The Future of Ground Based Air Defence
Lt Gen (Dr) V K Saxena (Retd), PVSM, AVSM, VSM, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

Setting the Perspective

Introduction

This work carries the author’s perception of the required ‘future face of the nation’s Ground Based Air Defence (GBAD) which will be capable of countering the futuristic threats from our potential adversaries.

The time perspective for the crystal-gaze is anything between 15-20 years from now on.

This is not an exercise of finding the voids in the current arsenal or making a ‘wish list’ for future procurements etc. It is a work purely driven by the author’s perception of what threats we are likely to face in the foreseeable future and how must the GBAD be configured to counter the same.

Putting GBAD in the Overall Air Defence Matrix

GBAD forms one essential part of the overall air defence matrix of the nation. It is essential to see the bigger picture to appreciate the importance of this dimension of air defence in the overall scheme of things. This is briefly stated[1]:-

- It is fundamental to state that all air defences world over exist for the sole purpose of countering the air threat from the adversary which is defined as his cumulative power to prosecute war from the medium of air.

- The defender’s vulnerabilities at stake could be any - national strategic assets, critical core infrastructure, country’s war waging potential or more.

- Since the air threat can manifest in any medium be it land, sea or air, either simultaneously or in any combination, core-competent arsenal in each medium exists to counter the threat. GBAD is the land component of this arsenal.

- Diverse weapons in multiple mediums are threaded together into one nation-wide Battle Management and Command and Control System (BMC2). This system ensures that the integrated might of the nation’s air defence weapons is brought to bear on the attacker in a coordinated air defence battle.

Future Threat Scenarios will Drive Future GBAD

In the eternal cause-effect duel between the air threat and air defence, it is the air threat that drives GBAD. Some of these drivers are enumerated along with their impact on GBAD.

Little Monsters Demand a New Set of GBAD

Ever since the advent of the ‘unmanned’ in the tactical battlefield the prosecution of the air threat has never been the same. Starting from their humble capability of ‘look-see over the hill’, today the Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), especially the small drones, along with drone swarms are re-defining how the air threat will be delivered in the Tactical Battle Area (TBA).

The Menacing Signatures of Drone Power

A brief recall of the events in the recent past brings out what this threat can do:-

- On 05 Jan 2018, a set 13 small drones in a swarm attacked the Russian Air base at Khmeimim and the Naval Facility at Tartus, both in western Syria. Even strikes by an effective GBAD Surface-to-air Missile (SAM) system (BukM2) located at Khmeimim or the ‘electronic strikes’ ex Tartus could not take out all the 13 drones, three of them still struck the airbase and caused damage to air assets[2].

- On 14 Sep 2019, 14 crude kamikaze drones struck the twin oil facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais in eastern Saudi Arabia. Even with the best of GBAD systems located these bases (35 mm Skyshield and MIM 404 Patriot missile system) could not detect the attack. The scale of damage was so huge that a whopping 5.7 million barrels a day, amounting to well over half of the nation’s overall daily oil production was suspended.[3]

- In the battlefields of Nagorno-Karabakh in Sep 2020, the twin pair of drones ( Bayracter TB-2 and Horop) helped Azerbaijan to turn the tide against Armenia by causing disproportionate kills[4]

- Closer home, a single drone attack in the guts of the heavily guarded Jammu air base on the night of 26/27 Jun 2020 showed what small drones are capable of.

- And finally in the on-going Russo-Ukraine war, the Bayracter and the US Switchblade Kamikaze drones are showing their power in scoring many a tank kills.

The Threats We Face are Real

All the above are for real, as both our potential adversaries are drone powers; China in reality; Pakistan by proxy. A small brief on the threat profile is covered.

