Counter-Air Operations

Columnist Syed Imran Shah gives an analysis of future air operations in light of past experience and modernisation of equipment.

Counter-air is an air operation of a tactical air command conducted to attain and maintain a desired degree of air superiority by the destruction and neutralization of enemy forces. Both air-offensive and air-defensive actions are involved. But we shall focus on air-offensive actions and counter-air interdictions.
Interdiction is an air-to-ground operation behind the enemy lines to divert, disrupt, delay or destroy the enemy’s surface military potential before it can be used effectively against friendly forces. In modern warfare, it typically refers to the use of air power to destroy bridges, major railway junctions, or other choke points inside enemy territory, thus preventing not only supplies, but also reinforcements from reaching the battle area. Today, interdiction is carried out mostly by Fighter-Bombers of an air force.
Here, we discuss the risks and obstacles involved in interdiction missions, and accordingly the qualities required in the strike aircraft, with special focus on India and Pakistan.

In 1971 war, Mirages of PAF carried out impressive interdiction missions against various targets in India and in 1965, the F-86 Sabres carried out many successful attacks against airfields and other targets.
Although some airfield strike missions in 1965 like against Halwara airfield, led by Sqn Ldr S.A. Rafiqui and against Adampur, led by Sqn Ldr M.M. Alam were intercepted, in the ensuing air combat PAF was triumphant.
In 1965 war, the No.14 F-86 Squadron in Dhaka, East Pakistan did successful airfield attack missions against Kalaikunda airbase of IAF, but in 1971 war, this squadron was not in a position to carry out any airfield interdiction mission because this time ten IAF squadrons surrounded it.
Airfield attacks were not as successful in 1971 as compared to 1965 because all enemy planes were hidden in concrete shelters and not under open sky. Perhaps no bunker-buster or special anti-runway weapons were used, whereas IAF used ‘Dibber’ type anti-runway bombs against Tejgaon airbase in Dacca, East Pakistan. Thus the operations of No.14 F-86 squadron came to an end on 6th Dec, 1971.
It was after this event that IAF achieved complete control of skies and started full-fledged ground attacks, leading to the surrender of our troops.
If air cover is not provided to army or navy, they will certainly suffer heavy losses in that particular theatre of war, but if the enemy gains air superiority, then it will lead to national disgrace or even surrender.

Present Strike Force
Mirage seems to be the main interdiction fighter of Pakistan, especially the 40 ROSE (Retrofit of Strike Element) modified Mirages bought from France. Pakistan has the largest fleet of Mirage-3/5 fighters (about 180), forming a large strike force.
These ROSE Mirages will have the great responsibility to carry out night strike missions with their Atlis 2 pods for targeting. The 32 F-16s can now be almost relieved for escort and air defence duties, but still can be used on special interdiction missions.
A-5 is more suitable for CAS (Close Air Support) role and also for low-level interdictions after its avionics upgrade and installation of self-defence suite. In the close support missions, the attack aircraft may face mostly the short-range SAMs (like SA-19 and SA-15) and shoulder-fired SAMs that can move with the moving army columns but in the airfield attacks and interdiction against other strategic assets the attack aircraft will face a variety of air defence systems.
For Mirages and F-7s, to carry a good weapons load to a target inside India, only the centreline pylon can be reserved for fuel, as the inboard wing pylons will be used for strike payload and outboard wing pylons for air-to-air missiles. Pylon is an under-wing weapon station on a fighter aircraft. If the F-16 carries twelve 500lb bombs on triple ejector racks on four under wing pylons, then only centreline fuel tank option remains. If payload is reduced to six bombs, then two external fuel tanks of 370-gallon capacity can be carried. Hence, the range decreases for carrying any meaningful strike payload.
This problem can be overcome by inducting at least buddy refuelling system in the Air Force, which can possibly be fitted on existing Mirages. In Buddy refuelling system, one fighter can refuel another fighter with no need for tankers. Squadrons of Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) may not require refuelling but others can boost their endurance by recovering the large amount of fuel consumed in taking off with a full weapons load.
In Mirages, the fuel tank-cum-bombs/rockets option for inboard wing pylon is also a good solution. For F-16s, PAF can try to somehow acquire the new 600 gallon external fuel tanks, developed by Israeli Military Industries (IMI) and used by Israeli Air Force.
