The SEAD Challenge

An F-4G Phantom II aircraft shows its undercarriage holding four different missiles: one each AGM-45, AGM-65, AGM-78, AND AGM-88.

Trends in Threats to the Surface Based Air Defences

200th Coast Artillery (Anti-Aircraft) Regiment of United States Army was deployed in Philippines as part of United States Forces for Far East (USFFE) in 1941 and was tasked to provide air defence of Clark Field air base in Luzon Island. It is generally accepted that the Regiment was ‘first to fire’ during the Japanese invasion of the Island, and last to surrender. In recognition of the role played by Air Defence Artillery in combat, the phrase ‘first to fire’ was adopted as the official motto by the United States Army ADA in 1986 during the ADA Commanders’ Conference at Fort Bliss.[1]

‘First to fire’ also has an attendant aspect – that the ADA will be the first to be fired at. The reason for the same is not hard to understand. With the increasing role of air power and the need to achieve a favourable air situation before commencing ground operations, any future conflict would commence with application of air power to shape the battlefield. While the common perception remains that the enemy air force is majorly challenged by Air Force alone during this phase, a study of all conflicts reveals that the Air Defence Artillery (ADA) has an equal role in blunting the enemy air offensive and it would be the endeavour of adversary’s air to suppress and neutralise the ADA to facilitate the conduct of follow on air operations. 

Targeting of ADA is however not carried out by the adversary Air Force alone as was demonstrated in the opening round of the first Gulf War of 1991 when Task Force Normandy of 101st Airborne Division took out two Iraqi radar codenamed Nebraska and Oklahoma, about seventy kilometres apart, in the western desert. The Task Force consisted of eight Apache helicopters, split into two teams – Team Red and Team White. Guiding each team was a US Air Force special operations MH-53J Pave Low helicopter. Additionally, a UH-60 Black Hawk was available for contingency search and rescue operations, and one spare Apache was to cater for any of the prime force of eight Apaches developing a problem before the infiltration into Iraqi airspace began.[2]

The use of United States Air Force F-15 Strike Eagles to attack the local Iraqi air defence command and control centre was only after the strikes by the teams of Airborne Division and was carried out to further degrade the network and facilitate the follow-on strike by the F-117s. The F-117 stealth aircraft were preceded by three EF-111 Ravens. In all, seventeen F-117s were tasked to deliver twenty-seven LGBs on fifteen Iraqi air defence system related targets.[3]

It is interesting to note the sequencing of the strike packages as the first strike on Iraqi Air Defences was by the US Army and not by US Air Force. However, the targeting of air defences by ground troops was not something novel as it had been practiced earlier also, more famously by Israel during the Yom Kippur War as it used its armour and artillery against Egyptian Surface to Air Missile (SAM) sites.[4]

Use of ground troops is also necessitated in case of the failure of the Air Force(s) to destroy the designated air defence site as it happened during the War of Attrition in 1969-1970. One of the Egyptian P-12 radar was damaged during a raid by the Israel Air Force in September 1969 but it came back on-air in a different configuration. The Israel Air Force launchedreconnaissance missions to locate the radar which was subsequently located at Ras-Arab. The immediate Israeli response was to destroy the new radar station with an aerial strike, but the attack was aborted just minutes before it was to be launched and the new plan called for it to be captured intact.

According to another account, the Israel Air Force had carried out the strike mission and claimed to have destroyed a radar at Ras-Arab, but the post-strike damage assessment revealed it to be a dummy radar. The assessment also showed the actual radar located nearby, unprotected and without any AA defending it. It was then that the plan to capture the radar was prepared.

The operation, code-named Rooster-53, was launched at 2100 on 26 December 1969. A-4 Skyhawks and F-4 Phantoms attacked the Egyptian positions along the western bank of the Suez Canal and Red Sea to cover the noise of approaching helicopters. The paratroopers, carried by three Super Frelons, were able to surprise the Egyptian contingent at the radar station and quickly took control of the site. The radar was dismantled and carried back to Israel.[5]

Defining Suppression of Enemy Air Defences 

All activates undertaken to degrade, neutralise and destroy air defences are referred to as suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD). Edward Luttwak and Stuart Koehl’s in their “The Dictionary of Modern War”, defined Suppression of Enemy Air Defences in 1991 as  ‘weapons, tactics, and operations whose aim is to destroy or otherwise neutralize anti-aircraft guns and surface to air missiles in order to allow attack aircraft to operate more freely’ but this definition was more aligned towards the United States Air Force practices and doctrines and did not cover all aspects of SEAD.[6]

It was only in 2004 that definition of SEAD was revised by United States to include the use of ‘other means’ against surface-based AD when it was termed as “that activity that neutralizes, destroys, or temporarily degrades surface-based air defence by destructive or disruptive means”.[7]

 This definition vastly expanded the scope of activities, weapons systems, techniques & tactics that could be included in the overall ambit of SEAD. The revision of the definition was not a day too soon as the recent developments show that a far wider range of threats are being applied against surface-based air defences which make them more vulnerable than ever before.

