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A Joint Land and Air Approach to SEAD/DEAD

As examined in an earlier Quwa Premium article, India’s acquisition of the S-400 and its wider air defence modernization roadmap will make offensive operations more difficult for Pakistan. Basically, many of the advantages the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) had leveraged in Swift Retort will not be available in the future.

Thus, the PAF will need to revise parts of its approach to long-range attack missions. Key alterations could involve using air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM) for conventional strikes instead of solely relying on glide-based stand-off range weapons (SOW) that require a high launch altitude for maximizing range. Likewise, the PAF could also look at investing in additional dedicated electronic warfare (EW) assets.

In light of a saturated and complex enemy air defence environment, the PAF may need to lead strikes on high-value targets (HVT) with SEAD (suppression of enemy air defence) and DEAD (destruction of enemy air defence) operations. However, to achieve optimal results, the PAF may need support from land forces.

In other words, future SEAD/DEAD operations could require the use of land assets in combination with aircraft, i.e., joint air and land operations by the PAF and the Pakistan Army (PA), respectively.

Using Land Assets to Deter Aggressive SAM Deployment

One of the S-400’s marquee threats lie in the chance of India aggressively deploying it close to the border. In theory, a deployment of that nature could cut into Pakistani airspace, at least enough to hamper high-altitude flights at up to 400 km, i.e., the range of the S-400’s 40N6 surface-to-air missile (SAM).

However, despite that coverage, the PAF could operate fighters at lower altitudes using the S-400’s radar blind spots along the curvature of the Earth. In such a scenario, the utility of gliding SOWs, e.g., the Range Extension Kit (REK) or indigenous REK (IREK), may be limited because they require a higher launch altitude so as to achieve their maximum range (which is 100 km in the case of the REK/IREK).

Instead, the PAF could rely on firing ALCMs at lower altitudes. In this case, an ALCM similar in specifications to the Roketsan Stand-Off Missile (SAM) could offer a range of up to 300 km. While ALCMs could provide a credible means of attack, there might be a way to deter India from aggressively deploying the S-400.

This solution could be to deploy long-range artillery — namely MLRS (multiple launch rocket systems) using INS/GPS-guided rockets, V-LAP (velocity-enhanced artillery projectile) shells, and tactical ballistic missiles (TBM). Basically, these artillery assets can offer a means to threaten nearby air defence deployments.

The challenge, however, is identifying the location of the air defence system. This would need at least two capabilities: first, a means to pervasively monitor probable deployment areas and track movement during peacetime, and second, a means to locate the radar and/or firing units in conflict-time.

Pakistan can acquire the first capability – i.e., pervasive monitoring – through image intelligence (IMINT). It can, in theory, use the newly launched Pakistan Remote Sensing Satellite (PRSS-O1), which is equipped with an electro-optical (EO) system. In 2017, then Chairman of SUPARCO (Space and Upper Atmosphere Commission), Qaiser Anees Khurram, stated that the PRSS-O1 would “make Pakistan self-reliant in multi-spectral imaging.”[1] The PRSS-O1 was originally supposed to carry a synthetic aperture radar (SAR) payload as well, but it is unclear if was the case by launch time. SAR would enable the satellite to use radio waves to capture imagery of the surface and visualize topology. SAR could come in a later satellite.

Pakistan could also look at using HAPS (high-altitude pseudo-satellite) unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). In fact, the Pakistani company Integrated Dynamics is working on a design (STRATOS) that could stay in the air for four months at a time and carry a payload of up to 12 kg. This could be enough for a SAR payload.

In turn, the HAPS UAV could operate from within Pakistan, but take imagery of across the border at long-range. Combined with the PRSS-O1, Pakistan can use a HAPS UAV fleet to build a comprehensive IMINT library for long-term analysis so as to understand India’s S-400 deployments and movements.

The second element is wartime detection. This capability would center on electronics intelligence (ELINT) and electronic support measures (ESM). Pakistan likely possesses airborne ELINT/ESM capability through its Dassault Falcon DA-20 fleet, though it can acquire land-based systems too.

