The Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought the need to protect their forces with ground based air defence into sharp perspective
The importance of ground-based air defence (GBAD) has been brought into sharp relief by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. At time of writing (early January), Ukraine claimed to have shot down 281 Russian aircraft, 266 helicopters, 1,680 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and 653 cruise missiles. These figures, even if overinflated, have been achieved primarily through GBAD.
Against such threats, GBAD is a persistent and cost-effective form of defence compared to commissioning additional fighter squadrons. Air defence is even more critical given the proliferation of UAVs and loitering munitions on today’s battlefields.
Typical GBAD systems comprise guns, surface-to-air missiles (SAM) or a combination of both. They can be classified into man-portable, short-, medium- and long-range systems. In fact, the most effective air defence umbrella will consist of a network of different systems, combined with radars and other sensors, to prevent the ingress of air threats.
India has indigenous SAMs such as the Akash, developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and produced by Bharat Dynamics (BDL). In development is the Medium-Range Surface-to-Air Missile (MRSAM), a variant of the Barak 8, in conjunction with Israel Aerospace Industries under a 2017 contract worth $1.6 billion. The army would like five regiments of the MRSAM which will have a 43 mile (70km) range. Another missile yet to be inducted is the short-range QRSAM.
Quite apart from obsolete Russian-made mobile SAM systems like the 9K33 Osa, ZSU-23-4M Shilka and 2K22 Tunguska, the Indian Army’s air defence capability is sorely lacking. The army’s plight is not helped by labyrinthine procurement processes. For example, on 7 October 2022, the army reissued a Request for Proposal (RfP) for 220 towed antiaircraft guns plus 141,576 ammunition rounds under the country’s Buy and Make (Indian) procurement category.
The new towed guns must weigh less than 7 tons and will replace geriatric Bofors L/70 and ZU-23-2B weapons dating from the 1960s that defend military installations and border areas.
In 2012, the then chief of army staff had warned that 97 percent of army air defence weapons were obsolete. Little has been done to rectify this sad state. Indeed, Hanwha Defense’s tracked K30 Biho Hybrid had seemed in pole position to win a contract for 104 systems, but India’s MoD scrapped that in September 2020 after Russia protested the defeat of Tangushka M1 and Pantsir systems in a competition.
Nonetheless, gun systems are still in favour in Asia-Pacific. Oerlikon makes the GDF 007 featuring twin 35mm cannons. Regionally, the GDF 007, or its predecessors, is in service with Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand. The Royal Thai Army ordered four Skyguard 3 fire control radars and eight GDF 007s from Rheinmetall in 2015, which were delivered to Thailand in 2018.
The Australian Army has long relied on Saab’s man-portable RBS 70 for battlefield air defence, while the country’s air force does not possess any GBAD systems whatsoever. Given the growing military threat from China, Australia is rectifying defensive gaps with capabilities such as the National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System (NASAMS).
Australia announced a NASAMS acquisition contract with Raytheon Australia in July 2019. Worth $1.04 billion, Project Land 19 Phase 7B will acquire two batteries of Mk 2 canister launchers; Hawkei-based High-Mobility Launchers for four AIM-120 C-7 or AIM-9X Block II missiles; fire distribution centres; CEA Tactical (CEATAC) active electronically scanned array primary fire control radars mounted on Thales Hawkeis; long-range CEA Operational (CEAOPS) radars mounted on MAN HX77 8×8 trucks; and mast-mounted Raytheon AN/AAS-52 Multispectral Targeting System MTS-A EO sensors carried by Hawkeis.
In late 2022, Raytheon Australia received the first NASAMS fire distribution centres and Mk 2 canister launchers from Kongsberg Defence Australia, a milestone towards achieving an initial operating capability (IOC) in mid-2023. With an emphasis on sovereign capability, a level of 60 percent Australian industrial involvement will be achieved in the project.
As Australia creates an Integrated Air and Missile Defence network, it is also seeking a medium-range GBAD weapon under Project Air 6502 Phase 1. Responses to an RfP were received in 2022 and, upon further government consideration, initial elements could be delivered later this decade.
One GBAD system doing well in Asia-Pacific is Rafael’s SPYDER (Surface-to-air PYthon and DERby). The latest recipient is the Philippines, joining existing regional customers India, Singapore and Vietnam. Manila inducted its first SPYDER Medium Range systems at Basa Air Base on 8 November 2022.
The Philippine Air Force procured three batteries for $132.8 million in 2019, with three missile firing units mounted on Tatra 815-7 8×8 trucks in each battery. The third battery is due for delivery this year. As part of the contract, a missile maintenance facility will be established in the Philippines, plus a simulator training centre was inaugurated last April.
Rafael told Asian Military Review: “The SPYDER system is now in use by several different countries around the globe, and there is considerable interest in the system throughout Asia.”