Why ADA is targeted

In order to understand the reasons of targeting air defences – and the need to protect them, the basic relationship between aerial platforms and surface-based air defence needs to be looked at. The aircraft has proved itself to be an effective combat tool that can be used to shape and influence the operations on ground. The evolution of aerial platforms over the last century has seen the manned, and unmanned, platforms play an increasing role both in peace and war and today no nation can hope to fight without achieving a favourable air situation. 

A dominant air force can not only inflict heavy and crippling casualties on to the adversary but also deny the freedom of manoeuvre to the enemy forces and prevent application of the combat power. Keeping the enemy air at bay and protecting own combat power from enemy air thus becomes important if the ground operations are to succeed. The means to do so include both the air force and surface-based air defences.

While the aircraft (and the air force) are the glamorous face of air defences, the largely undervalued surface air defences provide most of the deterrence to enemy air forces and are also responsible for a larger share of attrition caused. It is more relevant when there is an imbalance between the two adversary air forces in which case the asymmetry between the two can only be corrected to an extent by a calculated employment of surface-based air defences. The use of Soviet Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs) by Egypt in the ‘Missile Box’ in 1970 along the Suez Canal during the War of Attrition was the first instance when Israeli Air Force’s aerial freedom of operation was challenged but the edge gained by the surface based air defences had been  blunted by the Israeli Air Force during the latter half of the Yom Kippur War and by 1982 it had a clear dominance over Arab air defences. The dominance of  the air forces was on full display during the Gulf Wars but even so the surface based air defences continued to challenge, interfere and attrite the air forces. The same trend was observed in subsequent conflicts also. The duel between the air and surface-based air defences have continued ever since with the air seemingly gaining dominance in recent times. The reasons for dominance over air defences are partly due to use of means other than air which give an advantage even to state and non-state actors without a credible air force.

The Threats

The manned aircraft remained the main threat to the AD systems for a long time with most of the strike and soft-kill missions being carried out by aircraft only and drones/Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) being used in support of such missions. In recent times, roles seem to have reversed with the UAS taking on the primary responsibility of SEAD.

A view of an AGM-88 HARM high-speed anti-radiation missile mcounted beneath the wing of a 37th Tactical Fighter Wing F-4G Phantom II “Wild Weasel” aircraft.

One of the favoured munitions for use in SEAD role has been the Anti-radiation Missile (ARM). The first combat use of ARM by United States was in the Vietnam war when AGM-45 Shrike was first used from the US Navy’s A-4 aircraft.[8]AGM-78 Standard ARM, AGM-122 Sidearm, and AGM-88 HARM followed with other countries developing their own including the British ALARM with loiter capability. The Soviets had the Kh-15, Kh-25, Kh-28, Kh-31and Kh-58 ARMs of which Kh-58 remains the primary ARM of Russian Air Force. The Soviets had also modified its Raduga KSR-2 missile, called the KSR-11 Kelt, for use in ARM role. They were deployed by Egyptian Air Force during the Yom Kippur war. They were used in the initial stages of the war and though a number of them were shot down by anti-aircraft (AA) guns, a couple of them managed to destroy two radar stations.[9] Of the two missiles fired towards central Israel , one was shot down by a Mirage while the second fell harmlessly into the sea.[10]

Aircraft and UAS aside, the other threats to AD systems include field artillery, mortars, naval surface fire, attack helicopters, electronic warfare and surface-to-surface missiles. One of the major success stories in the respect is that of Delilah, the Israeli cruise missile specially designed for SEAD missions. Developed in the 1970’s after the Yom Kippur War, Delilah was initially designed to act as a decoy but as the program matured, a switch was made and Delilah was developed as an attack cruise missile that was meant to directly strike enemy air defence systems.[11] Its more recent use by Israel was to target Russian Pantsir-1M air defence systems operated by the Syrian Army.[12]

Delilah loitering munition

The use of varied platforms in recent years is reflective of the switch from manned to unmanned systems with an increase in both the  spectrum and intensity of the threat.

