Current Air Defense Challenges & Their Mitigation

Published: 2021-07-05 08:35:04
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While naval enthusiasts may argue that 70% of the earth is covered by water it needs to be emphasized that 100% of the earth is covered by air. Air Power today has the ability to find and hold at risk any target (fixed, mobile, hardened) anywhere on the globe. Existing contemporary platforms backed by enabling technologies like stealth, soft kill and electronic warfare (EW) have revamped the aerial punch into a viable potent weapon. Air Power is now a weapon of ‘First Response’ and a tool of statecraft used extensively for achieving various goals ranging from political signaling, punitive strikes, support military operations (ops), deterrence, attainment of Notion of Victory or simple coercion.
Emerging Trends in Air Threat.
Focus on Fourth Generation Aircraft
Air Forces world over are shedding their second and third generation aircraft for the more potent, fourth generation aircraft. For example PLAAF modern fourth-generation variants accounted for almost 30% of the force in 2010 which rose to 51% by 2015 and presently stands in excess of 60%. While the quality of the aircrafts has increased there has been a commensurating decline in numbers of aircraft from 4000 plus to 1800. The catch however is the 100% jump in the quantity of the fourth generation aircraft. Advent of Stealth.
There is an increased trend of development and use of the stealth aircraft. The development of J-20 & J-31 is a case in point with the former already operational (twenty eight including eight prototypes).
Improved Avionics.
Avionics has been a focus area with technology developed for fifth generation aircrafts also finding its way into fourth generation aircrafts giving them better BVR and targeting capability.
Unmanned Aircraft.
There has been a focus on increased use of UAVs, armed UAVs and micro/mini-UAVs. These aircrafts are now providing enhanced Battle Field Transparency with capabilities such as engagement of ground targets, directing own artillery fire (DOOAF), EW etc. Stealth will further add to their potency.
Use of Stand Off Weapons.
Use of Cruise / Ballistic missiles as a precursor to an air strike is an accepted norm. These weapons coupled with other standoff weapons and PGM accord air power with the capability to inflict damage on an adversary while staying away from AD assets deployed for its protection. With better EW capability for jamming AD systems this capability is further enhanced.
Swarm Attack.
This is the latest entry into the folds of air threat and is likely to see major developments with AI augmenting this threat providing it potency. The mere idea of how to combat small and cheap drones that can carry small payloads or carry out kamikaze-style attacks continues to vex global militaries. ISIS has already attempted one such attack in Jan 18 which saw a swarm of drones attack a Russian air base in Syria. Emerging Trends in Ground Based Air Defense (GBAD).
A2AD Strategy.
Anti Access Area Denial (A2AD) is a viable tool of deterrence involving inter-linking of various weapons and sensors in a manner that deny access to the enemy to a particular region by employing Long range measures (LRSAM) and deny freedom of action through short range measures (MR SAM / MANPADs / Guns). This strategy is generally employed by weaker nations for their defense however by executing a forward redeployment it can be employed as an offensive tool. Since an entire geographic region cannot be isolated this strategy finds favor when looking at sectors / sub sectors and during wars of short duration.
Focus on LR / MR SAM.
Increasingly armies world over are procuring LR / MR SAM prominent among them being the procurement of S-400 /300, HQ-9, LOMADS LY-80 by the countries of the subcontinent. LR & MRSAM in addition to forming the cornerstone of the Anti Access strategy also bring to the table the following advantages:

Denial of an opportunity to stage a surprise attacks on VA/VPs located in depth.
Extend own capability deep into enemy airspace simultaneously according depth to own defenses while restricting freedom of action to the enemy air (including over his own airspace) thereby pushing him back further.
Rendering use of forward located airfields / helipads / FAARP by the enemy fixed / rotary wing aircraft a risky proposition making him disperse in depth. This in turn has a direct bearing on the Radius of Action, amount of ammunition carried, number of sorties generated, capability to execute HB ops etc.
Depending upon their location, impact ops in the neighboring theater.
Omni present (24×7) AD umbrella allowing own forces freedom of action to / induct / deinduct from a sector or execute maneuver.
Free up aircraft from AD duties for employment in other missions.
Impose restrictions / limitations on use of force multipliers such as AWACS by the enemy. Just by their sheer presence these aircrafts will be forced to be employed from depth making them loose out on their capability to look deep into own territory. Similarly Aerostats and Balloon Barrages can also be easily targeted.
The cost benefit analysis also favors the LR SAM vis-à-vis fighters. For example the S-400 deal for five regiments (20 x Btys) at $5 Billion is far cheaper than 36 x Rafales at $8 Billion. In the bargain you get 24×7 AD Cover over a wide geographical area while simultaneously freeing up Rafales to do the most important task ‘Strike’.

