Air Defence Command: Need to Move with Due Deliberation

Sub Title : The Air Defence Command (ADC) has obviously been mooted to enhance operational efficiency. However, the concept has some challenges and therefore the idea of the ADC requires  careful deliberations by think tanks and Service HQs  prior to its implementation so that we are able to achieve  optimal asset utilisation and seamless integration of resources across the three services

Issues Details : Vol 14 issue1 Mar-Apr 2020

Author : Air Marshal Anil Chopra PVSM, AVSM, VM, VSM (Retd)

Page No. : 49

Category : Military Affairs

: April 2, 2020

The Chiefof Defence Staff (CDS) of Indian Armed Forces, General Bipin Rawat  has announced that there is a proposal to set up a separate theatre command for Jammu and Kashmir; plans to roll out an  Air Defence Command (ADC) by the beginning of next year; and the Peninsula Command by the end of 2021. 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 and the Indian Navy’s (IN) Eastern and Western commands will be integrated into the Peninsula command, he said. India will also have a separate training and doctrinal command and logistics command, he added.

Whilst there is a definite need to restructure our organisations to enhance operational efficiency, we need to move forward after due deliberation. It would be pertinent to point out that the concept of ADC was tried out for many years by USAF, which has huge resources, yet rejected. Both Russia and China with next largest air assets have not created an ADC because of multirole aircraft and the belief that the creation of such an organisation would lead to sub optimal use of resources.

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. 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 Assets Indian Navy

The Indian Navy (IN) has significant air element including nearly 200 aircraft, some of which, like the MiG 29K can take on AD tasks. IN has one operational aircraft carrier. The second aircraft carrier, indigenous Vikrant is in advance stage of readiness and may induct 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 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, 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. IAF will also soon have the Rafale. All AD aircraft have their electronic warfare suites. Most AD aircraft also have ground attack or other roles.  IAF has 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 in 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 on 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 400 km 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, and 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.

Indian Ballistic Missile Defence & ASAT Programs

India faces ballistic missile threat 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 USA, Russia, Israel and China. The system has undergone several tests but  is yet to be officially commissioned. The first phase of BMD program is now complete and DRDO and IAF are waiting for 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.

S 400 and NASAMS

India and Russia signed $ 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 now reports of some delays. S-400 anti-aircraft weapon system has an operational range of 385 km. 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; one hundred eighteen AMRAAM AIM-120C-7/C-8 missiles; three AMRAAM Guidance Sections; four AMRAAM Control Sections; and one hundred thirty-four Stinger FIM-92L missiles.

Air Space Management in India

Air Space Control (ASC) refers to regulating the use of the ‘finite’ air space by various users. From 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 battle space 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 situation. 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 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.

Proposed Air Defence Command

Till now each service has its individual air defence set up and maintains its own AD resources to counter specific threats perceived by each, sometimes even having overlapping areas. The proposed ADC 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 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 ADC 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 an operational necessity. The entire military power needs to work in a coordinated manner. The armed forces need to relook at the structure for better synergy and integration. Tri services ADC 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 an 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 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.

Challenges and Opportunities

There are many challenges for the ADC that need to be understood and factored. In Indian context, the ADC 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 ADC, a responsibility currently with the IAF, which also has most AD assets. The Air Force commander of ADC 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 a few AWACS only, 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 ADC? How will ADC integrate with the mobile elements? Could this be counterproductive? AD of 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 ADC or with IN? Will the operational efficiency be enhanced after creating the ADC? 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.

Way Ahead

Any proposed change would have long term operational and financial affect. We need to hurry slowly and firm footedly. India has limited resources unlike USA and China. Even then they have trodden slowly, and not had an ADC. Let us first concentrate and build on the tri service Defence Space Agency, Special Forces Division, and Defence Cyber Agency. The idea of ADC requires lot of deliberations by think tanks and Service HQs  for effective  and seamless resource utilisation and to ensure enhanced operational efficiency.


Air Marshal Anil Chopra, is a pioneer of the Mirage 2000 fleet. He also commanded two operational air bases and the IAF’s Flight Test Center ASTE. He is a former member of Armed Forces Tribunal Lucknow