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Pakistan is Still Seeking a Mobile SHORAD

Last week, the Pakistan Army declared that it added the HQ-9/P long-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) system to its integrated air defence system. With a stated range of at least 100 km, the HQ-9/P closes the Army’s extensive air defence modernization efforts over the past five-plus years. Today, the Army deploys a multi-layered air defence network consisting of short-range, medium-range, and long-range SAMs plus its traditional staple of anti-air guns and man-portable air-defence systems (MANPAD).

Overall, the Army is employing its air defence system for protecting key installations and other high-value targets (HVT). The HQ-9/P creates a threat for targets flying at high-altitudes at long-range. However, even if these opposing aircraft fly under the HQ-9/P’s coverages, they would have to contend with the medium-range LY-80 and short-range FM-90 at those lower altitudes. Thus, the set-up is comprehensive, albeit in terms of defending fixed assets; but that only covers one part of the anti-air warfare (AAW) requirement.

The Pakistan Army still has one key area of its anti-air umbrella it needs to full – the acquisition of a mobile short-range air defence system (SHORAD).

The military dynamics of South Asia are advancing and, at least in India, they have reached a point where air power is an integral piece of land-based operations. The Indian Army’s ‘integrated battle group’ (IBG) concept, for example, incorporates utility and attack helicopters for close air support (CAS). These aircraft will carry a credible threat to Pakistani armour through anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM). In addition, the Indian Air Force (IAF) will deploy an area-wide anti-armour capability through the CBU-105 Sensor-Fuzed Weapon munition. Each CBU-105 carries 40 dual-infrared and laser-guided top-attack munitions (Skeets) that can independently target tanks, infantry fighting vehicles (IFV) and other armoured vehicles.

Combined, these airborne threats present a significant problem for the Pakistan Army’s formations both from a defensive and offensive standpoint. Ideally, the Pakistan Army and Pakistan Air Force (PAF) would collaborate to build a joint-air-and-land solution that could both counter and emulate India’s model.

For example, the Army and PAF could use JF-17s with air-to-ground missiles (AGM), anti-radiation missiles (ARM), and a stand-off range bomblet dispenser for area-wide anti-armour attacks. This way, Pakistan can have its own airborne, anti-armour capability to match the IAF Jaguar. In fact, JF-17s equipped for air-to-air can also help thwart the IAF Jaguar threat and threaten India’s attack helicopters.

It is unclear where Pakistan is at in terms of integrating its assets across service arms. However, if there is anything to take from the Army’s air defence investment, it seems the Army is taking primary ownership of handling airborne threats posed against its assets. Thus, the Army will focus on acquiring AAW systems that will protect its land-based formations through the acquisition of a mobile SHORAD system.

The earliest record of the Pakistan Army seeking a mobile SHORAD was in 2016. During the International Defence Exhibition and Seminar (IDEAS) in 2016, MBDA Italy promoted a variant of the Spada 2000-Plus, i.e., the SAM it sold to the PAF years earlier, to the Army. This variant of the Spada 2000-Plus was mounted to a truck, thus speaking to a mobile SHORAD requirement.

However, around this time, it seemed that the Pakistan Army was more focused on acquiring the Russian Pantsir-series. In fact, Pakistan’s then Minister of Defence Production (MoD), Khurram Dastgir Khan, had told Russian News Agency TASS that Pakistan was negotiating for an air defence system. Sources familiar with Pakistan’s defence procurement plans at the time confirmed to Quwa that the Army was in talks for the Pantsir. Local observers later claimed that a deal had been signed and that delivery was underway.

Evidently, the Pantsir did not materialize. However, the mobile SHORAD program was and remains a key requirement of the Army. The Army’s focus will move to alternatives, likely from China as the entirety of its air defence set-up comprises of Chinese products (i.e., FM-90, LY-80, and HQ-9/P).

Considering that the Pakistan Army sought the Pantsir, it would likely seek a similar concept, e.g., China’s FK-1000. Like the Pantsir, the FK-1000 is an integrated suite comprising of SAMs, anti-air guns (AAG), and sensor plus command-and-control (C2) system in one vehicle package.

The FK-1000’s SAMs are the KS-1000, which reportedly offer a range of 1.2 km to 22 km and a maximum altitude of 164 ft to 32,000 ft. The KS-1000 SAMs are complemented by two 23 mm cannons. The guidance system comprises of two target acquisition radars and electro-optical (EO) tracker.

Like the Pantsir, the FK-1000 offers multiple options for engaging low-flying threats. In a way, by packaging multiple systems (i.e., a SAM and AAG) into one vehicle, it lessens the need for dedicated assets to deploy those weapons. This approach makes deployment and mobility much easier as the entire SHORAD system is basically one system. Thus, one can understand why it is attractive to the Pakistan Army.

The FK-1000 is the probable favourite. However, there are several ‘dark horse’ SHORAD candidates on the market, notably from Turkey. Unfortunately, these systems do not emulate the Pantsir deployment model like the FK-1000, but technically, these systems seem to be promising.

Turkey’s primary SHORAD suite consists of the Korkut AAG and Hisar-A SAM. The Aselsan Korkut is a twin 35-mm cannon that the end-user can integrate to different vehicles, such as tracked armoured personnel carriers (APC) and infantry fighting vehicle (IFV). Pakistan had evaluated the Korkut in 2016. However, one can complement the Korkut with the Hisar-A SAM. The Hisar-A works like the MBDA CAMM and MICA-VL in that it relies on a land-based radar to reach its target, but once close enough, it uses an imaging infrared (IIR) seeking for terminal-stage engagement. Like the Korkut, one can mount the Hisar-A to APCs or IFVs.

The Korkut/Hisar-A can make for a sophisticated and capable suite, but the end-user must deploy it across several different vehicle assets. This has its disadvantages, but Turkey remediated it with other flexibilities such as using the mainstay IFV and APC platforms of the Turkish Army. This achieves commonality within mobile deployments. Thus, Pakistan could look at taking a similar approach if it takes this route.

In any case, a mobile SHORAD acquisition is expected. However, it would be unwise for the Army to limit its focus to a SAM/AAG-based solution alone. While a threat to low-flying manned aircraft, they are clearly vulnerable to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). Turkey successfully used its TB2 UAVs to destroy a number of Pantsir systems in Syria, for example. However, India is also experimenting with drone swarms, which can potentially threaten air defence set-ups with overwhelming saturation attacks.

One solution to such drone attacks would be directed energy weapons (DEW). Instead of trying to destroy drones through physical munitions like missiles, DEW aims to eliminate them by harming the electronics. DEWs can potentially engage multiple flying objects at once, thus offering defensibility against swarms.

The Pakistan Army’s mobile SHORAD plans ought to include plans for DEW to help mitigate the emerging drone threat. The Pakistan Navy is already working on a laser-based DEWS; thus, there is recognition of the technology’s value and urgency already. However, there are a number of commercially-off-the-shelf (COTS) DEWS options available, notably from China and Turkey. It would make sense for the Army to add DEWs to its mobile SHORAD solution, ideally from the onset.

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