Presently, the range of PAF fighter is limited to almost 1200 km (depends upon payload and fuel tanks), hence the strike radius becomes about 600 km, and so for deep interdiction missions (like Agra) aerial refuelling is needed. Here allowance should be kept for any air combat that occurs en route to the target or in retreat. Despite Pakistan’s less depth, IAF has acquired IL-78 tankers and buddy refuelling system.
Yet another solution, which is more advanced and the best, is the use of conformal fuel tanks but this option can be used only with latest fighters. Conformal fuel tanks are mounted over the fuselage and thus the wing pylons are free for carrying strike payload. The latest models of F-16s and F-15s use conformal fuel tanks but it will be very difficult to obtain this technology from USA.
All the interdiction planes must be equipped with intelligent RWR (Radar Warning Receiver) for situational awareness, advanced chaff and flare dispenser (automatic like ALE-47), towed decoys (like ALE-50 and ALE-55), MAW (Missile Approach Warner), Self-Protection Jammer etc for survival in a SAM-rich environment on the pattern of SAGEM-modified Mirages. Towed decoys can be used both for noise and deception jamming and powered air launched decoys can be used to saturate enemy air defences because they represent an RCS (Radar Cross Section) equal to that of a tactical fighter. RCS is directly proportional to the amount of radar returns from a target illuminated by radar. RCS of a bomber will be more than a fighter and of a fighter will be more than a missile.
Regarding attack on airfields, bunker-buster and penetration weapons should be used to target the hardened aircraft shelters. Special anti-runway weapons like Durandals will be effective in disabling an airfield for a long duration.
To target the mobile SAM units or mobile ballistic missile launchers, the Ground Moving Target (GMT) mode of air-to-ground master mode can be very helpful. Any modern airborne radar has three master modes, namely air-to-air, air-to-ground and navigation with each master mode having many sub-modes. GMT and Map modes are two sub-modes of air-to-ground master mode. But the GMT mode will not show any ground object that has stopped due to some reason. Airborne radar whose air-to-ground master mode can be switched rapidly between Map mode and GMT mode will be able to detect any mobile launcher which has suddenly stopped for a missile launch or some other reason. During night interdictions, if a formation attacks a moving army convoy, they will use GMT mode but when the convoy comes to halt during air raid, they shall have to switch to Map mode. For this reason, installation of multi-mode radars in all aircraft is necessary.

Formation Escort
There is no such mission as purely ground attack unless there is no hostile air force (as in Afghanistan) or it has been crippled (as in Iraq). Air-to-ground and air-to-air go side by side. In the presence of a large number of IAF interceptors, escorts become an indispensable part of strike formation. If F-16s are going on an interdiction mission, then there is no need of providing separate escorts, but if A-5s are going behind enemy lines, then they should be provided with escorts. For example, if four A-5s are on a Durandal delivery mission against an enemy airfield or a close support mission, then at least two F-16s or F-7s (depending on availability of F-16s and level of threat) should be provided as escorts.
PAF has a large number of F-7s (more than 160), so the pilots of F-7s should be skilled enough to engage any enemy fighter. Dissimilar Air Combat Training (DACT) can be helpful in this regard.
Pilots and gunners both should understand the differences between Mirage 2000 and Mirage-3/5 and also between Mig-21 and F-7. F-7 is very much similar to Indian Mig-21 and this may cause some confusion or even blunders during the war, especially when F-7s are engaged with Mig-21s. It is also the problem with Mirage-2000H and Mirage-3/5. Electronic IFF should be made the criteria in this case rather than visual identification.
For the visual identification, a good clue for the PAF pilots is that any twin-tail fighter is of enemy. If a pilot sees a twin-tail fighter (will be a Mig-29 or Su-30), he should get into firing position and shoot it down without further investigation, because no PAF aircraft has twin tails (unless Saudi Air Force sends its F-15 Eagles to Pakistan).
PAF pilots must know the performance limits of all enemy fighters. Our pilots must know the strengths and weaknesses of their own planes and those of the enemy planes.
In the Battle of Britain, the British Spitfires were good at turning and the Luftwaffe’s Bf-109s were superior in climbing and diving, so the RAF pilots got the rule, “Do not climb or dive, just turn”.
