Ground Based Air Defense – New Realities: New Challenges

The attack by swarm drones and such other small cross-section air threat vehicles will be common in future battlefields

The new realities

For Ground Based Air Defence (GBAD) in its operational role to counter the adversary’s air threat by being a part of the Integrated Air Defence System (IADS) at the national level,  the following two new realities have gradually emerged:-

  1. The centre of gravity of the air threat (as also the ground threat) has gradually shifted to the Northern and NE frontiers.
  2. A new dimension of the air threat has emerged wherein, low-cost and low RCS threat vehicles like drones (single or in swarms) are emerging as ‘attackers delight’ for the prosecution of air threat with high precision and low cost. (RCS stands for radar cross-section. Very simply, it is a measure of the target’s ‘detectability’ to radars. Lower the RCS of the target more difficult will it be to detect the same on radar).
  3. A duel between the low RCS threat vehicles and conventional GBAD arsenal of guns and missiles produces a highly disproportionate balance between the cost-of-attack and cost-of-kill, favouring the attacker.

This work examines the fall out of the above two realities and lists out the challenges (read action points) that need to be addressed urgently in the field of GBAD.

Drivers for Change

The new focus of air threat

Given the spike in proactive assertiveness and increased belligerence of our northern neighbour and the unfolding of the events in the year and a half gone by, it would require no explanation to assess the new focus of the air threat of the future. The following points are made:-

  1. The major weight of the air threat is expected from the northern and NE borders from China.
  2. Besides 3rd to 5th generation aircraft (J-7, JH-7, J8, J10, J 11,H-6, SU-30, Q5 J20, J31etc), low flying attack helicopters defying radar detection (WZ-9, 10,11, 19, Z-11 etc.), needle-sharp cruise missiles (CJ 10, YJ 6 etc.), smart anti-radiation missiles (KH31P, YJ91, YJ 93 etc.), precision-guided munitions (KD 88, D1-63,KH 59 etc.), soft-kill means, surface-to-surface missiles (DF1-700km to DF 41-12000+ Km) and more, the following dimensions of attack are likely to be particularly prominent in the air threat from China[i]:-
  3. Attacks through unmanned aerial vehicles either operating stand alone as a mission package, or in cohort with manned platforms in joint teaming missions (manned and unmanned teaming-MUMT). Large range and depth of MUMT-enabled machines held by China (Wing long, CH3, GJ 1, GJ 2, Anjian etc)
  4. Attack by low RCS vehicles like small drones either in small mission packages or in swarms[ii].
  5. 4rth/5th generation stealthy aircraft (J-20, J-31, JH-17H etc.) putting in devastating attacks by avoiding radar detection and punishment.

New Compulsions

The above-stated neo-realities of the air threat will force the following compulsions on GBAD:-

  1. The GBAD weapon systems need to be much lighter and more agile. Huge platforms in excess of 15-20 tons will be a NOGO.
  2. The systems, especially the sensors, need to technologically enable to perform in mountainous and high altitude terrain.
  3. The capability to detect stealthy air threat vehicles will be an inescapable requirement.
  4. Suitable kill-means must be put into place to take out the unmanned monsters keeping the cost-of-kill proportionate to the cost-of-attack.

Challanges (Action Points)

The edifice of GBAD rests on three pillars, namely, Sensors, Shooters and Battle-Management Command and Control (BMC2) systems. Very simply, the sensors to detect the air threat as far forward as possible, shooters to inflict a successive and seamless punishment to the threat shifting from weapon-to-weapon in real-time and the BMC2 system to execute the entire air defence battle of detection-identification-destruction in a matter of few fleeting minutes.

The challenges (action points) to address the new realities along the above three pillars subscribe to the following three major requirements:-

  1. Sustaining the existing inventory of arsenal.
  2. Capability enhancement over time.
  3. Being future-ready.

Each of these is enumerated along the above three verticals.

Sensors

While there may be any amount of valid criticism of the Defence Public Sector Undertakings (DPSUs) or the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) as regards inordinate time and cost overruns in delivering the projects, unfulfilled promises, keeping the Services waiting endlessly for their urgent operational requirements or more,  one of the few areas where they have achieved significant success is the area of sensors be it  on ground sea or air.

Electronics and Radar Development Establishment (LRDE) of the DRDO as the design agency duly supported by Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) as the Production agency (PA) and with neo-strong support from the private sector (Tata Power, L&T, Mahindras and more)  today we are at a stage where we are capable of making every genre of radar. Whether these are Fire Control (FC) radars that control the fire of guns and missiles or Tactical Control (TC) radars that do long-range surveillance and can auto-designate targets to FC radars or Early Warning (EW) radars for long-range surveillance alone all are within our indigenous capability to produce.

