort has tended to be ‘homeland defence’. NATO refers to airborne air defence as counter-air and naval air defence as anti-aircraft warfare. Missile defence is an extension of air defence as are initiatives to adapt air defence to the task of intercepting any projectile in flight.
In some countries such as Britain and Germany during World War II, the Soviet Union and NATO’s Allied Command Europe, ground-based air defence and air defence aircraft had been under integrated command and control. However, while overall air defence may be for homeland defence including military facilities, forces in the field, wherever they are, invariably deploy their own air defence capability, if there is an air threat. A surface-based air defence capability can also be deployed offensively to deny the use of airspace to an opponent.
Until the 1950s, guns firing ballistic munitions ranging from 20mm to 150mm were the standard weapons; guided missiles then became dominant except at the very shortest ranges (as with close-in weapon systems, which use rotary auto cannons). – Wikipedia
The Indian Neighbourhood
India is a large country with vast airspace and a number of neighbouring countries of varying shapes, sizes, ideologies and political structures. While most countries in the region view India as a large, benevolent neighbour, its relations with two countries, China and Pakistan are in a perpetual state of varying degrees of hostility.
The ground based air defence weapons inventory of the Indian army in terms of numbers, is grossly deficient to protect our ever increasing list of vulnerable national assets…
These two countries, avowed friends amongst themselves with a common adversary, have, for this part of the world, large, standing modern armed forces, equipped with modern weapons including state-of-the-art fighter aircraft, a large number of very potent missiles in various configurations along with extremely lethal arsenal of rockets and other very modern, land based or sea borne weapon systems. With their modern inventory of weapons, these ‘hostile’ neighbours have the ability to threaten the entire range Indian maritime activities, the Exclusive Economic Zones and off shore assets, the financial and strategic assets on the Western and Eastern sea boards as well as India’s assets and major population centres anywhere in the country. The military assets of these two countries, in concert or single-handedly, will play a very important role in any future battle.
The Aerial Threat
It is important to highlight the power and reach of modern aerial threat to create a disproportionate advantage for the side with a superior, state-of-the-art, full spectrum range of modern aircraft and other constituents of the aerial threat. Our hostile neighbours have the capability to seriously threaten our airspace as well as assets anywhere on the ground.
Protection of our airspace needs modernised and numerically adequate air power as well as ground based air defence weapons, which can, in a coordinated manner, counter the potent and wide spectrum aerial threat. It will be fair to mention here that while we have a fairly modern air force, the ground based air defence weapons inventory of the Indian army in terms of numbers, is grossly deficient to protect our ever increasing list of vulnerable national assets and qualitatively the present inventory, consisting of vintage weapons is simply inadequate to fight an effective air defence battle.
Users of the Airspace
There are two types of users of the air space:
Safety of our aircraft has to have a high priority in any air defence battle and air space management arrangement…
Long Term Users – The Manned Flights: So far the only long term users of the national air space have been various types of aircraft, including fighter aircraft, transport planes and helicopters. An important feature of all these users is that they are all ‘manned’ flying platforms, which can be deterred from performing their tasks.
Short Term Users: These are small projectiles, which occupy the air space intermittently, in large numbers and unless controlled and coordinated they are a potential threat to all aerial activity in the space above them. These users can be air defence artillery shells, meant to deter or destroy any aerial objects within range, air defence missiles, rockets and artillery/mortar shells on high angle trajectories which can accidentally damage aerial platforms. For the present some of the short term users can only be fired when cleared according to the weapon firing status. This arrangement will also need suitable modification.
New Long Term Users: With advancements in missile/rocket technology as well as the introduction of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), now there are new long term users, in much larger numbers, much more than fighter aircraft, which will occupy the same space that was till now available only to aircraft. Presence of these new, unmanned, users, available with our neighbours adds a new dimension to the conduct of air defence battles. The following issues need a mention about these new users:
All the enemy UAS/missiles/rockets approaching or already in our air space will have to be detected, engaged and destroyed before they reach the weapon release line or line of engagement. To prevent collateral damage in own territory, due to debris, where possible, these intruding aerial systems will need to be destroyed within the enemy air space. Such engagements are possible only when ground based air defences with long range detection capability, to look into the enemy air space, and adequately long range for engagement over enemy territory, are deployed at suitable locations with adequate autonomy to neutralise the threat.
Today there are kinetic energy hit-to-kill air defence weapons with nearly absolute kill probability…
Fighter aircraft have the capability to destroy enemy aircraft as well as targets on the ground but fighter aircraft may not be the most suitable and cost effective platform for engaging and destroying this new threat. Theoretically, at least the new long term users of the air space can be in sufficiently large numbers to inundate a given segment of the air space and may not have a suitable target profile for engagement by a fighter aircraft. Also, if this new threat is not adequately detected, engaged and destroyed in time, it can cause unacceptable damage to our national assets as well as tactical assets in the battle field.
