Air Defence Command and Control of Air Defence Weapons:A Historical perspective

At 0100 hours 0n 11 December 1971, 64 Air Defence (AD) Battery was asked by Commander 16(Independent) Armoured Brigade to move a troop forward to provide AD to a tank column stuck across the Karir Nadi while trying to cross it during the attack on Dehira  and Chakra villages. The troop was in action at the new location by first light and successfully warded off repeated attacks by Pakistan Air Force. The Battery, under command the Armoured Brigade, continued to provide AD to the Armoured Brigade during the Battle of Basantar. In recognition of its service, 64 AD Battery was awarded the battle honour BASANTAR RIVER.

64 AD Battery was under command 16(I) Armoured Brigade during the India-Pakistan War 1971 but it’s operational control was exercised through the Control & Reporting (C&R) channel. The Battery carried out all moves and deployments as per the tactical requirement, and as directed by the Armoured Brigade Commander and yet it was the C&R network that controlled the gun’s fire. Not only did the system work well but no tank was lost to enemy air action during the entire battle.

This needs recollection as command and control of ground-based AD systems (GBADS) is debated in context of the AD Command. The proposed creation of AD Command was one of the first decisions announced by the newly appointed Chief of Defence Staff. To be headed by a three-star  Indian Air Force (IAF) officer, the Command aims at integrating all the air defence resources to ensure “optimisation of resources” and  preventing fratricide. One of the statements of CDS on the subject that stands out is1:

 “If you have to ensure there is no fratricide, for every weapon system fired in the right time at the right aircraft, the command and control instructions should come from one entity. As of now it’s not,” he said. (emphasis added).”

The idea of creating an Air Defence Command is not new and has been tried out, with variations, by a number of countries but none of the leading military powers today have an Air Defence Command per se. While it may not be a reason enough for not having an AD Command, it does warrant a rethink over the question of creating an AD Command to have unitary command and control over all AD systems as the more important issue is- should the command and control instructions for AD resources come from one authority and if they do not, does it lead to sub-optimal utilisation of resources and fratricide?  The answer may well lie in history of AD Artillery. 

The common practice is to have the AAD units and sub-units ‘under command’ the field army with  the control exercised through the C&R System. This has been the practice since the raising of the first Indian Anti-Aircraft (AA) Regiment in September 1940 which deployed 1st Heavy AA Battery at Digboi soon after its raising, with the Battery placed under operational control of the nearest Royal Air Force Base Operations Room. As there was no AA formation headquarter in India as yet, the command was exercised through the local formation headquarters.

Raising of the first Indian AA Brigade came about only in February 1942 when 1st Indian AA Brigade was raised at Calcutta with the  No 1 Gun Operations Room (GOR) being raised a month later. No. 2 and 3 GORs came up at Digboi and Tatanagar, respectively at the same time, making it a total of three GORs covering Assam and Bengal.  1st Heavy AA Battery  now came under No 2 GOR for operational control.

With additional AA Regiments being raised, the entire country was soon covered by seventeen GORs which in turn were linked to seven ‘filter rooms’ of the Air Force, fed information by  a network of over 70 radars. Forward of the Air Ministry Experimental Stations (AMES) were the Wireless Observer Units with posts across the Manipur Road and southward toward the Chin Hills as far as Arakan Hill tract. 

To coordinate the AA defences and the Air Force, an AA Officer (usually the senior most AA officer) was designated as the AA Defence Commander (AADC). The air raid warning as provided to the AA Batteries by the GOR (re-designated as AA Operations Room) which engaged the enemy raiders as per detailed ‘fire control orders’ issued by the Air Force (emphasis added). One such order issued is given below:2

“Orders for firing by AA Guns will be as follows:

By Day

HAA. Fire will be opened on any group of ac identified as hostile or which have committed a hostile act, or when U.S Air Force Base Ops Room asks for fire. Single ac will not be engaged except-

                                    (a) When they are being actively offensive

                                    (b) When there is a reasonable chance of bringing them down,

                                    (c) On the request of U.S. Ops Room for Pointer Rounds. AADC Digboi  

                                    and Dinjan will then fire 4 rounds from a single selected gun.

LAA. Normal rules of engagement. 

By Night

HAA. Fire will not be opened except when permission has been obtained from U.S. Air Force Ops Room.

LAA. Fire will not be opened at night even as above unless

                                    (a) The ac is making a direct attack on the gun, or

                                    (b) Against parachute mines or flares.

Base Ops room has the right by day or by night, to order guns to cease fire for operational reasons.”

At no stage was the issue of the fire orders the prerogative of the AA Commander with the only exception being the permission to fire in self-defence if the AA location was directly attacked. A similar arrangement was followed during all operations, including amphibious operations, for which Mobile AAOR were employed. The Air Force radars for such AAORs were mobile- even fitted on amphibious vehicles and at times, on landing crafts. The responsibility of surveillance and early warning remained that of the Air Force. GL radars of AA Artillery were used ay locations with poor, or no Air Force radar coverage and the AA brigades started co-ordinating the siting and roster of GL sets, networking some of them with the formation AAOR and using them for early warning. These GL sets may have supplemented the radar network of the Air Forces but the procedure of warning and give fire orders remained the same.