What is the new challenge in Sensors?

While everything appears to be on track, there are multiple challenges to counter the new realities. These are enumerated briefly:-

  1. The first challenge is to sustain a very large number of Flycatcher FC radars (quantum classified). These old vintage machines require critical hand-holding support in an environment where the spares are running dry and production lines the world over are about winding up. We are likely to have this radar for a minimum of 12-15 years. BEL has its sole PA must ensure that the radar is kept alive for the balance of its operational life.
  2. The other challenge is to make the new vintage AD FCR worthy for deployment in the northern and NE borders. The machines need to be much lighter and more agile. The current tonnage (classified) will prohibit it to move over low-classification bridges and narrow tracks obtaining in the above sector.
  3. In the field of TC radars, while it is a matter of credit that the  LRDE along with private players has achieved the latest Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) technique of surveillance, the huge machines need to be tailor-made for newer battlefields up North.

One of the ways to make them lighter is to use the latest technology. For instance, the use of germanium nitrate for the trans-receive modules and employing digital beam-forming techniques to detect low RCS targets. Also, today the technology allows having surveillance, passive detection and jamming capabilities on the same platform. These must be checked out.

  1. Low-Level Light Weight Radars (LLLRs – weight 200-250kg ) will be a boon in the higher reaches of the northern and NE borders. Two dimensional (2D) technology (where the radar detects only the bearing and range of the target) is a passé. Every LLLR needs to be a 3D radar (detecting bearing, range and altitude) for more effective engagement of targets.

Not only this, today the technology allows dual-capability of radar-based surveillance, as well as surveillance based on electro-optics on a single lightweight platform. That is the way forward to go in the field of LLLRs for the northern borders.

  1. How can we be future-ready? The answer is by remaining in time consonance with the gallop of technology. What does it mean for us in the field of radars? Probably the following:-
  2. Develop radars that are capable of detecting stealthy targets. For this, the development needs to be driven along three verticals- a. Passive coherent radars;b. Laser based radars-LIDARS; and c. Quantum radars (technical details not covered).

Out of the 5 Young Scientist Laboratories established by the PM in Jan 2020, the one based at IIT Mumbai deals with quantum technologies. It has to rise up to the requirement of designing worthwhile quantum radar. The stealth threat is already upon us[iii].

The Challenge (action points) in Guns

There are many who have long written the obituary of the towed/self-propelled guns as a potent GBAD weapon system. This author has always believed in the power of air defence guns and their inescapable and well-deserved place in the inventory of GBAD weapon systems. Time has endorsed this viewpoint.

Today there are a number of takers of air defence guns. These weapons riding high on the enabling technologies are providing a cost-proportionate and effective kill solution for small RCS targets like drones or swarms.

A high rate of fire gun (2K to 8K-10K  rounds per minute ) with an on-board Electro-Optical fire Control System or EOFCS (technical details not covered)  and firing suitable ammunition (fragmentation proximity fused)  proves a deadly low-cost killer for a small RCS target.

That said, guns as terminal-end main frame weapons must also be kept razor-sharp to take on the high-end threat as well. In this context, the following challenges need to be addressed in our scenario:-

  1. While the case for successor guns to replace the old vintage L-70 and ZU- 23 guns has started to move after 15 years, it will take a minimum of 4-6 years before the guns finally become operational. Till that time the current fleet of guns has to be kept alive through the upgrade.

As regards the upgrade, while the L-70 gun upgrade has reached a figure (classified) further of which no upgrade is possible (weapon not fit enough) the same for ZU-23 must start. ZU-23 gun with an EOFCS will prove to be a sure low-cost killer for low RCS targets.

