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India’s Air Defence Efforts are Eroding Pakistan’s Offensive Ability

Through its deployment of land-attack cruise missiles (LACM) and various ballistic missiles, Pakistan stated that it is maintaining “minimum credible deterrence.” However, while that might be accurate in terms of its nuclear deployment capability, Pakistan’s conventional deterrence is at risk of eroding.

By ‘conventional deterrence,’ we refer to Pakistan’s ability to leverage its conventional capabilities – such as airstrikes, deploy armoured columns, or launch conventional warheads at long-range – to dissuade its adversary India from instigating a potential conflict through a pre-emptive strike.

The main causes for this erosion of capability stem from multiple factors, but the most pressing problem, at least in the near-term, is India’s significant investment in ground-based air defence systems. This would include the flagship, the S-400, and an assortment of other potent solutions, such as the Barak 8.

The Impact of India’s Air Defence Efforts

In response to its airstrike on Balakot, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) undertook a retaliatory air campaign – designated “Swift Retort” – centered on its core assets, namely the F-16, JF-17, Mirage III/5, Falcon DA-20 electronic warfare (EW) jammer, and Erieye airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) system.

Whatever the intent of Swift Retort, it was without a doubt a template of an offensive counter-air (OCA) package. Moreover, with some element of surprise to India (such as the disproportionate size of the OCA force), the PAF had demonstrated a credible offensive capability should India trigger a conflict.

However, the PAF’s ability to exercise that capability is eroding in the face of India’s growing investment in ground-based air defence systems (adding to its significant spending on new multi-role fighters).

The most significant of these new air defence assets is the S-400. In 2018, India signed the $5.5 billion USD contract with Russia for the long-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) system. While the S-400 is best known for the 40N6 missile, which offers a range of up to 400 km, it is in fact a multi-layered solution comprising of various SAMs, including the 250 km 48NG, 120 km 9M96E2 and 40 km 9M96E.

Though Washington is opposing the sale, it appears that India is on-track to start receiving the S-400 after 2020, according to the Russian Federal Service for Military-Technical-Cooperation.[1]

In addition to linking the S-400 into an integrated air defence ground environment (ADGE), which will see it draw on gap filler radars (to plugin blind spots of the S-400’s long-range, high-altitude radar), India will also deploy the Barak 8-based MRSAM platform at-scale through the 2020s. The baseline Barak 8 offers a range of up to 70 km.[2] Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) is also developing a long-range variant of the Barak-8, i.e., the Barak 8ER, which could potentially have a range of up to 150 km.[3]

The threat of the S-400 is understood, but it is not modest by means. The biggest constraint it could levy on Pakistan is deny the PAF the ability to operate at high-altitude within Pakistani borders. This can occur if India deploys the S-400 close to the border. However, it is also a high-risk deployment strategy for India, especially if Pakistan were to detect its location and target it with ground-based weapons.

Nonetheless, for Pakistan, an aggressive S-400 deployment posture is a plausible problem. But the layers of medium-to-long-range Barak 8/MRSAM-type systems further complicate the situation. They allow India to set redundant, yet long-range, buffers at each high-value target (HVT) in India.

In turn, it will become difficult for Pakistan to deploy an OCA package into Indian territory without a high risk of sustaining heavy losses. Certainly, the current composition of F-16s and Mirages for air-to-air and air-to-ground attack will not suffice, but with the fifth-generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) in development under Project Azm, the PAF would need to significantly rethink how it intends to attack India.

Deep Strike Should Center on Drones

In a high-threat environment, it stands to reason that the first line of deployable assets should be relatively disposable, unmanned aircraft. Thus, if not already a component of Project Azm, the PAF should prioritize the development of an unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) to carry most deep strike operations.

It is important to note that a UCAV of this nature would not be the same as a ‘loyal wingman.’ These loyal wingman drones are generally smaller and, seemingly, evolutions of target drones and cruise missiles. In effect, loyal wingman drones serve a different function, which is to actively shield manned aircraft.

A UCAV would be a much larger and complex aircraft, potentially a full-scale aircraft project in its own right, much like Project Azm’s FGFA. However, if Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) and the Directorate of Aviation Research, Indigenization & Development (AvRID) succeed with the FGFA, they can, in theory, re-use many of the same gains (e.g., engine, flight control system, composite materials, etc) on a UCAV.

For the PAF, its future air power concepts would have to closely emulate what Europe, China, and Russia are all designing for their respective needs. In other words, a composite mix of next-generation fighters, UCAVs, and loyal wingman drones supported by stand-off AEW&C and EW assets.

However, despite the confidence of various PAF officials in realizing an FGFA by the 2030s, Project Azm is still an abstract factor. In reality, India’s air defence goals will mature by 2030, at which point (and a best-case scenario) the PAF will only start inducting the counter, leaving a decade-plus long gap (2025-2035 or 2040) of severe incapability, at least from a conventional deterrence standpoint.

Thus, Pakistan will need an intermediary solution to shore-up its conventional deterrence, in which case, it may need to look once again at long-range missile technology.

