Military & Aerospace

The Day After: Thoughts on Future Air Defence
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 22 Apr , 2020

MRSAM Air defense system

The ongoing covid-19 crisis will, like all things, come to pass and end one day. The time that it will take to ‘normalise’ after the pandemic is contained, cannot be said with certainty but what is certain is that the pandemic will end.

Expectantly, then the things will go back to normal; but will it be the pre-Corona normal or a new normal? What will be the degree of change is still in the realm of speculation. One often find Niels Bohr being quoted saying that, ‘Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future’. That notwithstanding, speculate and predict we must for us to be prepared for any future scenario. It may well be so in the future as we face another conflict.


In the prevailing security environment, there is an increased uncertainty resulting in a marked reduction in stability and balance that existed earlier. The lines between states and non-state actors often get blurred making it difficult to identify the nature of threat. Another cause of concern is the technological advances occurring at asymmetric pace at regional and global level, with the dis-coherence between adversaries increasing, giving rise to further instability and thus a push to reliance on unconventional and irregular methods to try and even out against a superior adversary.

The conditions leading to events which result in instability will be experienced in more and more fields for longer durations with the instability becoming the default condition.

Stable conditions will however co-exist in limited spheres and that will make the desired end-state or the culmination point difficult to be defined. It is almost as if there are two, or more, parallel environments co-existing and the warfare will spill over these necessitating the requirement of a force not only capable of fighting across the full spectrum of operations but also across these parallel environments- of old-world mechanised manoeuvre, insurgencies and the newer hybrid warfare over the six domains.

It will no longer be important to win a war till such time a perceived victory can be denied to the adversary. Iraq, with the technologically most advanced Army operating against a rag-tag opponent is a good example of this imbalance and denial of victory. Such conditions and strategic environments will only increase in the future. This will place a heavy demand on the armed forces to define and plan for objectives, and this will also be true of air defences. Only defending the air space and strategic assets will not suffice but denial of air space to the adversary and destruction of his air power in the entire spectrum from ‘nap of the earth’ to ‘near space’ will be more important.

Fifth Generation Air Warfare

The nature of warfare is already fluid with it being conducted across multiple domains and spheres, with no unanimity over the type and generation of warfare we conduct today. While most countries grapple with the industrialized “third-generation” war fought by conventional armies over land and resources, parts of the world are witness to the “fourth generation” warfare that is a conflicts over ideas, waged by “ad-hoc warriors.”

Not surprisingly, there is no unanimity over what generation of warfare it will be and what will the contours of this warfare. While some analysts call it Swarming – the fourth generation, after Melee, Massing and Manoeuvre – wherein the future conflict will see the use of large numbers of dispersed individuals or small groups coordinating together but fighting as a coherent whole. This will be the age of Swarming, the next generation of war or the so-called “fifth-generation”. As per other analysts “fifth-generation” will not feature armies or clear ideas but will be a “vortex of violence,” a free-for-all of surprise destruction motivated more by frustration than by any political aim with coherent plans for the future.

Air forces, on the other hand, have a different take on this. The fifth generation air warfare will encompass and combine aspects such as network-centric approach, the combat cloud operational construct, multi-domain battle and fusion warfare.

The concept is based around interconnectivity and instantaneous sharing of information. The first requirement is of collecting information – done by a “sensing grid” comprising of all components from satellites and AWACS to the grunt on the ground. Each entity act as a sensor and becomes an individual node, capable of uploading and sharing the information. This is done through an “information grid” that receives, processes, stores, protects and communicates information quickly and securely.

The information from the nodes, via data-link connectivity is fed in real-time to the ‘combat cloud’ that is the central repository for all information and can be used to extract the combined ‘big picture’. Instead of a crew or individual only being aware of what is happening based solely on their own sensors, the ‘combat cloud’ provides a wide-area, integrated surface and air picture to all, extending for hundreds of kilometres, vastly improving situational awareness.