Layered & Tiered.
Although this trend is not new however, what is new is the increased range, lethality and accuracy of the systems thereby catering to the entire spectrum of air threat. This capability also accords them the ability to effectively execute the Area Denial strategy (by the employment of VSHORADs/SRSAM/ Man PADs / Guns). While due to the curvature of the earth and terrain configuration (as obtained in the subcontinent) masking of air power from LRSAMs upto a certain depth can be achieved however no such joy exists in case of MR/SR SAM and guns. In addition to deterrence in the TBA these platforms (due to their capabilities and presence) makes enemy commit more air power platforms (incl PGMs / missiles) for SEAD /DEAD ops which in their absence would have been used against own VA/VPs. In Syria S-400 with Pantsir-S1 worked in tandem to provide a layered and tiered defense leading to USAF and others air forces sitting out and resorting to ineffective targetting through cruise missiles only. While the results may be disputed what cannot be disputed is that the unhindered and uninhibited use of Air Power has been effectively curbed in Syria.Air Threat.
Visualised Air Threat Manifestation.
The size and population of India precludes any existential threat. Hence, any future scenario will comprise of the fwg:

Short, swift and intense wars with sides quick to declare victory.
Platform centric ops.
Strikes by Cruise & Ballistic missiles to augment strategic targeting both in conjunction with conventional use of aircrafts or as a precursor.
Striking of all strategic targets including IAF centric targets to cause damage and divert IAF effort towards AD tasks.
Engage / Target IA with focus on TBA by employing multiple options ranging from manned aircraft, attack helicopters, UAVs, PGMs etc to blunt the land campaign and achieve the stated / desired aims.
Use of own AD umbrella to deny space and freedom of action to IAF in the TBA thereby impacting the linkages of synergy between the services.
In the Northern front ops to be focused along the valleys with limited IAF fighter sp available for ops in sp of IA (due to distance from own air bases & plethora of GBAD assets at the disposal of the adversary).
Use HB ops to get behind and isolate areas with air power simultaneously playing a pivotal role in degrading own defensive assets and positions on ground setting the stage for application of ground troops.

