Indian Army’s Air Defence widens wings

New China focus and lessons from the Ukraine war shape modernisation plans as India prepares for new threats with better technology

Updated - June 11, 2023 10:09 am IST

Published - June 10, 2023 11:07 pm IST - NEW DELHI

File picture of the Quick Reaction Surface to Air Missile (QRSAM) system from Integrated Test Range (ITR) Chandipur off the Odisha coast on September 8, 2022

File picture of the Quick Reaction Surface to Air Missile (QRSAM) system from Integrated Test Range (ITR) Chandipur off the Odisha coast on September 8, 2022 | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

The Indian Army’s reorientation from the western borders to the northern borders in the aftermath of the 2020 standoff with China, along with lessons from the ongoing war in Ukraine, are impacting the ongoing transformation of the Army Air Defence (AAD).

A range of new systems, mostly indigenous, are being inducted, with new technologies factoring in the new realities. Bringing it all together is a new automation initiative under Project Akashteer, which will build a comprehensive air defence picture for the monitoring, tracking and shooting of air defence assets.

Networked automation

The nearly ₹2,000 crore contract for Akashteer, a networking and automation project on the same lines as the Indian Air Force’s Integrated Air Command and Control System network, was signed in March 2023. “It is a major initiative and the entire implementation should be done by March 2024,” a defence source said, noting that this was probably the fastest project in the army, given that the approval of qualitative requirements only came through in December 2019.

“This will link all the radars and control centres of AAD and consolidate the air defence picture, removing duplications or overlaps and also integrate all the weapons. The need today is for a comprehensive air defence solution,” the source explained. Akashteer will also be able to communicate with the IAF’s network.

Shifting focus

Before the 2020 standoff with China, the Army’s focus was predominantly on India’s western border with Pakistan. However, air defence requirements on the northern borders are different from the western front; the need is for light-weight radars and weapon systems with mobility for deployment in the mountains while catering to the infantry’s requirements, said a source, detailing the kind of systems under procurement.

The war in Ukraine has also changed the requirements, forcing the army to factor in new threats to air defence such as unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs, loitering munitions, swarm drones and cruise missiles.

New technology

The Ukraine conflict has shown that Man Portable Air Defence Systems (MANPADS) are highly effective when in range with night vision enabled. The Indian Army is focussing on laser beam-riding MANPADS and has already initiated the procurement process. Another focus area is gallium nitride-based modules for radars which can significantly reduce weight, a critical factor in the mountains.

Watch | All about Man-Portable Air-Defence Systems

Another emerging threat to air defences is loitering munitions, for which the best counter is high-rate gun systems, better optic sights, fragmented ammunition and active electronically scanned array radars.

Inducting new SAMs

In March 2023, the Defence Ministry signed a contract worth more than ₹8,160 crore with Bharat Dynamics Limited for two regiments of improved Akash surface-to-air missile systems. These Akash regiments are tailor-made for the mountains, with modifications having been made after a year of trials, two sources stated. The deliveries and induction should happen in the next couple of years as the system is already under production and domestic capability has come up well, sources said.

While the indigenous Akash is a short range missile, the medium range surface-to-air missile project, on which the Defence Research Development and Organisation (DRDO) is collaborating with Israel, is now in the process of induction. DRDO is also indigenously developing a quick reaction surface-to-air missile, another critical need, and has already tested it several times. On the lower end of the weapons spectrum are the air defence guns, the procurement effort for which has been on since 1986. Fresh bids in this segment are being opened now, sources said.

Hardware shortage

However, officials acknowledged that the shortage of components and hardware for air defence systems worldwide, since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, could potentially slow the pace of inductions. For instance, there is a shortage of chips for radars that could slow down manufacturing and deliveries as these are mostly imported, one official noted.

Also read |Surface-to-air missile — DRDO working to fix a few glitches

The Army Air Defence — called Air Defence Artillery till 2005 — has been in existence since 1940, though its ground-based air defences have increasingly moved to the Air Force. The modernisation of the AAD has stagnated post-1996; over the last decade too, several attempts at procurement in various segments were unsuccessful. It has now picked up pace and with the push for indigenisation, there are several made-in-India systems coming in, defence sources noted.

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