Air Defence Command: A Step in Right Direction

 By Brig. Akhelesh Bhargava
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The appointment of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) came into being on 01 Jan 2020 after a long wait. One of the first announcements made by CDS was about making a proposal for the creation of Air Defence Command[1] by 30 Jun 2020. An important question that needs to be answered is about the structure of the Air Defence Command, should the proposal be accepted.

Air Defence (AD): A Peep into History

During the Second World War, the Union War Book made a clear distinction by listing out “coastal Air Defence including at Ports and Anti-Aircraft (AA) Defence as Army responsibilities. The Air Force role comprised of “Home Defence air attack and AD intelligence scheme”.  Thus while, the Royal Indian Air Force was engaged in regaining the command of the air; the Indian Anti Aircraft Artillery was employed to defend all vulnerable assets from enemy air force.[2]

Post-1971 war AA Artillery expanded in a big way. Officers were directly commissioned into the AA Artillery units and new weapon systems were inducted, including state of the art Surface to Air Missiles (SAM). The training of men too got separated out from Artillery. The responsibility of ground-based AD at airfields continued with AA Artillery.

In 1993, the proposal for creating a separate arm in the Army to carry out AD functions was on cards.  It was during the same time that the Union War Book was revised, wherein the heading was changed from “Anti-Aircraft Defence” to “Air Defence”, thus blurring the distinction.2  Till then the anti-aircraft defence dealt clearly with Ground-Based Air Defence Weapon Systems (GBADWS) and AD was the action in the air by Air Force.  The inclusion of the revised statement, “The responsibility of providing AD of Indian Air Space rests with the Indian Air Force”, changed the demarcation. A joint ethos became disjointed.

AD Responsibility Since 1993

Since Air Force became the prime provider of AD in the country, it should have undertaken following tasks under its wings and delegated/distributed the same based on a clear cut policy between the three services:

  1. Surveillance of Air Space: Surveillance plays a prime role for effective AD. To ensure a coordinated gap-free, multi-tiered (in range) and layered (in height band) coverage of air space; a chain of surveillance radars are required. The availability of surveillance radars with the three services, their distribution/deployment, identification of gaps and future acquisition should be planned and executed jointly. A long term perspective plan should have been made for surveillance. However, all acquisitions for surveillance by the three services are being done independently and their deployment is based on their respective requirements and seldom coordinated with each other even during operations. This leads to duplication in the same geographical area as well as cause electro-magnetic interference (EMI). Interestingly, Pakistan in 1993 was far ahead in this field with Siemens Integrated Low-Level Air Control System (SILLACS) which fielded a chain of radars along our western borders.
  2. AD Weapons: As the qualitative and quantitative air threat increased and became more potent, the requirement of advanced AD weapon systems to include self-propelled (SP) SAMs became a necessity for the Strike Corps. The airbases earlier had three tiers of AD protection ie, the AD aircraft, Pechora SAM (static) and the AA Artillery guns. With time the AD tiers at the airbases increased to five by inducting man-portable SAM (Igla 1M) and SP SAMs (Osa-AK and Spyder). The AD aircraft were also kitted with Beyond Visual Range (BVR) Air to Air Missiles (AAM). Due to paucity of AD resources, many Army and Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) assets do not get even a single tier of AD protection. The AD of a ship, in any case, is an independent/stand-alone task and therefore not discussed.
  3. Control and Reporting (C&R) System[3]: The C&R System for AD weapons including AD aircrafts becomes very central for an effective AD battle as also to prevent fratricide. Being reactive in nature, AD weapons seldom get ‘target engagement time’ of few seconds post its reporting. It is therefore important that the complete C&R is automated. Besides, all the passage of information should be on a robust and secure communication network. However, various elements of the Army C&R network quite often function on manual mode. When the case for Integrated Air Command and Control System (IACCS) was initiated in 2010; only Air Force requirements were taken into consideration. Later Army AD had to initiate Project ‘Akashteer’. As on date, both are still disjointed and Army AD C&R network still does not get feeds from IACCS automatically. An identification friend or foe (IFF) system for AD is essential to prevent fratricide.
  1. Communications, Frequency Management and Electronic Warfare (EW): The ultimate aim of Air Force and Army AD is one – the destruction of enemy aircraft. Accordingly, communication network for AD (AFNET of Air Force and NISHAN of Army) should have been one. It is an operational need for both services to be on the same page. The frequency required for a large number of radio nets (HF and VHF) for Army AD is large. Simultaneously, there are a large number of radars being operated by both Air Force and Army AD. Therefore, there is a need for frequency management to ensure electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) and avoid EMI. The Air and AD battle will be in the backdrop of heavy use of EW. The electronic countermeasures (ECM) and electronic countermeasures (ECCM) are practised together only during exercises. The need of the hour is to discuss and practice together.
  2. Logistics: AD weapons systems have been procured randomly from different countries. Every AD weapon system has a comparatively low population. Logically the spare parts, their repair and maintenance facility should have been centrally coordinated. The specialist trained on AD weapon would thus be on the common grid to exchange notes and when required decide on cannibalisation where feasible. The AD equipment maintenance by both Air Force (Base Repair Depots [BRD]) and Army (Army Base Workshops [ABW]) needs better management and coordination. Similarly, the AD gun ammunition and SAMs storage depots of Air Force and Army can be combined and war wastage rates (WWR) be optimised.
  3. Human Resource and Skill Development: The manpower with Air Force for AD is a fraction of what Army AD has. The technical skill required for operating an AD weapon is virtually the same but training methodology and locations are different for the three services. Personnel is trained to handle radars, AD guns, SAMs, communication equipment, fighter controllers and the like. The training can be synergised at the AD training establishments of the three services.
  4. Acquisition of Weapons: Post 1993, when Air Force became overall responsible for AD of the country, it should have automatically become the coordination agency for procurement as well as the development of ground-based AD weapons by Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). However, the three services have been acquiring AD weapons independently, without reference to other’s need. Since the AD systems, especially the SAMs and surveillance resources (radars) are very costly there was a need to optimize the procurement due to the availability of limited capital budget for defence forces. An example being the procurement of SP SAMs like Osa-AK and Spyder for protection of static airfields. Besides, the DRDO should have been tasked jointly and minor variation built in rather than independent orders being negotiated, resulting in wasteful expenditure, effort and time (eg – Akash).

