Shield in the Air

As aerial missiles become increasingly sophisticated, there is a need for a robust air defence system

Smruti Deshpande

Russian forces launched their ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine in February with the use of long-range stand-off missiles. The country continues using several long-range cruise and ballistic missiles that can hit any target, including military infrastructure in all of Ukraine. While Russia is known to have state-of-the-art modern precision-guided missiles, the country has been using even its Soviet-era older and not-so-accurate missiles in the ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

S400 launcher

Ballistic missiles, launched using rockets from the ground or from aircraft, tend to follow a predictable path and can be comparatively easily tracked. Cruise missiles, on the other hand, use a propulsion system which maintains speed and allows flying using unpredictable flight paths while also allowing trajectories that are close to the ground. These missiles are difficult to detect, track and shoot down.

For the first time in March, Russia used the hypersonic missile Kinzhal to destroy a large underground warehouse of Ukrainian missiles and other weapons, according to the country’s defence ministry. To date this missile has been used thrice in the ongoing conflict. The Kh-47M2 Kinzhal (Dagger in Russian) is a nuclear-capable, air-launched, hypersonic ballistic missile, one of six new next generation weapons unveiled by Russian President Vladimir Putin in March 2018.

As Russian missiles rained down on Ukraine in October, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy requested the West during the G-7 meeting to help the country with more air defence capabilities. This came after Russian missiles destroyed a third of the country’s power stations, leaving many cities facing frequent blackouts.


Western Systems

Following Zelenskyy’s appeal, the country was provided with the National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System (NASAMS) jointly developed by Norway and the US, and Aspide air defence systems from Spain. The NASAMS system is a strong air defence system which has been built to defend against incoming aerial threats such as cruise missiles, aircraft and drones. Each NASAMS consists of 12 interceptor SAMs. NASAMS is a network-centric short to medium range ground-based air defence system. The Kongsberg/ Raytheon NASAMS Air Defence System features net-centric architecture, multiple simultaneous engagements, Beyond Visual Range (BVR) capabilities, closely integrated and adapted to a country’s Integrated Air and Missile Defence (IAMD).

The Aspide 2000 missile is the powerful upgraded version of the Aspide multi-role missile for use in surface-to-air systems. Its operational performance has been enhanced making the missile capable of engaging attacking aircraft before they can release their airborne stand-off rocket propelled missiles. The Aspide 2000 missile is equipped with an enhanced single stage rocket motor to increase the missile speed, lateral acceleration and effective range by as much as 40 per cent compared to the Aspide baseline missile.

Earlier, Germany had delivered its first IRIS-T defence system to Ukraine. It has a short-range and is highly manoeuvrable. The system has fast target acquisition capability and a full hemisphere engagement. The IRIS-T programme sees Germany, Greece, Norway, Italy, Spain and Sweden unite to provide access to technology and expertise. Diehl Defence is the main contractor. The imaging infrared seeker provides extremely high resolution, target discrimination and flare suppression, even when facing the latest counter measures. It has all-aspect capability and an acquisition range that is compatible with the missile’s full kinematic range. As per SAAB, ‘the combination of the solid propellant motor and thrust-vector control mean highly manoeuvrable targets can be engaged anywhere, including directly behind the firing aircraft.’

Hypersonic Race: The US’ hypersonic missile tests have failed several times in the past few months. In October last year, the ‘Conventional Prompt Strike’ failed to launch. But the US has been persistent in developing its hypersonic capabilities. In July 2022, the country successfully tested a Raytheon Technologies air-breathing hypersonic weapon capable of speeds faster than five times the speed of sound, making it the third successful test of that class of weapon since 2013. According to Reuters, the development programme for the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC) is being run by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Both Raytheon and Lockheed Martin are competing for the ultimate contract award. This followed the June 29 failure of the Common Hypersonic Glide Body test in Hawaii. After this test, the Department of Defense in July said an anomaly occurred following ignition of the test asset. In October this year, the US successfully flight-tested hypersonic weapon components. The US is still behind its rival countries Russia, China and North Korea in developing these high-tech weapon systems.

The race for hypersonics is getting fiercer by the day because of their speed and high manoeuvrability and ability to change direction mid-flight, which can rob the adversary of its reaction time, thus not granting the chance for defence. As the world moves towards hypersonics, interception of these missiles poses challenges. Even the most sophisticated early warning systems are inefficient in the face of incoming hypersonic missiles. For instance, according to Popular Mechanics, Russia’s 3M22 Zircon missiles fly at speeds of up to Mach 6 and at a low atmospheric-ballistic trajectory that can penetrate traditional anti-missile defence systems. The US’ Aegis missile interceptor systems require 8-10 seconds of reaction time to intercept incoming attacks. Even if a US ship were to detect a Zircon missile from 100 miles, it would only have a minute to act on it.