Similarly, RAF Spitfires were superior in agility to the Hurricane, so the Hurricanes were used to attack the German Bombers and Spitfires were to engage the German fighters.
The Ju-87 Stuka was a successful dive bomber, used in the Blitzkrieg of Europe, but when used in Battle of Britain, it suffered heavy losses due to lack of manoeuvrability and speed as compared to Hurricanes and Spitfires. Then the missions of Stuka were cancelled. Also, the German Me110 had superior firepower but could not become a good escort because of lack of manoeuvrability.
The same situation applies in our case, because all air combats will not be at BVR (Beyond Visual Range) range, there will certainly be many dogfights with Niner Limas and the limited head on capability of AIM-9L missile (for F-16s) means that manoeuvring will be required to bring the fighter in a firing position.
In the Afghan war, PAF F-16s scored a number of kills (actually eight confirmed kills) and most of these kills were made with AIM-9L fired in the head on position.
The no-escape zone of AIM-9L is less than Vympel R-73 Archer, so the Indian fighters may not require much manoeuvring as compared to ours. Furthermore, IAF is trying to equip all Western and Russian fighters with R-73 air-to-air missiles. All other fighters of PAF are equipped with AIM-9Ps, which lack head-on attack capability. Other fighters should also carry a combination of AIM-9L and AIM-9P or Magic-2s. Our Mirages are equipped with Magic-2s, which also have head-on capability. For this reason more AIM-9Ls or preferably AIM-9Ms should be acquired because of its smokeless motor and improved ECCMs (Electronic Counter Counter Measures). The AIM-9Ps can be upgraded to AIM-9P-4 standard having head-on capability and reduced-smoke motor.

For F-16s and possibly Super-7s, a more advanced short-range missile in the category of AIM-9X, MICA IR, ASRAAM, A-DARTER, ARCHER, IRIS-T and PYTHON 4 should be sought.
The combination of a highly manoeuvrable fighter with highly manoeuvrable missiles cued by HMS (Helmet Mounted Sight) is hard to beat in a dogfight, especially when the opponent lacks both the fighter and missile maneuverability. With HMS and 4th generation AAM, the enemy pilot can kill you if he can see you and through highly agile fighter, he can keep you in his sight.
In the presence of latest BVR R-77 and WVR R-73 missiles, PAF fighters will be at a disadvantage in head-on engagements, so other interception geometries and fighting tactics should be used.
In a broad view, all PAF planes are less manoeuvrable as compared to Mig-29 and Su-30, which are Indian air superiority fighters (Although Su-30 is multi-role), but F-16 can hold its own when used to its limits by a skilful pilot.
Formerly classified US simulations show that firing a radar-guided missile, followed by a rapid deceleration (like Cobra manoeuvre) and turn, followed by a R-73 shot allows a thrust-vectored Su-30MK to win every time against an F-15C.
The suitable role of F-7s can be home air defence against the attack force of IAF. F-7s can be used against Mig-23s, Mig-27s and Jaguars and in extreme case the Mirage-2000 if it can be caught in 6’O clock but the high climb rate of Mirage-2000 (56,000 ft/min at sea level for M53-P2 power plant) must be kept in mind. The Indian Mirage-2000s are now fitted with M53-P2 powerplants. Mirage-2000Hs of India are optimized for attack role with Antilope-5 radar. The Terrain-Following Radar permits Mirage-2000H automatic flight at 600kts and 200 feet altitude.
The Mig-29 has Helmet-Mounted Sight (HMS), which can designate air-to-air missile at 45-degree Off-Boresight angle and this was proved in air combat exercise between USAF F-16s and German AF Mig-29s.
The A-5s and Mirage-3/5 are less manoeuvrable as compared to Mig-29 and Su-30; therefore pilots should be very careful while engaging these fighters. Su-30 also features rearward-facing radar, which can be effective up to 2-3kms, making rear hemisphere attack difficult. Such an agile and sensor-equipped fighter should be attacked in surprise using passive methods like an advanced IRST (InfraRed Search and Track) system. If in any future war, Israel also sends its fighters against Pakistan operating from Indian bases, then we shall also have to face Python-4 missiles having extended head-on and Off-Boresight capability.