The Drone Factor

As the use of drones is ‘safer’ as compared to use of manned aircraft, they are the preferred option for use in high (AD) threat areas. The present day operational limitations of air defence systems in countering drones is also an added factor favouring use of drones in SEAD missions. 

One of the earliest and most spectacular use of UAS in SEAD missions was during the Bekaa Valley War of 1982 when Israel employed the Mastiff RPVs  to lure the Syrian air defences to try and make them switch on their radars. Using the target data relayed by Scout RPVs, the Israeli F-4 Phantoms struck the Syrian SAM sites destroying nineteen of them in a single day.[13]  It was however not till 1999 when first use of UAS in joint tactical operations in an active combat theatre was carried out by the United States during Operation Allied Force.[14] Since then, their role has expanded from reconnaissance and target designation to air strike and notably for SEAD with the advent of armed drones.[15]

Drone Swarm

From drones to drone swarms has been an obvious progression with swarms of even simple drones made by Do-It-Yourself (DIY) kits having proven itself to be a potent threat.[16] A number of countries including India are presently investing in developing drone swarms for use in SEAD role.[17]

The Soft Kill Options

When Britain used the windows in World War II to degrade the German radars, it was only the beginning of the electronic warfare (EW) offensive against air defences. While EW is in itself an independent domain the more recent conflicts have seen the use of EW as part of a joint effort amplifying the effectiveness of SEAD missions.

Use of EW systems by Turkey in its strikes against Russian Pantsir-1M was a major factor contributing to the success of the drone strikes. According to Turkish defense industry expert Bahri Mert Demirel, “Pantsir could not perform its duty in Syria because Turkey carried out serious electronic warfare and deployed radar electronic attack systems including KORAL to intercept and deceive radar systems in Syria”.[18]

Trends in Air Effort towards SEAD

The use of EW along with drone strikes is reflective of the evolving nature of SEAD operations. From stand-alone systems like launching an ARM or a direct front gun attack on the AA site, the SEAD operations have matured to joint, combined efforts of using two or more systems during a SEAD mission. This change in nature and intensity of SEAD is apparent as the SEAD operations over the years are studied. 

During Desert Storm 110 of the 4,400 aircraft deployed i.e. three percent of the total aircraft deployed were dedicated to SEAD and the number of sorties for SEAD was over five percent of the total sorties carried out by the coalition air forces (4,326 of the total 90,000 sorties).  The allocation towards SEAD went up to about nine percent during Operation ALLIED FORCE in Kosovo in 1999 as 150 of the total 1,191 aircraft were dedicated to SEAD with the  share of SEAD in overall sortie count going up to 12 percent. Of the 421 targets engaged in 11 categories during the 78-day air campaign, 60 targets were associated with Serbian AD targets in two categories.[19]

The increase in allocation for SEAD missions was noticeable during Operation Unified Protector over Libya with 23 SEAD assets being deployed as part of a multinational force of over 260 aircraft for a campaign lasting 220 days i.e. almost nine percent of aircraft were dedicated for SEAD. The NATO forces carried out over 26,500 sorties, including over 9,700 strike sorties. The United States alone carried out more than 71,00 sorties of which 1,500 sorties were towards SEAD/EW.[20]

A look at effort by  United States effort shows a much more pronounced emphasis towards SEAD.  From just over 5 percent in Vietnam, the United States put in 6.2 percent of all sorties towards SEAD during the Gulf War but it dramatically went up to over 21 percent in Kosovo and 32 percent on Bosnia. Even during Operation Northern/Southern Watch in Iraq with the Iraqi AD having been extensively targeted during the operation Iraqi Freedom, United States dedicated 25 percent of its air effort towards SEAD.[21]

It is remarkable that even as air power is getting technologically more advanced and dominant, there is great emphasis on SEAD.

SEAD in Recent Conflicts

The recent conflicts in Syria and Libya have seen extensive and effective use of drones against the air defence systems. The drone strike on Syrian Pantsir-1M mentioned above is just one such example.  The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict saw the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drone  in particular demonstrate its  the versatility as it performed well in targeting and destroying enemy defences. In addition to providing identification and targeting data, the TB2s also carried smart, micro guided munitions to kill targets on their own.[22] 

In almost all the recent conflicts, it is the drones that have primarily been used for SEAD. Though much has been written about their success in targeting air defences and armour but there is a need to analyse the details before jumping to conclusions like ‘the end of air defences’.

Why AD Systems Fail to Defend Itself?