Fighter Aircraft – Symbols of National Power:
They take the battle to the enemy. As fighter aircraft occupy the air space for long durations, they are very versatile weapon platforms capable of need-based, high speed manoeuvers, moving in predictable directions, they have equipment with which they can dominate the space around them and cause large scale destruction of multiple targets on the ground. Some of the modern fighter aircraft have the capability to remain invisible even to the modern radar systems. Fighter aircraft are symbols of national power and they carry the war into the enemy territory completely annihilate the enemy’s war waging capability by destroying the enemy’s ability to fight a battle as well as provide support to ground operations.
An important aspect regarding employment of air power more offensively is to free the fighter aircraft from air defence duties to the extent possible so as to focus on long term, detailed destruction of the enemy. Safety of our aircraft has to have a high priority in any air defence battle and air space management arrangement. To prevent fratricidal conflict situations, for the present, all ground-based weapons are kept on hold for as long as the friendly aircraft are overhead or are expected to be routed over the ground based air defences. This arrangement needs an urgent review because of the following:
Historically, gun-based air defence with very low kill probability, was assigned the role of deterring the aerial threat…
• Tools offered by modern technology allow an unprecedented level of battlefield transparency and situational awareness that nearly all fratricidal conflict situations can be foreseen and prevented. We need to evolve procedures, which will not restrict the ground-based air defence weapons for more than the barest minimum time to ensure safe passage for the friendly aerial platforms.
• The technology for in-flight recognition (Identification Friend or Foe) is available for preventing any fratricidal engagements. We need to invest resources to either acquire the most modern version of this technology or develop it in the country to ensure safety of friendly aircraft.
• The potential of modern ground-based air defence weapons to detect, engage and destroy hostile aerial activity, a very high proportion of which will be unmanned, should not be constrained because of the operational requirements.
• The tactical battle area where the mechanised formations are positioned to undertake massive offensive action have a very high density of units engaged in battle or awaiting action. These units and formations, which can enter and capture the enemy territory, destroy enemy forces and obtain a decisive outcome, will be prime targets for the entire spectrum of air threat. Unless adequately protected at all times, these equipment intensive, mechanised, offensive formations are very vulnerable to enemy aerial threat. The weapons protecting these units and formations in the tactical battle area must be afforded the maximum opportunity to perform their task without any undue restrictions.
• Another aspect which needs to be recognised is that no nation can afford the number of fighter aircraft, which can protect all our national assets. All of these assets will be threatened by the new entrants to the threat spectrum, which can be countered only by the ground based air defence weapons. Some of these assets are so important that they must have round-the-clock protection. Air defence weapons protecting these assets must have adequate opportunity to engage and destroy the threat.
Thus a priority area for modernisation would be a system, which prevents conflict situations between friendly aircraft and ground-based air defence weapons while allowing optimum utilisation of all the resources with minimum possible restrictions on either side. Such a system must recognise the potential of modern air defence systems to destroy new types of air threats and allow sufficient opportunity to accomplish their assigned missions.
The main aim of ground-based air defence in war is to inflict a very high level of attrition on the enemy aerial threat…
While discussing the role of ground based air defence weapons, especially the ones available with the Indian army, we are looking at an antiquated 40-year old gun system with very low performance parameters. Our missile systems, though theoretically very effective, have just outlived their utility. They will not kill enemy aircraft in the numbers sufficient to make a difference. This, however, is a sad commentary on our priorities, acquisition process and the inability of the army hierarchy to insist on allocation of resources for modernisation of the army’s air defence inventory.
Modern state-of-the-art air defence weaponry has reached a stage that, when deployed in adequate configurations, it can assure near total destruction of the detected and confirmed hostile threat. Besides high kill probability, today there are kinetic energy hit-to-kill air defence weapons with nearly absolute kill probability. It needs no emphasis to state that suitably equipped and quantitatively adequate ground-based air defence weapons are the most appropriate counter-measures to destroy the threat of UAS, missiles and rockets.
Introduction of these new users has changed the dynamics of the way in which air defence battle is conducted. Use of fighter aircraft to undertake this task will be a gross wastage of very valuable war fighting assets. Modern air defence weapons with very high kill probability will need adequate autonomy and space to operate and destroy the threat without endangering the friendly aerial activity.
Role of the Ground Based Air Defence
The present role of our ground-based air defence is to ‘deter or destroy’ the low level aerial threat in the depth areas and the low and medium level aerial threat in the tactical battle area.
