Military & Aerospace

Tiered Defence: Putting the SAM in Perspective
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Issue Vol. 31.4 Oct-Dec 2016 | Date : 23 Jan , 2017

Akash SAM on T-72

There are questions as to why Ground Based Air Defence Weapon Systems (GBADWS) must be deployed in a layered and tiered fashion to provide an optimal degree of air defence cover to the assets being protected against a possible air threat from the adversary. The following paras aim to remove the cobwebs of confusion in the Air Defence SAM inventory and highlight the significance of the latest tests of Medium Range SAMs (MRSAMs) conducted by DRDO and IAI of Israel at the Integrated Test Range (ITR) at Chandipur off the coast of Odisha on June 30 and July 01, 2016.

Keeping the current and the futuristic air threat in mind, whatever may be the range and depth of SAMs that may be deployed at higher ranges and altitudes, the end game at the terminal end was most critical…

Building the Macro Picture

Around the late sixties, air threat was mainly prosecuted by the binary power of aircraft and helicopters; both fair-weather machines of first/second generation with such munitions as front guns and unguided bombs and rockets. On the other side, the Vulnerable Areas/Points (VAs/VPs) to be protected by GBADWS were limited and essentially required fair weather protection from the above said threat vehicles, largely executing their end game in the visual domain. The resultant trend was to deploy multiple rings of terminal AD guns around the vulnerabilities to be protected in the ‘point defence’ mode or go for ‘carpet layouts’ (increasing densities of guns) where the VA/VP was that critical. As time rolled, two dimensions of the air threat became increasingly visible. First was the multiplicity of air threat vehicles and the second was the exponential rise in their range and reach. In that, the erstwhile binary pair of aircraft and helicopters was joined by UAVs/UCAVs besides ASMs/Cruise Missiles/ARMs and more. Also, as time rolled, the technology made possible quantum jump in all-weather capability, longer range, deep strike, precision and stand-off capabilities of the attackers. In short, the sting of severity and lethality in the air threat vehicles got a paradigm upward shift over time.

Today, the era of the 21st century air combat prosecuted by the FGFAs (sixth generation not far) in growing concert with the dull, dirty and dangerous unmanned machines, (Manned and Un-Manned Teaming/MUM-T), all-weather, all-aspect stealth, nano-driven structurally lighter and stronger airframes with minimal Radar Cross Section (RCS), Common Data Links (CDL) providing seamless connectivity across dissimilar platforms, high survivability in hostile EW environment and armed to the teeth with precision arsenal, capable of taking out the proverbial ‘needle in the haystack’ from increasing stand-off ranges.

The Unenviable Defender

Faced with all the above and more, the air defence warrior has been through huge challenges. His side of the macro-picture developed as in the following paragraphs.

The air defence warrior has been through huge challenges…

Over time, the sheer numbers of VAs/VPs saw a tremendous exponential rise, as more and more assets came under the ‘attack-able reach’ of constantly re-vamping air threat vehicles. It soon became impossible to protect each one of them in the ‘point defence’ mode. ‘Point defence’ as a concept not only proved impossible because of sheer growth in the number of VAs/VPs, but also, it proved totally ineffective in the face of all-weather, multiple platform, multiple-layer, multiple-arsenal air threat, delivered with needle-like precision at large stand-off ranges in the BVR domain.

The defenders realised that instead of point defence of VPs, the need was to create an area air defence capability on a theatre grid. Such an arrangement must be capable to detect the threat at long ranges and be capable of inflicting punishment through multiple GBAD weapons, in successive range-reach and altitude brackets from long to medium to short and terminal ranges.

From the above felt need, was born the concept of layered-and-tiered defence. The idea was to create a theatre-wide defence through long range, medium range and short range SAMs, namely the LR (Long Range) SAMs, MR (Medium Range) SAMs and SR (Short Range) SAMs respectively creating overlapping arenas of range and altitude kill zones with seamless switching from one weapon system to other.

Two Regiments of SRSAM are also being procured on the “Buy Global” route since April 2010…

  • It also got established, unambiguously, that keeping the current and the futuristic air threat in mind, whatever may be the range and depth of SAMs that may be deployed at higher ranges and altitudes, the end game at the terminal end was most critical and needed to be executed with adequacy of weapons and modernity of arsenal. Also, since all VAs/VPs could not be given point defence, the ones given must be really protected. For this to happen, single weapon (implying guns alone) defence at terminal end was found to be highly inadequate. The minimum required was a combination of guns and Very Short Range Air Defence System (VSHORADS), normally referred to as the gun missile mix.
  • In addition to the above, a special type of VPs that needed to be protected were the mobile mechanised assets operating in the Tactical Battle Area (TBA). These were specific to the field forces. For them, two other GBADWS types came in over time, namely, the AD Gun Missile Self-Propelled or ADGM (SP) and Quick Reaction – SAMs or QR-SAMs.
  • As technology advanced, the base concept of layered and tiered defence, comprising guns and SAMs duly supported by the state-of-the-art sensors and associated BMC-2 systems started to be networked across dissimilar systems evolving as a cumulative punch called the Integrated Air Defence System (IADS).