IAF and its Capability to Deal with Emerging Air Threat.
IAF has demonstrated its capability to tackle all kinds of air threat. However, plans for ops are made on the basis of one’s ability to sustain ops for a protracted period and not on the basis of demonstrated capability. Demonstrated capability accounts for nothing as it is not a deterrent to an enemy employing all means at his disposal for which he is willing to accept certain amount of attrition. Capability is deemed to be a deterrent only when it results in escalating the costs to an adversary to an unacceptable level. In case of the IAF the following issues stand out.
Quantity. The current numbers of IAF fall well short of the desired levels. Given the quintessential resource crunch, procurement procedures and the recent controversy surrounding the Rafale acquisitions the existing numbers getting a boost within the short to midterm is a suspect. Moreover with some o the aircrafts (eg Mig-21) set to retire it is unlikely that the Tejas will also be able to bridge the existing gap.
Quality. This is an area where a focused approach by the IAF has accorded it with an edge. However, the issue has not been lost on its adversaries as well, with the western adversary more or less keeping pace (quantitatively) while the gap with the northern one is ever increasing. Therefore an attritional warfare does not favor the IAF.
Single / Two Front. Even in case of a single front like the IA, IAF too will not be able to completely switch all its forces hence, aircraft though available would be available in reduced numbers.
Serviceability. In a short campaign the impact of poor serviceability tends to get mitigated with countries able to manufacture major components possessing an edge.
LR SAM. As recent incidents have proved, the induction of LR SAM will severely restrict the capability of IAF to operate freely. While own LR SAM (when fielded and likely to be deployed for the protection of strategic VA/VPs) will also impose similar caution. However, due to the nature of terrain as obtained on our Northern Borders and given its vastness it may not be feasible for it to cover the entire frontage. Those areas which do get the coverage will also not benefit completely due to the nature of the terrain leaving IA to fight isolated in various sectors with reliance on integral AAD asset.
Issues With Respect to Integral AAD.
In today’s scenario, the air is going to be used extensively and relentlessly and hence the maintenance of a potent AD is a national imperative to ensure safety of own assets and their survivability. To ensure their survivability, the GBADW plays an important role. However the AAD currently suffers from the fwg issues:
Mismatch in Capability. While some enhancement in the capability of AAD has taken place the pace of development of Air Power has been exponential outstripping the current capability of AAD. The current crop of AAD equipment is by and large obsolete as it lacks range, punch and the numbers with some of the weapons being fair weather creating voids in the Tactical Battle Area (TBA). Since the cost of AD equipment is high the resource crunch has lead to the focus getting shifted to the procurement of other critical equipment leading to a trickle vis-à-vis modernization of AAD is concerned.
Point AD System. The current system adopted by AAD is that of a Point AD. This system has been adopted due to the wide geographical dispersion of VA/VPs coupled with the limitations of range (to cover a wide geographical area) of the current AD equipment. Having said that this system works well and has with stood the test of time. However with the advent of standoff weapons and night attack capability the Point AD System with the current crop of AD equipment leaves a lot to be desired. Additionally given the current enemy’s capability and the strategy adopted by his air and GBAD assets to deny space / freedom of action to own aircraft it is likely to manifest largely into own troops getting isolated and exposed in the TBA.
Platform Centricity. With regards to AAD gunners there is an issue at the conceptual level which largely gets overlooked. While an Infantryman goes up against an Infantryman (generally), Armour against armour with both the adversaries generally evenly matched in capability / armament /training, similar is not the case in respect of AAD. An AAD Gunner goes up against the most well trained man in the adversaries armed forces, flying the best equipment armed to the teeth with the most sophisticated weapons his country can afford. Hence to counter such a multi vector and a multi element Air Power there is a need to have a modern GBAD Platforms which requires some investment for it to remain relevant.
Robbing Paul to Pay Peter. AAD resources are at a premium and with limited ranges there is a trend to switch them from one theatre to another to plug the voids while simultaneously creating voids in the existing setup. However one size does not fit all and these measures are nothing more than Band Aids.
Role Played by IAF. AAD has been utilized extensively for the protection of VA/VPs including those of IAF and other critical VA/VPs nominated jointly. However, it is a known secret that in addition to AAD dealing with issues of resource allocation within the army, the role played by the IAF has also not been very constructive. As already emphasized in paras above it is not feasible for the IAF to be omni present. In fact AAD will only complement the IAF capability. Even the mighty air forces of the world like those of the USA, Russia and the Chinese are sized of this fact and have progressively invested heavily in their AAD assets. Way Fwd.
Prognosis. The majority of the current AAD in its present form (being legacy system) continues to languish in the realms bordering obsolence meriting a need to revisit the lessons from the Gulf War. At this juncture it is often argued that the two scenarios are not the same to which I am in agreement as the situation has since dramatically changed from bad to worse. Picture this, today some of the current crop of AAD equipment is the same as that used by the Iraqi Army during the Second Gulf War. In the War this AD equipment went up against a largely Third / Third++ Generation aircraft however, now the same equipment is expected to go up against a Fourth/ Fourth++ /Fifth Generation Aircraft (that too largely without IAF cover). In such a scenario we can all imagine what the effectiveness of these systems will be.
Redundancy.
It is often highlighted that AD of the nation is the responsibility of the Air Force. However by the time any air force can declare complete / fair degree of Air Superiority over the TBA the war would have been on for a certain duration during which time the adversary’s air would have been extremely active. In order to tide over this period and to prevent oneself from attrition it is imperative that certain redundancy in the form of a potent AAD is built. Conversely if the Air Power gets delayed or worse fails to impose itself on the other, the requirement of a viable AAD is even more critical. It needs to be emphasized that while intentions / requirements can change overnight the underlying capability cannot.
Road Map.
Nobody gets to go back in time and take decisions. We all have to move forward as it is there where the future lies with the key to this maze lying in one word, ‘Modernisation’. However, for any army in the world (including ours) it is really not feasible to have all systems as state of the art as it is cost prohibitive. Hence there is a need to have a judicious mix of legacy, current and state-of-the-art technologies. Therefore we need to arrive at a balance between capability maintenance and capability enhancement (to incl development). Under the current scheme of things a two-pronged approach needs to be adopted which focuses on consolidating the existing capability through upgrades and builds upon the futuristic capability through procurement and indigenous development.
Change in Strategy. Adoption of any new strategy / evolving new concepts such as the A2AD are fantastic ideas which are likely to impose heavy costs on an adversary in any scenario. However, any change in strategy is a direct function of the capability of the equipment. New strategy can only be adopted if there is a change in equipment profile / capability. Without this prerequisite all measures will continue to be stop gap and unlikely to yield any meaningful results.
Short Term Measures. Upgradation of the existing equipment needs to be pursued vigorously. These upgrades in addition to enhancement of life of the equipment will also enhance their capability and also pave the way for the smooth induction of the successor equipment.
Mid & Long Term Measures. New equipment will have to be procured in the short and midterm so that the IA has the capability to tackle the enemy Air Power. However, in the long term the development of new equipment also needs to be pursued so that reliance on foreign vendors is reduced entailing saving of. Any capability developed / enhanced today will not be front specific.
Integrated Family of Weapons. To ensure that all types of aerial threats are targeted there is a need to have a tiered and layered all weather AD cover (preferably a Gun Missile mix) based on different kinds of platforms thereby according flexibility in employment (collectively or as a point AD). This genre of equipment needs to be adopted under an integrated joint approach so that duplication is avoided and all the users benefit.
C&R. With the increase in air space users it is necessary to manage them in a manner that there is synergy. There is a need to have a seamless AD C&R system which is real time and automated with one service taking the lead. What is paramount is that management issues should not take precedence over national security issues.
Equipment vs Manpower. In an equipment intensive arm it is imperative that the arm keeps re-inventing itself. While manning of equipment needs manpower it also needs to be highlighted that the new generation of equipment will require less manpower. This factor needs to be exploited to help offset the high cost of equipment (one time) with the reduction in Manpower (recurring cost).
Conclusion
The lethality and the severity of the air threat today has increased manifold. What is of immediate relevance to us is that Modern Air Forces can isolate and engage targets in a given theater at will setting the stage for the application of its ground forces. History is replete with examples where Air Power has made an adversary’s large offensive / defensive strength account for nothing. The only thing standing in front of this Air Power Tsunami in the TBA is the AAD for which it was raised. Depriving it today of the tools it requires to stem the tide is.

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