Military & Aerospace

To Transform or To Perish?
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Issue Vol. 38.2, Apr-Jun 2023 | Date : 10 Aug , 2023


We are passing through changing times. The ‘pace of change’ driven by the fast grind of ‘enabling technologies’ is blistering. The bottom-line is ‘flow with the tide and time or sink into oblivion. Put idiomatically – ‘Transform or Perish’. This work briefly attempts to check out the above premise in the context of air and air defence wars by picking up only a few salient issues.

Little Monsters – The Big Disruptors!

The erstwhile ‘conventional mould’ of the prosecution of the air threat by the old guard of strike aircraft, Attack Helicopters (AH) and a spectrum of Air-to-Surface Missile (ASM) actually got metamorphosed with the coming of age of the ‘small drones’ on the tactical battlefield. The ‘little monsters’ as these are sometimes referred to, either in few numbers or gridded and powered with the intelligence of a ‘locust swarm’, are scoring disproportionate gains, especially against the ‘unprepared’. Here is a small sample:–

  • Just 13 of them, in their first-ever recorded operation on January 05, 2018, caused havoc on the Russian air base at Khmeimim and Naval base at Tartus both in Western Syria. Even with the launch of the mighty Pantsir Surface-to-Air-Missiles (SAMs) and the Electronic Warfare (EW) attack from Tartus, only seven out of the 13 could be killed. Rest still landed at targets and caused damage to war assets stationed there.1
  • On September 14, 2019, a swarm of just 14 kamikaze drones attacked two Saudi oil facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais. These could not be detected (and hence killed) by the state-of-the-art Ground Based Air Defence Weapon Systems (GBADWS) comprising 35 mm Oerilikon guns with Flycatcher radars and the mighty MIM 404 Patriot air defence system. The devastation with just 14 was so huge that it disrupted a whopping 5.7 million barrels of oil reducing the country’s oil production to half.2
  • On the battlefields of Nagorno-Karabakh, the might of drone power exhibited by the duo of the Turkish Bayractar TB2 drone and the Israeli Harop loitering ammunition turned the tide for Azerbaijan in scoring disproportionate kills on the Armenian tanks, mechanised forces, artillery and air defence forces and forcing them to capitulate.3
  • In the on-going Russo-Ukraine war, the display of drone power is being seen in all its dimensions:-
    • Any number of the streaming videos of the war depicts the awesome ‘might’ of Ukrainian drones scoring kills and bringing thrust lines to grinding halts.4 Their targets – tanks, armoured vehicles and even artillery and GBADWS. Last mentioned surprisingly not deployed but huddling along in long-winding convoys?
    • For this Ukraine has pressed into service a spectrum of drone power – Bayractar TB2, Switchblade 300, AerorozvidkaR 18, Kvazimachta, DJI Mavic, Orlan 10, Kronshtadtorion, Geran 2)5.
    • Russia, in repeated ghastly strikes on Ukraine, mainly used the Iranian Shahed-136 kamikaze drones (called Geranium-2 in Russia) and destroyed as much as 30 per cent of all power and electricity grid in Ukraine besides a huge trail of civilian casualties.
    • On October 29, 2022, and again on November 08, 2022, Ukraine launched massive drone attack on the Russian naval fleet at Black sea causing damage to several vessels that included the Slava-class Moskva guided missile cruiser besides a few minesweepers.

What will all of this mean in OUR SCENARIO? This is enumerated.

The Reality Check

We need to confront the reality that drone power is today full-blown and will manifest in a big way not only in the future wars with our potential adversaries but also all along during the peacetime (attack on Jammu Airfield June 26, 2020). Conventional air defences will prove to be ineffective on two major counts – conventional radars optimised and deployed for mainframe threat will fall short of detecting the small drone threat having a very low Radar Cross Section (RCS), a measure of detectability of an object to a radar. Smaller the RCS, lesser will be the chances of its detection). A drone-kill will require tailor-made arsenal.

Conventional GBADWS anchored on the firearm of SAMs will not fit the bill on several counts:–

    • A highly skewed ‘cost of kill’ (each SAM costing a fortune) with respect to the ‘cost of threat/attack’ (most kamikaze drones are DIY variety) will force the defender to take huge disproportionate costs which will be unsustainable in the long run. (Israelis killing drones/small rockets using Iron Dome.)6
    • A finite number of missiles launched cannot kill a swarm body in totality. (Khmeimim – even 13 drones could not be killed, what if they were 100?).

What Needs To Be Done

In the spirit of transform or perish, following is required to deal with little monsters, in the air defence cycle of detect-intercept-kill.