The spokesperson added: “SPYDER’s effectiveness is allowed through cutting-edge technology and open architecture that allows the system to be constantly improved without considerable structural changes. The fact that it has already been operationally proven provides not only evidence of its capabilities, but also allows the system to be better upgraded. Its various configurations and models allow a user to choose a system that best provides for its particular defence needs. The open-architecture concept, beyond that, allows for the system to be adapted, altered and specifically tailored to the user’s needs.”
Rafael referenced the 2021 sale of SPYDER to the Czech Republic as a “monumental achievement,” since it was the first time a NATO member procured Israeli GBAD systems. Rafael also offers the Drone Dome, Iron Dome and David’s Sling systems.
European missile house MBDA offers a wide range of air defence solutions, including the Mistral MANPADS, VL MICA/VL MICA NG, CAMM, Sky Warden counter-UAS (C-UAS) and SAMP/T for theatre ballistic-missile defence.
An MBDA spokesperson told AMR, “Across Asia, many nations trust in MBDA’s systems to provide vital ground-based air defence equipment for the defence of their nation’s vital infrastructure and armed forces units. Today, our Rapier, Mistral, VL MICA and Aster missiles are all in service in the Asia-Pacific region providing ground-based air defence.” The representative added that MBDA is “seeing strong interest from many [regional] countries”.
MBDA highlighted: “Many armed forces are experiencing a rising threat from UAVs and loitering munitions and, to meet this challenge, MBDA has launched Sky Warden. This is a flexible and scalable integrated system designed for the effective defeat of small drones and loitering munitions. Based around an intelligent C2 with open architecture for easy integration of the widest range of sensors and soft-/hard-kill effectors, Sky Warden provides highly effective C-UAS and VSHORAD air defence.”
Another European company to enjoy regional success is Thales with its Starstreak missile. Customers include Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.
Russian GBAD platforms remain popular with traditional customers such as India, Myanmar and Vietnam. However, the Ukraine war and other conflicts such as Libya and Syria are raising questions over the effectiveness of some Russian equipment. Both India and China procured the S-400 long-range system, the latter’s purchase perhaps surprising. Yet China’s interest in the S-400 indicated there is perhaps still Russian technology that Beijing wishes to master.
China is in the enviable position of having a glut of GBAD systems from which to choose! State-owned conglomerates offer a bewildering range of solutions, many already in People’s Liberation Army (PLA) service, like PGZ95, PGZ07 and PGL12 self-propelled antiaircraft guns; short-range HQ-6A, HQ-7B and HQ-17/17A SAMs; medium-range HQ-12 and HQ-16 SAMs; and longer-range HQ-9 and HQ-22 SAMs.
Even more systems appeared at last November’s Zhuhai Air Show. One was an in-service HQ-9B featuring a slimmer missile than the original, thus allowing eight to be carried instead of four. While the smaller-diameter missile will have a shorter range, it will presumably improve an HQ-9 battery’s ability to defeat saturation attacks.
Also debuting at Zhuhai were the FK-3000, HQ-16FE, HQ-11 and Type 625E. The FK-3000, mounted on a 6×6 truck chassis, integrates two SAM types (six FK-3000/L for larger airborne targets, and 48 smaller FK-3000/S missiles for UAVs), a 30mm cannon, 15 mile (25km) range radar and radio jammer. This combination defends against targets in the 1,000ft-12 mile (300m-12km) range, and even comes with the option of two tracked unmanned launch vehicles.
The HQ-16FE is a fourth-generation medium-/long-range SAM mounted on a 6×6 truck. Six vertically launched missiles can intercept aircraft at claimed ranges of 100 miles (160km), compared to 50 miles (80km) for the PLA’s existing HQ-16B.
Moving to the HQ-11, it is described as a universal terminal defence system able to counter guided bombs, missiles and aircraft at low-to-medium altitudes. It was displayed by the PLA Air Force, confirming it is already operational. The HQ-11 comprises an 8×8 launcher vehicle (with eight missiles), a Type 1130 close-in weapon system vehicle and command vehicle.
Another newcomer at Zhuhai was the Type 625E short-range integrated antiaircraft gun/missile system. Likely derived from the CS/SA5, its 8×8 chassis features a 25mm Gatling-type gun plus four canistered SAMs, and an EO/IR sensor and radar.
Taiwan and Japan
Both Taiwan and Japan use the American Raytheon MIM-401 Patriot and FIM-92A Stinger MANPADS, as well as a range of domestic GBAD types. Taiwan’s indigenous weapons include the Tien Chien family comprising TC-1 Antelope short-range and TC-2 medium-range SAMs, plus the larger Tien Kung family. The TK-II is a medium-range missile, while the longer-range TK-III adds an anti-ballistic-missile capability. The National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology (NCSIST) produces an annual quota of these missiles.
Japan fields the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Type 87 self-propelled antiaircraft gun, as well as missiles like the Toshiba Type 91 MANPADS; Type 81, 93 and Type 11 short-range SAMs; and Type 03 medium-range SAM. Neither Japan nor Taiwan has ever exported their domestic GBAD systems.