China
  1. Talking of offensive drone power, China is into the cutting edge of strike drones both in the HALE (high altitude long endurance – altitude ceiling >30,000 ft, endurance > 48 hrs), as well as, MALE (medium altitude long endurance - altitude ceiling 10,000-30,000ft, endurance 24-48 h)drone category. HALE machines - EA 03 and WZ 7 and more, MALE machines BZK 005, GJ 1 and GJ 2 etc.
  2. The state-of-the-art strike UAS to take note is Wing Loong II (range 4000 Km, endurance of 20 h, service ceiling 5000 meters, and a maximum speed of 370 km/h) Wing Loong can operate in combination with manned platforms or strike independently ( payload – guided rockets- AKD 10, GB 10, bombs- FT series 7.9, 10, ARMs, anti-ship missiles (YJ9E), air-to-ground missiles (YZ212, BA7), laser guided cluster bombs ( YJ 102A), and Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs).
  3. Other strike UAS are Tianying/Skyhawk drone (speed 200 km/h, endurance 6-12 h), Gongji 11 (combat radius 1000 km) and WZ8 supersonic ISTAR platforms.
  4. China has both rotary as well as fixed wing drone swarms[5]. There are regular open source reports of drone swarm exercises involving hundreds of drones in swarms, practicing precision attacks on the autonomous mode.[6]
Pakistan

While the Pakistani threat is to be seen as a proxy threat from its’ all weather friend some specific points as to its own capability are stated:-

  1. Pakistani strike drone is Burraq UCAV (range of 1000km, altitude ceiling of 7500m and endurance of 12h. Payload includes guided bombs (YC 200) and AR-1 ASM. It can also carry a Barq ASM laser-guided missile.[7] [8]
  2. Of course, there remains all the probability of Chinese Wing Loong to be made available from China (there is a 2018 deal for 48 Wing Loong on Transfer-of-Technology from China. Current status is not available in open source).
  3. In July 2020 four Wing Loong UCAVs were reportedly given to Pak for security of Gwadar and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Pakistan also reportedly received 4 CH4 Chinese UCAVs. (These are similar to Wing Loong in kill potential).

How the GBAD of the Future Must Align itself?

We must not do the mistake done by Russia or Armenia in ever trying to take on the UAS of the future with conventional GBAD. Counter-drone-specific weaponry will have to be an essential part of GBAD arsenal.

Two challenges which small UAS pose are ‘detection’ and ‘kill’. Due their small configuration these are most difficult to be detected (hence killed) by conventional sensors and due to their low costs they render the kill by conventional weapons disproportionately skewed. These twin challenges must be addressed by the GBAD arsenal in this manner.

  1. Electro-optical (EO) and Infra-red (IR) surveillance devices are effective drone detectors, while radars operating in X Ku and Ka bands (6-15 GHZ)are also found to be effective. In addition, the Active Electronic Scan Array (AESA) radars can also detect small RCS drones. Such sensors must form the part of GBAD arsenal in the future.
  2. We have high indigenous capability to produce not only EO and IR based sensors but also the AESA radars. Awareness and action is already at hand to field them in the force. (Current status – classified)
  3. Low-cost drones require low cost kill means. Such means include small arms (AK 47, AK203 etc.), radio jamming systems based on Radio Frequency (RF) that can disable the navigational link of drones to GPS /satellites or command link to its Ground Control Station ( GCS) and/or laser beam that can burn out the electronics and electromagnetic components on board the drones. In addition Electronic warfare (EW) kill options like hacking/phishing are also effective drone killers. Many of the above hard/soft kill anti-drone systems (ADS) are under various stages of production already. This must continue.
  4. Recently DRDO has fielded an Anti-Drone System (ADS). It has EO/IR sensors including frequency-modulated continuous wave (FMCW) radar for small drone detection up to a range of 4 km. For kill system, it has an RF/GNSS based jamming system with a range up to 3 km and a laser kill system with a range of 150m to 1 km. It is imperative that such systems are produced in large numbers not only by the DRDO, but also, by many other private industry players.
  5. Talking of Private industry players, Zen Technologies Ltd, a global combat training and drone kill solution provider has also fielded its ADS based on EO and RF based surveillance, and RF (jamming) kill. The Company is also developing hard kill options based on small arms or an air defence gun.
  6. M2K technologies ltd has been making multiple types of anti-drone weapons based on RF kill as well as kill through small arms.
The Hypersonic Challenge to which the GBAD Must Align to

The new and the unprecedented threat to which the GBAD must align in future is the hypersonic threat, i.e. the threat from attack vehicles of speeds Mach 5 and more. This threat is today UNSTOPPABLE by conventional air defences today because the mere speed of the threat vehicles far out-beats the minimum time required by conventional ‘sensors’ to detect and identify and ‘shooters’ to intercept and kill.

