A ‘Quiet’ Test with a ‘Big’ Impact
Lt Gen (Dr) V K Saxena (Retd), PVSM, AVSM, VSM, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

The brief news item about the successful test-fire of the indigenously developed Very Short Range Air Defence System (VSHORAD) by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) from the Interim Test Range at Chandipur on 27 Sep 2022[1] came and faded away without making it to the high decibel ‘breaking news’.

This brief work aims to flag the significance of the above event in the overall matrix of Ground Based Air Defence (GBAD)

The VSHORADS

The generic name of Very Short Range Air Defence Systems going by the acronym VSHORADs includes the weapons normally deployed at the terminal end of the GBAD fire arm. This is elaborated a little more to get the context right:-

  • The GBAD represents the ground-based component of the overall air defence capability of the nation resident in the medium of land, sea, sub-surface, air and space.
  • GBAD like any of its other components is anchored on the three verticals, namely, ‘sensors’ ‘shooters’ and battle management command and control systems or BMC2.
  • Very simply, sensors (implying the radars) detect the incoming threat and control the fire of guns and missiles on the same, shooters represent the ‘interceptors for kill’ and BMC2 system controls the fast flowing air defence battle by bringing to bear the most optimum weapon on the threat in a seamless manner from detection to destruction.
  • The GBAD shooters which represents the teeth, consists of towed and self-propelled (SP) guns and an entire continuum of Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs) covering a range and altitude bracket from a few km to more than hundred km.
  • In this continuum, the VSHORADS represent the towed and SP air defence guns and very short range SAMs in the range bracket 5-8 km and altitude bracket of 1.5-4.5 km. [2]The SAM component of VHORADS also goes by the name of MANPADS or man-portable SAMs
  • VSHORADS typically provide point air defence protection to the protected assets at terminal end of the fire-arm.
  • While the entire fire arm is lethal and important, the terminal end is particularly so because of the following:-
    • It caters for the last line of defence addressing such threats that have evaded detection all the way /survived all other air defence weapons in multiple mediums and are now bearing down on the protected asset.
    • If this threat is not addressed immediately, the protected asset will be attacked negating the entire fire-arm.
The Clout of MANPADS

The Technical Prowess[3]: Purely going by the technical prowess of the MANPADS, these have an end effect of qualitatively enriching the terminal GBAD by providing a gun-missile (GM) mix combination at the last line of defence. This plays up in a number of ways:-

  • MANPADS due to their ease and versatility of deployment options can cover those likely approaches of attack that are beyond the guns owing to inaccessibility/lack of gun deployment spaces.
  • The GM combination with a fire arm of 5-8 km, proves lethal to the far end of the visual battle zone where all the terminal including the drone threat unfolds. Guns normally reach up to 3-4 km.
  • Quick launch capability with a fire-and-forget feature makes MANPADS weapons-of-choice to take on suddenly appearing targets such as attack helicopters flying in the nap-of-the-earth (NOE), or such targets which as stated, have evaded detection ( and hence interception) all the way .
  • MANPADS add to shear quantum and multiplicity of ‘guns-alone defences thus multiplying the kill effect.
A Versatile TBA Player

What probably makes MANPADS a great player in the Tactical Battle Area (TBA) is the possibility of proliferating these weapons unobtrusively in the nook-n-fold of the TBA. The deadly killers then lay in wait for their prey and take them on by suddenly appearing from cover and swinging a surprise on the attacker.

No better corroboration of this fact can be found than a glance at the battlefields of Ukraine where a whole army of MANPADS (Strela 2M Igla 1M, Igla S from Ukraine’s arsenal and Stinger MANPADS from USA, Star Streak from UK and similar weapons from Germany, Denmark, Lithuania and Netherlands.[4]) have played a merry hell into the mighty Russian air power sounding a death knell to many an attack helicopters as well as strike aircrafts. [5]

A Jinx of Two Decades Plus Breaks…

Cutting to our scenario, the current testing of the indigenous VSHORAD represents a forward move to break a two decades’ old jinx. Some salient points in this context are stated:-

  • Ironically, the criticality of VSHORADS has always been a focus of the Services. It may be unbelievable today that the case for getting an upgrade to the existing Igla MANPADS held by the three Services and to make up for the extremely low holdings including critical war wastage reserves (numbers classified) started way back in 2002-03 by approaching the Russians (M/s KBP Kolomna) for getting upgraded the Igla S. The deal could not go through due to steep cost escalation by the Original Equipment manufacturer (OEM) at the last moment.
  • The period thereafter from around 2004-2009 saw the VSHORAD case being taken up two times, once as a single Service case and later as a tri-Service one. In both cases, the RFP had to be retracted (multiple reasons not covered).
  • Then started the current case of 12 years and counting when in 2010, the procurement for VSHORADS in multiple versions – man-portable/ vehicle mounted, ship-based pedestal etc. was started for the three Services (5175 Missiles, 1276 single and multi-launchers at the cost of approx USD 5 billion).[6]
  • It turned out to be an unending story with three OEMs in the fray (Rosoboronexport, Russia fielding Igla S, SAAB, Sweden with their RBS 70 NG and MBDA, France with Mistral 2, VSHORADS).
  • The case passed through an unbelievable four separate trials (trials, retrials, re-re trials and confirmatory trials) complete with allegations and counter allegations on compliance or otherwise, till it finally reached nowhere.
  • It finally ended up in the emergency procurement of 24 launchers and 216 Igla S missiles for the Army from Russia in Dec 2020[7]. Incidentally, Russia was declared the lowest bidder in the long drawn case which was contested by the other OEMs.