    • Go in a big way to equip the air defences with a variety of sensor devices that can detect small drone threats. These include Electro Optical (EO), Infra-Red (IR) and Radio-Frequency (RF)-based sensors. The domestic industry is more than capable of manufacturing them en masse.
    • Go for a large scale induction of counter-drone kill systems, normally referred to as Anti-Drone-Systems (ADS).
    • In the normal run, most of the ADS are soft-kill systems which aim to kill the drones using soft weapons such as RF jamming, EW attacks – hacking, phishing or using laser kill beams.
    • The soft-kill alone is likely to fall short in killing the entire swarm drone threat. The requirement is to augment it through hard kill means using high rate-of-fire Air Defence guns.
    • Hard kill has two combat strengths. Firstly, the preponderance of fire (2,000-4,000 rounds per min) spreads such an effect in the target area as to kill the threat body in totality, and secondly, the specialist (palletised) ammunition splits into hundreds and thousands of small shrapnel each capable of killing a swarm member.
    • Both the mainframe guns held with Army Air Defence can be adapted as suitable drone killers.
    • Today, the DRDO has come out with an ADS based on soft-kill while a front-ranking private sector player Zen Technologies Limited has perfected ADS based on soft, as well as, hard kill.
    • There is a need to proliferate these weapons in the Tactical Battle Area (TBA). The stakeholders are very clear on what quantities are required and in what timeframe. Same is not discussed here being classified.

Hypersonics – The New Whizzkid On The Block

Lately, a new threat is looming large on the horizon. A threat that will become unstoppable by conventional air defences with the field force today. There is a need for action.

The Unstoppable7

    • The threat is contained in the ‘hypersonic weapons’. The ones that fly at speeds greater than Mach 5 (6,174 km per hr or 1.715 km /sec). At these speeds and more, such a threat can strike anywhere in the world in less than one hour!
    • The hypersonic weapons beat conventional air defences due to the fact that the time-window they offer from detection to kill simply out-beats the engagement cycle of a deployed SAM or a Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) system (detection and recognition by an early warning radar followed by a SAM kill enabled by a missile guidance radar plus SAM radar at the terminal end).
    • Not only the speed is the new stealth (un-detectability), the other combat strengths of hypersonic threat are – anonymity, unpredictability and an uncanny capability to keep large swaths of defender’s assets under its umbrella of strike, where it can strike easily.

Not a Flight of Fancy for Us

    • Hypersonic threat is no longer a flight of fancy; the threat is getting ‘ripened’ in China and will be at the cutting-edge of the strike in a matter of few years.
    • China is fast testing both the versions of the hypersonic threat, namely the Hypersonic Cruise Missile (HCM) – all-the-way powered, keeping low to avoid radar detection doing Mach 6-7 or the Hypersonic Glide Vehicle (HGV) – propelled to a great speed by a booster rocket, till hypersonic phenomenon sets in with shock waves acting as lifting surfaces propelling the HGV away at hypersonic speeds.
    • Way back in May 2018, China tested an HGV. The boost vehicle was a DF 17, solid-fuelled, road-mobile, medium-range ballistic missile with a range from 1,800 to 2,500km. The HGV flew to a range of 1,400 km hitting its intended target in the Xinjiang Province within meters.8,9
    • Shortly thereafter, in August 2018, China announced the successful testing of a ‘hypersonic aircraft’ called Starry Sky-2. It was an HCM capable of carrying both the conventional, as well as, nuclear weapons. The vehicle achieved Mach 5.5 to 6 and an altitude of 30 km. It hit its intended target with precision.
    • In September 2018, tests of three ‘wide-speed-range-vehicles’. (D18-1S, D18-2S and D18-3S respectively) were conducted. These were hypersonic aircraft models of multiple designs whose speeds would be adjustable for a precision strike of an unstoppable nuclear capable weapon.10
    • In July – August 2021, China launched another hypersonic weapon. It was an HGV which was launched with Long March rocket. The flight course took the missile over the South Pole. Closer to the target something unprecedented happened. The HGV itself fired some sort of an air-to-air missile which shot off and plunged in the water, (a Directed Energy Weapon perhaps?)

What Is Happening Up North?

  • China is steadily operationalising its hypersonic threat. A few years from now, the threat will be battle ready.

What Transformation Is Required By Us?