If Pakistan demonstrates a sufficient ability to detect radar signals and, in turn, locate the emission source and attack it from land and air, India might opt to switch-off the S-400’s radar. However, the ideal would be Pakistan raising a high enough risk so that India moves the S-400 well behind the border.

Learning from the US

For Pakistan, the ideal reference point for a joint air and land SEAD/DEAD capability would be the U.S. Air Force (USAF), which is moving towards a sophisticated approach centered on its F-35 Lightning II.

One of the key features of the F-35 is that it has a measure of ELINT/ESM and IMINT capabilities through its electronic warfare (EW) suite and electro-optical targeting system (EOTS), respectively.

So, for example, the US can use the F-35 towards identifying an air defence system’s radar and, in turn, send the location information to ground-based artillery units. Moreover, the F-35 can add to the US’ threat library and, by downloading the F-35’s mission information, conduct further analysis between sorties.[2]

Operationally, once the F-35 locates an emission source, it can transfer that information to a diverse range of attack assets on the ground, including MLRS, howitzers and TBMs. In addition, the US’ other airborne assets, such as the F-15 and F-16, will also be on standby to deploy ALCMs and other SOWs.[3]

The advantage of using the F-35 is that you may not need as many specialized ESM/ELINT systems (which, if close enough to the threat, could be at risk of attrition). Thanks to its low-observable (LO) design, the F-35 is also capable of operating closer to the emission source than say a business jet.

Moreover, if the need arises, the F-35 can double as an active combat asset, while a dedicated stand-off ESM/ELINT aircraft might need air cover from other assets.

Eventually, the US could also deploy drones, such as the XQ-58A Valkyrie and ADM-160 MALD (Miniature Air-Launched Decoy), to serve as additional ESM/ELINT as well as spoofing, jamming and decoy systems.

Combined, these varied airborne assets can both work to expose an air defence system and attack it. For the US, building this capability is important as a number of its potential conflict zones could involve the S-400 and/or other systems. However, with India as its neighbour, Pakistan’s challenge is no less difficult.

If the PAF chooses to operate on the assumption of a saturated and layered air defence environment, it should work towards building an analogous capability to USAF through Project Azm. This means fitting the next-generation fighter with an ESM/ELINT system and/or EOTS, and ensuring a high-bandwidth data link is available to quickly and correctly exchange geolocation and other data between assets.

Likewise, as discussed in a previous Quwa Premium article, UAVs – including loyal wingman drones and dedicated attack UAVs – should be an integral aspect of a future PAF fighter fleet.

However, in the near-term at least, Pakistan would need to rely on specialized ESM/ELINT assets, be it on the ground or in the air (or both). The challenge with this approach is that it would mean a cost overhead for one specific system, which Pakistan would need to deploy to the front and protect with other assets.

Seeing How Much Pakistan Can Adapt Today

Though next-generation equipment is a long-term factor, one aspect Pakistan will need aggressively learn from the US is seamless air and land coordination. This would need to occur well before tactical efforts – rather, it should be a part of long-term planning and training, including large-scale exercises.

Today, it seems that the Army and Air Force’s respective marquee drills are still siloed from one another. But if the future of SEAD/DEAD involves the use of land-based assets, then it stands to reason that both the PAF and PA will need to collaborate at every step – i.e., training, procurement, and deployment – so as to ensure a smooth and successful operational implementation.

Even with limited, current-generation assets, the right level of doctrine, training and implementation can offer a credible capability in its own right. However, Pakistan is not far off from the material capability.

Attack Assets are Tenable

For the most part, attack assets – such as long-range and guided artillery – are acquirable. Pakistan either possesses the groundwork already to develop/procure the system, or it is using it already.

In terms of the groundwork, for example, it can adjust its ALCM technology to a conventional focus using a smaller, lower cost version of the Ra’ad. In fact, it could even develop a variant of a smaller cruise missile to serve as a decoy or supporting EW/ESM (similar to the MALD). Pakistan can even task its private sector (e.g., Integrated Dynamics) to develop such a system if it chooses to do so.

