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Air Defence Command: Need to hasten slowly; serving chiefs best to take calls

The set-up of an integrated Air Defence Command poses many questions, considering existing and prospective resources, current structure, challenges and lessons learnt by other countries

Air Defence Command: Need to hasten slowly; serving chiefs best to take calls
Bengaluru, First Published May 28, 2020, 4:01 PM IST

In an interview to defence analyst Nitin Gokhale, Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) of Indian Armed Forces, General Bipin Rawat, has explained in detail how he, along with the three service Chiefs, is evolving the Tri-Services Air Defence Command, a Maritime Command, and creating joint Logistics nodes. He also mentioned that Joint operational commands are also being envisaged and under study. It is clear from this interview that, despite Covid, the General is moving ahead with a sense of purpose and in fact seems to have hit the ground running. It is no more letting ‘the cat among the pigeons’ but being seriously driven forward. India is looking at overseas bases for logistics. A little earlier there was a proposal to set up a separate theatre command for Jammu and Kashmir. Executive orders for setting up the Air Defence Command (ADC) are expected by end of the year and in the next two years, the formation work will be put in place, and the ADC should be fully operational in 3-5 years.  The Indian Air Force (IAF) will helm the ADC and all-long-range missiles as well as Air Defence (AD) assets will come under it. India could also have tri-services training and doctrinal command. While the Veterans with years of experience and time can research on these subjects and put their opinions in public domain, the serving Chiefs and their staff have the best current inputs to take final calls.

Air Defence Command: Need to hasten slowly; serving chiefs best to take calls

CDS and Service Chiefs. Picture Credit: Business standard

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Functional and Geographical Commands

Currently the United States has seven unified geographical combatant commands covering the entire planet and globe, including the Space Command. All these commands cover areas mostly outside the USA. The USA has four functional combatant commands, Cyber, Special Operations, Strategic, and Transportation. The commands are composed of units from different services and are established to provide effective command and control in peace and war. The US Army has many commands of their own. The US Navy has nine independent commands and seven active fleets. The US Air Force (USAF) has nine Commands, mostly functional in nature. USAF comprises nearly 5,000 manned and many unmanned aircraft. Aerospace Defense Command (earlier established as Air Defense Command in 1946) was created for continental air defence of the United States in 1968. The Command was deactivated in 1980, primarily due to a large number of aircraft having multiple roles, and limited specialised assets. Air Combat Command under USAF is the primary force provider of air combat forces to America’s war-fighting unified commands. As China grew its military assets significantly in the last few years, its People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was divided into five Theatre Commands in February 2016, covering only the Chinese mainland. PLA Air Force (PLAAF) has 29 operational air divisions, with three regiments per Division and 3 Squadrons per regiment. Each Division has 7 to 9 Squadrons. Effectively PLAAF has nearly 200 squadrons. Despite such a large air force, China does not have an Air Defence Command. The Russian Air Force structure was completely changed in 2009 to a command-air base structure from the previous structure of army-air division system, to make them independent from the army-support thinking. Russian Air Force and the Russian Aerospace Defence Forces were merged in August 2015. The Russian air force now has the Air Defence and Anti-Ballistic Missile Defence Forces Command, Space forces command, the Military Transport Aviation Command, and the Long-Range Aviation Command.

Air Defence Assets Indian Army

The Corps of Army Air Defence (AAD), of the Indian army is tasked with air defence of Indian Army’s integral assets and certain designated VA/VPs, at heights below 5,000 feet. The corps was formed with autonomous status in 1994, after the bifurcation of the Corps of Air Defence Artillery from the Army’s Artillery Regiment. It has around 85,000 soldiers and 6,000 officers, and its own Army Air Defence College. The main AD assets of Indian Army include the Akash surface to Air Missiles (SAM), 9K33 Osa (SA-8), 9K35 Strela-10 (SA-13), 9K22 Tunguska, 9K38 Igla, ZSU-23-4M ‘Shilka’, FIM-92 Stinger, among others. Indian Army also has many radars linked to its AD systems, which are further integrated by the project ‘Akash Teer’ for situational awareness.