  1. As regards self-propelled guns and gun-missile systems (SPGMS), these are the most inescapable weapons for countering the threat to mechanized forces in the Tactical Battle Area (TBA). The current inventory of Shilkas has reached its upper limit of upgrade numbers (quantum classified), the urgent requirement is to induct the successor. The MoD must move ahead of cancelling the K 30 Biho contract of SPGMS[iv] (details not covered). The make in India magic must play up here. We have the capability of making an indigenous SPGMS.[v]

The challenge ( action points) in missiles

THE GBAD weapon inventory is an integrated family of guns (towed and SP) and an entire continuum of surface-to-air-missiles (SAMs) deployed in a layered and tiered manner. Based on a theatre grid, the SAMs extend a long fire-arm for a successive and seamless punishment to the threat from the terminal end to hundreds of km. We have every element of this fire-arm- some imported some our own. The challenges in this field are as under:-

  1. If there is one SAM that is most ideally suited for quick and dynamic deployment in the northern and NE frontiers, it is the man-portable SAM or MANPAD (range 4-8 km). It is most imperative that the current ongoing case for MANPADS in progress for 8 years and counting is pushed to the conclusion to meet tri-Service voids. (quantum classified). Also, this is one area which must don the colours of Atmanirbhatra. Firstly we have the capability to make MANPADS on our own, and secondly, any numbers of foreign OEMs are only too keen to make it here for us with full technology transfer. We need to take a call urgently.
  2. In the field of short-range SAMs (SRSAMs range 20-30 km), Akash is a story to be proud of. We have our own SRSAM. The need is to proliferate it in large numbers up North to strengthen our air defence grid. While we have a new technology-enhanced version of Akash (Akash NG), the need is to make Akash even as a Medium Range SAM ( MRSAM, range 50-100km). Our own MRSAM can then stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Barak MRSAM which is being produced by DRDO in JV with Israel in meeting large voids in this area.
Akash – a success story to be built upon

What about the SAM for the mechanized elements of the TBA ( Quick reaction SAM or QRSAM range20-30 km). The ongoing project of DRDO+BEL must move from experimentation to operationalization in the hands of the user[vi]. ( further details classified).

  1. While the new generation SAMs can continue to strengthen the GBAD inventory, it will be a long haul of 10-15 year before credible capabilities are fully matured in the hands of the user. All along this timeline, the existing SAM systems ( Kvadrat, Strela, OSA-AK, Igla) need to be kept operationally relevant through periodic overhauls, product up-gradations and life-extension of missiles. This is an extremely TALL ORDER and is the biggest challenge for the users, maintainers and the industry.

Challenges of BMC2

Air Force is entrusted with the responsibility of the air defence of the Indian national air space. In execution of this responsibility, it has fielded a national level BMC2 system called the Integrated Air Command and Control System or IACCS. Extending from the apex level, right down to fire units in the field, IACCS control all the air defence weapons of the three Services ( excluding the fleet at sea).

There are three imperatives as regards IACCS:

1. The existing sensor voids of IACCS must be filled up urgently (quantum classified);

2.The system must be kept technologically upgraded;

3. The hand-shake of the system with the other Services must be made seamless so that orders and instructions reach fire units in real-time and fratricide, the cardinal sin of the defender is avoided.

Some Reflections

In the essence of what has been stated above, here are some final reflections:

  1. New realities are emerging in the eternal duel between the prosecutors of air threat and defenders. These demand new thinking and a new arsenal.
  2. While capability enhancement through the route of capital acquisition is one obvious option, the same is ridden with very long timelines and gestation periods.
  3. While the above must go on, actions to counter the threat HERE AND NOW must go on. In this context following is operationally inescapable:-

The current inventory of GBAD must be sustained till new systems can pitch in. Periodic overalls, product improvements and comprehensive upgrades are inescapable solutions to keep an ageing and near obsolescent inventory alive.

  1. Maximum push preference and priority must go to indigenous solutions.
  2. The domestic industry both public and private must rise to so tweak/modify/revamp the existing weapons so to make them relevant for deployment in the battlefields in the North and NE borders of the nation.

THAT THERE IS AWARENESS IN THE GOVT AND WILL TO ACT  is a matter of satisfaction.

End Notes:

[i] “Indigenous quick reaction air defence system to be ready for production next year,” at www.thehindu.com. Accessed on 18 Jun 2021.

[ii] “PM dedicates 5 DRDO Young Scientist Laboratories to the nation,” at www.pib.gov.in. Accessed on 18 Jun2021

[iii] “Army tenders worth $2.5 billion for carbines and air defence systems cancelled,” at www.thehindu.com. Accessed on 18 Jun 2021.

[iv] “Carbines, anti-air systems for Army to be made in India,” at www.m.economictimes.com. Accessed on 18 Jun 2021.

[v] ” CAATSA and S-400: the American Dilemma -An analysis,” at www.vifindia.org. Accessed on 17 Jun 2021.

[vi] “Watch; China tests swarm-drone technology that can outflank enemy defences, “at www.asiantimes.com. Accessed on 17 Jun 2021.