The advantage of using the ‘combat cloud’ are obvious- it enables targeting information and designation from one node to be extracted by another without the two directly in communication with each other. This in turn allows the strike aircraft to engage the target without having to use its own on-board sensors. The disadvantage is near total reliance on data and connectivity for success as any corruption or loss of data will lead to either an incomplete or inaccurate ‘big picture’. It can result in uncertainty and loss of engagement of targets or worse, in engagement of friendly or neutral elements. Reliance on data also implies the vulnerability to hacking, physical attack, electronic jamming and cyber-attacks.

The Future Air Threat

Aircraft will be the main face of air threat but will increasingly be complemented, and supplemented by unmanned aerial systems(UAS). The UAS will pose the biggest challenge both qualitatively and quantitatively. Technological advances will make the UAS more capable and lethal increasingly operating across the entire spectrum of conflicts. Swarms of autonomous miniature UAS will pose a serious challenge for providing a comprehensive air defence cover.

Helicopters will only be a marginal and secondary threat while cruise missiles will be a more potent threat.

‘Leakers’ with the capability of going ‘below the radar’ and bypassing air defences will remain a challenge, no matter how advanced the air defences are and pose a serious threat. Suppression of air defence will be a major focus area and there will be need to have counter-suppression techniques in place.

Ballistic missiles with conventional warheads/multiple warheads will be used for tactical as well as strategic purposes. Distinguishing a missile with a conventional warhead or nuclear warhead will be enhance the strategic ambiguity. Though the stated ‘No First Use (NFU)’ policy of the Chinese does exist, will it remain a restraining factor for it? It will be a very different scenario with Pakistan. With Ballistic Missile Defences (BMD) being operationalised by an increasing number of countries, reliance on ballistic missiles with multiple re-entry vehicles, manoeuvrable hypersonic glide vehicles and cruise missiles will increase. To enhance the overall effectiveness of any strike, cyber-attacks – both soft and hard kill, will be carried out simultaneously.

Future Air Defence

The Challenges. As the land forces and the air force operate in their respective domains, a major concern is the integration of the two in a seamless manner. Ideally, the two should have common operating platforms and communications but in absence of the same, the sensor and communication grids should be integrated for relevant users. This is of critical importance for ground based air defences as they will need access to both army and air force networks. Another challenge for the ground based air defence systems (GBADS) will be to cater for the requirement of land forces as they carry out the hybrid fourth/ fifth warfare operations and at the same time counter air operations carried out in a more network centric environment. The GBADS will thus need to straddle across two different environment and should be able to adapt to both.

The air defence systems will be dependent not only on the types of air threats but also the strategic environment in which they are likely to be used and the type of warfare that will be fought in the future. This puts a greater strain on the GBADS as the conflict will be carried over varied terrain, over different generations. This means that the weapons suitable for one environment will not be suitable for another. The need will be thus of a range of GBADS to fulfil varying needs.

Types of GBAD Systems. The AD system will fielded at two strata; strategic and tactical with the National Missile Defence providing the strategic AD cover with the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Defence. This will cover only select areas of national and strategic importance and would remain under the domain of the Air Force. The tactical AD will be employed at the operational and tactical level of which the mainstay will be the surface to air missiles (SAM) – with varying capabilities and ranges but SAMs will not be the end-all of the air defences. They will need to be supplemented by guns and more importantly counter-UAS systems, both hard-kill and soft-kill. It will be prudent to include Directed Energy Weapons (DEW) as a possible GBADS as they offer many advantages over conventional gun systems.

Similarly, Electronic Warfare (EW) systems for soft kill and C-UAS operations will be the preferred option over SAM and guns. For surveillance, Quantum radars, Passive Emitter Locating Systems and Counter Low Observability Radars will need to be integrated in to the surveillance grid.         

Counter ISR systems in form of Long Range SAMs will be required against AWACS and EW aircraft. Counter-Rocket, Artillery, Mortar (C-RAM) systems will be required not only for force protection but also for defence of own systems.