Air Defence Command: Need to hasten slowly; serving chiefs best to take calls

9K33 Osa. Picture Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Air Defence Assets Indian Navy

The Indian Navy (IN) has significant air elements including nearly 200 aircraft, some of which, like the MiG 29K can take on the AD task. IN has one operational aircraft carrier. The second aircraft carrier, indigenous Vikrant is in advance stage of readiness and may be inducted in next two years. The naval variant of LCA Mk1 has already done deck landing and take-off trials.  Most of its 235 ships have powerful radars and have SAMs and guns for AD tasks. The ships have significant Electromagnetic Counter Measures (ECM) and Electromagnetic Counter Counter Measures (ECCM) to defend from airborne threat.  IN’s indigenous Trigun System helps enhance battle-space transparency with better network-centric warfare tools riding on high-speed data communication systems and their integration. It integrates data from civil and military vessels, submarines and aircraft and shares with all its platforms. Currently air defence of some naval installations and assets at sea is the responsibility of the IN.

Air Defence Command: Need to hasten slowly; serving chiefs best to take calls

Picture Credit: DNA

Air Defence Assets Indian Air Force

As per the Union War book, IAF is directly responsible for the air defence of India. To achieve this, IAF has air-superiority aircraft like the Su-30 MKI, and soon to be inducted Rafale;  dedicated air defence interceptor aircraft like MiG 21 Bison, MiG 29, and LCA; there are other aircraft which are multi-role but have significant AD capability like Mirage 2000. All AD aircraft have their electronic warfare suites. Most AD aircraft also have ground attack or other roles.  IAF has a variety of SAMs like the Pechora S-125, Osa-AK, indigenous Akash, SPYDER LLQRM system, and the shoulder fired Igla-M missiles. They provide air defence against aircraft, helicopters, cruise missiles and UAVs.  DRDO has entered into a joint venture with Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI) to develop the Barak-8 SAM. IAF has two Embraer ERJ-145 based indigenous DRDO AEW&C ‘Netra’ aircraft. It also has 3  EL/W-2090 Phalcon AEW&C incorporated in a Beriev A-50 platform. Two more are in order. India is also going ahead with ‘Project India’, an in-house AWACS program to develop and deliver 6 Phalcon class AWACS, based on DRDO work on the smaller AEW&CS. IAF currently has two Aerostats giving nearly 400km range coverage. The Air Force Network (AFNET) is a robust secure digital information grid that is helping the IAF become a truly network-centric air force. Integrated Air Command and Control System (IACCS), an automated system for Air Defence operations, links command and control centres with offensive aircraft, sensor platforms and ground missile batteries. It rides on the AFNET. Integration with civil radars and other networks provide an integrated ‘Air Situation Picture’, for intelligence analysis, and mission control.

Air Defence Command: Need to hasten slowly; serving chiefs best to take calls

IAF EL W-2090 Phalcon AWACS. Picture Credit:

Indian Ballistic Missile Defence & ASAT Programs

 India faces ballistic missile threats from Pakistan and China. India’s Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) Program is a multi-layered system to protect India from ballistic missile attacks. Currently it consists of land and sea-based interceptor missiles, the Prithvi Air Defence (PAD) missile for high altitude interception, and the Advanced Air Defence (AAD) Missile for lower altitude interception. It can cover incoming missiles launched from 5,000 km away. The system includes an overlapping network of early warning and tracking radars, as well as command and control posts. The PAD was tested in November 2006, followed by the AAD in December 2007. India became the fifth country to have successfully developed an anti-ballistic missile system, after the USA, Russia, Israel and China. The system has undergone several tests, but the system is yet to be officially commissioned. The first phase of the BMD program is now complete and DRDO and IAF are waiting for the government's go-ahead to install the missile shield for the national capital region. Also, the Anti-Satellite (ASAT) missile test (Mission Shakti) was successfully conducted in 2019.


Air Defence Command: Need to hasten slowly; serving chiefs best to take calls

Indian Ballistic Missile Defence. Picture Credit: The Diplomat

S 400 and NASAMS

India and Russia signed a $5.43 billion deal for the supply of five S-400 regiments on 5 October 2018, ignoring America’s Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions (CAATSA) Act. The S-400 was expected to be inducted into IAF service in October 2020. There are reports of some delays. The S-400 anti-aircraft weapon system has an operational range of 385km. According to Siemon Wezeman, senior researcher at Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) the S-400 “is among the most advanced air defence systems available”.