Echoes of the 1990s

Due to the Pressler Amendment and chronic economic problems, Pakistan could not invest as much in the PAF in the 1990s as it had originally intended. It was constrained in terms of buying new fighter aircraft – because the it could either not afford them from Europe, the US was reluctant to sell, and Russia prioritized its ties with India (ironically, all of which are occurring today).

However, Pakistan was able to invest in its ballistic missile program, which set the basis of its “minimum deterrence” standing. It may need to emulate that approach once again as it waits for its next marquee fighter (and potentially more) in Project Azm.

Cruise Missiles

The starting point could be to acquire longer-ranged LACMs. The Babur LACM offers a range of 700 km, and it appears to be the cap of Pakistan’s LACM range coverage.

Technically, cruise missiles are aircraft that rely on air-breathing, miniature turbojet or turbofan engines.

One way to increase the range of the Babur-series is to employ a more efficient engine and/or enlarge the missile so that it carries more fuel. From a deployment standpoint, this approach may limit to only land-based launches (as the missile might be too large for aircraft and/or ships to carry).

However, this is not a concern seeing how Pakistan can launch these missiles from a practically myriad number of launch areas, including concealed and/or inaccessible areas. Ideally, its access to engines and flight control technologies would increase (especially via Project Azm) so that it can deploy smaller missiles while retaining the range and/or payload improvements.

The benefit of both extending the range of LACMs and deploying them in sizable numbers is that they give Pakistan the ability to undertake long-range strikes without deploying aircraft. While the PAF is needed in terms of defending those launchers from intruders, it can do so using the JF-17. However, cruise missiles will not overly stress the PAF’s scarcer OCA assets, namely the F-16 and Mirages.

This is not a low-cost option seeing that it could require the production of hundreds, if not well over one thousand, such missiles. However, it is the nearest-term option available. Even the thought of developing a hypersonic glide vehicle or hypersonic-cruising missile is still abstract at this point (though Pakistan may be considering it in light of India’s advancements).

Ballistic Missiles

The challenge with ballistic missiles is that even firing a conventional one could be construed by India as a potential nuclear strike. Thus, it would escalate the situation away from a conventional exchange and, potentially, result in a nuclear exchange.

However, on that note, a tactical ballistic missile similar in concept to the Iskander-M could be of interest.

It could accompany the Pakistan Army’s rocket artillery formations (comprising of 122 mm and 300 mm rockets such as the Yarmouk and A-100, respectively). Turkey and Ukraine have similar requirements, so one option could be to co-develop a conventional, MTCR (Missile Technology Control Regime)-compliant missile as an artillery asset (not a strategic one).

One of the key outcomes of the Ukrainian project – designated Sapsan or Hrim-2 – is to deploy a ballistic missile that can travel on both ballistic arc and aeroballistic trajectories.[4] By ‘aeroballistic trajectories,’ the ballistic missile can, at least partially, fly in the Earth’s atmosphere. This capability would make the ballistic missile less susceptible to ballistic missile defence (BMD) systems.

Adding to the JF-17

Finally, the PAF can also develop or procure munitions that are readily deployable from the JF-17, which is the only modern asset the PAF can continue adding to its fleet at this time.

In addition to the precision-guided bomb (PGB) kits Range Extension Kit (REK) and Indigenous REK (IREK), the PAF ought to consider integrating the Ra’ad/Ra’ad II air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM) and H-2/H-4 stand-off weapons (SOW) to the JF-17. It should also look at integrating new types of SOWs to the JF-17, such as a supersonic-cruising missile, among others.

Taking Advantage of a Procurement Lull

To be clear, the 2020s will not be a total procurement lull for the PAF. While it is not getting an off-the-shelf twin-engine platform as it had sought in 2016-2017, it will still procure the JF-17 Block 3. The JF-17 Block 3 will not have the range and payload of a heavyweight platform, but it will carry the same types of electronics and weapons of larger fighters, such as an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar.

However, the 2020s will be an incomplete procurement run as the induction of a new offensive platform will, at the earliest, start from the early 2030s. The PAF is taking advantage of the lull to actually develop that very same platform indigenously (granted, to the best of its abilities). However, with the environment of the 2030s being radically different than today, Pakistan will clearly need to add more to its development efforts, and ideally, expedite some programs (e.g., long-range cruise missiles) for earlier induction.

[1] “Deliveries of S-400 missile systems to India will start after 2020 — government service.” Russian News Agency TASS. 26 June 2019. URL: https://tass.com/defense/1065785

[2] Rahul Bedi. “India commissions second Kolkata-class destroyer.” Jane’s Defence Weekly. 29 September 2015. URL: https://web.archive.org/web/20160123044942/http://www.janes.com/article/54950/india-commissions-second-kolkata-class-destroyer

[3] Robin Hughes. “IAI en route to extended range Barak-8ER.” Jane’s Defence Weekly. 10 August 2015. URL: https://web.archive.org/web/20160808031154/https://www.janes.com/article/53532/iai-en-route-to-extended-range-barak-8er

[4] Anton Mikhnenko. “Ukraine Expands Its Missile Capabilities.” The Jamestown Foundation. 16 April 2019. URL: https://jamestown.org/program/ukraine-expands-its-missile-capabilities/

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