Understanding How Modern AD Systems Work

Any country that realizes the importance of air defense in the changing scenario will gauge the threat posed by the enemy air attacks and establish an independent air defense command that exercises control over all AD assets.

Article by Shantanu K. Bansal

The concept of ground-based Air Defence (AD) was neglected especially from the starting of this century due to rapid advancement in aerial platforms, especially due to inception of Low Observation Technology or as we call it the 5th Generation aircrafts but its importance was re-realised with the time. The debut of the S-400 AD system made headlines across the globe making another case of the growing importance of Ground-based AD Systems (GBADS).

With appointment of India’s first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) besides the keen issue of theaterisation of the Indian Armed Forces, the feasibility of an Integrated Air Defence Command has now become a hot topic. Most analysts believe that an Air Defence Command can act like a precursor for overall theaterisation of the forces. This makes the case of studying modern Integrated Air Defence System (IADS).

The concept of IADS is not new it was given by NATO during the cold war in the mid of 19th century however due to the advancement in technology the concept has seen many changes; today U.S. stresses on IAMD. As a better terminology, the Integrated Air and Missile Defence (IAMD) doesn’t make any distinction between the types of aerial threat whether a conventional fighter or a ballistic missile since the battlefield is becoming fluid there are range of offensive platforms which the opponent can exploit in bundle.

The Multi-layered Air Defence or the Kill-Chain is at the core of the IADS. The IADS is normally built around a system of concentric layers of Air and Missile Defence (AMD) platforms forming the system of systems. It is the combination of various platforms like radars, SAMs, aircrafts, AD guns, C3 systems and others forming an Integrated Air Defence umbrella.

The IADS acts like a Force Multiplier. Rather an AD system operating in the silo, the IADS enable integration across various AD platforms through C4ISR systems making an intense web of systems which make it difficult for the opponent aerial platforms to perform penetration operations.

Multi-Layered Air Defence

Layer 1: The Outer Layer

The first layer usually consist of aerial vehicles with active radars (the most effective being AESA radar) which can include platforms like fighter aircrafts, AEW&C and AWACS platforms. The Air surveillance is often described as the “eyes” of the AD system. The fighter aircrafts and other specialised airborne systems naturally fill the corridors or gaps between AD systems or areas where AD systems simply can’t reach. There are also specialised ground units trained for the surveillance purposes equipped with special equipments.

Now countries are also developing Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) fitted with aerial radar for E.g. China’s JY-300 is the world’s first unmanned aircraft that integrates radars with airframe, the aircraft has a range of 1000Km. Such system can be very much useful for point-defence missions and aerial policing role.
If an attacker is able to penetrate this layer, then the next layer would be of Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs).

Layer 2: Long Range SAMs/ Wide Area Defence

This layer consists of long-range AD systems. The long-range AD system generally has range of 150Km. However, there are also very long range AD system available having range of even 400Km like the S-300/S-400 which have a target acquisition range of 300/400Km, respectively.
This layer can also be assisted by very long-range radar system or strategic radars operating offshore or onshore.

These radars are part of Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) system. The BMD system forms the outer-layer defence (Layer 1) in case of ‘Multi-layered Missile Defence’ (not to be confused with ‘Multi-layered Air Defence’, as in this case).
The system like Over The Horizon (OTH) radar can provide a surveillance range of as far as 3000Km but the system lacks precision. These systems are best suited for early warning providing crucial time for the for

ces to initiate area defence missions.
India doesn’t operate any OTH radar while China operates 2 such radars and ironically media reports state that China has developed a Ship-based OTH system which can be a revolutionary technology.

(For instance, DRDO Ashwin Missile is part of India’s BMD Programme. The missile have a range of 150Km is capable of intercepting incoming missiles, fighter aircrafts and other aerial targets)

As part of India’s BMD programme, the DRDO is developing an upgraded version of the Swordfish radar (Aka. Super Swordfish) which can have tracking range of 1,500 Km. India has also developed specialised missile tracking ship called VC 11184 with a S band and X band AESA radar as part of its BMD programme. The S band radars are used to scan large volume of sky for tracking number of objects and the X band radar is used to zeroing down on a particular object (E.g. re-entry vehicle, missile or even small satellite).