 USA has recently approved the sale of an Integrated Air Defence Weapon System (IADWS) to India for an estimated cost of $1.9 billion. National Advanced Surface to Air Missile System (NASAMS) is a distributed and networked medium to long range air-defence system with the first surface-based application for the AIM-120 AMRAAM (Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile). The missile itself is named SLAMRAAM (Surface Launched AMRAAM). On offer is the NASAMS 2, which is an upgraded version of the NASAMS air-defence system, and it has been operational since 2007. The proposed sale comes amidst the massive military modernisation and muscle flexing by China. It will also further enhance greater interoperability between India and the USA. India has reportedly requested for five AN/MPQ-64Fl Sentinel radar systems; 118 AMRAAM AIM-120C-7/C-8 missiles; three AMRAAM Guidance Sections; four AMRAAM Control Sections; and 134 Stinger FIM-92L missiles.


Air Defence Command: Need to hasten slowly; serving chiefs best to take calls

S 400 air defence system. Picture Credit: Sputnik News

Air Space Management in India

Air Space Control (ASC) refers to regulating the use of the ‘finite’ air space by various users. From a military operations point of view, the objective of airspace control is to maximize the effectiveness of combat operations without adding undue restrictions and with minimal adverse impact on the capabilities of any component. Stress is on close coordination that must exist between airspace control, air traffic control, and area air defence units to reduce the risk of fratricide and balance those risks with the requirements for an effective air defence. ASC specifies air space control procedures, joint services procedures for integrating weapons and other air defence actions within the operations area. ASC measures provide maximum flexibility and responsiveness to all airspace users. Geographic arrangement of air defence weapons within the battlespace and procedures for identification and engagement is part of ASC. During conflict, the air activity in the Tactical Battle Area (TBA), is extremely dense. Both friendly and enemy aircraft are transiting. Most flights are launched at a very short notice based on evolving tactical situations. There are many UAVs. Also occupying the airspace are high velocity long and medium range artillery shells and a variety of missiles. Ground based air defence weapons are on hot standby, and some operated from remote locations close to the forward edge of the battle area (FEBA). The civil air operations have to be allowed to continue albeit with small restrictions and regulations in time and space. There is therefore a need for faster timely information sharing. There have to be clearly designated agencies for direct and procedural control.  Airspace management in most countries is with the air force, and so it has been with Indian Air Force (IAF) in India.

Air Defence Command: Need to hasten slowly; serving chiefs best to take calls

Akash AD System. Picture Credit: India Today

Existing Functional and Geographical Commands

Indian Army has six geographical and one functional command. Similarly, IAF has five geographical and two functional commands. Indian Navy has two geographical and one functional command. India already has an example of integrated tri-service geographical Command (ANC). The tri-service Strategic Forces Command (SFC) exercises control over India’s nuclear triad. The main aim of this model was efficient equipment management, maintenance and training. While SFC has a totally stand-alone charter, the success of ANC is still being questioned.

Air Defence Command: Need to hasten slowly; serving chiefs best to take calls

Andaman & Nicobar Command, Picture Credit: Wikipedia

Proposed Air Defence Command

Till now each service has its individual air defence set-up and maintains their own AD resources to counter specific threats perceived by each, sometimes even having overlapping areas. The proposed air defence command is meant to integrate the air defence assets of the Army, Air Force and Navy and jointly provide air defence cover to the country. It will be headed by an IAF officer. The overall responsibility of thwarting an enemy air invasion shall continue with the IAF, while bringing the ground-based AD resources under better synergy. Integrating AD assets are meant to also assist in better airspace management giving maximum freedom to various ground and aerial weapons yet avoiding ‘fratricide’ during war like conditions. The AD Command will be a functional command.

 The case is that, in the era of hybrid war, integration of all kinetic and non-kinetic tools is considered as an operational necessity. The entire military power needs to work in a coordinated manner. The armed forces need to relook the structure for better synergy and integration. Tri-services AD Command is the first off the block. The key elements of AD are the ability to detect and identify the threat and thereafter to engage and destroy. The threat could be any adversary military flying system from a manned/unmanned aircraft to incoming missile. All the three services have weapon systems to tackle these threats. IAF’s combat aircraft equipped with air-to-air missiles can engage the threat at the farthest distances. Once within the surface-to-air guided weapons (SAGW) range, the fighters may disengage, and missiles take-on.  The close-in weapon systems could be short range AD missiles and anti-aircraft artillery guns. The assignment is done by the sector AD Commander. Peculiarities of operations of each service create distinct air defence needs. Currently all procure their own AD assets, some of which may have commonality, or even have interoperability issues with each other. Therefore, an integrated approach could be operationally relevant. Integration of equipment, systems, training, maintenance, and reducing duplication could save resources and enhance operational efficacy.