The Threat we face is real and happening

China is an emerging hypersonic weapon power. It has arsenal in both the verticals of hypersonics, namely the Hypersonic Cruise Missiles (HCMs) and Hypersonic Glide Vehicles (HGVs). Unlike conventional missiles, HCM are powered all-the-way in their flight and can achieve incredible speeds of 5-15 Mach.

HGVs are boosted to tremendous speeds by another powerful ballistic or other missile or an ICBM. As the speed keeps on rising, a stage is reached when the shock waves produced by the boost flight starts acting as ‘lifting surfaces’. ‘Riding on these shock waves’, the HGV detaches from the carrier and starts to cruise in the hypersonic regime. Because of this, HGVs are also called ‘wave-rider’ weapons.

Specifics of the threat from China
  1. In May 2018 China tested an HGV on board its IRBM DF 17 (range 1800-2500m). The target was in the Xinjiang Province. The HGV achieved an accuracy in few ‘meters’ (incredible, if true).[9] [10]
  2. Closely on the heels of the above, in Aug 2018, successful testing of a ‘hypersonic aircraft’ called Starry Sky -2 (an HCM) was reported.
  3. In Sep 2018 tests of ‘wide-speed-range-vehicles’ (D18-1S, D18-2S and D18-3S) were reported. These were scaled down hypersonic aircraft models of multiple designs whose speeds were adjustable for a precision strike of a nuclear-capable weapon.[11]
  4. In 2020 and 2021 China tested delivering a nuclear HGV warhead using DF 17 as the boost missile. Some tests were also reported of HGV launch using DF 41 ICBM.
  5. In Jul and Aug 21, tests of hypersonic vehicles (HGV and HCM) were reported. [12][13][14][15] The HGV was launched on-board Long March rocket. In one of this test the HGV was seen to be firing an air-to-air-missile before the plunge. Experts assessed it to be some sort of a satellite-killer weapon.
  6. The fact that the HGVs and HCMs are being tested also indicates parallel development of associated command and control systems required for such launches. These may include surveillance and target acquisition along with communications, connectivity, and a matching BMC2 system.[16]
Reality Check

Following is stated:-

  1. It is not that the Chinese hypersonic threat has gone past the development mark and is ‘battle ready’.
  2. At best, the threat is on its way to operationalization.
  3. It is the sense of the author that in a time frame of say 2-4 years, the threat may become ‘battle-ready’.
How the Future GBAD must Gear Up to meet the Hypersonic Capability

The above time window of a few years is about the time available for the defenders to revamp their arsenal to take on the ghost of hypersonics. The challenges remain the same - ‘detection’ and ‘kill’. This is how the future roadmap should unfold:-

Detection challenge
  1. Detecting a threat vehicle zooming in at an incredible speed of 5-15 Mach is no small task. In fact, for detecting a hypersonic launch event, a ‘global look-see’ capability is required with ‘instant’ response capability down line to the weapon platforms. Satellite based surveillance holds a promise for such a herculean task.
  2. For downward connectivity, the Integrated Air Command and Control System (IAACS) which currently controls the national level air defence battle, must forge an upward linkage with space based sensors on board the satellites, providing a penetrating gaze into our target areas. This is easier said than done. The same will call for a detailed multi-dimensional and multi-platform integration. The current status in this field cannot be disclosed.
The Kill Challenge
  1. Solving the huge challenge of detection is to come only half way through, since the bigger issue will be to acquire the capability to kill the hypersonic threat. As stated earlier, no conventional GBAD weapons can stop an HGV or HCM. What is required is an ‘INSTANT KILL CAPABILITY using soft kill weapons.
  2. The above type of weapons are slowly becoming a reality. These could be laser, high power microwave (HPM) and charged particle beams (CPB). Laser is a reality; the other two are under development. Specific details are classified.
The Big Question

Building counter hypersonic capability is a huge challenge requiring fund support, technology and political will. It is the sense of the author that the decision-makers are well aware of the challenge and the assessed time-frame of its becoming ‘battle-ready’. It is hoped that we won’t miss the bus in putting up a viable counter when the need so arises.

The Formidable Missile Threat and its Impact on the Future GBAD

If there is one threat that has grown by leaps and bounds, it is the missile threat from our potential adversaries. The future GBAD must measure up to them.

