by Smruti Deshpande

New Delhi: In its first direct attack on Israeli soil since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war last October, Iran launched Operation ‘True Promise’ on the intervening night of 13 and 14 April, firing hundreds of drones, ballistic missiles, and cruise missiles at Israel.

This was days after Tehran vowed retaliation for what it called an Israeli strike on its consulate in Damascus on 1 April that killed seven officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), including two senior commanders.

The salvo deployed by Iran in retaliation, according to Israel’s chief military spokesman, comprised around more than 30 cruise missiles, at least 120 ballistic missiles and 170 drones. The attack, it is suspected, was aimed at overwhelming Israel’s air defences and causing damage to its Nevatim air base. However, Israel, with the help of the US, the UK, Jordan as well as Saudi Arabia, shot down most of the incoming projectiles.

Though Israel claimed “99 percent” of projectiles fired by Iran were intercepted, satellite imagery hints that a taxiway at Nevatim air base was damaged in the attack.

Much of the credit for minimising damage went to Israel’s multi-tiered air defence system which consists of various components including man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS), short-range air defence systems (SHORADS), Spyder air defence system, Iron Dome, David’s Sling, Patriot air defence system, Arrow anti-ballistic missiles, Iron Beam and the naval air defence system or C-Dome. These systems are complemented by the Israeli air force’s fleet of F-15, F-16, and F-35 aircraft.

Air defence systems are put in place to defend sovereign air space from enemy aircraft, drones and weapons. It is also meant to protect vulnerable civilian and military targets.

Back in India, the strikes by Iran and Israel drew attention to the Indian military’s air defence preparedness in the backdrop of tensions with adversarial neighbours China and Pakistan. It has also been pointed out that India will need relatively more air assets simply on account of its geography — the country has an area of more than 32.87 lakh sq km.

Layers of India’s Air Defence Capability

The Indian Air Force (IAF) currently operates several equipment with varying ranges that work in conjunction to form layers of air defence.

At present, the S-400 air defence system is the only long-range system deployed by the IAF. While three squadrons have already been delivered, Russia is expected to deliver the remaining two by 2026. The S-400 has a range of 400 km and can engage fighters and cruise missiles.

The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is also working on developing a long-range surface-to-air missile (LRSAM) under ‘Project Kusha’.

Besides, the Army and Air Force also operate medium-range surface-to-air missiles (MRSAM) that can intercept targets at a range of 70 km. MRSAMs form the intermediate layer of India’s air defence apparatus.

The next layer comprises the Israeli-made Spyder and DRDO-developed Akash short-range air defence systems operated by the IAF.

Terminal weapon systems, which have a short range, form the next layer. These include anti-aircraft guns, also known as close-in weapon systems, which have a high rate of fire — measured in rounds per minute or rounds per second.

The Army operates these weapons to meet tactical requirements. Among those with a range of less than 10 km, it operates OSA-AK-M surface-to-air missiles, Tunguska anti-aircraft gun and missile system, Shilka radar-guided anti-aircraft weapon system, L70 anti-aircraft gun, ZU-23 MM anti-aircraft gun and Strela-10M anti-aircraft missile system.

Among MANPADS, India operates Igla-M and Igla-S with ranges of 5 km and 6 km, respectively. As reported by ThePrint earlier, the Army procured a fresh batch of the Russian Igla-S systems in April this year.

The DRDO is also pursuing its own program to develop a very short-range air defence system (VSHORAD). The Request for Proposal (RFP) for these systems was issued in 2010.

The Navy’s role in air defence is limited to the defence of its fleet in sovereign and international waters. For this purpose, it operates Barak-8 long-range surface-to-air missile for area defence and the Barak-1 for point-defence. It also has the AK-630 close-in weapon system which has a rate of fire of nearly 5,000 rounds per minute.

Sources in the defence and security establishment told ThePrint that the Indian military needs to induct more air defence systems and that when it came to certain equipment, the shortfall in numbers was acute.