Air Defence Command: Need to hasten slowly; serving chiefs best to take calls

MiG-29 Upgrade. Picture Credit:

Challenges and Opportunities

There are many challenges for the AD Command that need to be understood and factored. The concept of AD Command has been tried for many years by USAF, which has huge resources, yet rejected. Both Russia and China with the next largest air assets have not created an AD Command because of the multirole aircraft and inefficient use of resources. In the Indian context, the AD Command will cover the entire air space over the Indian landmass and territorial waters. All airspace users, military and civil, will need to coordinate their activities with the AD Command, a responsibility currently with the IAF, which also has most AD assets. The Air Force commander of AD Command will be reporting to CDS. The air assets, most of which are multirole, will still be with the IAF. Imagine distributing small fleets of multirole aircraft (36 Rafale). Mirage 2000 has AD, Strike and EW roles. Upgraded MiG 29 has significant ground attack capability. SU-30 MKI will be used for Offensive sweep missions, yet available for AD role. It will lead to their suboptimal utilisation. Integrating all the radars, ground based weapons systems, including the secure independent networks of each service would be the next challenge. Systems like the radars and IAACS are required not only for AD but also for offensive sweeps and strike missions. India still has just a few AWACS, they are required for both offensive and defensive missions. Similarly, the very few FRA will be required for all types of mission.  Will the AD assets of the highly mobile Strike Corps, and AD of the Army formations in the mountainous border be part of the integrated AD Command? How will AD Command integrate with the mobile elements? Could this be counterproductive? The AD of the naval fleet at sea is very peculiar. There are layers of AD cover provided by various ships. Carrier based air operations also have their own peculiarities. Will the AD of naval assets at sea be with AD Command or with IN? Will the operational efficiency be enhanced after creating the AD command? In case that is compromised, the entire exercise will be futile. Just integrating all the ground-based radars and leaving them with IAF could be a first logical step. Up to the Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) the AD responsibility is with the IAF. Out in the sea, Navy looks after its AD. Very small hand-held UAVs of the Indian Army flying below a certain height already have freedom to operate. So is the case of inter ship movement of helicopters and low flying helicopters of Indian Army in TBA.  

          There is another proposal to later create geographical combined commands. China’s ‘Western Theatre Command’ with which India shares its entire border covers a geographical area larger than India. To create a smaller theatre against such a massive integrated Chinese theatre would be a losing proposition. IAF is already down to 29 combat squadrons. The number could go down to as low as 25. India is looking at a two-front war.  Giving fixed air assets to any geographical command would null the great flexibility air power provides. If India was to remain a single theatre as is the case currently, then all air assets could remain as it is with the IAF. If multiple theatre commands were to come up, then the scarce assets would have to be allotted to different commands. Adequacy of resources is a very serious issue. Situation is unlikely to change in the next decade or so. There is a famous saying “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

Way Ahead

 The CDS obviously has the charter and desire to quickly achieve integration of the armed forces. He is driven by his personal experiences of years of distinguished service and training in the Army. Any proposed change would have long term operational and financial affect. We need to hurry slowly and firm-footedly. AD Command appears to be being built as a test case. Lot of deliberations are required by think-tanks and service HQs. In India where we take tens of years to appoint a CDS and no less to acquire weapon platforms, such reformation changes must be incrementally evolved over next 4-5 years and not have deadlines of six months. India still has limited resources unlike the USA and China. Even then they treaded slowly and did not have an AD Command. Let us first concentrate and build on the tri-service Defence Space Agency, Special Forces Division, and Defence Cyber Agency. The idea of AD Command needs to be deliberated professionally at all levels for effective resource utilisation and to ensure enhanced operational efficiency.

This Article was earlier published in South Asia Defence & Strategic Review and since then updated

Picture Credit:

(Air Marshal Anil Chopra, (Retd), is an IAF test pilot, who commanded a Mirage 2000 Squadron and operational airbases in both Western and Eastern sectors. He is also the founder of Air Power Asia)

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