In time, all Indian Divisions had an integral AA Regiment and the command of these was exercised through the formation command channel but the control orders were passed through the C&R network. There was never an ambiguity about the exercise of control of AA Batteries. There were occasions during the Battle of Burma that the AA Batteries were used in direct firing role as per the formation plans but the employment in AA role was always as per laid down procedures of following the Air Force lead. The Royal Air Force radars accompanied the advancing XIV Army, at times fitted on to boats and riverine crafts, DBKW amphibious vehicles and jeeps. The system worked with attendant constraints.

As with other arms and services, a large number AA Artillery regiments were demobilized from 1945 onwards including all the AAORs, that were raised during the war. To exercise command over the AA Regiments, not integral to the Divisions, an Army Group Royal Indian Artillery (AGRIA) was raised but it did not exercise operational control over the Regiments. This left a  void in the anti-aircraft defences in India as there was no operations centre to coordinate and control the operations of the anti-aircraft regiments and batteries. The immediate need was thus for an Anti-Aircraft Operations Room each for the Western and Eastern regions. Accordingly, two new AA operations rooms viz No. 1 and 2 AAOR were raised on 22ndFebruary 1946 but they were also demobilized before partition with an AAOR being next raised only in 1951.  

C&R Organisation

The Indian Air Force, after independence, established the Air Defence Areas (later called the Air Defence Control Centre) to exercise operational control over the AD assets through sector operation centres and base operations centres. With time, the Joint AD centres manned by both IAF and Army representatives came up to control the AD artillery assets and the C&R system has matured since then with clearly defined procedure of passing information and issuing fire orders. It is pertinent to note that “anti-aircraft units whether deployed for the defence of airfields or allotted in support of the field army, always come under the functional control of the air force”.3

The arrangement has continued since, ensuring that while the ingressing aerial platforms are suitable engaged by an appropriate weapon system, the safety of own aircraft is also ensure.it is not say that there are no limitations but they are not a function of command and control.

Identifying the Weak Link 

The most critical component of an air defence system is the C&R system that coordinates and controls the activities of the surveillance sub-system and the weapons systems, be it airborne or surface based. The success of an air defence engagement depends on getting the right information to the right weapon system at the right time. For this a seamless communication network is essential that can link all the air defence elements. Herein lies the rub for the three services have unique communication protocols and it is this lacuna that need to be addressed.

The reason for this logjam is that while the IAF has its  Integrated Air Command and Control System (IACCS), the Army and the Navy have Akash Teer and Trigun respectively. The main limitation of the present system is the lack of  seamless integration in the services’ C&R systems. The  IACCS, which rides on the Air Force (AF) net, should continue to be the national level but the Akash Teer and Trigun systems need to be integrated with it for the lack of integration is the main bottleneck and the primary challenge.

One of the main reasons for failure of air defences is the collapse of internal checks and balances. From the incident of Patriot missile firing at a Royal Air Force Tornado in 2003 to the more recent shooting down of a Mi-17 V-5 chopper of the 154 Helicopter Unit on 27 February 2019 by an IAF Spyder missile, the fratricide incidents were a result of intra-organisational failures. Such incidents are not new. Even during the India-Pakistan War of September 1965, Pakistan Air Force was able to deliver a deadly blow at Pathankot because the information picked up by the radar at Amritsar was passed on to the Base Operations Room but not acted upon for reason not known. There was no inter-service failure, but a lapse within the same service. To assume that an AD Command will somehow correct this, without addressing the core issue, will be denying the realities and complexities of a functional AD system.

A Word of Caution

Air power, and by extension air defence can only be ignored at own peril by the field army. This necessity, to co-opt and integrate AD with the field formations is not a recent requirement but has existed since the middle of the last century. In a way, the Armies of the World War II era understood this well and organised their formations accordingly. Indian Army was no exception and all Divisions had an AD Regiment on their order of battle, a practice that carried on till the early 1960s when a decision was taken to group all AD Regiments under Independent AD Brigades to facilitate technical training and their employment. 

This move, however well intended, was a retrograde step and meant de-linking of the AD Regiments from the field formations. There was no direct interaction of the Commanders and the General Staff with the AD artillery, resulting in lack of knowledge and appreciation of the nuances of employing AD resources.  An opportunity to correct this was lost in mid 1980s, when the Reorganised Army Plains Infantry Division, when conceived, had its own integral AD elements. Had the original proposal been implemented, the AAD would have been more integrated with the field formations and Commanders and the General Staff more involved in the planning and employment of air defence.

Similarly, AD Command will result in the AAD being further delinked from the field armies, a move that result in an un-bridgeable chasm being created between the two. With the air defence of the field armies being of critical importance, such gaps in understanding air defence are too costly to be glossed over. It will also be wise to remember that no AD Command, from Pakistan and Egypt to Iraq and United States have succeed in accomplishing their intended role. And wisdom lies in recognising the futility of the belief that India can succeed in this.

There is no doubt that the wise men on the (Raisina) hill will decide upon the correct course of action in due course of time but it will be wise to remember the old story from the Upanishads of the musk deer that spent its life looking for the elusive source of intoxicating perfume, not realising that the source was within. 

The main limitation of the AD system lies within, in its C&R network. To look for a big, bold decision that can correct it may well prove to be akin the hunt of the musk deer.

Notes

1. “Bipin Rawat holds meeting on creating Air Defence Command” by Special Correspondent, The Hindu, New Delhi, 2 January 2020

2. War Diary of 2nd Indian AA Brigade. Accessed at History Division, Ministry of Defence, New Delhi.

3. Maj Gen D.K. Palit, Vr C, History of Regiment of Artillery Indian Army, Lee Cooper, London, 1972, p 174