Continued Relevance of Ground Based Air Defence Weapons

Air Power made its advent in the First World War and over the past hundred years has become a credible means of projection of power, at time being called the dominant means of projection of national power. Though the claim of it being the dominant means may be debatable, it can be said with certainty that it is indeed a favored means of power projection and can greatly influence the conduct of ground operations.

Even in an age of multi-dimensional air power, while Air Forces can deliver results and carry out a number of functions, it cannot do everything and has certain limitations. Providing effective air defence with aerial platforms alone one such limitation, for which Ground Based Air Defence Weapons continue to be required.

Countering  the emerging threats is one such limitation. With tactical ballistic missiles becoming the weapon of choice across the globe, it is only the GBADWS that can effectively counter them. Air Force is capable of taking out the TBM launchers but even then it has difficulty in locating and taking out the TBM launchers. Air Forces are not capable of interception of TBM during flight that can only be carried out by GBADWS. Even the Air Force’s capability to destroy the missile launchers has been disputed. US Air Force (USAF) during the 1991 Gulf War had claimed that ‘within three days of the start of the air war, as many as ‘30 fixed sites’ and ‘as many as 16 mobile launchers’ of an estimated 20 that Iraq possessed, had been destroyed’. As per one report, based on 11 separate inspections beginning in June 1991, it could be determined that only 12 fixed-missile sites were destroyed. Also, it was found that during the war Iraq did not fire Scuds from its fixed sites1. In such a scenario, where the TBM are launched primarily from mobile launchers(as they would be in a War) and the problem(s) in detecting the launchers from air as they can be easily hidden, the responsibility to counter them has to fall back on the GBADWS.

A similar problem exists in case of cruise missiles. It is appreciated that as the TBM defences mature and become more capable, the efforts will shift towards cruise missiles. The lower investments in terms of cost and technology required to develop cruise missiles as compared to TBMs is another  reason for the shift towards cruise missile development. The recent developments in the South Asia also portend to this trend2. As with TBM, Air Forces have serious limitations in countering the cruise missile threat. Though one option remains of developing a ‘punitive action’ against cruise missile threat  the deterrence by punishment as one commentator calls it3, the fact remains that in any defence against cruise missile threat, the GBADWS would be an important component without which the defence would be ineffective.

Attack Helicopters, even as they are operated by Air Forces also, remain another threat which cannot be counted by Air Force without reliance on GBADWS. Joint Countering Attack Helicopter (J-CATCH)4, conducted in 1978-9, was a joint US Army-US Air Force experiment in dissimilar air combat between jet fighters and attack helicopters. The helicopters proved extremely dangerous to the fighters and racked up a 5-to-1 kill ratio over the fighters when fighting at close ranges with guns. The lesson was that fixed-wing aircraft should not attack helicopters except at long range and/or high altitudes with long range missiles. The AH flying at terrain contour or Nap of the Earth (NOE) are however difficult targets for even the advanced Air Force look down-shoot down radar systems and if the aircraft itself flies in the low level regime, the aircraft becomes the target of GBADWS and Air to Air Missiles mounted on attack helicopters–the hunter becomes the hunted. This only reinforces the need to rely on GBADWS for countering the attack helicopter threat.

The other threats that Air Force has difficulties in countering is the UAV threat which are difficult to detect and engage by aerial platforms, shifting the focus back on ground based systems. Not only the aforementioned threats, the Rocket Artillery and Mortar(RAM) threat is another emergent threat which the ground based systems are better placed to counter5.

Lastly, the inability of Air Forces to prevent any leakers getting through their defence is  the most important reason for the continued relevance of GBADWS. Though it was almost a century ago, in 1932, that Stanley Baldwin said that the Bomber will always get through6, the adage remains relevant even today. There have been instances when with the best of defensive and surveillance networks that leakers have got through. If Mathias Rust7 managed to penetrate the Soviet Air Defence network in 1987, an Iraqi SU-24 penetrated the Coalition defences during Operation Desert Storm8. Such a scenario remains possible even today.

Air Force may be able to dominate a given space for a given time period but it does not have the capability of a continued presence or of countering all threats for all the time9. To do so, it needs GBADWS. However advanced and capable the  Air Force may become, it will continue to need GBADWS to provide effective Air Defence.



  1. Eric Schmitt PENTAGON CLAIMS ON SCUDS DISPUTED, New York Times, June 24, 1992
  2. Pakistan test-fires first nuclear-capable submarine cruise missile Babur-3, Times of India, Jan 9, 2017,


  1. Debalina Ghoshal, India: Defeating the Cruise Missile Threat, The Diplomat October 26, 2013
  2. Dr Carlo Kopp Defeating Cruise Missiles Technical Report APA-TR-2007-0402 Air Power Australia,
  1. J-CATCH
  2. Mr Baldwin on Aerial Warfare – A Fear for the Future.The Times. London, ENG, UK: 7 column B. 11 November 1932.
  3.  Chloe Hadjimatheou Mathias Rust: German teenager who flew to Red Square, BBC News,
  4. Major General Donald M Lionetti Air Defence and the Land War, ARMY July 1991
  1. ‘Airpower by itself cannot achieve lasting victory or success without boots on the ground’




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