Saturday, March 25th, 2023 20:23:09

Time for a strong BMD shield

By Amartya Sinha
Updated: February 10, 2023 6:05 pm

The Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system is a long-range, land-based theatre defence weapon that acts as the upper tier of a basic two-tiered defence against ballistic missiles. It is designed to intercept and destroy short, medium and intermediate-range ballistic missiles during late mid-course or final stage flight– or terminal phase– at altitudes of up to 200 km. This allows it to provide broad area coverage against threats to critical assets such as population centres and industrial resources as well as military forces.

The ability to intercept both inside and outside the atmosphere makes THAAD an important part of layered missile defence concepts, as it falls between the exclusively exo-atmospheric and exclusively endo-atmospheric interceptors. This capability makes THAAD different from the Patriot PAC-3 or the future MEADS system, which are point defence options with limited range that are designed to hit a missile just before impact.

There are four main components to THAAD: the launcher, interceptors, radar and fire control. The launcher is mounted on a truck for mobility and storability. There are eight interceptors per launcher. Current configurations of THAAD batteries include six launchers and 48 interceptors, though certain reports indicate that this could be scaled up to nine launchers and 72 interceptors.

The THAAD system utilises the Army Navy/Transportable Radar Surveillance (AN/TPY-2) radar to detect and track enemy missiles at a range of up to 1,000 km. The fire control system is the communication and data-management backbone and is equipped with an indigenous THAAD Fire Control and Communications system. The Command, Control, Battle Management and Communications (C2BMC) also provides tracking and cueing information for THAAD from other regional sensors on Aegis and Patriot systems.

THAAD was initially fielded in April 2012 with two batteries on the US mainland. During a test on July 11, 2017 the system intercepted for the first time an intermediate-range ballistic missile target.

The US is also working to incorporate THAAD with the Integrated Battle Command Station to provide a common battle picture and command and control in order to integrate radar information for Patriot assets in the same area.

Elements of India’s missile defence system

The ballistic missile system that India is constructing and could take decades to perfect, is one of the most ambitious projects undertaken by the nation’s scientists. Intercepting an incoming missile with another missile is like hitting a bullet with a bullet. In fact, it could be even more complicated because while a bullet travels in a straight trajectory and a more or less predictable velocity, the new class of ballistic missile have the ability to sidewind or travel in a ‘S’ trajectory to confuse BMD systems.

Since the investments required to build a BMD system for India’s major cities could involve tens of billions of dollars, it is worth emulating pioneers such as the US and Russia which have been producing such systems since the 1970s. In view of the threats presented by the rogue Pakistani military and its Chinese patrons, India has decided on a twin strategy. While pursuing indigenously developing missile defence technology it is also procuring proven weapons from outside.

The indigenous component is a two-tier system consisting of land and sea-based interceptor missiles namely the Prithvi Air Defence (PAD) missile for high altitude interception (exo-atmospheric conditions with a maximum altitude of 80 km) and the Advanced Air Defence (AAD) missile for lower altitude interception (endo-atmospheric conditions with a maximum altitude of 30 km).

The first Indian missile test for a BMD system was conducted in November 2006, when a Prithvi-II missile was successfully intercepted by the PAD in the endo-atmospheric level at an altitude of about 48 km. Since then, India’s BMD capabilities have grown exponentially. In 2017 India had tested a new exo-atmospheric interceptor missile named the Prithvi Defence Vehicle (PDV), which reportedly intercepted a missile at an altitude of 100 km during trials.

The test of an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon in March 2019 to destroy a satellite at a height of 274 km demonstrated that India has taken a major leap in developing its capacity to intercept incoming ballistic missiles at high altitudes. Since there’s considerable overlap in ASAT and anti-ballistic missile technology, the ASAT test was a signal to both Pakistan and China about India’s rapidly evolving capabilities.

The primary foreign component of India’s BMD network will be the S-400. In 2018, India and Russia signed a $5.5 billion contract for five regiments of this long-range missile defence system. Each regiment will have eight launchers, amounting to a total of 40 launchers in five regiments and 200 spare missiles. While the planned positions of the S-400 systems have been kept classified, it is expected that some of the regiments will be strategically positioned on the western and north-eastern borders which will lead to imposition of India’s A2/AD (anti-access/ area denial) doctrine over almost the entire geographical territory of Pakistan as well as large swathes of Tibetan territory occupied by China.

