Air Defense: India Gets Integrated

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March 6, 2020: In early 2020 the U.S. agreed to sell India an Integrated Air Defense Weapon System (IADWS) that will upgrade many aspects of Indian air defense. This will include the capability of easily integrating all current and any future air defense equipment While the $1.9 billion IADWS will include some new equipment, the key element is the U.S. experience with getting all air defense systems to share target information and software that will advise the local air defense commander what system to use against the threat. This is often done automatically with one or more air defense systems given the target location and the order to fire. Currently, Indian forces do not have the ability to choose and use the appropriate weapon to deal with an aerial threat in a timely manner. This is an old problem that first manifested itself nearly half a century ago when the major nation armed forces found themselves with a large variety of air defense weapons and sensors (radar and optical) in a combat zone, but no way to use longer-range radars to warn local commanders that an aerial threat was headed their way that might not be taken down before it suddenly (to the local commander) reached them. By the end of the Cold War these integrated systems began to appear, at least ones that actually worked. Since the 1990s the U.S. has developed software communications systems that enable more systems (aerial and seaborne) to participate in an IADWS.

Back in the 1960s many nations already had multiple air defense systems in use. Lacking radio systems that could link all of them or software to speed up the calculations when each system would be able to fire on and hit an incoming aerial threat, each system was on its own to fire on threats that came within range. The concept was practical. Air defense commanders for each “layer” (as defined by range of weapons) fired on anything that was within range. That way air threats had to face more and more weapons as they went deeper into the air defenses. There was some overall command to warn friendly aircraft when they were entering an area where their IFF (electronic Identify Friend or Foe) transponder would automatically tell other aircraft and surface-based weapons using radar who was friendly and who was not and could be fired on.

For decades this system was the mainstay of “layered air defense”. It had obvious imperfections and the U.S. eventually used new technology and past experience to develop integrated systems that shared target data with air defense systems that could be promptly be reached by radio or linked computer systems. All this became essential as more “low and slow” systems like cruise missiles, helicopter gunships and jets became able to operate very close to the ground to avoid most radar. These days even these low flying systems can be detected but not quickly enough to be reliably stopped. An IADWS improves the ability to stop such threats.

The Indian IADWS contract involves obtaining some American Sentinel radars, which have been around for a while and were designed to detect a threat at all altitudes and work with an integrated system. The IADWS will include other sensors and communications systems that India can buy more of or, because of the nature of IADWS, integrate their own equivalent locally produced systems. IADWS provides the methods needed to quickly list all the required new sensors or communications systems must meet to become part of the IADWS.

India already has a wide array of air defense weapons and more are about to enter service. Indian air defense commanders have long known about the problem of integrating all of them to optimize coverage and effectiveness. The Indians only needed expert advice and some specific new hardware from someone who had already developed and used IADWS. The two obvious choices were the U.S. or Israel. The Americans and Israelis had already provided Israel with some aspects of IADWS and the Americans had the edge in some areas and got the contract.

This was not the first time India had turned to the U.S. for special air defense needs. In mid-2018 India decided to provide upgraded air defense for its capital with the same American-Norwegian NASAMS (Norwegian Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System) that has defended Washington DC since 2005 and many other major cities (or small countries) since. India spent about a billion dollars on NASAMS, which is an incredibly flexible and configurable system that can use a wide variety of commercial equipment (radars, networking software) as well as several different relatively inexpensive (but combat-tested) SAMs (Surface to Air Missiles) to defend New Delhi, the capital of India and long a target for Islamic terrorists.

As its name implies, NASAMS got its start in a large Norwegian defense firm (Kongsberg) that came up with the idea, in the 1990s, of using the combat-proven American AMRAAM air-to-air missiles as a SAM (surface to air missile). This was not a new idea, but using AMRAAM was the most ambitious use of air-to-air missiles as SAMs to date. One reason for using AMRAAM was that the United States was constantly updating the AMRAAM to improve performance and reliability. The Norwegian bought and deployed the first NASAMS system in 1998. While other systems have been developed using AMRAAM the Norwegian version is seen as the best of the lot. Norway has six NASAMS batteries for its own defense and ten other nations (besides the U.S. and Norway) have purchased NASAMS as well. NASAMS is a cost-effective defense against all forms of an aerial attack, including cruise missiles and terrorists trying to use UAVs or small commercial aircraft for suicide attacks.