Clarifying the Reigning Confusion in the SAM Hierarchy 

Having briefly placed the evolution story of the layered and tiered defence as a part of IADS in place, it is now possible to clear the cobwebs of confusion in AD SAMs. As constituents of the IADS, the SAM hierarchy are as under:

The place of QRSAM as a special weapons system for a distinct type of a VP can now be appreciated and distinguished from the SRSAM…


  • At the terminal end, forming the essential gun-missile mix are the VSHORADS. Man-portable, shoulder-fired (or fireable from a pedestal in combination of one/salvo), the typical ranges of such missiles are in the Range (R) of six to eight kilometres and Altitude (A) coverage of ten to three and a half kilometres.
  • A tri-service case for the procurement of VSHORADs to replace the vintage Igla 1M and Strela 2M system is in progress since 2010 (currently at re-trial stage). Three OEMs are in the fray – Russian (ROE) – Igla-S (NATO SA 24, heat-seeking fire-and-forget, R-6 km, A 4 km), SAAB – RBS70 NG (laser beam rider with integral IFF, R-8 km, A-5 km), MBDA – Mistral (heat-seeking fire-and-forget, R-6 km, A-4 km). A huge quantity of 5,500 to 6,000 missiles worth approx $1.5 billion1 is on order.
  • The delay in finalisation of this procurement case is holding up the realisation of the gun-missile mix combination at the terminal end as explained above.
  • The Diplomat (Asia Defence) quoting an MoD source reported on May 11, 2016, that India is likely to delay the S-400 Missile Defence System to execute other high priority cases namely, Rafale fighters ($8.9 billion), VSHORADs ($1.5 billion) and SRSAM ($1.5 billion). This is a welcome prioritisation as the crying need for VSHORADs cannot be overstated.2


  • Range and reach (implying altitude) wise, Short-Range SAMs (SRSAMs) are the next higher pedestal of GBADWS ahead of VSORADS providing short range area air defence cover as the next layer of defence in the area grid of the IADS.
  • A few things need to be noted about the SRSAM:
  1. Mobility of the system is not a critical “GO”/”NO GO” issue in case of SRSAMs since the assets being provided missile air defence cover by them are generally static or at best semi-mobile. For example, strategic Rear Area VAs/VPs or strategic choke points/bridges and bottlenecks et al.
  2. Another issue in mobility is that this must not be seen as a speed and acceleration matrix alone but as a function of power-to-weight ratio which the system brings. A huge system duly powered could be more mobile that a lighter underpowered system.
  3. SRSAMs generally range between three to fifteen kilometres and have an altitude cover from, say, 30 m to around five kilometres.
  • Akash (R 3 – 25 km, A 30 m – 20 km), Rafael Spyder (R 1 – 18 km, A 30 m – 9 km), SAAB BAMSE (R 3-15 km A 30 m – 5 km), ROE ToR M2K (R 1 – 15 km, A 10m-10km), MBDA VL MICA ( R >15 km, A 10m-9km), Thales VTK Mk1 (R 3-15 km, A 30m-5km) are the frontline SRSAMs, some ranging up, some down from the median perimeters.
  • It is well known that Army AD is in the process of procuring two Regiments of Akash SRSAM. (The author has had the proud privilege of commencing the induction of Akash SRSAM in the Army AD on May 05, 2015).3
  • In addition to the above, two Regiments of SRSAM are also being procured on the “Buy Global” route since April 2010. Three systems are in the competition namely, Rafael, ROE and SAAB with their products as mentioned above. Trials abroad have been completed and the case is at bid-opening stage. The case is multi-vendor and is in progress.4’5

The Akash was initially seen as the future MRSAM to replace the 1970’s vintage, Kvadrat SAM system (SAM-6) of the Army AD…


  • In light of the conceptual content enumerated above, the reader will now be in a position to see a clear difference between the SRSAM and the QRSAM. The latter, as indicated above, is primarily meant for providing mobile area air defence cover to mechanised assets in the TBA.
  • Essentially, the QRSAM is different from SRSAM in the following three features:
  1. Comparatively light-weight and highly mobile weapon system capable of keeping pace with the mechanised elements being protected, in time and space.
  2. Capable of carrying out continuous search and tracking of aerial targets on the move.
  3. Capable of delivering fire immediately on halt.
  • The typical ranges of these weapons lie in the region of 20-30 km while the altitude bracket is generally between 30m-6km.
  • Rafael – Spyder, ROE – Pantsyr Gun-Missile System (R Gun 4 km, R Missile – 20 km, A – 30m-6km), besides systems from MBDA and IAI Israel are the reigning QRSAMs on the world stage today.
  • A procurement case for a limited number (not quoted) of QRSAM is moving on the Buy Global route since 2013. ROE and Rafael’s systems have been evaluated in the ‘trials abroad’ mode. Post-trial evaluation is in progress.6 Why such a weapon system is required even if SRSAMs such as Akash and others are available is because the assets to be protected are of a different type which demand weapon characteristics not possessed by SRSAMs.
  • On the indigenous front, BEL has reported good progress on the development of the indigenous QRSAM. Dr Kalaghatgi, Director – R&D, BEL, has reported in the open source on March 30, 2016, that the indigenous QRSAM is well on its way and should be a reality in the next two years. The sensors are currently under development, the truck-mounted QRSAM will have a better reach than Akash. This development, when completed, will address the requirement of QRSAMs. (Numbers not quoted).7
  • The place of QRSAM as a special weapons system for a distinct type of a VP can now be appreciated and distinguished from the SRSAM. In the same breath, the QRSAM’s terminal end younger brother ADGM (SP) can also be put into its place as a close-in weapon that accompanies the mechanised VAs/VPs and provides them AD cover at the terminal end.
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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

Lt Gen (Dr) VK Saxena (Retd.)

former Director General Army Air Defence. Currently Distinguished Fellow VIF and Visiting Fellow CLAWS.

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