The above narration is essentially meant to bring out the criticality of a need that has remained unfulfilled for 22 years and counting. In this scenario the testing of indigenous VSHORAD is indeed good news

Assessing the Technical Muscle of Indian VSHORAD

VSHORADS (as MANPADS) have peculiar battlefield requirements and signatures. Some of these are stated:-

  • The comparatively small size ( length 5-6 ft, diameter of tube 70-80mm generally ) and man-portability ( missile weight range 9-11 kg, system weight range 18-20 kg) are the signature DNAs of MANPADS which allows them the following:-
    • Tremendous flexibility in quick deployment and re-deployment.
    • Capability of being tucked in unobtrusively in the nook and corner of the TBA making detection by enemy difficult and thus increasing the chances of surprise attacks.
  • MANPADS have a comparatively short time of flight to the target. Covering their full range spectrum of 5-7 km, at an average speed of 500-700m/s is a matter of just 9-10 secs. Also, since the MANPAD engagements normally take place in visual domain and in the mid/ three quarters of their max range, the effective time of flight to target is even lesser (5-6 Secs). This demands that the MANPAD must have very high maneuverability and high capability to quickly align with the changing perspective of the target moving in 3D, all in a matter of few fleeting seconds of their time of flight.
  • The above capability is achieved by having a Reaction Control System (RCS). A typical RCS comprises on mini thrusters, which when fired, allow the missile to change its attitude (moving a small amount in pitch, roll and yaw and/or execute a small rotational motion driven by additional torque). The RCS thus allows the missile to change direction in small quick maneuvers in one/multiple directions in near real time to keep fixated to the target in a ‘kill run’ of a few seconds.
  • While a majority of MANPADS are heat seeking weapons , implying that they lock on to the heat (Infra red -IR) signature of their target , a few are laser beam-riders which ride the laser beam that is thrown to illuminate the target.
  • Once the MANPAD is laid on the target a ‘lock on’ is said to have been achieved. Once this is done, the missile will continue to chase the target wherever it maneuvers. This lock must be robust and unwavering. By that it is implied that it must be able to withstand the counter measures adopted by the target to break the lock (use of chaffs, windows, active jamming of the missile seeker, luring the missile to false target with a higher IR signature, moving into the sun to break lock putting the missile astray etc.- this is a vertical by itself)
  • Another important signature requirement of MANPADS is fusing. In earlier times, the MANPADS used to be armed with a single impact and grazing fuse which allowed the warhead to explode if the missile impacted or grazed the target. As time passed, dual fusing came in which is now the norm. The second fuse is a proximity (magnetic proximity) fuse in addition to the impact fuse. It allows the missile to explode the warhead even if the same passes in close proximity of the target. This proximity time value can be reset.
  • Another rising trend in MANPADS is to reduce the time of flight to the target as much as possible thus allowing the target lesser and lesser time to evade the missile by adopting countermeasures. For this, the modern MANPADS have dual-thrust motors based on solid propellant. This not only produces higher speeds to the missile but also provides adequate power for the RCS to function effectively.

While the specific technical details of the DRDO MANPAD such as physical dimensions, thrust, weight, speed, lock and guidance mechanism etc. are not available in the open source, the following known features point to a good MANPAD in the making:-

  • High man-portability.
  • A highly responsive and miniaturized RCS system.
  • Dual thrust motor based on solid propellant.
  • Capability to effectively destroy low-altitude targets.

Open sources report that following the series of tests that have started in Sept 2022, the missile is likely to be operationalized by Dec 2023.

That indeed is god news. Only the following cautions must be sounded:-

  • VSHORAD requirement is beyond criticality now (22 years and counting). It becomes especially relevant keeping in mind the type of terrain on our northern borders where many a modern stealth aircrafts of the adversary, making use of the mountain cover can evade radar detection all along suddenly appearing at dangerously close ranges to be engaged by such weapons as VSHORADs. In this context the Russo-Ukraine war has only reiterated what a large proliferation of MANPADs can do to an attacking air power
  • The journey of VSHORAD getting operational status must not follow a now familiar track of reaching 99 in some time frame but waiting till eternity to touch the 100 mark. December 23 should mean that if not earlier.

While it is the ‘hope’ of the author that the Services and the nation will see an operationalized VSHORAD by Dec 23 (if not earlier) what is certain is that ours will be a modern VSHORAD of 2020s technology in comparison to its peers (Stinger - US - 1987, Starstreak -UK- 1997, Grom -Poland -1995, Igla S -Russia – 2004).

Endnotes

[1]DRDO’s test of very short range air defence system successful,” at www.indianexpress.com. Accessed on 28 Sep 2022.
[2] ‘VSHORADS” at www.dristiias.com. Accessed on 29 Sep 2022.
[3] “Why VSHORADS are critical?” at www.vifindia.org. Accessed on 05 Oct 2022.
[4] “What are the MANPADS that the west is sending to Ukraine?” at www.thehindu.com.Accessed on 05 Oct 2022.
[5] “Some reflections on air and air defence war- five months and counting,” at www.claws.in.” accessed on 06 Oct 2022.
[6]i ibid
[7] “Army inducts Russian MANPADS,” at www.thehindu.com. Accessed on 08 Oct 2022.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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Very informative. Well written. Very proud of our progress

 

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