Click here to go to Home Page
Home IAF Today Contemporary Articles Strategic Air Defences in a Nuclear South-Asia

Strategic Air Defences in a Nuclear South-Asia

E-mail Print

The most horrifying aspect of nuclear warfare is the prospect of civilian targets being bombarded with nuclear or thermonuclear weapons. This is also the ultimate guarantor of deterrence as neither side would want to lose large numbers of its civilian population and its industrial base to nuclear attack. The effects of nuclear strikes against counter value targets in South Asia have to be assessed differently to the effects in the event of a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and NATO at the height of the Cold War. First of all, the weapons available to South Asian countries are of a smaller yield compared to the megaton monstrosities possessed by the big five nuclear powers. Pakistan in particular has access to weapons limited to the 15-50 kiloton range. India has the capacity to manufacture both thermonuclear and boosted-fission weapons, but these seem to be earmarked more for use in the event of hostilities with China.

While the weapons are smaller, the conditions existing in South Asian metropolises ensure that any nuclear attack will cause devastating casualties. The cities are crowded, buildings are of poor materials and fire-fighting facilities are inadequate even in peacetime. Moreover, medical facilities for treating cases of radiation burns etc. are limited - especially in the case of Pakistan. Any nuclear attack on a civilian target depends on the ability of the attacking force to penetrate the strategic air defences that are deployed around the principal target areas in South Asia. India's delivery systems, manned aircraft and missiles, are capable of hitting any target in Pakistan. Pakistan's systems are not yet able to reciprocate as they can only cover a limited area, this however, is likely to change in the near future because of the deployment of the Ghauri IRBM with its 1500km range.

This article seeks to explore the strategic air defences deployed by India and Pakistan and examines their ability to cope with the nuclear strike forces ranged against them. Before analyzing the impact of nuclear weapons on South Asian urban centres, a few assumptions have been made regarding the size and composition of the nuclear forces ranged against civilian targets. Pakistan is unlikely to possess more than 30 20-50 kiloton atomic weapons at present. In India's case, a minimum of 85 such weapons is a reasonable estimate. Any boosted-fission or experimental thermonuclear weapons in India's possession are assumed to be earmarked for possible use against China. For the purposes of this article the following assumptions are made regarding the nuclear capable strike forces available:


30 x 20-50 kT weapons
40 x F-16 fighter-bombers
140 x Mirage III/V - 685km
140 x Nanchang A-5 attack aircraft
50 x M-11 missiles - payload of 500kg & 300km range.
6-12 x Ghauri IRBM


85-100 x 20-200 kT weapons
110 x Jaguars (in 4 full-strength squadrons)
200 x MiG-27 (in 8 full-strength squadrons)
70 x MiG-23 (in three full-strength squadrons)
75 x Prithvi SSM (Payload of 500-1000 kgs. & range of 150-350km)
5-20 x 'Agni' IRBM

These are the forces likely to be available to either country in the event of war. However, it does not mean that all these forces will be earmarked for a nuclear strike .India, in particular will reserve a sizeable proportion of its forces for use against China.

Air Defences

Any nuclear strategy based around attacking civilian targets, either in a first strike or in retaliation, has to have a reasonably good chance of reaching their targets safely. To this end it is imperative to examine the air defenses protecting key strategic military and civilian targets in the Indian subcontinent. Both India and Pakistan have advanced air defense ground environment systems. These link a large number of air defense radars of varying origins into an effective air defense network. This network coordinates the responses of powerful fighter-interceptor units and, in the case of India, a large number of surface-to-air missile squadrons. India and Pakistan face very different problems regarding air defense. India has the enormous problem of contending with its vast land area while Pakistan has to deal with its lack of depth.