While the development of long-range missiles that escape the traction is in full force in different countries, the same is true for air defence systems as well. The Russia-Ukraine conflict has established the role these two weapon systems play in a non-contact war.


Air Defence

An air defence system is an integrated system of several elements. Early warning radars, along with a dispersed network of radars play an important role in tracking of missile’s flight trajectory. While this helps in the recognition of the threat, for defence against cruise and ballistic missiles, surface-to-air-missiles are employed. According to The Conversation, ‘You destroy a missile using a missile. This is no easy feat because the SAM must track, home in on and hit a high-speed target that may be changing direction.’

Air defence systems are important tools for defence against an adversary’s missile launches, but their effectiveness can be curbed if multiple weapons are launched simultaneously. According to The Conversation, if a sufficient number of air defence systems are deployed, it may cause an attacker to stop firing. In the case of Ukraine, the article states, ‘Should the West agree to provide significant numbers of air defence systems to Ukraine, it could significantly change the course of the conflict.’

In Texas National Security Review, an article by Carrie A. Lee stated that ‘medium- and short-range hypersonic weapons—e.g., Russia’s Kh-47M2 Kinzhal ballistic missile and 3M22 Zircon scramjet or China’s WU-14 glide vehicle—provide significant warfighting advantages as they are expected to be able to evade US, NATO, and partner regional missile defence systems such as the Phased Array Tracking Radar to Intercept on Target (a.k.a., Patriot), the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD), and the Aegis. The effect is that hypersonic capabilities enable states to increase the speed of conflict.’

While China is known to have formidable hypersonic capability, including its DF-ZF hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV), the country announced this year that it had been working on artificial intelligence-powered air defence systems to track hypersonic missiles. This system, according to them, can predict the course of a hypersonic glide missile as it hits the target in what can be called an anti-hypersonic technology. While the US continues the development of its hypersonic technology, it is also concentrating on developing its defence capabilities through various programmes such as the Sea-Based Terminal program with the SM-6 adapted for this role. DARPA is involved with the Glide Breaker programme.

As per the US Centre for Strategic & International Studies, there’s a lot of activity with the Space Development Agency working on a constellation in low earth orbit called the tracking layer with a medium field of view sensor. The US Space Force has been working on medium earth orbit, with Millennium Space Systems on a similar capability. The Overhead Persistent Infrared programme is in development, which could provide at least a queuing capability at high earth orbit.

Some of the best air defence capabilities around the world have been identified by a number of countries, some of which exist with India. This technology is crucial in the face of rapid development and production of different stand-off missiles all over the world.

Iron Dome: The Iron-Dome developed and produced by Israel is known to be one of the most powerful systems in the world for air defence. Produced by Rafael, the Iron Dome is combat-proven with over 2,000 interceptions. The multi-mission system effectively counters rockets, mortars and artillery shells as well as aircraft, helicopters and UAVs at very short range.

It is a multi-purpose combat proven system that detects, assesses and intercepts incoming artillery such as C-RAM, cruise missiles, precise guided missiles, UAVs, air breathing threats and dense salvos. SkyHunter is the US version of the Iron Dome system offered by Raytheon and Rafael. The SkyHunter interceptor can be integrated into the US Army’s Multi-Mission Launcher (MML) and other V-SHORAD systems. According to Rafael, ‘the I-Dome is the all-in-one mobile version, on a single truck, providing protection for motorised or mechanised troops, as well as point air defence for military, industrial and administrative installations. C-Dome is the naval version, applying proven capabilities, naval threats protecting ships and other sea-based strategic assets.’

David’s Sling: David’s Sling is an advanced multi-mission interceptor, also known as the Stunner or the SkyCeptor. Jointly developed by Rafael and Raytheon, it is meant to fight against asymmetric threats. David’s Sling system is modular, scalable and flexible to tailor-fit the area and topology to be defended. The David’s Sling interceptor delivers superior kinematics, manoeuvrability and lethality by combining novel innovative steering control, multi-pulse propulsion and a next-generation seeker into a lightweight airframe.

Patriot: The US’ SAM Patriot is a combat-proven air defence system operated by the US and a number of its allies. It is a long-range, all-altitude, all-weather air defence system to counter tactical ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and advanced aircraft.

It is produced by Raytheon in Massachusetts and Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control in Florida. The new PAC-3 missile has increased effectiveness against tactical ballistic and cruise missiles using advanced hit-to-kill technology. Lockheed Martin is the primary contractor with Raytheon as the systems integrator. The PAC-3 has a Ka-band millimetre wave seeker developed by Boeing.

The missile guidance system enables target destruction through the kinetic energy released by hitting the target. Sixteen Patriot advanced capability (PAC-3) missiles can be loaded on a launcher compared to four PAC-2 missiles.