AD Systems are meant to counter the enemy air and defend own strategic and critical assets as also the combat power but repeated targeting and destruction of AD systems raises pertinent questions about their capabilities- if they cannot defend themselves, how can they defend other assets. The answer to this seemingly simple question is nuanced and complex with no simple answers.

Russia, after the Israeli strike on Pantsir-1M system in 2018, had tried to analyse the systems’ failure and came up with two plausible reasons for the same. According to Aytech Bizhev, the former deputy commander-in-chief of the Russian Air Force, one possible reason for Pantsir-1M unit’s failure was that it had already used up its ammunition reserve and the other was that “it was simply turned off; it wasn’t battle ready”.[23]

Pantsir self-propelled surface-to-air and anti-aircraft missile system

These reasons may seem too simplistic but unless the details of each case are analysed, the actual reasons may never be known and incorrect conclusions drawn. Nine Pantsirs-1Ms were claimed to have been destroyed in Syria. A detailed analysis of the videos of the SEAD strikes show that only three Pantrsir-1M may only have been destroyed including one inside a shed, switched off. This can by no means a reflection of failure of the Pantsir-1M. 

Another reason is saturation of the AD systems for each AD system is designed, and is capable of handling a given quantum of threat. An attack on it, beyond its target handling capability would saturate the system resulting in a failure. As it happened in Syria in January 2019.[24]  

Operators’ competence in handling complex advance air defence systems is a major factor that is often overlooked or glossed over. A study carried out by RAND revealed that Syrian personnel operating newly-acquired advanced Russian air defence systems lack the training time that is needed to effectively operate these complex systems.[25]

The tactical handling of AD system also affects its efficacy of the AD system in countering SEAD.  Kosovo is often presented as a success where the NATO forces carried out an effective SEAD campaign. It was assessed that two of the three SA-2s, 11 of 16 SA-3s, and 3 of 25 STRAIGHT FLUSH radars associated with the SA-6 were destroyed by the NATO forces.[26]

A simple analysis of these figures brings out an interesting fact. The larger share of SAM sites destroyed were of static SAMs whereas the mobile SA-6 remained largely safe. A static, immobile SAM or AAA site is easier to detect and engage and would suffer a larger share of damage. A similar result was seen during the Bekaa Valley War when Syrians lost nineteen SA-6 as the AD systems remained static and hence presented an easier target.

Also, the vintage of AD systems available affects the survivability against SEAD missions. During the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the obsolete Russian systems like the 2K11 Krug, 9K33 Osa, 2K12 Kub, and 9K35 Strela-10 held by Armenia were not able to engage the TB2s as it flew too high even if they were able to detect these relatively small aircraft.[27] The technical limitations imposed on the AD systems like the radar ranges and the restrictions of the site/facility itself where the AD systems are deployed, as well as the speed and angle of the drones and missiles, also affects their performance and may result in the drones or aircraft not being engaged.

While the failure of AD systems is discussed, it may well be wise to remember that all systems are prone to failure. ADA systems are no exception. As Daniel Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and a visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies observed “It would seem to validate Israeli concerns that even effective air and missile defence systems, as Israel has, could be overwhelmed by a sufficient quantity of precision-guidance missiles”.[28]


While the general consensus may be that the offensive air power today has an advantage over air defences, AD systems remain a potent force and offer a clear and present threat.  It is important to note that the air power grows in spurts and jumps as opposed to  the defensive systems that have a long gestation period before maturing into operationally ready platforms. This mis-match in the development process creates the imbalance between the two. Also, air defences are reactive in nature and their development usually follows the growth in the air power. In such case, it is critical  at which stage does the duel between two takes place- whether the defensive system had had adequate time to be prepared or was it caught off-guard. 

Another tendency is to deduce conclusions without looking at the overall scenario. During the Balkan crisis, the Unite States Army deployed 24 AH-64 Apaches but did not use them in combat. The decision was majorly based on the threat assessment – that the Serbian air defences posed a threat in which the Apaches would not be able to operate without suffering unacceptable losses. This was after devoting an unprecedented air effort towards SEAD. The Serbian air defences remained a threat right till the end despite NATO’s best efforts.[29]

The drones may seem to have an edge over air defence systems but it is a matter of time that the advantage will be lost. The number of drones shot down over the years say it all. A total of 31drones were shot down in 2016, this number went up to 123 in 2019 and in the first five months of 2020 (for which details are available) 67 drones were reportedly shot down.[30]The improved performance against drones was a result of observing the drone tactics and plugging the loopholes in the AD setup. It may seem a simple explanation but is the key in ensuring a better and more effective AD. This was what is done by the Israelis as they constantly upgrade their AD to take on the wide spectrum of air threats and this is required to cater for the possible forms of future air threats.

