Altitude defence

Conventional threats and use of air defence systems

For most nations air defence is a multilayered proposition. Given the threat perception most nations have to set up a triple barrier of surface-to-air missiles capable of stopping an enemy barrage at high altitude, at medium altitude, and, as a last resort, at very short distances from the intended target.

Most nations confront only a conventional weapons threat of high-explosive warheads intended to demolish the landscape and personnel and weapons within its blast profile; bunker busters that dig deep into the earth to reach the command and control networks; and cruise missiles and air-delivered precision-guided munitions that come in very low and leave very little reaction time for last-minute interception that nonetheless remain strictly within the conventional weapons threshold.

India, on the other hand, has to deal with both the conventional threat as well as a total war of nuclear proportions from two directions from neighbours armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons of various ranges and trajectories.

Missile defence

To the credit of its rocket scientists India’s dedicated Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme led by former President of India Dr APJ Abdul Kalam has produced an anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system that has the capability of intercepting and eliminating incoming enemy missiles outside the atmosphere (exo-atmosphere) as well as within the atmosphere (endo-atmosphere).

The systems based on the Prithvi missile, originally intended to be a surface-to-surface missile of 300 km range (for which it is already deployed), has been reconfigured to the anti-aircraft and anti-missile roles.

Such is the confidence in its capabilities that it will be the mainstay of the emerging Ballistic Missile Defence intended to be set up around the political capital at New Delhi and at the economic hub of the nation at Mumbai.

India has a dual dilemma. It will never be able to tell whether an incoming missile is armed with a conventional warhead or a nuclear terminator.

It has plumbed the depths of Pakistan’s tolerance during the Kargil war by refraining from crossing the Line of Control in 1999 to remove the threat posed by the Pakistan Army invaders ensconced the Kargil sector. If India crossed the Line but it did not and was able to leave Pakistan with an unused nuclear arsenal and a lot of egg on the face before the international community.

Pakistan is reported to have moved its nuclear assets. But the threat of a nuclear attack by Pakistan is very real and it has taken certain steps like the creation of a very short range tactical nuclear missile known as the NASR that is intended to counter any India riposte either across the Line of Control or the international border in the event of future hostilities.

With the establishment of a Ballistic Missile Defence or Anti-Ballistic Missile system Indians can be reassured that neither Pakistan nor China can execute a pre-emptive nuclear strike to disarm and paralyse India.

Whatever damage either country inflicts on India, it will not be able to destroy the sea based nuclear counter-strike weapon that India is preparing to install on its own nuclear submarine the Arihant.

The testing of the underwater launch of nuclear capable missiles recently gave the confidence that Indian nuclear triad is growing, even as developments in Pakistan in particular is fraught with the possibility that the jihadi oriented Pakistan Army could go berserk as its many attempts to delink Kashmir from India have fallen flat.

This mindset is best represented by General Musharraf’s intrusion into the Kargil salient immediately after Pakistan tested its nuclear arsenal at the Chaghai Hill in Balochistan just an year earlier. It was a militarily unsustainable manoeuvre and the man who executed it still crows that his troops were in a position to cut off the Indian line of supply to the Siachen Glacier.

These are just signs and signals that the ambiance on the subcontinent is radically different from the manner in which the earlier “nuclear have” nations could conduct themselves.

There method of maintaining an equilibrium and sanity in the face of the nuclear threat was the concept and practice known as “mutual assured destruction” (MAD) and its tool was the widely dispersed combination of air-land nuclear weapons delivery vehicles backed up by an invisible and difficult to locate submarine component that would ensure massive retaliation if either side were attacked.

India too has followed the same path but had posited a nuclear doctrine of no first strike but massive retaliation in the event of a nuclear attack. There have been refinements to the doctrine since it was enunciated soon after the series of tests conducted by India and Pakistan in 1999.

The point is: Will Pakistan be deterred by the prospect of mutual assured destruction? A nation that has cut its teeth on such practices like suicide bombing can hardly be expected to follow the logic of sanity.

Interception capabilities

Thus India has no other option but to look for ways and means of being able to block in midair all missiles that Pakistan and China can aim at India. That is why just two BMD/ABM systems to protect two vital cities would be very nearly meaningless (except to ensure that the political leadership is intact to be able to order the retaliatory strike) if the countryside-the productive agricultural and industrial landscape-has been affected by the blast, incendiary and radiation effect of Pakistani/Chinese nuclear weapons.

Even the interception capabilities inherent in the Prithvi air defence system have its disabilities. The exo- atmospheric interception is effected by an interception caused by a spray of metal ignited by a proximity fuze into the flight path of the incoming missile. The endo-atmospheric interception is done by kinetic force or hit to kill. Both could unleash radioactive material over a large area even if no nuclear explosion takes place. Cleaning up is being seen by the scientists as being the lesser evil.

Much the same applies to the indigenous Akash medium range SAM bolstered by a quicker-reaction Israeli Spyder system as well as the short-range, very quick reaction OSA AK mobile batteries, gun systems and shoulder fired missiles-every successful interception will spray the landscape with radioactive pollution which is the second worse thing to the explosion of a nuclear device.

The answer to India’s problem is to try and ensure that all interception of missiles fired from Pakistani soil (remember it has a very narrow strategic depth) must be intercepted over Pakistani soil-that is, within the flight time from boost phase till the missile begins its ballistic trajectory and  well before it begins its descent.

With long-range missiles that could well be within the exo-atmosphere. The chances are that the debris will fall back into Pakistan.

Nonetheless, it is all a matter of chance. The best way to ensure that Pakistan shoots itself in the foot if it fires a missile towards India irrespective of whether it is a conventional warhead or nuclear-tipped, is to hit the missile during the boost phase or the time between the firing of the engines and the lift-off of the missile from its launch pad.

For that India will need an array of sensors that will pick up the blast-off and direct airborne missiles to intercept it before it begins its ballistic journey.

Aerostats fitted with day/night and thermal imaging sensors should be laid out along the borders and aircraft fitted with beyond visual range air-to-ground missiles should be on combat air patrol at the first signs of hostility and be prepared to shoot down any missile that is fired without prior warning to India.  

Air defence would then have come full circle on the subcontinent.