THAAD: The THAAD terminal high-altitude area defence missile system is an easily transportable defensive weapon system to protect against hostile incoming threats such as tactical and theatre ballistic missiles at ranges of 200 km and altitudes of up to 150 km. It has a range of 1,000 km. The missile is 6.17 m in length and is equipped with a single stage solid fuel rocket motor with thrust vectoring. The rocket motor is supplied by Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne. The launch weight is 900 kg.

French SAMP/T: The French air defence system SAMP/T has been christened MAMBA by the French Air Force. The French Air Force currently has seven MAMBA systems whilst the Italian Army has three systems. The SAMP/T is a theatre antimissile system designed to protect the battlefield and sensitive tactical sites (such as airports and sea ports) against all current and future airborne threats, including cruise missiles, manned and unmanned aircraft and tactical ballistic missiles in the 600 km range class.

S-400 Triumf: Developed by Russia’s Almaz Central Design Bureau, the S-400 Triumf has the capability to protect against almost all sorts of aerial attacks, including drones, missiles, rockets and fighter jets. The system, intended to act as a shield over a particular area, is a long-range surface-to-air missile system.

Named the SA-21 Growler by Nato, the S-400 can engage intruding aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles. It is an anti-access/ area denial (A2/AD) asset designed to protect military, political and economic assets from aerial attacks, as per the US Air Force.

Each unit has two batteries, each of which has a command-and-control system, a surveillance radar and engagement radar and four launch trucks. Russia has been developing the S-400 since 1993. Testing began in 1999-2000 and Russia deployed it in 2007. The system is equipped with four types of missiles: short range up to 40 km, medium-range up to 120 km, long-range 48N6 going as far as 250 km and very-long-range 40N6E up to 400 km. It can simultaneously track up to 160 objects in a 600 km range and target 72 objects in a 400 km range. India has purchased the S-400 air defence system and Russia will deliver all five systems by 2023.

Chinese System: The Chinese Qi 9 (HQ-9) is a long-range air defence missile system developed by China Precision Machinery Import & Export Corporation (CPMIEC) in Beijing. China exported this system to Pakistan last year. The HQ-9 can intercept various aircraft, helicopters, UAVs, cruise missiles, air-to-ground missiles, guided bombs and theatre ballistic missiles at medium- to long ranges. The missile system achieved initial operational capacity in 1997 and is believed to be based on the Russian S-300PMU missiles and the American Patriot air defence systems. The HQ-9 has been upgraded into several variants with improved technology and maximum range varying from 100 km to 300 km.

The People’s Liberation Army Air Force tested the upgraded HQ-9B in extreme conditions in unfamiliar terrain in May 2021. The missile can carry a 180 kg high explosive fragmentation type warhead up to a maximum range of 200 km and an altitude of 30 km. The warhead is equipped with a proximity fuse with a 35 m effective range, which gets activated when the missile is 5 km away from its target.


Indian Systems

India uses several air defence systems, some that were bought from friendly foreign countries and the others that have been developed in the country. In 2020, the Indian Air Force was offered the NASAMS-II networked air defence system but it refused to buy these and said it would rather use the locally-developed ballistic missile defence system (BMD).

Prithvi Air Defence: Some of the air defence systems that India possesses are Prithvi air defence missile, an anti-ballistic missile developed to intercept incoming ballistic missiles outside the atmosphere. It has an operational range of 300-2,000 km.

Advanced Air Defence: The Advanced Air Defence is an anti-ballistic missile designed to intercept incoming ballistic missiles in the endo-atmosphere at an altitude of 30 km.

Akash Missile Defence: The Akash is a medium-range mobile surface-to-air missile defence system developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and the missiles are produced by Bharat Dynamics Limited.

QRSAM: The Quick Reaction Surface-to-Air Missile (QRSAM) is a missile developed by the DRDO in association with Bharat Electronics Limited and Bharat Dynamics Limited for the Indian Army. This missile is an all-weather, all-terrain SAM equipped with electronic countermeasures against jamming by aircraft radars.

India also uses the following air defence systems:

SPYDER: The SPYDER (Surface-to-air PYthon and DERby) is an Israeli short and medium-range mobile air defence system developed by Rafael Advanced Defence Systems with assistance from Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI).

Barak 8: Also known as LR-SAM or as MR-SAM, is an Indo-Israeli surface-to-air missile (SAM) designed to defend against any type of airborne threat, including aircraft, helicopters, anti-ship missiles. UAVs, ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and combat jets. Barak 8 was jointly developed by the IAI and the DRDO. Bharat Dynamics produces the missiles. In September last year the first deliverable firing unit of the Medium Range Surface to Air Missile System was handed over to the IAF.


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