There is also a concept of exploiting infrared sensors equipped with Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites for AD roles. It could be a revolutionary concept making the airspace almost transparent. The infrared technology as of now is mostly used for Space Situational Awareness (SSA), tracking strategic missile tests and incoming missile attacks.

Layer 3: Medium Range SAMs/ Area Defence

This layer would consist of AD missiles having range of around 50-150Km. There are many state-of-the-art missiles developed for this purpose. The Barak 8 developed by India and Israel has a range of 70Km considered best in this class. Analysts believe that its naval version can even intercept the supersonic Brahmos missile.

In terms of radars, recently, China has unveiled number of Anti-stealth HF radars of this range. For E.g. JY-27 which is developed to counter stealth aircrafts like US F-22 and F-35 however their effectiveness is questionable as an Israeli F-35 destroyed JY-27 radar during airstrikes in Syria.

The layer 3 and layer 4 can be supported by special aerial platforms like the aerostat radars besides conventional aircrafts. The aerostats have usual survey range upto 20Km and with advanced cameras, its range can go beyond 100Km helpful to detect terrain hugging targets.
The Layer 2 and 3 are part of “Area Defence” operations as per AD terminology.

Layer 4: The Inner Layer/ Point Defence

At last, there will be Short-range AD Systems (SHORADS), Very Short Range AD System (VSHORADS), the Man-portable Missiles (MANPADS), Close in Weapon System (CIWS), the Radar controlled Anti-aircraft guns (AA guns) firing several thousand rounds per minute and the Anti-drone systems. Future projectiles like Lasers, DEWs and rail-guns are also been developed.

The chances of success of low altitude penetration and Close Air Support (CAS) missions reduce as the density of short-range AD systems proliferate in an area.

Please note that as per AD terminology ‘inner layer’ consist of systems having range upto 25Km and the systems with close-in range forms the ‘innermost layer’, the last edge. The range-limit and terminology may vary as per the actual operational requirements.


Interoperability in IADS

The IADS allow interoperability of systems which mean radars and missile batteries that make decisions and have their own radars are perceived as performing these functions as part of all layers and not specific to single mission or site.
These systems provide overlapping coverage for maximum attrition, importantly with different types of missile seekers. It works across the entire system, irrespective of a weapon’s role or responsibility making the opponent confused that which system is performing what role to what extent.

For E.g. there have been claims that you can simply take out one engagement radar of S-400 system and thereby neutralize an entire battery of S-400 consisting of 6-8 TELs. This is not even remotely true because as IADS is in operation, the system must be supported by other radars providing inputs to the S-400. There’s always a Plan B or Plan C to ensure redundancy of such strategic system.

Modern IADS leverage multiple communiations channels, including traditional landlines, fibre-optic networks, and radio frequency and electromagnetic spectrum links. Since C4ISR has now become heart of effective IADS the dedicated communication satellites which enable high bandwidth communication are deployed to support AD operations. The C3 support vehicles on ground are deployed for better integration. India has dedicated IAF satellite for this purpose called the GSAT 7A, if required the services of other satellites can also be taken for the same.

China is testing quantum communication,which could supply the means to field highly secure communications systems (almost resistible to EW/Cyber-attacks) this can be helpful in conducting highly strategic operations like ballistic missile launch, BMD operations etc. The country has also launched an experimental quantum satellite and has successfully demonstrated quantum-key distribution. Russia has established the first Emissions Control (EMCON) in its armed forces, which is for the management of electromagnetic emissions to ensure that no accidental use of electronics discloses the whereabouts of troops or military objects.

About the Author

Shantanu K. Bansal is the founder of IADN. He has wide experience in research and analysis. He wrote for leading defence magazines and Think Tanks.


  • Shantanu K. Bansal

    Founder of IADN. He has more than 10 years of experience in research and analysis. An award winning researcher, he writes for the leading defence and security journals, think-tanks and in-service publications. He is a senior consultant at the Indian Army Training Command (ARTRAC), Shimla. Contact him at: Shantanukbansal2@gmail.com

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