Both nations face financial constraints, although this has not prevented them from acquiring sophisticated air defence equipment. In addition, both India and Pakistan have to contend with the increasing sophistication of the attacking force available to both sides.  In recent times, India has embarked on a two-fold approach. Its nuclear strike forces have been dramatically upgraded with the 'Prithvi' missile and upgrades to the Jaguar and MiG-27 fleets. In addition, Indian air defences are being expanded and re-equipped with weapons and sensors that would render an attack by either Pakistani missiles or aircraft an extremely risky proposition. Pakistan, on the other hand, has been unable to procure modern surface-to-air missiles in any meaningful numbers and lacks an effective defence against either 'Prithvi' or, to a certain extent, Indian aircraft. This is a remarkable fact given the size of the potential Indian nuclear strike force.

Strategic Air Defences in India

India, with its vast airspace, maintains an advanced Air Defence Ground Environment System. This system, along with the civilian Air Traffic Control, is responsible for the detection, identification and, if necessary, the interception of aircraft in Indian airspace. The Air Defence network is also in the process of being upgraded to cater for ballistic missile threats. Before examining the system in detail, a quick overview is in order. India's air defence network is essentially divided into two parts - the Air Defence Ground Environment System and the Base Air Defence Zones. These two components are closely linked and share information relating to air defence tasks. The Air Defence Ground Environment System consists of an array of radars along the Western and Northern Borders as well as a network of mobile systems in the North East and South of the country.

The ADGES network is responsible for overall airspace management and detection of intruders. The ADGES also controls and coordinates the air defences for large area targets. The Base Air Defence Zones, as the name implies, are tasked with the defence of high value targets - air bases, nuclear installations and key military installations. The BADZ is a scaled down ADGES network, limited to an arc of 100km. The BADZ is a far more concentrated air defence environment than the ADGES and provides the only gap-free air defence cover in most sectors.  In addition to these networks, India is now establishing an anti-tactical ballistic missile screen - with new radars and weapons. It is not clear whether this will be incorporated into the BADZs or whether it will comprise a separate network. This ATBM screen is slowly taking shape and news of its structure is still awaited.

Indian Air Defences: Sensor Network

The Indian Air Defence Ground Environment System employs a three tier detection network. While this system is currently in the process of a major modernization program, the basic structure of the ADGES network will remain unchanged. The first layer, rather surprisingly, consists of Mobile Observation Posts. These remain among the most reliable of the early-warning mechanisms available to the Indian Air Force. The MOPs consists of two-man teams equipped with a HF/VHF radio set and field glasses. The personnel in the MOP are very well versed in the visual identification of aircraft as well as their general direction of flight. The MOPs are scattered along the borders at random intervals, ranging between 25 and 45 kilometres. The MOPs give the first warning of airborne intrusion, the general direction of the attack and, more often than not, the number of aircraft and their type. The MOPs are assisted in this task by personnel from the Indian police forces and Railway Protection Force who are given some training in aircraft identification. These agencies report via a communications system based on both HF/VHF radio sets as well as telephone lines. A more advanced communications system based on fibre optic cables and satellite communications is also available to assist the MOPs in reporting to the radar picket line.

The radar picket line, which lies about 150km behind the MOPs, consists of a number of radar clusters. These comprise three radar stations separated at a distance of the sum of their radii. The equipment issued to these clusters generally comprises one license-made Soviet ST-68/U and two P-18/-19 radars. These are then flanked by two P-12/-15 radars. The ST-68/U acts as the Control and Reporting Centre (CRC). This may have changed somewhat as the ST-68U, which was plagued with some nagging development problems, has largely replaced older Soviet-made equipment. Moreover, India has been license producing the French designed TRS-2215D 3-D surveillance radar for a number of years and has derived an indigenously built radar - PSM-33 Mk.2 from it. These have probably supplanted most of the older Soviet-bloc equipment. It should be pointed out, that these radars are all long-range surveillance types with ranges in excess of 300km and good performance against targets flying at all altitudes - even those employing electronic countermeasures (ECM). These radar pickets are responsible for giving accurate information on the intruding force to the Air Defence Control Centres (ADCC) located behind the radar picket line. The picket line and the ADCC are separated by a first layer of air defence weapons which are the first to engage the intruders.

