The emergence of strong aerial defense as an important component of warfare is the legacy of the 20th century. A careful analysis of the conflicts that occurred at the end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st century reveals the strategic importance of air defense systems. Due to technological developments enhanced role of air and air defense systems have increased manifolds in peace and wartime situation for states.
Today these systems have the capability to change the basic dynamics of warfare by adding asymmetry and nonlinearity. In this regard, the ground-based air defense systems (GBAD) have emerged as the most lethal and reliable air defense systems. Initially, these systems comprised of guns that were used to targets the planes, and apparently, the success rate was low. However, with the development in aerial technology, GBAD also improved and the range of their targets include air-breathing targets (planes and helicopters), UAVs as well and different kinds of missile systems. Effective utilization of these systems could mitigate or deny the results to the adversary by the destruction of elements of its air power.
South Asia is widely known as a volatile region primarily because of the ever-existing hostility between the two nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan. In this regard, the military escalation of February 2019 is the most recent crisis that both countries have faced. Likewise, this recent crisis highlighted the importance of air and air defence systems, where both countries were involved in an aerial dogfight in aftermath of Indian aircraft’s intrusion into Pakistan’s air space. Since Pakistan was left with no choice but to give an appropriate response to such an Indian act; it shot down two Indian Air Force (IAF) jets while a helicopter of IAF became the target of friendly fire from its ground-based air defense. Although Pakistan successfully achieved escalation dominance and maintained the credibility of its nuclear deterrent in face of Indian aggression, during the crisis there were few takeaways, which were not missed by Pakistan.
The most important takeaway for Pakistan was to improve its air defense system and deploy a more advanced air defense system at its eastern border. Pakistan was cognizant of this gap in its air defense before February 2019 crisis and in January inducted the LY80 air defense system during Al-Bayza 2019, two weeks air defense exercises. Pakistan ordered the first three units of HQ16A systems from China in 2014 which were delivered in 2015-16. These units were inducted and tested by the Pakistan army during the Al-Bayza 2019 army air defense exercises. The second of the Al-Bayza army air defense exercise is conducted very recently at the start of April 2021.
During the Al-Bayza-II army air defense exercise, different weapon systems with the capability to launch air to surface missiles were tested at Karachi near army air defense test ranges. During the exercises other than LY80, FM-90 missiles were also tested. News of FM-90 missiles induction into Pakistan’s army air defense came in 2015, with the ability to target cruise missiles and drones. Moreover, the system is also capable of operating under adverse/hostile electronic countermeasures against the FM-90 missiles. LY80 missiles can also operate in all weather conditions, in strong electromagnetic interference, and has the ability to engage aerial targets at high altitudes. LY80 missile systems are based on inertial guidance and intermittent illumination with a range of 3 to 40 km.
Reportedly the LY80 air defense system is now deployed in Kashmir to thwart off any further Indian attempts. But, if the history and past behaviors of BJP leadership depict that India might try to ingress into Pakistan’s airspace in any future crisis by sending its advanced jets like Rafale or armed drones which India is very keen to acquire from the US. The chances of Indian escalation under Prime Minister Modi are higher; the same is also predicted in the recent intelligence report by the US.
Moreover, in the current era of standoff weapons (weapons that could be fired from a sufficient distance that evade adversary’s defensive weapons/fire), it would be more appropriate for Pakistan to acquire a long-range surface to air defense missile system. According to media reports Pakistan has shown interest in procuring missile defense systems from Russia but then there are few hurdles in the feasibility of such procurements. These include; the Indo-Russia ties, fear of CAATSA sanctions from the US, and Pakistan’s economic stringency. In such a situation it might be difficult for Pakistan to procure long-range ground-based air defense systems from Russia. Another option in which interest was shown by Pakistan is the Chinese long-range air defense system HQ-9 system with a range of 125 kilometers. Such acquisition would be a significant increase in the existing ground-based air defense capability of Pakistan.
As India is acquiring UAVs, advanced aircrafts, building supersonic and hypersonic weapons, and developing a detailed network of satellite systems its ability to locate, target, and attack its adversaries would considerably increase in years to come. Moreover, an increase in capability and capacity and alliance with the US has made India bolder in terms of taking offensive actions against neighboring countries. Therefore, to maintain deterrence by denial vis-à-vis India Pakistan must invest in air defense systems. For Pakistan, it has always been of immense importance to not indulge in arms race competition with India but at the same time attention was also given to the fact that strategic balance was never tilted by India in its favor. So, to maintain deterrence stability in the complex regional security environment especially during crises it would be important for Pakistan to strengthen its air defense capabilities. Last but not the least, this would also ensure the “denial strategy” of Pakistan against India during conflicts and crises.
*Ahyousha Khan, Research Associate, Strategic Vision Institute