If the recent SSM launches by China across Taiwan[17] are any cue, China has grown its ballistic missile arsenal over the decades. Starting from the humble beginning of a few hundred km, today the Chinese ballistic missiles ICBMs have ranges in thousands of km. Here is at-a-glance information.

DF1 (SS2 - SRBM)-range 550 km, DF2 (CSS1-MRBM)-range 1250 km, DF 3(CSS 2- IRBM)-range 2500-2800 km, DF4 (CSS 3-two stage ballistic missile)-range 5500-7000 km, DF 5 (CSS 4 - ICBM) range-12000, DF 11 (CSS 7- road mobile SRBM)-range 300 km, DF 12 (CSS X-15-SRBM)-range 400-420 km , DF 15 (CSS 6-SRBM) range 600 km, DF 16 (CSS 11-MRBM)-range 800-1000 km, DF 21 (CSS 5- MRBM)-range 2500 km, DF 25 (two stage solid fuelled IRBM)-range 3200 km , DF 26 (solid-fuelled IRBM) range 3500 km, DF 31(CSS 10-road mobile solid-fuelled ICBM)-range 11000+km , DF41 (CSS X 10-next generation ICBM)-range 12000-14000 km.24

Besides, there are Beyond Visual Range Air-to-air Missiles or BVRAAMs (PL 12, PL-15 etc.) and supersonic Anti-radiation Missiles or ARMs (KH 31P, YJ-91)

Similarly Pakistan ballistic missiles pose a real threat. An at a glance view runs like this:-

Hatf I- SRBM, range 80 km, Hatf II (Abdali) range 200 km, Hatf III (Ghaznavi), SRBM, range 290 km, Hatf IV (Shaheen 1) range 750-900 km, Hatf V (Ghauri I and II) Ghauri1 -MRBM, range 1500 Km, Ghauri II -MRBM, range 1800 Km, . Hatf VI (Shaheen II) - MRBM, range 2500 Km, Shaheen III - range 2750 Km, Hatf VII (Babur)- Land attack cruise missile range 700 Km, Hatf VIII- (Ra'ad)-Air Launched Cruise Missile or ALCM, range 350 Km, Hatf IX (Nasr)-quick reaction shoot-and-scoot missile ideal for launching Tactical Nuclear Weapons or TNWs.

The Counter by the GBAD

For countering the formidable ballistic missile threat, a very strong muscle is required by the GBAD in the field of Anti-Ballistic Missiles, also referred to as the Ballistic Missile Defence or BMD. Following points are stated:-

  1. The Indian BMD muscle is configured on the twin verticals of Programme AD as well as BMD systems from abroad.
  2. Programme AD is the indigenous BMD programme developed in two phases (Phase 1- to counter the incoming missile threat of ranges up to 2000 km; Phase 2 –for threats from 2000-5000 km).
  3. Programme AD has long being operationalized (specific details are classified).
  4. As is famously known, the long range air defence and BMD system ex import is the S-400 system. Five regiments of S-400 have been contracted from and Russia in Oct 2016 for a cost of 39000Crs/5.85 Bn USD[18]. The deliveries of the first regiment started in Dec 2021. Phased induction/training and operationalization is in progress.[19] (Details classified).

It is imperative that the following actions are taken:-

  1. There are many a strategic Vulnerable Areas (VAs) which require BMD protection (seats of power, national command posts, nuclear power plants, national strategic assets, strategic choke points, war waging reserves and more).
  2. The voids in the ‘resource-to task’ matching as sensitive and critical information is known at the national level. Suffice to mention that the production of Programme AD resources must be up-scaled so that the same combined with S 400 could protect Priority 1 voids urgently (details classified).
Future GBAD Must Exploit the Magic of MANPADS

One of the most prominent aspects in the Russo-Ukraine air war has been the part played by the Man-Portable Air Defence Missiles (MANPADS). A combination of Igla, Igla 1S and Strela2M from the Ukrainian inventory and Stinger SAMs from USA, Star Streak from UK and similar weapons from Germany, Denmark, Lithuania and Netherlands have shown what MANPADS can do in the Tactical battle area ( TBA).[20] Following points are stated:-

  1. Our future GBAD arsenal must be self-sufficient in the MANPAD component.
  2. The current voids in this field must be addressed on top priority (details classified).
  3. India must acquire the capability of indigenous production of MANPADS. We have the capability.
GBAD must adjust to the New Centre of Gravity of Air Threat

It requires no explanation to state that the centre of gravity of the air threat has moved ‘northwards’ bringing along with it, its nuances of terrain, mobility, climate and battlefield conditions.