The Changed Scenario

The air threat over the years has changed. The air targets have become faster, capable of releasing weapons from a stand-off distance. The drones can be aircraft sized or a miniature version (capable of attacking in swarms).  The drone attack on Aramco oil refinery in Saudi Arabia by Houthi rebels on 14 Sep 2019[4] has highlighted that even the civilian economic targets can be targeted by non-state actors.  The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has promulgated the drone policy, yet it has not earmarked any agency for its coordination. The civil aviation and paramilitary forces under Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) including Coast Guard have to be taken on board as the threat from drones under the control of rogue elements can emanate from anywhere in the hinterland.

A large number of countries including China and Pakistan are having ballistic missiles of varying range. Their numbers are ever-increasing and are a source of the constant threat to strategic assets including major cities. There is a need for Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) to protect selected assets.

Thousands of satellites are being launched in the low earth orbit (LEO) having remote sensing capabilities both by state and private players. There are strategic assets which need to be shielded from the prying eyes of these satellites. One or many of these satellites may knowingly eavesdrop on key installations and if this is done persistently, it needs to be taken as a hostile act and action initiated accordingly.

The planning for upgrading the country’s AD is being done. The S-400 Triumf will take care of aircraft attacking with stand-off weapons as also provide BMD. It is likely to be delivered by end of 2021.[5] In the medium and long term, the DRDO BMD twins of Prithvi Air Defence Missile (also known as Pradyumna Ballistic Missile Interceptor) for high altitude and Advance AD Interceptor for low altitude are in the pipeline and multiple test firing have been carried out.[6] India conducted mission ‘Shakti’ on 27 Mar 2019 in which an earmarked satellite was hit by an Anti-Satellite Missile.[7]

Along with these AD weapons, a host of phased array radars with ranges up to 600 km are also being inducted. All the above weapons will form part of the Strategic AD Force. The requirement of trained manpower to operate these AD weapons will be immense. To leave all of it to a single service may not be viable and therefore the requirement of Air Defence Command.

Preparing for the Future

It is proposed that the Air Defence Command should have direct control over the strategic AD weapons. It should delegate control over tactical AD weapons to respective services as hitherto fore. Simultaneously, there is an urgent need for bringing homogeneity amongst the three services and take other stakeholders like DGCA on board.