Countering SEAD is a challenge but it is not something that cannot be achieved. 

[1] Hamilton, John A., Blazing Skies: Air Defence Artillery on Fort Bliss, 1940-2009, United States Govt Printing Office, Washington D.C., 2009, p 280 

[2] Singh, Mandeep, Air Defence Artillery in Combat, 1972 to the Present: The Age of Surface-to-Air Missiles, Pen & Sword, Barnsley, 2020, p 121

[3] ibid

[4] Singh, op cit., pp 18-21

[5] McCarthy, Don, The Sword of David: The Israeli Air Force at War, Pen & Sword, Barnsley, pp. 13–16 and Singh, Mandeep, Anti-Aircraft Artillery in Combat 1950-1972, Pen & Sword, Barnsley, 2019, pp 113-14

[6] James L. Young Jr., “Barren SEAD: USAF Defence Suppression Doctrine, 1953-1972”, Apple Books.

[7] United States Department of Defence, Joint Publication 1-02, Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms April 2001 (As Amended Through 9 June 2004), Washington, D.C., 2004, p 513

[8] Texas Instruments ASM-N-10/AGM-45 Shrike, Directory of U.S> Rockets and Missiles, accessed at

[9] Singh, Mandeep, Air Defence Artillery in Combat: The Age of surface to Air Missiles, Pen & Sword, Barnsley, 2019, p 7  

[10] Hadas Levav & Eitam Almadon, The Closest Call, Israeli Air Force Magazine, 2018, accessed at

[11] Noam Ofir and Or Yaakov, Delilah’s Secret, Israel Air Force Magazine accessed at

[12] David Cenciotti, “Israel just released footage of one of its missiles hitting an air-defense system in Syria”, The Aviationist, May 11, 2018 accessed at

[13] Evron,Yair, War and Intervention in Lebanon: The Israeli-Syrian Deterrence Dialogue, Johns

Hopkins University Press, 1987, p. 95

[14] Lambeth, Benjamin S., NATO’s Air War for Kosovo: A Strategic and Operational Assessment, RAND Corporation, 2001, pp 94-95

[15] The first “kill” by an American UAV was on October 7, 2001, in Kandahar

[16] Reid, David, “A swarm of armed drones attacked a Russian military base in Syria”, CNBC, 11 January 2018

[17] Pubby, Manu, “Swarm drone system work fast-tracked to take on China’s air defence”, Economic Times, New Delhi, 21 December 2020

[18] Zorfu, Faruk, ‘Turkey’s drone use puts forward new military doctrine’, Anadolu Agency, 5 March 2020, accessed at

[19] Lambeth, Benjamin S., NATO’s Air War for Kosovo: A Strategic and Operational Assessment, RAND Corporation, 2001, pp 62-63

[20] Mueller, Karl P., Precision and Purpose: Air Power in Libya, RAND Corporation, 2015, p 146

[21]  Bolkcom, Christopher, Military Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD): Assessing Future Needs, CRS Report for the Congress, 11 May 2005 accessed at

[22] Frantzman, Seth, “Russian air defense systems outmatched by Turkish drones in Syria and Libya”, Long War Journal, 10 June 2020 accessed at

[23] Brown, Daniel, “Russian air defenses were beaten badly by Israeli forces in Syria on video – here are its excuses”, Business Insider, 14 May 2018 accessed at

[24] Singh, Col Mandeep, Saturation of Air Defences:  Observations on Failure of Air Defence Systems in Syria, Indian defence Review Net Edition, 27 March 2019 accessed at

[25] John V. Parachini and Peter A. Wilson, “Drone-Era Warfare Shows the Operational Limits of Air Defense Systems”, 2 July 2020 accessed at

[26] Lambeth, Benjamin S., NATO’s Air War for Kosovo: A Strategic and Operational Assessment, RAND Corporation, 2001, pp 62-63

[27] Shaikh, Shaan, The Air and Missile War in Nagorno-Karabakh: Lessons for the Future of Strike and Defense, Centre for Strategic and International studies, 8 December 2020.

[28] Frantzman, Seth, “Are air defense systems ready to confront drone swarms?”, Defense News, 26 September 2019

[29] Adam J. Hebert, “The Balkan Air War”, Air Force Magazine, 1 March 2009 accessed at

[30] Frantzman, Seth, “Russian air defense systems outmatched by Turkish drones in Syria and Libya”, Long War Journal, 10 June 2020