Quantitatively, our air defence weapons are not enough to protect all our strategic military assets…
Concept of Deterrence
Historically, gun-based air defence with very low kill probability, was assigned the role of deterring the aerial threat with any destruction of the threat as bonus. Aerial targets, primarily aircraft, were difficult to detect and difficult to identify and the gun-based weapons fired a combination of ammunition with tracers, smoke and high explosive. With very high rates of fire, a large number of weapons deployed for protection of important assets attempted to create a lethal obstruction in the projected path of the threat aircraft. If none of the shells hit the aircraft then tracers and smoke in the close vicinity of the cockpit deterred the pilots from pressing home the attack. Air Defence Artillery, with its massed fires, has indeed preserved a number of national assets and in the process has destroyed countless number of enemy aircraft.
In India, we have persisted with the concept of deterrence because nearly 99 per cent of the inventory of the army’s air defence today is either obsolete or obsolescent. While this kind of information may be music for our Eastern and Western neighbours we have no choice but to provide qualitatively adequate and numerically sufficient numbers of weapons, which can detect the aerial threat at sufficiently long ranges, preferably while over enemy territory and engage the threat to decisively destroy it. This modernisation is overdue by over more than a few decades. Reasons for this state of affairs, amongst many others, maybe:
- Domination of decision making on modernisation of the Indian army by military hierarchy who do not seem to either understand or acknowledge the significant contribution, which ground-based air defences will make in the battles of the future.
- Dominance of air defence discourse in India by the Indian Air Force.
A modern air defence system, assisted by a state-of-the-art early warning system, is capable of detecting a hostile aerial target even before it enters our air space…
Aim of Ground Based Air Defence
The main aim of ground-based air defence in war is to inflict a very high level of attrition on the enemy aerial threat by physical destruction of hostile aerial objects. In the absence of substantial destruction, the enemy aerial assets must be deterred from causing any damage. This basic aim must drive the formulation of concept of employment and force structuring of ground-based air defence of any nation. To perform the task of destroying enemy’s aerial assets, the ground-based air defence weapons need an operational arrangement, which when deployed in adequate numbers, allows largely unrestricted exploitation of their potential. These weapons also need to be qualitatively appropriate to detect, engage and destroy an increasingly modern and sophisticated threat, at sufficiently long ranges before they can threaten and destroy our ground based assets.
In case of the Indian Army’s Air Defence, for the present, the doctrinal expectation is, primarily, to deter the threat with a very restrictive procedural regime in which freedom to fire is only selectively available. Also, quantitatively, our air defence weapons are not enough to protect all our strategic military assets warranting a major exercise in prioritisation to allocate the meager availability of resources. Qualitatively as well, our air defence inventory is simply inadequate to fight a successful destructive battle.
Description of a Conventional Air Defence Engagement
A typical air defence engagement is essentially a duel between two combatants. One of the participants in this combat is a state-of-the-art fighter aircraft, highly manoeuverable and a formidable weapons platform equipped with an array of guns, missiles, rockets, smart bombs, radars and communication equipment and can be invisible to avoid detection. It is completely aware of its entire flying environment, can locate and engage with pin-point accuracy the selected targets on the ground and can deliver a devastating attack with its weapon loads from stand-off distances, well beyond the range of conventional air defence weapons.
Protection of the national air space, is presently, a joint service responsibility, in which the Indian Air Force is the senior partner…
The other participant in the combat is a nominated ground-based weapons system, from amongst a large inventory of modern ground-based air defence weapons, which at the point of engagement, is primarily static. This modern air defence system, assisted by a state-of-the-art early warning systems and very effective, real time operational control, is capable of detecting a hostile aerial target even before it enters our air space, establish the type of target and its identity and engage to destroy it before it can deliver its weapons load or do any damage.
The Present Day Air Defence Engagement
Some important aspects about the modern air defence engagement merit a mention. Modern aerial threat today has a number of other very potent aerial objects, besides the fighter aircraft, which constitute the threat and can cause significant damage. These new constituents can be various types of missiles, rockets or Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS). Two issues which distinguish the new entrants are, firstly, they do not have human pilots, in their bodies to fly them and secondly most of them, with the exception of the UAS, carry a warhead and once launched, will fly a straight, predictable trajectory to the assigned target unless destroyed by a ground based air defence weapon. These new threat elements will be in much larger numbers and most of them will be suitable for engagement only by ground based air defence weapons. It needs to be stated again that the Indian air defence presently has none of the modern weapon systems, which can effectively participate in the above-mentioned duel. Reasons for this state of affairs need to be analysed and remedied.
