Growing Air Threat : Options and Strategies
Vol 11 Issue 2 May - Jun 2017
A panorama of global offensive and defensive capabilities and assesses India’s state of preparedness
Wednesday, May 24, 2017
Inter-continental operations were possible in the World War II because of maturing of Air Power which in a great way decided the outcome of the six year war. Strategic bombing became an instrument of waging total war. The Air Battle of Britain actually became the turning point when German offensive against Britain was thwarted through better tactics and newer technologies. Carpet bombing of Germany finally forced the fall of Hitler. More recently the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973, Bekka Valley operations, the Falkland war, the Bosnia conflict and the post 1990’s wars in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Libya have been predominantly air wars. Closer home the Indian Air Force (IAF) played a significant role in the victory in 1971 and Kargil Indo-Pak wars.
The coordinated 9/11 aerial attacks against United States by al-Qaeda have brought a new dimension to the air threat. Meanwhile, the fighter bomber has become faster, more agile and stealthy. The world is engaged in developing counters to the ballistic and tactical missile threat. The proliferation of inexpensive unmanned air systems has added a cheap but potent weapon in the hands of many. The threat of an aerial attack launched from space today is real. Air threat essentially includes aerial platforms, space-based launch platforms and surface/air launched weapons. Fighter aircraft, surface-to-air missiles, and space based weapons are the main counters to all air threats.
The fighter-bomber aircraft remains the main instrument of prosecuting air war, and conversely also for air defence. In addition to creating air superiority for unhindered operations of surface forces, they have the capability to deliver very lethal and accurate aerial weapons and the fighter fleets consume major parts of defence budgets. Since 2005, the world is making fifth-generation fighters. First among them was the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor. Their main characteristics are agility, super cruise, stealth, multi-function AESA radars, network-centric systems, integrated glass cockpits, fibre-optics data-transmission, multi-spectral sensors, fused situational picture, helmet mounted sights, and Precision Guided Weapons (PGM). Fighters strive to have a ‘first-look, first-shoot, first-kill’ ability.
Modern 4+ generation fighters are the F-16 Bock 70, Rafale, Eurofighter, Gripen JAS 39 E/F, and Russian Su-35. The just inducting, or under development 5th Generation fighters are the American F-35, Russian PAK-FA (Indian variant FGFA), Chinese J-20 and J-31. India’s indigenous AMCA will also be in this category.
Sixth generation fighters are on drawing boards and expected to induct in early 2030s. Other significant airborne platforms that support air operations are the Airborne Early Warning and Control Systems (AEW&C), electronic warfare platforms and aerial refuellers. Special operations aircraft can induct special forces and cause havoc. More and more of these roles are gradually being taken over by unmanned or optionally-manned aircraft. All these platforms are thus part of the aerial threat.
Aerial Platforms to Counter Air Threat
5th generation fighters are both the threat and defence. Airborne radars are the main sensor for acquiring the opposing aircraft and at well beyond visual ranges (BVR). State-of-the-art Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radars allow simultaneous tracking and attack on multiple targets in different dimensional positions. All modern fighters have AESA radars. Many including India are developing their own. India’s DRDO is working on AESA LSTAR radar for Airborne Early Warning platform and Uttam- AESA multifunction radar for Tejas Mk II. AESA EL/M-2075 radar is part of the IAF’s Phalcon AEW&C system. Passive IR sensors also form an important part of AD sensors. AEW&C radars can detect aircraft, ships and vehicles at long ranges (500 km) and simultaneously perform command and control and battle management functions. Boeing 707-320 based E-3 Sentry and Northrop Grumman E-2 Hawkeye are the most used systems worldwide. The Russian Air Force is upgrading Beriev A-50 to AESA based Beriev A-100. China has IL-76 based KJ-3000 AEW&C. IAF operates the AEW&C with the Israeli Phalcon radar on IL-76.
Aerial AD Weapons
Air-to-Air Missiles (AAM) could typically have a kill range as far as 200 km. Top-end AAMs include Russian Vympel R-77 and R-37, US Raytheon AIM-120 AMRAAM (180 km) and AIM-9X Sidewinder, French MBDA MICA and Meteor, MBDA AIM-132 ASRAAM, Israeli Rafael Python 5 and I-Derby ER, PL-10/12 of China and Astra (110 km) of India. Some anti-radiation missiles are being converted to intercept AEW&C class aircraft. Novator K-100 is a Russian air-to-air missile designed as an AWACS killer with a range up to 400 km; could come on SU-30 MKI and the Indo-Russian FGFA. In future Ramjet propelled AAMs will enable medium-range missiles to maintain higher average speeds across their engagement envelope.