In 2015-2016, Pakistan had intended to develop an “extended range guided MLRS.” The solution could be an extended-range 122 mm Yarmuk rocket (45 km) with INS/GPS. Likewise, Pakistan also inducted the A-100, a 300 mm rocket with a range of more than 100 km. Pakistan also procured V-LAP shells from a non-disclosed source, these could have a range of 45-52 km (though unguided).

Completing the ‘Kill Chain’ is a Challenge

The ‘kill chain’ is the process from which the attack assets engage the identified target. While Pakistan is close to building the attack capability, the very first element, target identification may be a challenge. It is a question of how many dedicated ESM/ELINT assets the PAF and PA are willing to take on, if any at all.

Both service arms could view dedicated assets as expensive liabilities, in which case, procuring something like the Aselsan HAVASOJ and/or Aselsan Land-Based Transportable ESM/ELINT is unlikely.

In lieu of specialized assets, the PAF could look at fitting the JF-17 Block 3 with an ELINT/ESM pod that can work alongside the fighter’s integrated EW suite. This would not solve the risk of long-range detection by the S-400’s radar, but it could be a cost-effective compromise between a specialized, high-powered asset and the ideal (i.e., a next-generation fighter with an integrated ESM/ELINT suite).

Alternatively, if the Army chooses to invest in mobile air defence capabilities (e.g., to accompany armour), it could integrate ESM/ELINT as an added capability.

In 2016 (i.e., after the Army ordered the HQ-16), the company MBDA Italy offered a truck-mounted variant of the Spada 2000.[4] In 2017, reports also emerged of the Army showing interest in the Russian Pantsir. It would appear that at some point the Army was seeking a mobile air defence capability to complement its medium-range LY-80/HQ-16 system, which it ordered in 2015.

If the Army procures an air defence system, then it could simply use that same system (without additional units) to protect a land-based ESM/ELINT system alongside other assets (e.g., artillery firing units). In fact, the benefit of having its own ESM/ELINT is that the Army can use that system to find and attack air defence radars (and potentially firing units if it is also using a weapon-locating radar) independently, if need be.

For IMINT, Pakistan can use the PRSS-O1 and, potentially, look at using the Integrated Dynamics STRATOS HAPS UAV. Though the STRATOS’ 12 kg payload is restrictive, Pakistan can acquire exceptionally lightweight SAR systems on the market. The Leonardo PicoSAR, for example, weighs 10 kg, yet its X-band radar has a range of up to 20 km and a sub-1 metre mapping resolution.

Integrating Air and Land Capabilities

As noted earlier, joint-planning, training and implementation by the Army and PAF is essential for a joint SEAD/DEAD operation. Basically, once the S-400 comes online, SEAD/DEAD is no longer purely the domain of the PAF – the Army will need to play a role so as to maximize the success of a SEAD/DEAD operation as well as mitigate the risk of aerial losses.

Ultimately, inter-services integration is something that should already be on the table considering India’s move to relying on Integrated Battle Groups (IBG). The S-400 is yet another area where collaboration will be key, and in this case, material procurement alone would not suffice.

[1] Sana Jamal. “Pakistan to launch 2 Satellites in early 2018.” Gulf News. 05 October 2017. URL: https://gulfnews.com/news/asia/pakistan/pakistan-to-launch-2-satellites-in-early-2018-1.2101103 (Last Accessed: 25 June 2018).

[2] Joseph Trevithick. “F-35 Cueing Artillery To Take Out Air Defense Site During Test Is A Glimpse Of The Future.” The Drive. 13 December 2019. URL: https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/31471/f-35-cueing-artillery-to-take-out-air-defense-site-during-test-is-a-glimpse-of-the-future?fbclid=IwAR1O9u11lpRb8Sh2jR56nrZ-SM-eCX9tH7J1kJyhmqb2qxrlEjM03-VCNoI

[3] Ibid.

[4] Nathan Gain. “IDEAS: from armoured vehicles to mule saddles”. Forces Operations Blog. 25 November 2016. URL: http://forcesoperations.com/en/ideas-from-armoured-vehicles-to-mule-saddles/ (Last Accessed: 06 April 2018).

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