“Air defence (systems) are complex interdependent systems which come at a huge cost. Resultantly, their inventory in a nation’s arsenal is finite and limited,” explained Lt Gen V.K. Saxena (Retd), former Director General of the Corps of Army Air Defence.

He added that it was on account of these constraints that there is invariably a gap between what needs to be protected and what can be protected with resources currently at hand.

According to Lt Gen Saxena (Retd), the country’s assets are marked as Priority 1, 2 and 3, depending on their importance and vulnerability, to ensure that critical assets are secured.

“The air defence weapons are allocated according to these priorities, which themselves are dynamic and change with respect to a host of factors — flow of war and the changing geopolitical situation. The prioritised assets under this exercise cover the entire spectrum such as national strategic assets, key industrial infrastructure, nuclear assets and war-waging potential,” he added.

However, since the number of prioritised vulnerabilities exceeds the resources at hand, India needs to ramp up procurement of air defence systems in line with its changing priorities, he said.

Seamless Integration of BMC2 Systems

All three armed services have their own Battle Management/Command and Control (BMC2) systems. But the nation’s air defence in peace and war rides on the Air Force’s Integrated Command and Control System (IACCS) — an automated command and control system for air defence managed by the IAF and spread across the country in nodes.

The IACCS provides a digitised integrated fused picture of India’s airspace. A network centric and warfare enabled system, it reduces the time taken to detect a target or respond to it. It can also shoot down an incoming aerial object.

Lt Gen Saxena (Retd) said that the air defence BMC2 capability of the nation must be seamlessly connected and integrated across the three services. “That is to say that the Indian Air Force’s Integrated Air Command and Control System (IACCS) must have a seamless connectivity with the Army’s and the Naval BMC2 systems.”

Air Marshal Diptendu Choudhury (Retd), former Commandant of the National Defence College, emphasised that the IAF has always looked after the country’s air defence.

“The Army’s air defence requirements, on the other hand, are more tactical. They will come into play during times of war. During peacetime, the Air Force is solely responsible for air defence. For future requirements, it makes sense to integrate India’s peacetime air defence capability. While the nation’s wartime air defence is fairly well integrated, for future requirements, given the paucity of resources, it would make sense to integrate all air defence assets of all services,” he told ThePrint.

He added that there now exists “greater understanding of this and all services are looking at common systems as well as their integration in the future”.

Given provocations by China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) over Taiwanese airspace and Beijing’s efforts to ramp up resources in Tibet, air activity along the India-China border can be expected to increase in the future.

Asked about this aspect, Air Marshal Choudhury (Retd) added, “Air defence of our border areas must therefore be kept relevant and responsive. Therefore, it is vital that IAF’s air defence fighters and air-to-air weapons must retain the advantage over the adversary. For this, regular upgrade of platforms and weapons will be necessary in future.”

Aerospace Defence: The Future

In the wake of increasing use of space for transit of ballistic missiles and the possibility of space-launched weapons in the future, there has emerged a need to widen the idea of air defence.

As Air Marshal Choudhury (Retd) put it, air defence has graduated from being a ‘purely defensive affair’ to one with an ‘offensive capability’ as both long-range surface-to-air missile systems and fighter-launched air-to-air missiles have the ability to shoot down the enemy well within enemy airspace. Thus, offensive capabilities of air defence weapons are increasingly becoming more relevant.

“In the future, air defence will no longer be limited to air- and surface- launched threats, but will also include futuristic weapons, possibly even emanating from space,” he added.

According to him, the potential threat from India’s northern adversary could be centred around air and space forces.

“In the long-term national interest, we must now move away from mere air defence to a more comprehensive concept of aerospace defence. This also means that we need to begin with increasing our aerospace awareness,” said Air Marshal Choudhury (Retd).

This would amount to the ability to monitor and defend the air and space continuum over India’s sovereign territories, exclusive economic zones (EEZ) and other areas of interest.

(With Agency Inputs)