Fifth generation electro-optical missiles are ideal against low-heat targets such as UAVs and cruise missiles. In the coming years, the development of Directed Energy Weapons (DEW) will give much higher magnitude of precision. Very narrow beams of lasers, microwave radiation, particle beams would destroy or damage guidance systems or trigger warheads. Hyper-Velocity Air-to-Air missile will be multi-stage kinetic energy weapon with speeds in excess of Mach 5. Development of anti-satellite weapons “for electronic or physical destruction of satellites in both LEO (2,000-km altitude above earth’s surface) and the higher geosynchronous orbit” are planned even by India. India is already developing an exo-atmospheric kill vehicle that can be integrated with the missile to engage satellites.
Ground Based AD Radars
Ground based radars are an important element to manage the air threat. High and medium powered surveillance radars, tethered aerostat radar balloons, missile acquisition and guidance radars, tactical battlefield mobile radars, and ship-based radars are all part of the ground sensor network. Radars such as Raytheon AN/MPQ-35 can detect high/medium-altitude threat for the MIM-23 Hawk surface-to-air missile system. Northrop-Grumman AN/TPS-75 is a transportable 3-dimensional air search radar.
The Chinese ground based radars include the very powerful REWY-1 long range surveillance radar and YLC-18 medium range low-altitude 3D radar. Russians have the ‘Duga’ series of over-the-horizon radars, and Don-2N and Voronezh anti-ballistic missile radars. To cater for the stealth aircraft threat, Russia, China and Israel are developing very long-range L, UHF and VHF wavelength radars.
Ground Based AD Weapons
Typically the AWACS and fighter aircraft combine will cover the outer ring. In the middle ring would be long and medium range surface-to-air missiles (SAM). The inner ring would be of the close-in weapons (CIWS) like short-range quick-reaction SAMs and anti-aircraft guns. Ballistic missile defence requires very long range interceptor missiles such as Israeli Arrow-II co-developed with USA. There are systems like the MIM-104 Patriot to take on smaller artillery projectiles and surface to surface missiles. Short-range missiles such as SA-6 and SA-8, Hawk, Rapier, Roland, Crotale, and Tunguska can neutralise low-flying high speed fighters. Long-range weapons include the Patriot and S-300 systems, which have effective ranges up to 200km, and offer relatively good mobility.
Very long-range system, like the Russian S-400 has a range of 400 km. Israel has some of the most potent AD missile systems. These include Arrow missile system, SPYDER, Raytheon MIM-104 Patriot, Barak-8, David’s Sling, Iron Dome and Iron Beam. Pakistan Air defence has 10 batteries of MBDA Spada 2000 low-cum-medium altitude missile, with a 20-km range, this has replaced the Crotale. The S-500 is a new generation SAM designed for intercepting intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) and to attack the AEW&C aircraft. US AD systems include MIM-23 medium-range Hawk, Raytheon MIM-104 Patriot, Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD), Raytheon FIM-92 Stinger short range missile system, M247 Sergeant York DIVAD self-propelled anti-aircraft gun system, and the Phalanx CIWS.
Over the years, anti-aircraft guns have improved ballistic and high explosive high-calibre shells; they are optically or radar controlled; and have very high rates of fire. However stand-off delivery of aerial weapons has reduced effective employment of guns. Man-portable missiles (MANPADS) and Quick Reaction short-range Missiles (QRM) are more extensively used. These include RBS 70 NG, SA-7 Grail, Blowpipe, Stinger, Igla and S-10 Strella class. Among the latest is the General Dynamics RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missile which is smaller, faster, and allows for mid-flight course correction (guidance) to ensure a hit. Russian Kashtan CIWS uses both, a six barrelled 30 mm Gsh-6-30 gun and the 9M311 missiles.
Proliferation of surface to surface weapons with long ranges and also some with nuclear/biological/chemical warheads needs a counter. Many countries including USA, China, Israel and India are developing Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) and conventional SAM systems. China has its own Anti-Ballistic Missile & Anti-Satellite program. The Israeli Arrow ABM system was very successful against SCUD attacks. The Arrow 3 system under development will be capable of exo-atmosphere interception of ballistic missiles. Iron Dome and David’s Sling are designed to intercept tactical ballistic missiles, as well as medium- to long-range rockets and slower-flying cruise missiles up to 300 km way. India is developing its own Advanced Air Defence (AAD) missile system.
Terrorist in the Air
The September 2011 coordinated air attacks over America by terrorists hijacking airliners and making suicide attacks against ground targets brought a new dimension to air threat. Any aerial platform or weapon going to the terrorist hands could thus have implications. Two immediate concerns are the terrorists acquiring weapon laden UAVs or surface-to-surface missiles. Motivated terrorist could train to join civil or military aviation and later indulge in a suicide attack. Terrorists have the advantage of choosing the time and place of attack. Whist the response to the threat would be conventional, better surveillance, policing, and prevention of weapons going into their hands is more important.