Indian Air Defence
Indian air defence has become very strong as compared to that of 1965 or 1971 war. In 1971, India had deployed SA-2 Guideline SAMs on some airbases and caused trouble for our bomber force of B-57s. Also in 1965, an SA-2 SAM damaged the RB-57F Droopy over Delhi.
Today, India has a variety of air defence systems ranging from ZSU-23-4 Shilka SPAAG (self-propelled anti-aircraft gun) system to latest S-300 missile system.
India has SA-2 Guideline, SA-3 Goa, SA-5 Gammon, SA-6 Gainful, SA-7 Grail, SA-8 Gecko, SA-11 Gadfly, SA-13 Gopher, SA-15 Gauntlet, SA-16 & SA-18 Igla, SA-19 Grison and S-300 SAM systems.
SA-3 can also engage targets at low-level and there are 60 SA-3 sites in India. Reportedly, India has upgraded its SA-3s. SA-6 is the SAM that threw the Israeli Air Force out of the sky in 1973 war. SA-8 is a short-range (up to 10km) air defence system. SA-7 Strela-1, SA-16 and SA-18 Igla are shoulder-fired SAMs like Stinger, which can be effective against low-flying planes and UAVs.
The SA-19 Tunguska-M short-range (up to 10km) AD system is a combined gun/missile system with India, especially for low-level. Electo-Optical sensors supplement its engagement radar for operation in heavy ECM conditions. India has purchased 60 units of SA-19 Tunguska-M.
SA-15 (Tor-M1) is a modern self-propelled short-to-medium range SAM system.
China has also acquired the SA-15 (Tor-M1) system and tested them in Gobi desert. SA-15 shot down all the 12 targets. Greece also ordered SA-15 systems after testing them at a missile range in Crete. Reportedly SA-15 can cope with the targets flying at altitudes ranging from 10m to 6km and from 1km minimum range to 12km maximum range. SA-15 has an SSKP (Single Shot Kill Probability) of 0.93-0.97 against UAVs and 0.45-0.8 against jet fighters with quick slavo fire capability.
SA-13 Gopher provides short-range air defence for Indian Army and can move with the moving army columns. Due to these SA-13, SA-15 and SA-19 SAMs, we will have to reconsider our low-level mission profile.
While SA-2, SA-3, SA-5, SA-6, SA-7 and SA-8 are Battle-tested but older systems and can be countered with SEAD missions, because their minimum engagement ranges were more than 5kms. A fighter jet used to approach them at very low-level. Once out of the minimum engagement range, it pulled up and destroyed the SAM site with simple bombs.
The remaining systems like SA-11, SA-15, SA-19 and S-300 are modern and accurate systems, therefore difficult to counter. Special counter tactics should be devised for each SAM system.
Before launching an interdiction mission against a target, its all defences must be thoroughly studied. If a target is defended by SA-3 battery, then its version and any modifications or upgrades must be known. Any upgrade will improve its engagement capabilities, requiring new ECM tactics, e.g. the upgraded SA-3 (Pechora-2) can engage targets at more low-level than earlier SA-3 and its minimum engagement range has also been decreased. The distance between its launcher and engagement radar has been increased from 70m to 250m, with the option of placing one launcher at 10km distance. So, if the launch is detected then it will be difficult to detect the guidance radar and if the guidance radar is detected, then it will be difficult to spot all the launchers. It is recommended that, in presence of heavy SAM umbrella, PAF should rely on standoff weapons as much as economically possible.
SEAD/DEAD (Suppression/Destruction of Enemy Air Defences) missions can be carried out against fixed and mobile SAM batteries but almost impossible against MANPADS (Man Portable Air Defence System) or shoulder-fired systems because they can be fired from concealed locations. Therefore, countermeasures and tactics should be sought against it, like the Soviet Air Force had adopted during Afghan war to avoid the Stinger shoulder-fired missiles. But there was no other medium-to-long range SAM threat to them.
If a PAF attack/fighter formation goes at low-level, then they are exposed to radar-directed AAA and modern short-range SAMs like SA-13, SA-15, SA-19, upgraded SA-3 and SA-8 systems and SA-7, SA-16, SA-18 MANPADS; if the formation climbs to medium altitude (about 10,000 feet), then they are in the range of almost all SAMs except AAA and MANPADS; if they go to high altitude then they are in the range of SA-2, SA-3, SA-5, SA-6, SA-11 and S-300 systems. This emphasizes the great and urgent need to provide advanced integrated EW (Electronic Warfare) systems on our fighters in which the RWR detects, identifies and locates the threat and decides to use chaff/flares or jammer or towed decoys against that threat.

