It is not a secret that some of the country’s most important installations, such as nuclear plants, dams, power plants, oil refineries and ammunition depots will be at risk from enemy aircraft in the event of a war. In March 2012, the then Army Chief General V K Singh (retd) wrote to then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that “97 per cent of Army’s air defence inventory was obsolete”.
More than four years later, nothing has changed to improve the state of the Army’s air defence. Virtually none of the upgradation and acquisition programmes to modernise air defence capabilities have seen any progress.
While the overall surveillance and defence of airspace is the responsibility of the IAF — which too has only 32 fighter squadrons against a requirement of 45 — the Army’s air defence corps is specifically responsible for providing the terminal air defence for important installations through Ground-Based Air Defence Weapon Systems (GBADWS).
The “terminal” or final protection against an enemy aircraft at these installations is provided by an air defence (AD) gun. The Army has two AD guns in its inventory, L-70 40 mm guns of Swedish origin, and ZU-23 twin barrel guns of Soviet origin. The L-70 is of 1960s vintage, while ZU-23 is from the 1970s. Both were obsolete by the turn of the century.
“Both in terms of speed and distance, these AD guns are incapable of engaging the aircraft currently being used by our adversaries which travel faster than the speed of sound,” an Army official said.
The Army took up the case for replacement of these guns in 2005. A Request for Proposal (RFP) for 428 AD guns was issued by the Defence Ministry in August 2013, but was withdrawn later that year as only one vendor responded to what most suppliers saw as unrealistic specifications not available anywhere globally. A fresh Request for Interest was issued in April 2014, but it has not even resulted in an RFP so far.
The Army then mooted a proposal for upgrading the existing AD guns. Public sector Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) was last year given the contract to upgrade 200 L-70 guns, while private sector Punj Lloyd Limited was selected to upgrade 468 ZU-23 guns. After the staff evaluation, the Ministry concluded price negotiations with Punj Lloyd in March 2016.
The second component of the GBADWS is the missile systems, which are again more than 25-30 years old. KVADRAT Surface to Air Missile, STRELA-10M and the OSA-AK were used during the Yom-Kippur War of 1973, and are way past their operational usefulness. Tunguska and IGLA-1M are of 1980s’ vintage, and unsuited for modern warfare.
RFPs to acquire new AD missile systems, such as the Very Short Range Air Defence System (VSHORAD), Short Range Surface to Air Missile (SRSAM), and Quick Reaction Surface to Air Missile (QRSAM) were issued between 2010 and 2013, and trials have been completed. Trials for VSHORAD were completed in 2013, but staff evaluation has not been completed so far. Same is the case with SRSAM and QRSAM, whose trials were successfully completed in February 2015 and March 2016.
Only after the staff evaluation does the Defence Ministry enter into price negotiations with the selected company. According to the Defence Procurement Procedure, the staff evaluation is supposed to be completed within a maximum of 12 weeks.
To add to the crisis, the holding of AD missiles and gun ammunition is also very low — sources estimate it to last fewer than 7 days against a minimum requirement of 20 days of war — as pointed out by the CAG in its report last year. This has resulted in restrictions on training firing practice. A Colonel who commanded an AD Regiment on the western border told The Indian Express that his unit didn’t fire a single round in four and a half years of his command. The Ordnance Factories Board has been unable to manufacture AD gun ammunition in requisite quantity, and attempts to import them have failed.
Missiles have an average shelf-life of 7 years, and most have finished theirs. Their life is extended every year after a sample test, but the Army is wary of their reliability. An old missile or gun ammunition can malfunction, causing damage to men and material.