Air Defence Of India – A Joint Service Responsibility
The air defence of India, which includes protection of all critical national assets against aerial threat as well as management and protection of the national air space, is presently, a joint service responsibility, in which the Indian Air Force is the senior partner. This delineation of responsibility historically devolved on the Indian Air Force because it was the only and major user of the airspace. The basic premise for this senior role, in view of the inadequacy of ground-based air defence equipment and absence of detailed procedures for exercising real time operational control, was to prevent fratricide and ensure safety of own aircraft and pilots.
The Indian Army, the only major modern army in the world, still has L/70s as the mainstay of its air defence inventory…
Low Performance Ground-Based Air Defence Weapons – Deterrence Predicated
Restricting the then low performance ground-based air defence weapons (40mm L/60, manual guns), which had very low kill probability and low range and were supported by rather primitive Control and Reporting systems, it was possibly the right solution. Because of the availability of rather low capability weapons, the then air defence artillery was expected to ‘deter’ the enemy aircraft. The L/60s were replaced in the early 1970s with 40mm Bofors L/70 guns. These radar controlled guns were also capable of firing without radar control. In the absence of any substantial early warning about approaching hostile aircraft as well as any decision support system to positively establish the hostile identity of the aircraft, these guns were only a marginal improvement on L/60s. Incidentally, the Indian Army, the only major modern army in the world, with a massive modernisation budget, still has L/70s as the mainstay of its air defence inventory.
Deterrence and the Need for Change
These guns with ranges of 1.5 to 2.5 km had one common feature; both guns were capable of firing what was then a fairly high rate of fire with a mix of high explosive and tracer ammunition, approximately in the flight path of the aircraft. The tracer illuminated trajectory made the pilot aware of ground fire and high explosive ammunition gave a smoke puff when the self destruct element exploded making the pilot conscious of the need to move away. A very large number of shells exploding in the flight path of the aircraft created a wall of high explosive through which the aircraft could pass and be destroyed. The possible inability of the pilot to press home an attack, while avoiding the exploding shells, in an act of self preservation, was the expected deterrence to preserve the assets on ground.
It is noteworthy to mention that these very heavy weapons, capable of providing static or semi-static cover, were mostly deployed, with some rare exceptions, at the airfields and some strategic assets in the depth areas and it was logical to keep these weapons on hold when aircraft were taking off for missions or were returning after performing their assigned tasks. The basic concept for employment of ground-based air defence continued to be of deterrence, with any kills as bonus. Given the then status of battlefield transparency and low situational awareness capabilities the concept of deterrence was the logical choice. These air defence weapons were expected to only, occasionally, hit and destroy the threat.
The modernisation of the Indian Army’s air defence inventory is trapped for the last over two decades in a carousel of Defence Procurement Procedures…
An important aspect about the present day ground-based air defence weapons globally is that while the modernisation of the Indian Army’s air defence inventory is trapped for the last over two decades in a carousel of Defence Procurement Procedures, modern technology has given unprecedented capability to air defence weapons to detect, identify, engage and destroy any hostile aerial threat well before it can do any damage. We will need these weapons in large numbers to counter the very modern aerial threat. Also, the concept of deterrence has outlived its utility and needs an urgent review to allow ground-based air defence weapons to perform their assigned task without any let or hindrance. We need a doctrinal change, which expects the air defence weapons to ‘Destroy’ the threat.
Modern Aerial Threat and High Kill-Capable Ground-Based Air Defence Weapons
Modern technology has brought about two major changes in the air defence segment of the modern battle milieu. These changes, described below, have transformed the very nature of the air defence engagement warranting a change in the rules for conduct of this battle. With advancements in technology in the fields of aviation, missilery, rocketry and unmanned aerial systems the modern aerial threat has undergone a total makeover in which fighter aircraft are not the only objects to threaten the objects on ground. Unmanned constituents of this threat cannot be deterred and have to simply be destroyed, to prevent them from performing their tasks, and some of them can be engaged only by ground-based air defence weapons.
This, when viewed against the advancements in technology in the fields of ground-based radars, missiles and guns to detect a threat at long distances, establish its hostile identity in real time, assign the most appropriate response to effectively engage and destroy the complete spectrum of aerial targets, calls for a completely fresh approach to assigning an appropriate role to ground-based air defence, which allows them the freedom to exploit their potential.
In conclusion, these assertions need to be restated – one, we need to revise our air defence doctrine to assign to ground-based air defence weapons the primary role of destroying the hostile aerial threat well before it can cause any damage to our national assets. This basic premise should drive our training and all our acquisitions to modernise the ground-based air defence. Deterring the aerial threat should be a secondary role. Two, we need to revise our operational procedures to ensure nearly complete freedom of action to ground-based air defence weapons irrespective of their location.