The backbone of the Indian Air Defence Ground Environment system is the THD-1955 3-D long-range surveillance radar. This radar, originally of French design, has been license produced in India for a number of years. This radar, though somewhat elderly, still has sterling performance characteristics and is capable of maximum detection ranges of up to 1000 km, though in peacetime the Indian Air Force usually limits its power to a 400km detection range. These form the core of the ADCCs. ADCCs also keep in touch with the Base Air Defence Zone (BADZ) control centres. The BADZ is a scaled down version of the ADGES configuration and is geared towards the defence of key air bases and other high value targets. The BADZ is limited to an arc of 100km, compared to the hundreds of kilometres in the case of the ADGES system. Like the ADGES, the BADZ consists of three layers. The first of which are the mobile observation posts, followed by a mixed layer of weapons and their associated radars along with a picket line of low-level radars. These are in turn supported by anti-aircraft artillery batteries. This network is controlled by a ST-68U radar. The BADZ provides comprehensive and gap-free coverage over its assigned area of responsibility. Some observers have likened the BADZ set-up to the defence pattern of a carrier battle group. Any aircraft attacking a vital military target, therefore, not only has to get past the ADGES, but also the far more formidable BADZ. This has serious implications for the attacking force.

India's air defences currently rely on a mix of MiG-21/-23/-29 and Mirage 2000 interceptors and thirty-eight squadrons of surface-to-air missiles. The SAM units comprise 30 squadrons of SA-3b Pechoras and 8 squadrons of SA-8b OSA-AKM systems and are deployed to protect key air bases as well as some major military/industrial centres. Though the SAMs are old, they have been updated periodically and, when operating as part of the BADZ, are deployed in such a manner as to minimize their shortcomings. In addition, a large number of L-40/70 radar directed 40mm anti-aircraft guns and man-portable Igla-1M SAMs are deployed to provide a 'last-ditch' tier of 'hard-kill' defences. It should be pointed out, however, that this system is geared up to the defence of point targets and not for overall area defence. It also lacks a viable capability against ballistic missiles. With this in mind, the Indian Air Force has begun a massive modernization of its strategic air defences.

The first signs that India was modernizing its air defences came when a massive order was placed for Sukhoi Su-30 combat aircraft. These aircraft, the first batch of which has now been delivered, are primarily long range interceptors, capable of intercepting targets at ranges exceeding 120km. When this is added to the fact that India's ongoing MiG-21bis upgrade program is primarily aimed at enhancing the aircraft's air defence capabilities and India's program for an AEW aircraft has been resurrected after many years in the doldrums, it can be seen that India's fighter defences are about to be dramatically enhanced. India's interceptors are equipped with a mix of French and Russian air-to-air missiles. All aircraft are cleared to launch R-60 (AA-8) and Magic R-550 short-range missiles while the MiG-29, Su-30 and Mirage-2000 are cleared to launch R-73 (AA-11), R-27 (AA-10) as well as Matra Super 530D systems. India has also ordered R-77 (AA-12) missiles for its upgraded MiG-21bis and Su-30 aircraft and there is every likelihood that the R-77 will be fitted to the MiG-29s as well. To these dedicated fighter defences must be added India's tactical strike aircraft - all of which routinely carry air-to-air missiles. The Jaguars, MiG-27s and MiG-23BNs can fire a mix of R-60 and R-550 short-range air-to-air missiles. Owing to the large number of these aircraft at the disposal of the IAF, it is impossible for their air defence potential to be ignored.

Further to these developments, news began leaking out about the deployment from 1998 onwards of an Anti-tactical Ballistic Missile screen. This system is to comprise the Russian S-300V ATBM (SA-12) and India's own 'Akash' missile which has a considerable ATBM capability. In March 1997, the Indian press confirmed these reports, stating that one S-300V squadron was being purchased, with more to come in the future. These would provide a comprehensive defence against ballistic missiles as well as manned aircraft coming in from either Pakistan or China. These ATBMs may not be able to intercept all incoming missiles but they would provide an additional layer of defence. This ATBM screen is unlikely to be fully operational for close to 10 years. As can be seen, these systems will provide India with an extremely potent defence against both Pakistani and Chinese ballistic missiles and manned aircraft carrying nuclear weapons.

