By Rohit Srivastava
On March 9, an Indian BrahMos supersonic cruise missile (Land attack version) landed in the town of Mian Channu some 124 km deep within Pakistan’s territory. Regretting the incident, India in a statement said, “in the course of a routine maintenance, a technical malfunction led to the accidental firing of a missile.” Taking a serious view on the incident, India “ordered a high-level Court of Enquiry.”
Reportedly, after one month of investigation, the Indian Air Force’s CoI found “more than one official blameworthy” for the lapse leading to the incidence.
The incident raised quite an uproar internationally. Given the incident was between two nuclear rivals with a history of wars, the world was keenly observing how the two nations react. Besides the political analysis, the military analysts across the world were using the incident to understand the technical side of it.
Within Pakistan, analysts raised questions about the air defence system which failed to intercept the missile. It is pertinent to mention that BrahMos, extremely manoeuvrable, can fly at the top speed closer to Mach 3 and has a flat trajectory which makes it impossible to intercept by most of the existing air defence systems.
The incident brought the focus on the Chinese air defence systems which Pakistan has been buying for some time. The most important of them is HQ-16 / LY-80 – medium-range surface-to-air missile system which is claimed to be capable to intercept cruise missiles.
Pakistan’s air defence corps is currently armed with Chinese systems. Starting with the man-portable air-defence system FN-16, the Pakistan layered air defence system is comprised of short-range HQ-7, medium-range HQ-16 and long-range air defence system HQ-9. On October 14, Pakistan commissioned the HQ-9 HIMADS (High to Medium Air Defence System) in its air defence corp.
“Induction of HIMADS will significantly enhance Comprehensive Layered Integrated Air Defence (CLIAD) shield of aerial frontiers of Pakistan as the system is fully integrated through a well-knit Digitized System on its inventory,” Pakistan Army said in a statement.
“Capable of intercepting multiple air targets including aircraft, cruise missiles and Beyond Visual Range Weapons at ranges over 100 kilometres with Single Shot Kill Probability, HQ-9/P is considered as a strategic long-range Surface to Air Missile (SAM) with remarkable flexibility and precision,” it added.
Although based on S-300PMU, the HQ-9/P is the export version of HQ-9/B which was introduced in 2014 by Beijing. Developed by China Precision Machinery Import & Export Corporation (CPMIEC), the missile system was first operationalised in 1997. It is known to have a target range of 100 to 300 km. The latest HQ-9/B is claimed to have the ability to target up to 250 km. Reportedly, it can intercept cruise missiles within 25 km only.
On March 12, 2017, Pakistan inducted Low to Medium Altitude Air Defence System (LOMADS) HQ-16 BE (LY 80) into its Air Defence System. The BE is the export version of the HQ-16B, a land-based version with cold start missiles within 70 km range. In two different sets, Pakistan has ordered nine HQ-16 systems. Although the number of launchers has been kept secret, by combining the purchase order of HQ-16 with IBIS-150 Pakistan has given inkling that it can integrate around 12 launchers per system. In 2013-14 Pakistan ordered three HQ-16 systems and eight IBIS-150 radars for USD 225.77 million and $40 million, respectively. In the following year, six systems were ordered for $373.23 million.
The complete HQ-16BE system is comprised of search radar, guidance radar, a launcher-erector vehicle with six vertically launched missile launch tubes and a command vehicle. One command system is supported by search radar which can support four firing units each comprised of four launchers and one guidance radar system.
The system is claimed to intercept aerial threats within an envelope of 15m to 20 km with an interception range of 3.5 to 70 km. The system has a reaction time of 12 seconds and a single-shot kill probability of 0.85.
After the induction of HQ-16, Pakistan created a multi-layered air defence system wherein FM-90/HQ-7 command-line-of-sight short-range SAM, formed the lower echelon along with HQ-16 of the low-to-medium-range air defence system (LOMADS). After the induction of HQ-9, the country can claim a three-layered air defence system.
The HQ-16 is based on the Russian BukM1/M2 system. According to technical reports, the HQ-16 is primarily based on Shtil, the naval version of Buk operated by the Indian and Chinese navies. It is part of the Chinese Type 052B class destroyer.