For the future GBAD, it will mean the following:-

  1. The future ‘sensors’ (radars), ‘shooters’(guns, missiles and ADS arsenal) and the BMC2 must be made compatible to be operating in the northern reaches of the country.
  2. The future systems need to be light, compact mostly on the self-propelled mode/or towed by such prime movers which are suitable for movement over smaller classification of bridges and operations in high-altitude areas.
Simulators Must Show the Way to Future GBAD Inventory

Powered by the enabling tools of technology like the artificial intelligence (AI) virtual or augmented reality ( AR/VR) and featuring the best of audio-visual display technologies and computing power, several GBAD simulators are available in the country which can do the following :-

  1. True-to-life weapon replicas of guns and missiles can provide unlimited simulated live-fire practice with zero expenditure of ammunition.
  2. Real ‘feel of fire’ effects (shock, jerk, platform vibration, smoke flash etc.) with no real firing.
  3. Realistic air threat plays as expected from our potential adversaries.
  4. Realistic battle field conditions (terrain, weather, and environment).
  5. Quantified assessment of trainee skills based on user-defined parameters.

Keeping in mind the prohibitive costs and finite numbers of GBAD weapons, simulators must pave the way for the future training of GBADs in consonance with the MoD’s Policy on the ‘Framework for Simulators in Armed Forces, issued in Sep 2021[21].

As the future unfolds, the GBAD must keep pace in performance of its assigned role in the overall air defence matrix of the nation.

The good news is, that WE ARE ON OUR WAY, challenges notwithstanding.

Endnotes :

[1]India’s Air Defence: what needs to be integrated,” at www.vifindia.org. Accessed on 03 Aug 2022.
[2] “Commentary: First ever swarm attack has happened,” at www.vifindia.org. Accessed on 03 Aug 2022.
[3] “Two major Saudi oil installations hit by drone strike,” at www.nytimes.cm. Accessed on 03 Aug 2022.
[4]Why drones turned the tide for Azerbaijan,” at www.vifindia.org. Accessed on 05 Aug 2022.
[5] “China is making 1,000 UAV drone swarms now,” at www.popsci.com. Accessed on 05 Aug 2022.
[6] “China is making 1,000 UAV drone swarms now,” at www.popsci.com. Accessed on 06Aug 2022.
[7] “AR 1,”at www.deagel.com. Accessed on 06Aug 2022.
[8]"CH-3 Rainbow" at www.militaryfactory.com. Accessed on 07Aug 2022.
[9] “Hypersonic weapons: an analysis, “at www.vifindia.org. Accessed on 07Aug 2022.
[10] “Advanced hypersonic-missile-threat-to-India,” at economictimes. indiatimes.com. Accessed on 09 Aug 2022.
[11]"China tests three hypersonic missiles at one go," at www. economictimes.indiatimes.com. Accessed on 10 Aug 2022.
[12] “China tests new space capability with hypersonic missile,” at www.ft.com. Accessed on 10 Aug 2022.
[13] “China hypersonic missile test showed unprecedented capability,” at www.bloomberg.com. Accessed on 11 Aug 2022.
[14] “Hypersonic: China Hypersonic missile test: All you need to know,” at www.timesofindia.indiatimes.com. Accessed on 11 Aug 2022.
[15] “China launched second missile July hypersonic test, reports say,” at www.the guardian.com. Accessed on 12 Aug 2022.
[16] “China’s counter space capabilities,” at www.claws.in. Accessed on 12 Aug 2022.
[17] “China launches misiles over Taiwan,” at www.thedrive.com. Accessed on 12 Aug 2022.
[18]CAATSA and S 400; The American dilemma : an analysis,” at www.vifindia.org. Accessed on 12 Aug 2022
[19]India may deploy S 400 in months,” at www.hindustantimes.com. Accessed on 12 Aug 2022.
[20] “What are the MANPADS that the west is sending to Ukraine?” at www.thehindu.com. Accessed on 12 Aug 2022.
[21] “Framework for Simulators in the Armed Forces,” at www.mod.gov.in. Accessed on 12 Aug 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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