In the case of Pakistan, the problem is further compounded by the fact that any aircraft attempting to avoid these defences by going over the Arabian Sea, will be detected and engaged by the fighters and SAMs of India's powerful Western Fleet. In fact, if they attempt a low-level penetration run against BARC or Mumbai, which would be a risky venture without external fuel, they would come within range of even India's coastal patrol forces which are equipped with 40mm anti-aircraft guns and man-portable SAMs. Would Pakistan risk its aircraft against targets deep in India when the probability of intercept increases the further away from Pakistan the target lies? Therefore, India's strategic air defences severely restrict the number and types of targets that would be potentially vulnerable to Pakistani attack. Moreover, when India's air defence modernization is complete, and the Indian government seems to be committed to this, the prospect of any Pakistani aircraft getting through is remote. Ballistic missiles may have a better chance of succeeding, even with an Indian ATBM screen, but their ranges are severely limited. The old adage of nuclear deterrence - 'one will always get through' - is being challenged by massively enhanced Indian defences. This could, in theory at any rate, seriously upset the Pakistani nuclear deterrence strategy.

Strategic Air Defences in Pakistan

Pakistan's Air Defence Command was formed in 1975 - over a decade before India's. It is based at Chaklala air force base near Rawalpindi and exercises control, surveillance and coordination over all Pakistani airspace. The ADC HQ is based in bunkers 5 to 10 metres below ground and has four rows of consoles with 20-25 men operating them. All units - aircraft, airbases and AAA units - are represented on screens. In fact, the ADC HQ set-up is regarded as being one of the most modern in existence. Subordinate to the ADC HQ are four Sector Operations Centres, which in turn control seven Control & Reporting Centres (CRCs). The four sector headquarters are located at Quetta, Sargodha, Karachi and Peshawar. As in the case of India, Pakistan has a comprehensive radar network which can also accept data from the civilian air traffic control radar. The radar network was established from 1976 onwards as part of Project Crystal which aimed to give Pakistan a modern air defence network. Pakistan operates a bewildering variety of radars from varying sources. The most modern units are six TPS-43G 3-D long range radars. These are supplemented by some older American, Chinese and British long range radars.

As regards low-level radars, in 1979-80, as the first stage of Project Crystal, Pakistan purchased 45 mobile pulse doppler radars from Siemens of Germany. These systems are of the MPDR 45/E type and are controlled by 6 CRCs. These are extremely capable radars and significantly enhance Pakistan's ability to detect low-level Indian intruders. However, since most of Pakistan's major targets are located so close to the Indian border, there is very little time available for the defenders to react. This problem will remain with Pakistan for the foreseeable future. Despite this investment in radars, one major gap remains - along the Indian border from Sialkot to Suleimanke where major targets are located. Pakistan had hoped to bridge this gap, and solve a few other low level detection problems with the purchase of E-2C Hawkeye AEW aircraft, but this order failed to materialize and Pakistan is unlikely to get an AEW aircraft in the near future.

Pakistan's air defences are centered around three squadrons of F-16A/B aircraft, backed up by large numbers of Chinese F-7s and French Mirage III/Vs. These aircraft, while reasonably effective, are handicapped by a lack of long range air-to-air missiles and, in the case of the F-7, Mirage fleets, the lack of truly modern radars. Pakistan had hoped to obtain up to 40 Mirage 2000-5 aircraft from France, but the deal has not yet materialized, and may have been cancelled outright. Pakistan has now started an update program for its Mirage and F-7 interceptors with the hope of making them more viable in the all-weather intercept role. These will provide Pakistan's air defence assets with a major leap in overall capability and would pose some problems for an Indian attacking force. At the very least, India would have to provide a heavy escort to its strike aircraft.