A major upgrade (NASAMS 2) entered service in 2007 and this is the one India is buying. The new version had major improvements in the software and the ability to use the American Link 16 encrypted digital communications system that has become common in NATO aircraft and ground systems. NASAMS 2 was also adapted to work on a wider variety of radars and missiles. NASAMS 2 also made it possible to handle more targets (over 50) simultaneously and use the network to constantly know which launchers are within range when the fire order comes. The distributed nature of the many radars, launchers and fire control computers made NASAMS 2 very difficult to destroy.

There is no standard organization for a NASAMS 2 battery but most consist of 12 launchers, each carrying six missiles, on heavy trucks or stationary on the ground. Then there are eight target acquisition radars, usually the American MPQ-64 plus one or more FDCs (fire distribution center), and one tactical control vehicle (or in a fixed location) for overall control of the battery. The MPQ-64 costs about $3 million each and is a widely used American ground-based radar for detecting aerial targets.

NASAMS most often uses AMRAMM and the ground-based AMRAAM missile weighs 159 kg (350 pounds), has a range of 30 kilometers (its radar can see out 50-70 kilometers), and can hit targets as high as 21 kilometers (65,000 feet). What makes AMRAMM effective as a SAM (surface-to-air missile) is the capabilities of its guidance system (which is about two-thirds of the $400,000 missile's cost). IADWS will enable India to quickly integrate their own newly developed or imported surface-to-air

The NASAMS has a uniquely flexible open architecture that than now handles more than 25 different target acquisition radar systems and can fire just about any air-to-air missile that can be fired from NATO aircraft. All that is required is modifications to the size and electrical connections in the NASAMS launcher cells and software modification of the FDC. NATO has long-established standards for “NATO weapons” and NASAMS takes full advantage of this.

So far NASAMS has been configured with AIM-120 AMRAAM (together with ER variant), AIM-9X Sidewinder, ESSM (Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile) and European IRIS-T. The last one is an interesting story. Norway has a big stock of them for their F-16 but the new F-35 is not compatible with IRIS-T so they have decided to use this very modern European missile as an anti-aircraft weapon in NASAMS. This example clearly shows how flexible this system is while the competitor systems are “tied” to a limited number of missiles and radar.

To enable NASAMS to grow and be exportable Kongsberg, the largest defense firm in Norway doing about a billion dollars a year in sales, formed a joint venture with American defense firm Raytheon, which does $25 billion a year. As a NATO member and heavy user of American weapons systems, Kongsberg easily handled the various security aspects of all the military tech involved. Thus the new ER version of AMRAAM, with a more powerful rocket motor, was available for NASAMS in 2020 and Qatar was the first export customer to receive it.

The new AMRAAM ER surface-to-air missile has a max range of 50 kilometers and a max altitude of 25 kilometers (85,000 feet). For most NASAMS users this is more than they need because NASAMS takes full advantage of its ability to network a large number of target acquisition radars, FDCs and missile launchers to cover as a large an areas as there are target acquisition radars connected to the network. This is apparently a major reason why India choose NASAMS as it could make use of the many radars already watching the busy skies over the sprawling capital. Another factor at work here is that the more senior of the normally obstructionist Indian procurement bureaucrats live and work in New Delhi and the NASAMS has demonstrated its ability to handle terrorist threats. So getting this billion dollar deal approved and installed might be expedited out of a sense of self-preservation. Then again, maybe not. Strange (and epically inefficient) are the ways of the Indian bureaucracy.

The suitability of NASAMS in providing New Delhi with effective air defense against a large list of potential aerial threats went a long way towards getting IADWS accepted. While NASAMS has not yet been installed in New Delhi it has successfully made its way through the procurement system and will protect many senior procurement officials who live and work in the capital. Nothing like a little self-interest to move things along. India has also become more aware of low altitude threats because of the undeclared war Pakistan has intensified on the northeastern border. Then there is the Chinese threat on the northwestern border, where numerous Chinese UAVs (fixed wing and quadcopter) have been used, with surprising effectiveness. None of these Chinese UAVs are armed but if they were Indian commanders admit the Chinese would have a major advantage.

 


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