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SAM deployment

The scramble for the acquisition of the very short range air defence (VSHORAD) system began when it became known that Pakistan has developed the Nasr tactical nuclear missile. The four-barreled missile system is intended to pulverize mechanized infantry and armor as it is threatened by India’s ‘Cold Start’ doctrine.

The doctrine was designed after the extremely long time it took to deploy Indian troops and its strike corps along the international border and the Line of Control during Operation Parakram in retaliation for the attack on Parliament in 2001. Such was the inefficient manner in which Operation Parakram was conducted that nearly 800 personnel lost their lives without a shot being fired all due to explosions in ammunition convoys, in own minefields and accidents.

This is a price India has to pay for a General’s boast about how the military logistics system had been redesigned to prevent the kind of slow-motion movement that characterized Operation Parakram apparently in the hope of winning brownie points. Later it was denied that there was any such thing as “Cold Start” but the damage had been done. Pakistan went about designing a nuclear capable missile intended to stop Indian armor and mechanized columns in their tracks with a series of nuclear bursts in the path of the advancing Indian columns-negating all the advantages of forward basing, wide dispersal, pre-stocked ammunition, etc.     

The Nasr missile system is a four-barreled solid fuel system. It is made mobile by a China supplied transporter, erector and launcher (TEL) along with low yield warheads based on plutonium fuel also supplied by China. It has a range of about 60 km. Its range and configuration are designed to inflict large-scale damage to tanks and infantry combat vehicles by the blast effect of a nuclear explosion and the resultant fireball that will suck away the oxygen from inside closed vehicles, killing the occupants. Intercepting it will be difficult because it will travel the 60 km distance at about three times the speed of sound i.e at 1030 meters per second or more, covering the distance in about 50 seconds.

Air defence

To deal with such situations some nations have developed what are known as Very Short Range Air Defence (VSHORAD) systems. These consist of very sensitive target acquisition systems that sense the passage of the missile from blastoff through its trajectory and initiate an interception that will ensure that the enemy missile hits or explodes close enough to one’s own military assets to ensure heavy damage or total destruction.

Under the Integrated Guided Missile Development Program, the Government of India had planned to develop, simultaneously, four different classes of missiles that would deal with different kinds of threats. One among these was the Trishul short-range interceptor that was intended to intercept an incoming enemy missile at about nine kilometers distance. Somewhere down the line it failed to meet all the specifications of the Indian Armed Forces and it was downgraded to “technology demonstrator” status.

India currently uses the shoulder-fired Russian Igla SAM as an anti-aircraft, anti-helicopter weapon within close range. India is also working on a Ballistic Missile Defence system based on the Prithvi missile as the interceptor at the terminal phase of flight of the incoming missile.

On sea based platforms the accent on close-in defence when missiles are seen to have broken through the outer screen of defences which include SAMs both medium and short range, but, more and more it is seen that to be able to knock down the missile that has managed to break through these defences resort is made to the rapid fire gun which could be of the Gatling  revolving barrel type or the multi-barrel rapid fire type that will try to tear to shreds any missile, ballistic or cruise, that has managed to get past the forward defences. This type of interception is done within line of sight and between nine to two kilometers of the intended target as the missiles closes in at top speed.

For the land battle India has been looking for very short range air defence missiles to deal with threats from Pakistan in the form of aircraft and helicopters. India has been looking around for replacement of its 1960 vintage L-70 anti-aircraft guns and had begun negotiations with original equipment manufacturers who are leaders in the business of making air defence guns. In 2007 and 2009 it came up against the “single vendor” phenomenon and no contracts could be signed. In the meantime Raytheon of America offered to sell off-the-shelf Stinger missiles through a government-to-government Foreign Military Sales window and that is where the matter stands. The Stinger is a proven weapon. It is light and it can shoot down aircraft in the line-of-sight-mode up to a distance of five kilometers.

Deadly weapon

This is the kind of scenario of missile interception in different kinds of terrain and ambiance. Much of this does not apply to how India intends to deal with the Nasr missile. For one, the Nasr is to be armed with a nuclear warhead and is to be deployed in territory that is heavily populated and includes many industries. The Nasr appears designed to prevent Indian armor and mechanized forces from entering Pakistan through a 50 km deep belt all along the international border given that its basing is done 10km away from the border itself. It needs to be remembered that the Nasr is a highly mobile weapon system and more deadly than any conventional artillery system in the Pakistan armory.

The manner in which it is fired makes it difficult to detect the flight of the missile till it is too late. The trajectory is very nearly flat-it executes a very slight parabolic curve during flight from canister to target. This characteristic makes it extremely difficult for ground based radar to detect its flight even if the blast of its ignition is detected. Being nuclear-tipped India cannot afford to allow it to be used in the manner Pakistan intends.

India will have to be innovative in dealing with the Nasr because the very short range air defence system does not appear to be able to deal with this particular weapon. While the problem of detection at launch is insignificant, it is the flight of the missile with its nuclear warhead that is difficult to deal with. It reaches its target in less than 50 seconds. The best way to render it relatively ineffective is to be able to intercept it midway in its flight and hence as close to Pakistani territory as possible so that that country itself is made victim of any radioactive escape from the nuclear warhead. As far as India is concerned, the most important requirement is to ensure that the warhead does not explode over target and hence the interception as soon as it is launched.

There are two ways of dealing with this problem. One is to go aerial. Either an aircraft on combat air patrol and air to ground surveillance and attack capabilities or a helicopter-borne target acquisition system be deployed on a daily basis to locate and mark out the Nasr TEL positions during its peacetime deployment preparatory to attack it in the event of the outbreak of hostilities. It could then be taken out with air-to-surface missiles as soon as it is seen to be made ready for launch or even after it is fired.

The other is a combination of the above procedure for target location and combined with skyward-looking directed energy weapons for the kill as it flies overhead.

Admittedly, this is a very Nasr-specific solution but a VSHORAD just for interception of a conventional warhead is no longer a viable option.