Pakistan's SAM defences are also peculiarly thin - comprising only 6-8 squadrons of Crotale mobile SAMS and 1 squadron of HQ-2Js (Chinese versions of the SA-2 ). These are backed up by a very large number of flak regiments (up to 43) operated by the air force and the regular army as well as AAA units held by reserve formations. These regiments largely operate Chinese made anti-aircraft guns of calibers ranging from 12.7mm to 37mm. While these provide some defence against aircraft, they are of no use against missiles. What is even more surprising is the lack of Pakistani investment in SAMs. It is possible that this is because of the relatively high running costs of SAM units and the desire to obtain as many manned aircraft as possible. This, of course, has the result that Pakistan has no defence of any kind against Indian ballistic missiles.

Compared to India's array of SAMs and fighters, Pakistan's air defences, while well coordinated, are not very sophisticated. Pakistan is further handicapped by the fact that it cannot yet develop or deploy any defence against ballistic missiles. Neither Russia nor the United States will sell ATBMs to Pakistan and China has only a few batteries of SA-10s. As the Indian Air Forces obtains more and better ECM, the ability of Pakistan's air defences to stop a determined Indian air assault for more than a few days must be questionable at best. If ballistic missiles are brought into the equation, Pakistan's position is even worse. What is even more alarming from the Pakistani point of view is that any Indian nuclear strike would probably be preceded by a massive effort aimed at destroying the Pakistani air defence network. As India's conventional air doctrine involves heavy effort against Pakistan's air force, after a few days, the Pakistani air defence network could lose much of its cohesion.

Implications of Air Defences on Nuclear Strike Patterns

In view of the details of the air defences provided above, what conclusions can be drawn about the nuclear strike options available to India and Pakistan? The first thing has to be that the 'sneak attack' scenario of one or two Pakistani F-16s penetrating Indian air defences and bombing New Delhi, while favoured by Indian journalists and alarmist analysts, is complete nonsense. Any nuclear strike by manned aircraft would have to be quite large - perhaps 20+ aircraft. The bombers would have to be protected by escort fighters and electronic countermeasures support aircraft. Given that Pakistan has only 40 F-16s and that these aircraft form the core of Pakistani air defences, it is highly unlikely that more than a few of them would be spared for each strike. The rest of the aircraft would comprise Mirages and, possibly Chinese made F-7s & A-5s. Moreover, the minute the Indian air defences detect a formation of Pakistani aircraft heading for a major city, they may well view this as a nuclear strike. This raises the question as to whether India's own nuclear forces will be on a 'Launch on Warning' or 'Launch through Attack' alert level, but this is somewhat beyond the scope of this article.

India's manned aircraft face a similar problem. Although there are more of them, and Pakistan's air defences are not particularly dense, Pakistani interceptors operating under the excellent direction of the Air Defence Command, may well be able to swamp a small Indian raid by sheer weight of numbers. So any Indian nuclear strike would also have to include 20+ aircraft per strike. In addition, it is possible for India to mount very heavy air defence suppression raids, this would warn Pakistan of a possible nuclear strike and once again the issue of 'Launch on Warning' or 'Launch through Attack' comes to the fore. The only truly effective delivery systems available to either side are their ballistic missiles. While India is developing an ATBM screen, this will not guarantee the interception of all ballistic missiles. Pakistan, on the other hand, has no defences against India's ballistic missiles. This means, however, that targets only within a 300km radius can be realistically attacked until the 'Ghauri' is fully operational. Anything beyond that is very risky for the strike aircraft involved. However, should India's ATBM screen develop more quickly than the decade or so suggested in the text, it is possible that the credibility of Pakistan's entire nuclear deterrent may well be called into question.

Last Updated on Thursday, 02 July 2009 20:06  

BR IAF Books

New Book on Indian Air Force air wars

Copyright 2014 All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of BHARAT RAKSHAK is prohibited. If you have any comments, then please send them to us using our Feedback Form.