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Air defence shield

Missiles in their surface-to-air configuration are dependent on their efficacy on range and a multi-layered nature of their deployment. Thus shoulder-fired man-portable (MANPADS) and fixed-launch “point-defence” missiles are considered the last shield against low-flying aircraft and, in the case of the latter, against surface-skimming projectiles.

Missiles tend to shape the battlefields in which they are deployed. Two famous examples can be quoted: The first was the shooting down of the American U-2 spy plane by the former Soviet Union which changed the way the western world was collecting Intelligence within the “Iron Curtain”. The Americans failed to realize that there are ways of tweaking the range of surface-to-air missiles to enable them to go beyond the published figures of their capabilities. That was what surprised American pilot Francis Gary Powers when his U-2 was hit.

The second example is discomfiture during the Kargil conflict when one of India’s MiG aircraft was brought down with a US-supplied Stinger missile. India had to find new ways of ensuring that air strikes produce good results even while staying out of reach of shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles in the hands of the Pakistan Army intruders who were holding the high ground in the Kargil-Drass salient in Jammu and Kashmir. It was a lesson the Russians learned to their dismay during the war in Afghanistan and which Indian planners ignored. Currently the Indian Army uses the Russian Igla in the anti-aircraft role. It has a range of 16,000 ft.  

Missile development program

In the early 80s India launched the Integrated Guide Missile Development Program under the leadership of the late Dr APJ Abdul Kalam.  It was entrusted with creating five types of missiles-the Prithvi and Agni being surface-to-surface missiles; the Akash and Trishul configured for surface-to-air operations; and the Nag which was intended to be a fire-and-forget top attack anti-tank missile.

In the incremental development in the range and lethality, the Prithvi currently in service has a range of up to 300 km and is used by all the three Services. The naval version is called the Dhanush. The Defence Research and Development Organisation which monitored the program transformed the Prithvi project into a surface-to-air system and has made it the bedrock of its Ballistic Missile Defence to defend against Pakistani nuclear missiles.

The political capital Delhi and the economic capital Mumbai are being defended by the Prithvi Air Defence System (PADS) batteries. In the meantime the Agni has incrementally been improved over the years and currently it is credited with a range of “more than 7000 km” which brings the whole of China (inclusive of the far north-easternly placed Beijing) within its reach.

Of the two dedicated surface-to-air missiles-the medium-range (18 km) Akash triple-missile battery has, after a great deal of prevarication, been accepted by the users, the Army and the IAF. However, the Trishul which was to fill the niche for a short-range quick-reaction last-ditch air defence system for the three Services fell by the wayside and could not be brought to fruition.

To fill this requirement India turned to the Israelis for the Barak family of SAMs. This decision was dictated by the naval appreciation that putting a large number of quick-reaction missiles on board a warship just to defend itself would be an overly costly affair. It was decided that instead of short-range the navy decided to induct a medium range missile with sufficient density to be able to guard the entire naval task force in its blue water missions by being able to acquire and engage targets both launch-platform aircraft and beyond visual range missiles well away from the fleet. The Barak NG (new generation) SAMs are being progressively retrofitted on Indian naval vessels. The USP of this project is that there is to be extensive transfer of technology from Israel and significant contribution of the Indian Defence Public Sector Undertakings and the private sector in providing components and systems towards the fabrication of the missiles.

Given that there are large gaps in the Indian air defence ground environment system (ADGES) of ground-based radar and the initial hesitation of the Indian Army in accepting the indigenous Akash air defence missile batteries the deployment of the Barak-8 along the border with Pakistan will provide protection from the plethora of missiles in the Pakistani arsenal, including the latest short-range tactical ballistic (nuclear capable) missile, the NASR. There are legitimate fears among those who want India to be more self-reliant on indigenous technologies (current dependence on foreign sources of supply are pegged at around 60 per cent) that the Indian Akash program could be scuttled in favor of the Barak-8. The Israeli missile is expected to begin deployment by early 2016.


The missile system can target aircraft up to 30 km away, at altitudes up to 18,000 m. It has the capability to “neutralize aerial targets like fighter jets, cruise missiles and air-to-surface missiles” as well as ballistic missiles. It is in operational service with the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force.

An Akash battery comprises four 3D passive electronically scanned array radars (PESA) and four launchers with three missiles each, all of which are interlinked. Each battery can track up to 64 targets and attack up to 12 of them. The missile has a 60 kg (130 lb) high-explosive, pre-fragmented warhead with a proximity fuse. The Akash system is fully mobile and capable of protecting a moving convoy of vehicles. The launch platform has been integrated with both wheeled and tracked vehicles. While the Akash system has primarily been designed as an air defence SAM, it also has been tested in a missile defense role. The system provides air defence missile coverage for an area of 2,000 km².

As an option the DRDO has been working to overcome the disabilities detected in the initial Trishul short-range quick reaction SAM missile. It has initiated a collaboration agreement with the French company MBDA to incorporate some of the design features of its MICA SAM to remove the kinks in the Trishul project.

With a rudimentary Ballistic Missile Defence (Anti-Ballistic Missile network) being erected, India has also been working on another futuristic project known as KALI, an acronym for Kilo Ampere Linear Injector which is an electron accelerator that has its uses as a soft  kill vehicle in warfare.

It achieves this by burning out the software in incoming missiles by pinpointing a beam of accelerated electron at the missile. The DRDO has worked on it for several decades as is evident from the serial numbering-the current one is known as KALI -10,000. It has been described as a “single shot” apparatus. Being extremely heavy in its current configuration it can only be deployed on the ground in a surface-to-air interception role. It has been contemplated that it should be miniaturized to make it possible to deploy it on an IL-76 transport aircraft in an air-to-surface or air-to-air role. By extension it can also be able to achieve the elusive boost-phase interception of a nuclear-tipped missile. This implies that a nuclear missile can be intercepted even as the missile is lifting off the launch pad. Depending on the size and weight of the missile it would need a reaction time of between 50 to 120 seconds to hit it. An airborne accelerator could do it.

Current disabilities in the KALI system are its extreme weight, the fact that it is single shot; and recharging requires immense quantities of electricity.

Till such time as this system can be miniturized and made operational the conventional methods of air defence will have to be refined.