Creating credible missile defence shield

All major countries, including India, have sophisticated, multi-layered defence systems to thwart attacks from enemy countries. But the decision to fire interceptor missiles is usually taken at a very high level as it will have serious implications. Net assessment is extremely critical because from a broad strategic point of view, expending these weapons weakens the military readiness unless the stockpile is replenished fast. In either case, it costs a bomb. Literally
Creating credible missile defence shield

KOCHI: On April 13, Iran launched around 320 drones and missiles towards Israel in retaliation for the latter’s deadly April 1 strike on the Iranian embassy in Damascus, the Syrian capital. Israel, with the help of allies including the US and the UK, managed to intercept and destroy 99% of the missiles and drones outside Israeli airspace but a few reached and exploded in its territory, causing minor damage to a military site. Israel returned the favour on April 19, hitting Iran’s Isfahan province with a salvo of drones and a missile. While Tehran played down the hit and ruled out further retaliatory action, Israel is said to have taken out the Russian-made S-300 anti-ballistic missile defence system stationed at the Isfahan International Airport.

Two major reasons are cited for Iran’s unprecedented decision to engage Israel head-on. One, domestic compulsion to be seen as responding to Israel’s direct attack on its mission in Damascus, which killed a top military commander and his deputy. Without a proportional response, the Iranian leadership would be accused of being weak. The second is more strategic. That the Israel-bound drones and missiles would be shot down was a foregone conclusion, but Iran launched them anyway. Because the larger objective was to bleed Israel’s economy, not kill people or inflict physical damage to Israeli assets.

Missile defence is a highly complex and extremely costly affair. Iran had given fair warning before launching a swarm of drones and missiles, which gave Israel and its allies enough time to plan their interception. But in such situations, the cost is many times more for the defender than the attacker because the missiles to destroy the drones are obscenely expensive. According to a Wall Street Journal report, the single night’s operation cost Tel Aviv $550 million, while some Israeli media outlets pegged the cost even higher at over $1 billion.

Israel’s air defence shield

Israel is known to have one of the world’s best anti-missile systems. Its famous Iron Dome is just one of the several air defence shields in its arsenal. Iron Dome is a network of interceptor batteries that utilise radars to detect incoming short-range rockets, artillery shells and mortars out of the sky. Each battery is equipped with three to four launchers, 20 Tamir interceptor missiles and a radar system. When a rocket is detected by the radar, the Iron Dome system’s advanced software predicts the rocket’s trajectory and assesses whether it poses a threat to populated areas or infrastructure. If there is threat, interceptor missiles are fired to blow the rocket out of the sky. The Tamir interceptor missiles can knock down incoming threats launched from ranges of 4-70 km. Costing around $80,000 apiece, the interceptors are only used when there is a threat to human life or infrastructure. The system is not configured to fire on rockets outside of a protected area; those are ignored and left to land harmlessly elsewhere.

In appearance, Iron Dome is a series of truck-towed mobile units placed strategically throughout the small country. The all-weather system reacts in a matter of seconds and is manned 24x7. Israel is known to have at least 10 such systems stationed at different locations. These can also be moved quickly to effectively deal with threats. Iron Dome is at the bottom of the defence shield and primarily deals with threats from close range areas such as Gaza.

David’s Sling is the next layer. Developed along with the US, it intercepts medium-range missiles within 40-300 km, such as those with Hezbollah in Lebanon. The cost of one David Sling is pegged at $1 million.

To intercept long-range missiles, Israel has the Arrow-2 and Arrow-3 systems. The Arrow missiles, which operate outside the atmosphere, are the costliest, at $2 million to $3.5 million apiece.

According to Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Arrow 2 is designed to destroy ballistic missiles in their terminal phase in the upper atmosphere. It has a range of 90 km and a maximum altitude of 51 km. The Arrow 2 is said to be as an upgrade of the US Patriot missile defence system. It is intended to tackle long-range ballistic missiles like the Iranian Shahab that actually leave and re-enter the atmosphere.

Its upgraded version, Arrow 3, has a much wider range of 2,400 km. It employs hit-to-kill technology once the target is identified and is designed for exo-atmospheric interception of ballistic missiles – that is, it intercepts the missile in space before it re-enters the atmosphere. According to the Israeli Space Agency, it can double up as an anti-satellite defence weapon, making Israel one of the few countries that can shoot down satellites.

India’s preparedness

Unlike Israel, India has a large territory to protect which makes the air defence options costlier and complex. India has an array of air defence shields to protect the country from external attacks. From indigenously developed very short-range air defence system (VSHORADS) and shoulder-firing MANPADS (man-portable air-defence systems) to sophisticated anti-ballistic missile systems, the defence forces have a multi-layered deterrence systems in place.