Like China, South Korea is almost self-sufficient in air defence. The Republic of Korea Army (ROKA) fields Hanwha’s K30 Biho Hybrid with twin 30mm cannons and LIG Nex1 KP-SAM Chiron missiles. Then, in 2021, the ROKA received its first Chunho Antiaircraft Gun Wheeled Vehicle System (AAGW) from Hanwha Defense, acquired under a $207.7 million contract. Based on Hyundai Rotem’s K808 chassis, the AAGW achieves a 95 percent indigenisation rate. With a range of 1.8 miles (3km), its twin 30mm cannons are paired with an electro-optic/infrared tracking system.
Hanwha Defense is also developing a 30-ton Biho II based on a Tigon 8×8 chassis. It will feature a New-Generation Air Defence System turret that can fit either a 30mm or 40mm cannon, plus eight short-range SAMs, four medium-range missiles, and S-band and X-band radars.
Significantly, South Korea signed an memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the United Arab Emirates on 16 January 2022, covering KM-SAM Block II medium-range systems. Although details are scant, the deal is reportedly worth $3.76 billion, encompassing Hanwha Defense for launchers and resupply vehicles, Hanwha Systems for X-band multifunction radars and LIG Nex1 for missiles and system integration. The ROK Air Force (ROKAF) has used the KM-SAM since 2016, but this was its first export sale.
Originally designed to replace ROKAF MIM-23 HAWKs, South Korea initially relied on Russian technical assistance for the KM-SAM. The 15ft (4.6m) long missile can intercept hostile aircraft and missiles at ranges below 25 miles (40km) and 65,500ft (20km) in altitude. Development of the Block II commenced in 2012, and Seoul announced in November 2020 that the first of seven ROKAF Block II batteries had entered service; production of the Block I ceased in April 2020.
UAVs and loitering munitions have evolved into a deadly menace for vehicles and soldiers anywhere on the battlefield. Instead of fielding expensive air defence artillery and missile systems, perhaps a more cost-effective method of dealing with them is through remote-controlled weapon systems (RWS).
Matt Jones, executive vice president of Defence Systems at EOS, explained that his Australia-based company is working heavily in this area. By utilising its Titanis integrated C-UAS system, Jones said that EOS is already performing 3,200+ft (1+km) engagements with an R400 RWS armed with a 30mm cannon, and it is targeting a 1.2 mile (2km) range with a Mk44S cannon. “So with a system you’ve [already] deployed on a vehicle platform, you’re starting to have lethality solutions that can deal with both ground and air targets, and that’s not a capability currently offered in any other competitive systems, who don’t offer the accuracy and ranges we can achieve.”
Jones said EOS’ RWS with a C-UAS capability is “creating a lot more interest with our various markets at the moment because, obviously, the UAV threat is maturing, and loitering munitions are becoming increasingly a problem. And the last thing you want to do is introduce specialist platforms just to deal with UAVs. If you can deal with it with existing platforms with existing remote weapon stations, you actually save a lot of investment.”
Against cheap targets like small UAVs, directed energy provides many advantages too. Countries are pouring money into research and development of lasers, and EOS of Australia has been investing in directed energy for the past three years. Jones told AMR: “We’ve now fielded and successfully tested a 36 kilowatt directed-energy system that’s currently in a 20-foot container-based deployment option. It’s designed to work as part of the Titanis counter-UAS system as an effector like a cannon or a jammer. But it’s designed to engage drones up to group three.”
The 36kW system has an engagement range of 1.2 miles (2km), but that is undergoing further development with the aim of reaching 56kW and 2.4 miles (4km) range in a smaller form factor. “We’re shrinking it and making the power go up, over time.” This work is being carried on in conjunction with Singapore, and Jones said EOS has been contracted to run a number of trial and demonstration activities in Australia.
“That’s an investment in the future because, as we’re seeing in Ukraine with the proliferation of loitering munitions, drones, cruise missiles and other systems, the challenge isn’t necessarily shooting them down, the challenge is actually the supply chain getting the ammunition or missiles up to the system that engages the threats.” Therein lies the advantage of lasers, for, as long as electrical power is available, the weapon can continue engaging targets without the need for ammunition resupply.
Asked whether directed energy will be a major growth area, Jones responded, “Yes, very much. I think that we’re on the cusp of a transition in the technology. There has been a lot of promise for a number of decades, people have been promising lasers are coming. The lasers are here … So it’s definitely an emerging weapon technology that will only proliferate as it matures.”
Given that Russia invaded Ukraine less than a year ago, and that many militaries are still processing lessons learned from that conflict, AMR expects there to be a rising tide of interest in Asia-Pacific for GBAD systems in the months and years ahead. While American, Russian and European solutions are readily available, Asian countries such as China and South Korea are increasingly becoming exporters of air defence systems too.
by Gordon Arthur