Threats from Above

Different weapons are required for air defence as no single system can counter the entire air threat spectrum

Brig. MKK Iyer

Hostile air action has been perceived as natural fallout since the time man thought and implemented flying machines. Therefore, actions to counter these hostile air actions also did not take too long to follow. The definition commenced from defence of homeland from hostile air actions and went on to become counter air activities and missile defence which all now can be loosely put under the umbrella of air defence. In some Western and also ex Warsaw Pact nations, air defence is put as either an independent service or command or under the air force.

In India, however, under an operational control each service has its own ground based air defence. Air defence is a requirement wherever there is a threat from the air which ranges from micro unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), aircraft to ballistic missiles. Since the threat is multiple in nature, the air defence also has to be complementing the requirement to offset these threats. The best would have been to have one system which could take care of any aerial threat and could range from hundreds of kilometres to a few hundred metres by suddenly popping helicopters with their deadly arsenal. Also, the threat from air has two important dimensions. The time available to counter the aerial threat is in seconds and more importantly, the countering is against a fast moving, and in most cases, nonvisible threat. Therefore, there is a need for multiple systems which have different capability, ranges and types of payload to counter all the aerial threats. This makes the air defence organisations more complex and expensive.

To have all equipment of latest technology in the inventory of any country’s armed forces is cost prohibitive. It is a judicious mix of mature or legacy, current and state-of-the-art technologies that addresses the operational needs of any force. Every country, therefore, goes through the stages of updating, upgrade and eventually phasing out of the equipment. The army air defence is also in the cyclic process of shedding its old skin and into the dynamic activity of acquiring new teeth. Surface to air weapons used by the army air defence consist of surface to air missile (SAM) and guns. These can maintain high-readiness states over long periods, give quick response and may provide the best form of defence against targets which are particularly challenging for fighter aircraft (i.e. cruise missiles, UAV and helicopters). On land, SAW systems are described generically as Ground Based Air Defence (GBAD); the aim of GBAD is to prevent enemy interference from the air with the conduct of operations on the ground.

Tiered and Layered Air Defence
The army needs to have a layered and tiered air defence to ensure that its assets in terms of static, semi static and mobile assets survive the aerial threats. In applying the above principles, the primary aim is to achieve success through layered air defence. The outermost layer is usually provided by the air force in terms of interceptors supplemented by long range SAMs, medium range SAMs, very short range air defence systems (VSHORADS) and finally, the close in weapon system (CIWS).

Similarly, the navy also has its concentric air defence with various ships, each of which has various air defence weapons of different ranges. At the point of defence, this begins from a mix of anti-aircraft gun and missile systems like a combination of Polish Loara or Rheinmetall Skyshield with AHEAD ammunition along with man portable missile systems like RBS 70NG, Stinger or Igla S. These are cheaper compared to long range complex air defence missiles and are well suited to provide terminal stage air defence both against aircraft and helicopters as well as against mortars and missiles too.

There is a school of thought which propagate that there is no need for guns in the modern air defence arsenal and all guns are to be replaced by missiles. I feel that the final stage of air defence called as point defence or the final CIWS should be gun-missile mix to incorporate all the advantages of the non jammable guns. Land-based Phalanx Weapon System (CIWS) is part of the US army’s counter rocket, artillery and mortar systems used to detect and destroy incoming rounds in the air before they hit their ground targets. It also helps provide early warning of attacks. Therefore, having a look at what is available in this segment is important.

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