Air Force is the main stakeholder should become the prime coordinator for a viable AD in the country. Each service has few core competencies[8],[9] and they should be made responsible for that vertical either singly or jointly but within the laid down guidelines legislated by Air Defence Command. The aspects which need attention on priority are as enumerated below:

  1. Automation of C&R and Tri-service Integration. The Air Force IACCS has been fielded and operationally tested. It should be shared with the Army and Navy albeit post sensitizing all operators to maintain cyber hygiene. An audit of surveillance radars presently available in the country should be carried out and a gap-free tiered deployment should be re-planned and implemented. Steps should be initiated to make IACCS fully automated (hands-free with minimal human intervention).
  2. Strategic AD Weapons: A tri-service organization should be created and personnel trained for S-400, BMD and ASAT weapon systems. Their peacetime and operational locations need to be decided and infrastructure created.
  3. Air Space Control: Since the users of air space, especially at the low level (below 300 m) are many, there is need for a single agency to control them so that maximum freedom of action is provided to each.
  4. Air Threat Assessment at National Level: Air threat to all assets of the three services and JPC tasks should be reassessed and prioritised.  Similarly, stock of all AD weapons under various categories and those in the pipeline should be taken. Reallocation of AD weapons should be carried out based on relative priority.
  5. Training and Skill Development: The training at AD College/School of the three services should be integrated based on respective core competency. Training for future strategic AD weapons should commence at the earliest. Training of paramilitary forces’ personnel on AD aspects too, needs to be considered.
  6. Indigenous Manufacture and Procurement ex Import: A regular interaction with DRDO, Defence Public Sector Undertaking (DPSU), Ordnance Factories (OF) and private industries dealing with manufacture of AD weapons should be held. Shortcomings, modifications and upgrades wherever required, should be timely conveyed and feedback is taken to avoid delays. Assemblies or equipment required to be imported should be thoroughly vetted. Strict quality control needs to be exercised where the transfer of technology (ToT) has been carried out for indigenous production.
  7. Base Repairs and Maintenance: Due to the low population of AD equipment, it is worthwhile to pool in resources of the three services for base repair. Specialists need to be identified and data on their profile be shared.

 Conclusion

The Air Defence Command will provide a big boost to the AD of the nation.  Optimisation of AD weapons is the need of the hour. It’s time to set right flaws and implement reforms forthwith. The Air Defence Command will also ensure that the Armed Forces are ready to induct strategic AD weapons and modify their plans accordingly. It will bring about much-needed cohesiveness between AD elements of the three services and ensure optimal functioning.

Endnotes

[1] “CDS Bipin Rawat Focuses on Preparing Roadmap for Creation of Air Defence Command,” Economic Times dated 02 Jan 2020

[2]  ‘Of Chesterton’s Fence and Change: Ack Ack Artillery to Air Defence by Lt Gen Pran Pahwa, PVSM (Retd) published in CLAWS.

[3] In ‘ control and reporting, ‘reporting’ implies detection and informing AD elements of all aircrafts tracks (both hostile and friendly) and the ‘control’ implies to the freedom/restriction placed on AD weapons to open fire or own aircraft to fly..

[4] Explained: Saudi ARAMCO Oil Facility Attacked: What makes Drone Attack so Dangerous by Mukesh Rawat published in India Today dated 17 Sep 2019 assessed on 27 Jun 2020

[5] Issue of India’s advance payment for S-400 missile system deliveries settled: Russia by PTI published in Economic Times dated 29 Aug 2019

[6] India’s Ballistic Missile Shield ready: IAF and DRDO to seek Government’s Nod to Protect Delhi by Snehesh Alex Philip published in The Print dated 08 Jan 2020

[7] ‘Mission Shakti’ and ASAT Missile Test: All you Need to Know published in Times of India dated 28 Mar 2019.

[8] Integrated Air Defence Command: Indian Context by Lt Gen Ram Pratap, PVSM, AVSM, VSM (Retd) published in South Asia Defence and Strategic Review May-Jun edition.

[9] AD Command by Lt Gen V K Saxena, PVSM, AVSM, VSM (Retd) published in VIF.

Brig Akhelesh Bhargava (Retd) is an alumnus of Defence Services Staff College. He was an instructor at Army AD College. He commanded an AD unit in Western Sector. As Col AD he was head of an arm at HQ Northern Command and commanded Eastern Command AD Brigade.