Despite sharing the basic design, China has made significant changes to the basic Buk design. One of the most prominent is its missiles are vertically and cold launched which is easy to incorporate into any ship based VLS system. Similar to Buk, the system uses L-band passive electronic scanned array for radar guidance but Pakistan uses IBIS-150 S-band 3D PESA radar for search.
The two systems differ in many ways. Each of the Buk launch systems is equipped with guidance radar on a tank chassis which allows them to operate independently in all kinds of terrain whereas the Chinese HQ-16 is truck-mounted and needs a separate guidance radar vehicle to support firing units. This restricts filling up gaps in the air defence coverage. Given the mountainous terrain in the contested Pakistan border areas, this can have serious ramifications.
Since the induction of HQ-16, there have been two incidences of Indian violation of Pakistan’s air space, one Balakot airstrike in 2019 and the latest accidental firing of BrahMos. In both the incidence Pakistan’s multi-layered air defence system has failed to act. During the Balakot, the Indian Air Force crossed the Pakistan border and released a stand-off missile to hit the target around 80 km inside Pakistan from the Line of Control.
Reports suggest that post-Balakot Pakistan deployed HQ-16 in Pakistan occupied Kashmir which is strange given the Indian claim on the region and standoff since 1949. Pakistan should have first operationalised the HQ-16 in the PoK region, why it did not do so? Is it because the system is not suitable for mountain terrain?
Moving from mountains to plains, during the accidental BrahMos launch, Pakistan claims to track the missile from 100 km inside Indian Territory.
Pakistan tracked the missile for 6 minutes and 46 seconds of which 3 minutes and 46 it was within Pakistani airspace and covered 124 kilometres inside Pakistan. Yet Pakistan’s air defence system failed to intercept. One cannot claim to act with caution as no can claim to know with surety the final target of any supersonic cruise missile. It clearly showed Pakistan’s investment in the Chinese system has drawn a blank.
Russian Vs Chinese ADS
Since the Chinese systems are based on Russian systems, one can compare the operational efficiency of the two systems.
In the ongoing Russian-Ukraine conflict, Russian air defence systems have been able to intercept Ukrainian artillery rockets, unmanned aerial vehicles, cruise missiles, tactical ballistic missiles, attack helicopters and jets. Since the conflict is not about aerial conflicts but artillery, UAVs and rocket supporting the ground operations, the short to medium air defence systems are doing the interceptions. The S-300 and S-400 are not actively engaging the threats but providing the security umbrella.
To date, Russia has claimed to intercept 183 Ukrainian aircraft and 128 helicopters, 1,049 unmanned aerial vehicles and numerous incoming missiles and rockets. The Russian success on the ground is a testament to the veracity of their claim. The much-famed Turkish TB-2 which won the war for Armenia has not been able to change the course of the war in Ukraine and they have been regularly intercepted by the Russian air defence system. It seems Russians have learnt the right lessons from Libya and Armenia.
What the world is witnessing in Ukraine was first demonstrated by Russian systems on April 14, 2018, in Syria. Russian Ministry of Defence, in a briefing on April 16, said, “from 3.42 a.m. to 5.10 a.m. (MSK) different objects(locations) of the Syrian Arab Republic were attacked (by) air and sea-based missile carriers of the United States and allies. The cruise missile strikes were delivered from the areas of the Red Sea, Arabian Gulf, Mediterranean Sea, and al-Tanf illegally controlled by the US troops. Radar systems of the Syrian Arab Republic tracked 103 air targets.”
“In total, the Syrian AD systems eliminated 71 cruise missiles of 103 ones. Four missiles targeted the Damascus International Airport; 12 missiles – the Al-Dumayr airdrome, all the missiles have been shot down,” Russia claimed.
Syrian Air Defence force operates the Russian layered air defence starting from man-portable to S-300 long-range air defence system. It includes Pantsyr, Buk, Osa, S-125, Strela-10, Kvadrat, S-200 and S-300 (delivered in 2018).
An assessment by the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, an independent body, claims that the Syrian Air defence system was able to intercept over 65 missiles. This is very close to the Russian claim.
The Chinese systems have never been tested against such an intense multidirectional onslaught. On two occasions, when challenged the Chinese ADS has failed to defend the airspace and it would not be wrong to say that the Chinese system is not battle-tested and lack battlefield data to design a robust and lethal system. It would take a couple of intense full-fledged wars for China to acquire the requisite data to design an efficient system.