India has a two-tiered ballistic defence system to take on all threats, including nuclear warheads. Broadly, missile interceptors under the Prithvi Air Defence (PAD) programme are meant for high-altitude (exo-atmospheric) threats and Ashwin Advanced Air Defence (AAD) deal with low-altitude (endo-atmospheric) challenges. The Swordfish and Super Swordfish long-range tracking radars, which use Israeli technology and can spot very small objects to the size of a cricket ball, guide these interceptor missiles. While no official information is available, these radars are reportedly installed in Rajasthan, Uttarakhand and Madhya Pradesh.

A major boost to the defence shield is provided by the S-400, which is a mobile, surface-to-air missile system designed by Russia. The interceptor missile system can destroy incoming hostile aircraft, missiles, and drones at ranges of up to 400 km. The system can simultaneously engage 36 targets, making it one of the strongest weapons in India’s defence arsenal. According to reports, India has deployed three S-400s at strategic border locations to counter threats from China and Pakistan. Two more S-400s are expected from Russia soon. The S-400’s capabilities are roughly comparable to the US Patriot system and are reportedly twice as cheap. However, US fifth-generation fighter jets, such as the F-35 and its variants, may escape S-400’s radar as they have been designed with the S-400’s capabilities in mind, though F-16s and F/A-18E/F Super Hornet may fall into the system’s net.

Then there is the surface-to-air Python 5 and Derby air defence missile system (SPYDER) developed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems of Israel. It has a range of 40 km, an intercept altitude of 12 km, and can engage up to four targets simultaneously.

Among the Russian made machines are Igla-S MANPADS, Pechora, and OSA-AK. Igla-S is a hand-held system that can be fired by an individual or crew to bring down an enemy aircraft. Pechora is a surface-to-air anti-aircraft short-range missile system designed for destruction of aircraft, cruise missiles, assault helicopters and other air targets at ground, low and medium altitudes. OSA-AK is a highly mobile, low-altitude, surface-to-air missile system with a range of 10 km.

However, these older weapons are said to be ineffective against slow-moving drones because the radar is designed to detect bigger, fast-moving objects. The drones are spotted only when they come too close but then it will be too late to fire.

On the indigenous front, India already has Akash and Samar systems for short-range air defence. The Akash air defence missile systems have an interception range of 25 km. Akash is a medium-range mobile surface-to-air missile system developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation and produced by Bharat Dynamics. The Samar (surface to air missile for assured retaliation) developed in-house by the Indian Air Force can intercept low-flying targets such as drones and attack helicopters, up to a range of 12 km at a maximum speed of Mach 2.5.

The Barak-8 medium range surface-to-air missile, jointly developed with Israel, has a range of 70 km and is capable of neutralising missiles, aircraft, helicopters and guided bombs. For long-range defence, a homegrown air defence shield is in the works with an expected operational range is 350 km.

Russia is India’s major weapons supplier. However, deliveries have been delayed due to the Ukraine war. India is now focusing on developing its own air defence systems under Project Kusha to deal with modern threats. Spearheaded by DRDO in collaboration with the public and private sector firms, the Rs 21,000-crore project will have a comprehensive array of systems to protect the country. Apart from the S-400 squadrons, it will have domestically developed systems that are expected to be commissioned by 2028-2029.

US deterrence

The US operates on a global scale and its deterrence capabilities are believed to be the strongest in the world. Its anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems are stationed strategically in many parts of the world. It has a vast network of radars across the globe.

The Patriot, which stands for Phased Array Tracking Radar for Intercept on Target, is the primary air and missile defense system of the US. Initially designed as an anti-aircraft system, the newer variants of the Patriot are capable of engaging ballistic and cruise missiles, loitering munitions and aircraft. A typical Patriot battery includes a radar set, engagement control station, power generation and other support vehicles, and several launch stations. A Patriot missile battery requires about 90 soldiers to operate.

The system was first used in combat during the 1991 Gulf War, with batteries protecting Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Israel, and later during the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. It is a theater-wide surface-to-air missile defense system built by Raytheon and considered one of the most advanced air defense systems in the US arsenal. It is in service with the US and allied countries, including Israel, Germany, Greece, Japan, Kuwait, the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Poland, Sweden, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Romania, Spain, and Taiwan.

The Patriot missile defense system consists of six major components — missile, launcher, radar set, control station, power generator unit and high-frequency antenna mast. With continuous upgrades, the latest Patriot system bears little resemblance to the original system deployed in 1983.

Patriot currently supports two interceptor families: the Patriot Advanced Capability-Two (PAC-2) and the PAC-3. The PAC-2 missile family is a successor to the original Patriot and PAC-1 interceptors, featuring software updates to engage ballistic missiles and an upgraded blast-fragmentation warhead. The PAC-3 missile is smaller in diameter and uses hit-to-kill technology, rather than a blast-fragmentation warhead.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t

All major countries, including India, have sophisticated, multi-layered defence systems to thwart attacks from enemy countries. But the decision to fire interceptor missiles is usually taken at a very high level as it will have serious implications. Net assessment is extremely critical because from a broad strategic point of view, expending these weapons weakens the military readiness unless the stockpile is replenished fast. In either case, it costs a bomb. Literally.

Related Stories

No stories found.

The New Indian Express