The overall system will need to be multi-layered and the tactical AD system will need to mesh in with the strategic AD system to ensure a seamless integration. Another agency required to be integrated will be the Cyber Defence Agency to protect the AD system from adversary’s cyber-attacks.

System Requirements. Interoperability will be a key requirement to ensure that one type of weapon can be integrated with another. Further, integration across the full spectrum of operations with the supported arms will be a must so that the AD weapon systems are able to operate in all terrain conditions, across the entire range of operations. The other requirements will be

•  Self contained single platform systems,

•  Each unit( individual weapon system) be able to act as a node; hooked on to the grid, and

•  Ability to operate isolated and yet remain integrated with overall operational plan by hooking on to the sensor and information grid.

Integration of Artificial Intelligence (AI) will be important, especially for sensors and information grid operation but it will have to be ‘man-in-the-loop’. The Russian Aerospace Forces have already tested an air defence automatic control system (ACS) fitted with elements of AI that automatically analyses the aerial situation and gives out recommendation on the use of GBADS.

One key requirement in future will be the ability to rapidly converge and disperse in adverse conditions. In this, all entities will need to be mobile and operate ‘shuttered-down’ to be able to operate in NBC environment.

Deployment. The deployment should always be of a mix of weapons to cater for different threats. This should include passive systems for soft kill. As it will not be possible to deploy the required ‘scale of defence’ ab initio, the plans should cater for switching of resources, and build up as per the progress of operations. Mobility will be key factor.

From Deterrence to Denial. Deployment should cater for offensive use of GBADS and forward posture to exploit ranges and deny larger air spaces to the adversary. GBADS should graduate from deterrence to denial. Long range SAMs should be used aggressively to deny the enemy the use of his own air space and ensure punitive damages should he try to use his air power- even over own territory.

Force protection and preservation. GBADS will themselves be a prime target of enemy air forces. Counter-suppression will be important though the threat will be more from EW rather than hard-kill anti-radiation missiles (ARM). Larger AD systems like S-400 themselves will need protection by C-RAM systems.

Organisational Requirements. Incremental build up, and ability to scale down the defences as per the perceived threats will be important. For this, the GBADS should ideally be organised into batteries with a headquarter (down to a battery headquarter) be able to control troops and sections equipped with different types of weapons. The headquarters should be based on incremental, brick system with staff allocated to it as per requirement.


The key factors that are important for future GBADS will be networked weapon systems with the requisite mobility used aggressively for all else will flow from these. Organisations will have to be small, and flexible with minimal logistic requirements and ability to operate independently even while isolated.

It is also important to remember while discussing, and speculating, about the future of warfare is that almost all the contingency plans have actually failed as nations, and armed forces, go about facing the present crisis with very few honourable exceptions who learnt from their past experience. The key to understanding the future may thus lie in our studying the history and past conflicts to make sense of tomorrow and the day after.

Like everything else, it will be the same with air defence.

While we look at the next generation warfare and how it will be fought and won, it may be prudent to look at the past conflicts to understand how face future challenges. A more important thing to remember is that it will exact a heavy price to be prepared for the next war but the price will be heavier if we are not prepared.


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  2. John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, Swarming and the Future of Conflict,
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  8. DimitriosOikonomou, Panagiotis Nomikos, George Limnaios and Konstantinos C. Zikidis, Passive Radars and their use in the Modern Battlefield, Journal of Computations & Modelling, vol.9, no.2, 2019, pp 37-61
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  12. Dr Peter Svenmarck, Dr Linus Luotsinen, Dr Mattias Nilsson, Dr Johan Schubert, Possibilities and Challenges for Artificial Intelligence in Military Applications, Swedish Defence Research Agency SE-164 90 Stockholm
  13. Layton, Peter, Algorithmic Warfare: Applying Artificial Intelligence to Warfighting, Air Power Development Centre, Canberra, 2018
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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Col Mandeep Singh

An Air Defence Gunner, commanded the Regiment during Operation Parakaram and later along the LAC.

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