Air Threat to India
At the strategic and tactical levels, China’s air power can now achieve a variety of effects. Though their current concentration is on operations on the eastern sea board in South China Sea, but the same weapons can be used against India. China wants to exploit the advantage of using its tactical/strategic missile force, which is easier to use for an offensive than defend against attacks. PLAAF plans to move forward edge of the battle into the enemy territory. It will use an air offensive to keep the IAF’s head-down.
Like the Indian Air Force (IAF), PLAAF has switched to net-centric offensive air defence and greater reliance on integrated attack. China’s ambition is to build airpower like USA for an asymmetric advantage. PLAAF is targeting to be one of the world’s foremost air forces by 2020, made up of at least 1,000 ‘modern’ combat aircraft. The Russian Su-35 aircraft, along with its advanced IRBIS-E passive electronically scanned array radar system is likely to enter service by 2018, and will significantly enhance PLAAF’s ability. Of greater concern also is the offensive capability in terms of PGMs and the surface-to-surface missiles.
With 22 combat Squadrons having 450 combat and over 300 other support aircraft, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) is no match to IAF. It is heavily dependent on China for all hardware and support. F-16, JF-17 and FC-20 will finally be the main types. Pakistan has been in talks with China to acquire JF-31 Stealth fighters and with Russia for Sukhoi Su-35 air-superiority multi-role fighter. Being an air defence centric air force PAF has little offensive capability and will not be much threat to India. Pakistan has an evolving surface-to-surface missile force and India needs to cater for that.
India’s Air Defence Assets
IAF has to first re-build its fighter aircraft assets to 42 combat squadrons from current depleted strength of 33. Gradually the full fleet of the Sukhoi Su-30 MKI must get upgraded with new avionics and weapons including AESA radar, RVV-SD (RVV-AE modernized), RVV-MD (R-73E modernized) and the indigenous Astra BVR air-to-air missile. The upgraded Mikoyan MiG-29 with latest avionics including Zhuk-ME radar, and air-to-air missiles like RVVAE would be the dedicated interceptor. Upgraded Dassault Mirage 2000 with the RDY-2 radar and the advanced MICA missiles can also take on an AD role. MiG-21 Bisons also have an air defence role and will operate till 2022-25. Meanwhile IAF must hasten induction of indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas. LCA must get its AESA radar and the full complement of aerial weapons. Rafale too has significant AD capability with RBE2 AESA radar, MICA Infra-red/Beyond Visual Range (BVR) and MBDA Meteor BVR missiles. Indo- Russia Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) and indigenous Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) will add to the air defence capability.
India is already in the process of inducting newer SAM systems, including the indigenous Akash medium range system, jointly developed with Israel SPYDER, and Russian S-400. Similarly, a large numbers of ground radars such as indigenous Rajendra and Rohini, and Elta Medium Powered Radars (MPR), and GS100 low-level transportable radars (LLTR) made jointly by BEL and Thales are under induction. DRDO is developing ‘Anudhra’ MPR. Induction of Mountain radars to cover the northern border is still a work-in-progress. High Powered Radars with ranges in excess of 500 km to replace THD-1955 are being identified. IAF already has Israeli Rafael Aerostat radars with a range of 400 km. DRDO is also working on indigenous ‘Akashdeep’ aerostat. DRDO is likely to develop the Maitri LLQRM (Low Level Quick Reaction Missile) with MBDA. LRSAM based on Barak 8 design is a joint development project between India and Israel Aircraft Industries. It will have range up to 70 km. The indigenous Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) system based on the Swordfish radar derived from the Israeli Green Pine radar, and the Prithvi Advanced Air Defence (AAD) missiles is still evolving.
Air Strategy for India
Defence of a nation from the air is primarily the responsibility of the IAF, but the surface based ground and maritime assets of the Army and Navy also require air defence protection. The very large scope and dimension of air defence requires an integrated approach.
Seamless integration of all anti-aircraft sensors (radars, visual observers, satellite information) and weapons (interceptor aircraft and surface-to-air guns and missiles) need to be under common command and control. The Sensor and weapon coverage has to be horizontally and vertically layered to cover the entire air defence with multiple overlaps.
IAF’s secure digital information grid called the Air Force Net (AFNET) is part of its network-centric warfare capability.
The Integrated Air Command and Control System (IACCS) links AD command and control centres with all sensors and weapons and it uses the AFNET to ride. The system is meant to greatly improve situational awareness, reduce reaction time, and prevent fratricide.
Air defence is where action is. It is time to get the act right.