The S-400 system includes highly mobile all-terrain radars, missiles and launchers mounted on 8×8 cross-country trucks, which makes them harder to detect and destroy. The entire system can be made ready to fire in a matter of minutes. The S-400’s crown jewel is its 92N6E electronically-steered phased array radar, dubbed ‘Grave Stone’, that can track 300 targets over 600 km away and, based on the threat and range, shoot four different missile types at them. Each S-400 unit has four types of missiles with ranges of 400 km, 200 km, 100 km and 40 km, forming an interlocking grid of missiles. It can detect and destroy targets flying as low as 100 feet to as high as 12 km.

Another critical segment of the BMD network that India has already begun acquiring is the National Advanced Surface to Air Missile System-II (NASAMS-II) from the US for Rs. 6,000 crores. NASAMS-II will be deployed to protect around New Delhi and Mumbai to fully secure them against aerial threats ranging from drones to ballistic missiles.

Initially, the NASAMS-II will be used along with indigenous (PAD, AAD and Akash missiles), Russian and Israeli (MR-SAM or the Medium-Range Surface-to-Air Missile) systems to establish a multi-layered missile shield over the National Capital Territory of Delhi. As per the proposed overall air defence plan for New Delhi, the innermost layer of protection will be through this system.

Ultimately, the missile shield will be linked with aerial, territorial and naval assets to cover the entire nation. Considering its multinational components, India will have the world’s first hybrid area-specific air defence system.

Lessons from THAAD

The success or failure of a missile defence scheme depends on several factors including the threat faced by a country, spending power, political will and the leadership of the generals in charge of guiding and monitoring the programme.

THAAD initially suffered well-publicised problems including four straight flight-test failures. During the demonstration-validation programme from April 1995 to August 1999, it had a string of six successive failures, four successes and one aborted test. However, in subsequent years the rate of success increased greatly. From 2005 to 2017 the programme notched up 13 kills versus four failures. The programme was delayed after each failure and costs went up. But THAAD was not killed because the US Army viewed it as essential for protecting its soldiers from longer-range theatre ballistic missiles.

In a report titled ‘Understanding the Extraordinary Cost of Missile Defense’, the RAND Corporation offers suggestions on how to deal with the complexities of BMD development. In view of the similarities between THAAD and India’s BMD, they are quite relevant.

Challenges ahead

Despite many optimistic statements to the contrary, the technology for missile defence is still under development. One can expect problems, delays, and, most of all, test failures. A programme should be designed to withstand them. It must have a robust risk reduction programme. Every component that pushes the state of the art should have one or more backup components in development. Also, do not overlook system integration. This may be the most difficult activity of all, so it must be well designed and fully funded.

A new beginning

Developing and deploying a missile defence is not the end of the story, but rather the beginning of a long process that will span across decades. Budgets should include the costs of operating the system (including follow-on flight testing to ensure the system remains reliable and effective), sustaining the system (especially for space-based systems where satellites must be replaced every five to ten years), and continuing research and development.

Opening up the purses

Costs in any complicated acquisition programme are likely to grow by 20 to 30 percent or so on average. But if a missile defence programme has not been carefully thought through and well designed; if it does not include a robust effort to reduce technical risk for all critical components; if it short-changes system integration; or if it cuts corners on simulation, ground testing and ground-test facilities, and realistic flight tests, costs will spiral out of sight and delays will be rampant. Only if all those factors are properly addressed will missile defence programmes experience more normal levels of cost growth and avoid some of the cost-related pitfalls that lay ahead.

Strategic gains

The task of developing quick reaction missiles, long-range radars and command and control systems required to build an anti-missile system is obviously a huge challenge for India. But with a rapidly booming $3 trillion economy and a huge pool of scientists and engineers, the country can pull it off with a focussed approach.

Failure is not an option, but success will come with a string of benefits. While it will block China’s ability to blackmail or pressure India, BMD poses a huge challenge for Pakistan. First of all, it undermines Pakistan’s first nuclear strike capability. Islamabad cannot expect all of its missiles to get through India’s defence shield. Secondly, it boosts India’s second-strike capability. India can absorb a Pakistani first strike and then wipe its adversary off the map. Thirdly, it gives India the freedom to act against Pakistan-launched asymmetric warfare. Balakot and Uri demonstrated this amply. India can attack Pakistan at will without worrying about Islamabad lobbing nukes at it.

Because India and Pakistan have huge disparities in overall national strength, India has an advantage in most areas, but in the field of nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles, the difference isn’t wide. Consequently, if India succeeds in developing anti-missile systems, China and Pakistan’s nuclear strike capability will undoubtedly be effectively weakened. And that is exactly the outcome that India expects from its BMD strategy.


By Amartya Sinha

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