Countering a hypersonic threat is no small task. It will require multiple actions. A brief glimpse:–

  • Any hope of detection of hypersonic threat will demand a ‘global look-see capability. To achieve this following will be required: (only requirement stated; current status – classified)
    • The present hierarchy of early warning and tactical control sensors under the Integrated Air Command and Control System must be seamlessly integrated across Inter-Service boundaries.
    • These have to upward linked to aerial surveillance resources based on manned and unmanned platforms including the AEWACs.
    • This integration has to be scaled up further to connect with satellite based surveillance in near real-time completing the global look-see.
    • Sensor surveillance is only half the story, the corresponding capability of communications, connectivity and auto-data sharing/fusion/transfer amongst sensors and from sensor-to-kill means will be one huge challenge to meet.
    • Conventional GBADWS must make way to soft kill weapons acting instantaneously to de-capacitate the incoming threat. Laser-kill means have multiple problems (finite range, weather degradation and more). Research pace must become feverish now to put on line other soft-kill weapons based on EW kill means, High Power Microwaves (HPM) weapons capable of instantaneously disintegrating the material of the threat vehicle or the Charged Particle Beam (CPB) weapons to kill the threat like ‘lightning bolts’. A tall order.
    • We have a few years to be counter-hypersonic ready.

The Magic of Killer Tubes

    • If there is one weapon which has played merry hell into the Russian air power (especially the AH fleet) in the ongoing Ukraine war, it the power of the Man-Portable Air Defence Systems (MANPADS) defined by a variety of shoulder-fired tubes (Strela 2, Igla 1, Chiron, Mistral, Stinger (US), Star Streak (UK) and similar weapons from Germany, Denmark, Lithuania and Netherlands).11,12
    • Stuck unobtrusively in the nook-and-corner of the TBA, these have humbled the deadly AH fleet of Mi28, Mi35 and most importantly, the KA-52 Kamovs – the world’s front-ranking AH (about 25 to 30 per cent of the deployed Kamov fleet is reportedly destroyed).
    • Despite all the counter measures being taken by the AH fleet (missile approach warning sensors, countermeasure dispensing suits) the sheer numbers of the MANPADS overwhelmed the attacker’s capability to search out and destroy these in hunter-killer missions.

What is the Reality in Our Scenario?

    • Proliferation of MANPADS in the TBA has proved to be a deadly kill means, especially for AHs.
    • Pakistan has thousands of MANPADS – upgraded Anza Swedish RBS 70 (1711), US FIM 92 Stinger (400,) Chinese FN 16 ( 300).13
    • China is a very strong missile force (3/145 – on global firepower index). Many thousands of MANPADS – HN series- HN5, HQ6, the FN series, the QW series. Space does not permit detailed listing).14
    • Both our potential adversaries are likely to proliferate the MANPADS in the TBA and along the likely avenues of approach in the entire battle zone. We will face a similar or a worse situation.
    • What Transformation Is Required By Us?
    • Critical need of situational awareness in the TBA updated in near real time (very tall order).
    • Extensive use of Manned and Unmanned Teaming (MUMT) missions, using the later as ‘eyes-and-ears’ in the unchartered TBA.
    • Countermeasures onboard not only against the IR homing missiles but also against beam-riders and hit-to-kill MANPADS.
    • Drawing out the MANPAD fire on drones/decoys ahead of manned missions.
    • On the flipside, making up the MANPAD deficiencies in the defenders’ field force (thankfully, a stalled case of two decades got a move on recently within the DRDO MANPAD being rested successfully test fired – September 22.)15

Change being the only CONSTANT, it must be the endeavour of the forces to continuously transform to the ‘new’; the cost of not doing it is ‘perish’. The caption of this work thus finds its relevance.


  1. “The first ever swarm attack has happened”, at Accessed on 17 Jan 2023.
  2. “Drone threat – the big picture,” at on 17 Jan 2023
  3. “Why drones turned the tide for Azerbaijan: an analysis,” at on 18 Jan 2023
  4. “Some reflections on the air and air defence war,” at on 18 Jan 2023
  5. The drones of Ukraine war,” at on 18 Jan 2023
  6. “Why Iron dome will short? What could be done a viewpoint,” at Accessed on 19 Jan 2023.
  7. “Hypersonic weapons- an analysis,” at Accessed on 19 Jan 2023.
  8. “Hypersonic weapons: an analysis, “at Accessed on 20 Jan 2023.
  9.>hgv:china’s-advanced-hypersonic-missile-threat-to-India.>Accessed on 21 Jan 2022.
  10. ibid
  11. “What are the MANPADS that the west is sending to Ukraine?” at Accessed on 21 Jan 2023.
  12. “List of equipment of the armed forces of Ukraine,” at on 21 Jan 2023.
  13. “List of missiles f Pakistan,” at on 22 Jan 2023.
  14. HY5, HN-5, HQ-5<” at security .com. Accessed on 22 Jan 2023.
  15. DRDO successfully tests anti-tank and new surface-to-air missile system, “ Accessed on 22 Jan 2023.
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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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