Sead/Dead Aircraft
Countering or dodging all these above SAMs is not easy if even possible. Pilots will always be busy in saving their aircraft and will not be able to concentrate on the target. The solution lies in suppressing or destroying these SAMs, like the US offensive in Operation Desert Storm. Iraq had an array of various Soviet SAMs (like the India), but after US SEAD missions, it seemed that nothing sort of Iraqi air defence ever existed. In these SEAD missions more than one thousand AGM-88 HARMs (High Speed Anti-Radiation Missiles) were fired on Iraqi radars.
In 1965, PAF launched a series of attacks on the well concealed and heavily defended Amritsar radar station (called Target Alpha) assisted by RB-57F ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) planes, including the famous attack led by Wg Cdr Anwar Shamim in which we lost Sqn Ldr Munir Ahmad, but the radar kept emitting till the end of war. Such kind of anti-radar attacks with strafing, rockets and bombings were probably not repeated in 1971 war. Today, the surveillance radar sites are defended by a variety of SAM systems in addition to AAA; so anti-radar strikes without ARMs or standoff weaponry are unlikely to give any good results.
Best results can be achieved if the lead aircraft in a strike formation fires ARMs against the engagement radars of SAMs defending a large surveillance radar, and then destroy the main radar with any weapon they have on their aircraft.
Other sensors for engaging targets in jamming conditions like TV trackers, FLIR etc are usually installed adjacent to the engagement radar, and so they are also destroyed in an anti-radar missile attack. Hence anti-radiation missile attack is a better option than jamming.
It is now very urgent to form a dedicated SEAD squadron. Pakistan has just HQ-2Bs (Chinese copy of SA-2) SAMs and short-range Crotale batteries (up to 12km range), but even then IAF has modified some of Mig-23s for special SEAD role.
All the strike formations must include SEAD/DEAD aircraft as the spearhead to first tackle the air defence threat and then the rest of the mission. To further complicate the job of a strike formation, Indian AF fighters will try to intercept the attack formations. Hence it also becomes necessary to provide escort cover to attack formation.
It will be difficult to provide separate SEAD and escort fighters to the strike formation at least for Pakistan, therefore, the SEAD planes must participate in strike also, i.e. they should be the part of strike formation, not in a close formation but in a tactical formation. This is possible with a true multi-role fighter.
This SEAD capability can also be used in anti-shipping missions with great effect. The ARM (Anti-Radar Missile) will destroy the radar system of the ship and thus will disable its all anti-ship missile defences. One missile will destroy the surveillance radar and other two missiles shall destroy the fire control radars (and thus other engagement sensors) of air defence missiles and CIWS (Close-In Weapon System). The anti-ship missiles can be launched quickly after anti-radar missiles. But in this case, the anti-radiation missiles should be of long-range (not less than 50 km) otherwise the long-range advantage of anti-ship missiles (mostly more than 50 km) would be lost.
PAF must know the location of all SAM batteries with their engagement radars. In a SEAD/DEAD mission, the primary target should be the engagement radar of the SAM system. PAF must know all the operating frequencies of Fan Song (SA-2), Low-Bow (SA-3), Square Pair (SA-5), Straight Flush (SA-6), Land Roll (SA-8), and Hot Shot (SA-19), Gundish (ZSU-23-4) etc engagement radars that will help in jamming or destruction of these radars as part of SEAD operations.
PAF should also consider the feasibility of integrating TIALD or Damocles pods with F-16s to replace or complement the day only Thomson-CSF (Now Thales) Atlis Laser Designator pod. Also, the feasibility of integrating British ALARMs (Air Launched Anti-Radiation Missiles) with the F-16s or Mirage-3/5 to form a Pakistani Wild Weasel squadron must be considered.

A Single Solution
Both the ARMs and BVR missiles need dedicated avionics to be fitted in the fighter aircraft. ARMs need some type of Emitter Location System (like HARM Targeting System of F-16C Block 50D/52) and BVR AAMs need long-range airborne multi-mode radars to operate effectively. Both of these needs can be met by acquiring a 4th generation fighter aircraft, which can carry all the latest weapons.
In this regard, the stealthy and multi-role French Dassault Rafale fighter will be the best choice that combines the highest acceleration power plant (M88-2), excellent multi-mode radar (RBE-2), In-flight refuelling capability and a deadly punch of weapons. With this fighter, we can have the latest BVR AAMs (Matra Mica, IR & EM), ARMs (ALARM, ARMAT), latest anti-ship missiles, AS-30L (which can penetrate up to 2m of concrete), APACHE anti-runway and STORM SHADOW standoff air-to-surface cruise missiles. Also we can have Damocles targeting pod (for carrying out night strikes), recce and ECM pods. Rafale is probably the only fighter that has consistently outperformed the F-16 Viper. During Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, the Rafale was put into combat exercises against top US fighters. Rafale was able to defeat the F-14 Tomcat of US Navy and also other fighters.
Most of the latest weapons can also be obtained with Mirage 2000-5 Mk2 fighter, but Rafale is more agile and manoeuvrable and thus in a good position to fight the agile Mig-29, Su-30MK and Su-30MKI (featuring TVC) fighters of IAF, especially when the pilot is using Helmet-Mounted Display (HMD). In addition, Rafale features a large HUD (Head-Up Display) with HMD. The importance of HMD can be judged from the fact that F-35 JSF (Joint Strike Fighter) has no HUD.
The Rafale features a new 120 kg single barrel 30mm M791 gun with a fire rate of 2,500 rounds per min, the highest rate for a single barrel gun. The muzzle velocity of this gun is 1,025m/s as compared to 840m/s for DEFA 30mm equipping Mirage-2000. The high muzzle velocity results in a very flat projectile trajectory.
The Rafale is a true multi-role (called Omni-role) fighter. It can do the job of at least five specialized aircraft. It can perform air superiority, deep interdiction, SEAD, close support, reconnaissance and anti-ship missions without being reconfigured for each mission.
Rafale needs about 2000 feet runway for taking off with a full external load as compared to 4000 feet for F-16.
The use of canards for imparting high agility to Rafale does not restrict the all-round cockpit view as in the case of Eurofighter Typhoon and JAS-39 Gripen. As is stated, Rafale is hard to detect, hard to target and hard to hit. The M88-2 power plant takes just three seconds to reach from idle to maximum thrust of 75kN. The M88-2 can be replaced by M88-3 for more thrust.
The SPECTRA (Self-Protection Equipment Countering Threats for Rafale Aircraft) system on Rafale is the most advanced electronic warfare system in the class of DASS (Defensive Aids Sub- System) and INEWS (INtegrated Electronic Warfare System). DASS is used on Eurofighter and INEWS on F-22 Raptor.
The IAF Mig-29s and Su-30s are equipped with IRST systems and we also need a more advanced long range IRST system, which is fitted on the Rafale fighter, called OSF system. In the air defence scenario, the OSF shall provide passive target detection for achieving surprise.
The future belongs to ESA (Electronic Scanning Antenna) radars and Rafale has passive ESA radar (RBE-2). Electronic scanning permits the use of a larger antenna (and thus more powerful radar) in the nose of a fighter as compared to mechanical scanning because there it is no longer required to leave space for the movements of antenna.
The problem of deep strike can be solved by the use of conformal fuel tanks with Rafale. Conformal fuel tanks give a fighter sufficient range without adding too much drag and without losing the weapons carrying capacity because under-wing pylons will remain free for weapons carriage. With the Rafale having conformal fuel tanks, there will be almost no need for AAR (Air-to-Air Refuelling), because all deep strike missions with a strike radius of almost 1000 km can be accomplished with the Rafale while carrying a good weapons load.
France will be the independent supplier of spare parts, but the high cost (less than Eurofighter) may put some constraints regarding the number of fighters that can be purchased.
In 1965 war, even a single squadron (No. 9) of F-104 Starfighters had terrified the Indian pilots. On the same pattern even if three squadrons of at least 45 planes are formed, it will be like a force multiplier. They can be used for all special (aggressive) missions and the initial challenging SEAD missions with their standoff air-to-ground armament. Rafale will also not require any escort cover.

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