Air Defence Of Strategic Assets Against Aerial Terrorism

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1. The strategic assets of a nation stand for its pride and dignity and form the foundation of nation's war waging strategy. These assets are the strategic centres of gravity of the nation and their defence needs to be given highest priority. Needless to say that breaches in their security will have irreversible ramifications on the national security.

2. These assets are generally located in depth and have adequate measures to obviate the possibility of any conventional attack. However, the situation over the years has changed drastically. The 9/11 attack [1] in US and the LTTE attack [2] over Colombo, targeting vital installations including the Katunayake international airport have given a new dimension to the security needs of these assets. The rapid growth of what is now known as 'Aerial Terrorism' [3] has shaken up all governments around the world against the threat they pose to the nation's strategic assets. We have seen the effect of the ground attack on the parliament on 13 Dec 01 [4] , which was carried out by a handful of terrorists, armed with just rifles and grenades. Imagine, what

would be the effect of a successful aerial terrorist attack on the Indian parliament, while it is in session!


Historical Background

3. During the World War II, Axis forces made aircraft to crash into buildings resulting in civilian casualties [5] , also the Japanese Kamikaze ('Divine Wind') pilots intentionally crashed their aircraft full of explosives into Allied ships [6] . These could be said to be the first known act of usage of aircraft as a missile. However, such suicidal acts were not considered as terrorism as it was aimed at strategic military targets and the acts were carried out by men in uniform. After WW II, civilian aircraft became particular terrorist targets. According to one estimate, between 1949 and 1985, there were nearly 800 incidents of hijacking with over 60 per cent success rate. Since 1985, there has been an increase in the number of hijackings. Mostly till 1980s, this form of terrorism was used for the purpose of either demanding release of prisoners or for the sake of publicity [7] .

4. However, there were few cases such as in the TWA Boeing 847 hijacking to Beirut by Hezbollah in June, 1985, where following Beirut airports refusal to permit the jet to land, the terrorists, who claimed to be suicide terrorists, declared that they would crash the jet into the Ba'adba Presidential Palace. In an another incidence, Abu Nidal hijacked Pan-Am's Jumbo Jet which he intended to crash in the centre of Tel-Aviv. He could not succeed in his plans, but, such cases gave an idea that the terrorists did have such intentions even during eighties. Finally, Al-Qaeda's attack on the World Trade Centre was the first ever example of an aircraft being used in a 'weapon' mode. This act was termed as 'Aerial Terrorism' because it happened in mid-air [8] .

5. 9/11 indicated a paradigm shift in the hijacking policy of the terrorists. The act of aerial terrorism was now being done with an aim to use the hijacked aircraft as a guided missile and cause mass-murder and chaos. The destruction caused by 9/11 attacks, made aerial terrorism the most effective and attractive instrument in the hands of the terrorists. This has made the governments all over the world realise the impact an aerial terror attack can cause to the nation's morale

New Dimension of Aerial Terrorism

6. Aerial terrorism has now become very potent and real, the terrorists are looking for more innovative and unconventional ways to achieve an element of surprise. For terrorists aircraft remains a high priority target or an instrument to cause terror. They know that along with human deaths a huge amount of infrastructural damages to strategic assets of any country can be carried out by undertaking such acts and they could gather more international publicity for their cause.

7. Apart from using commercial passenger aircraft for carrying out attacks, it is likely that the terror groups could look at private aircraft as an alternative. Normally such aircraft are small in size and are mostly owned by private flying clubs. Also, certain small aircraft do not need a standard runway and could use large grounds or an abandoned airfield for their flying activities. Terrorist groups could make use of such small aircraft for carrying out acts of terrorism. Today, a terrorist organization having reasonable expertise can manufacture small aircraft or toy crafts on their own as all hardware required for this purpose including the engine is openly available in the market and with minor modifications a craft could be built for a specific purpose.

8. These innovations and element of surprise find echo in the acts of Tamil Tigers. This dreaded terrorist organization had its own airpower and used it

effectively in carrying out numerous attacks on Sri Lankan strategic assets. LTTE could be said to be having the world's first terrorist air force. Tamil Tigers demonstrated their capability of attacking from air on March 26, 2007 when they launched an air assault on a Sri Lankan military base close to Colombo by two crude aircraft. Earlier also they had carried out few more air raids. On February 20, 2009 the LTTE launched a Kamikaze style attack aimed at the Sri Lankan Air Force Headquarters and the fighter aircraft hangers at Air Force base adjoining the International Airport in Katunayake. However, both the planes were shot down.

9. This again proves the point that a determined terrorist organization can challenge the might of a nation by attacking her vital assets. Their ability to acquire and operate small airplanes from remote locations deep in jungles and use it to attack showed that the guerrilla groups can achieve such a significant fighting capability, as well as the audacity to take the battle into the most strategic area of any country. This usage of aircraft for spreading terror is a glaring example which clearly signifies that nothing is impossible for terrorist organizations. The terrorist organizations have the capability to covertly manage aircraft and develop ground infrastructure for the purpose. The damage caused on the ground may be minimal but it provides instant worldwide attention to their cause and may dent into the credibility of the nation to effectively fight against that terrorist organization.


Threat to India.

10. Aerial terrorism is not new to India, one of the worst aviation disasters in history, killing 329 people was an Air India Boeing 747-200 B jetliner, which was blown off the Irish Coast on June 23, 1985. Thereafter, in December 1999, an Indian Airlines aircraft, IC 814 was hijacked and taken to Kandahar. This resulted in release of five dreaded terrorists. However, post 9/11 and Katunayake attack, the nature of threat to India from aerial terrorism has changed dramatically. There are primarily two types of threat against the strategic VAs/VPs, firstly a hijacked civil airliner crashing into the VAs/VPs on the lines of 9/11 in USA and secondly a low flying slow moving aircraft bombing targets or crashing into them .

11. The boom in civil aviation industry has brought the commercial passenger aircraft within the reach of common man. This has increased the risk of one of these aero planes getting hijacked and subsequently being used as a missile against one of our important assets. The threat also emanates from slow moving low level aerial targets like micro light aircraft, UAVs, powered and unpowered gliders and balloons [9] . These un conventional threats can be managed and operated by any terrorist group.

The 13 December 2001 attack on Indian Parliament clearly revealed that the national strategic assets were on the radar of the terrorist groups and any future attack would target our strategic assets only.

12. Strategic Assets. The centre of power is always high on the hit list of militants and anti national elements. An act of violence in the national capital will result in intense media coverage and therefore Delhi is a very attractive target for terrorist organisations and antinational elements. A significant number of strategically important national assets like President House, PM House and the Parliament lie within the national capital.

Mechanism to Fight Aerial Terrorism.

13. During peacetime the air defence of the country is ensured by having a chain of high and medium level radars with fighters maintaining heightened state of readiness to intercept any intrusion. This system is highly effective against conventional threats emanating from known general hostile areas. This mechanism was however not found suitable to take on the unconventional threats emerging from aerial terrorism within our country against strategic assets in national capital or in other metropolitans.

14. In late eighties, for the first time a special anti aerial terrorism organisation was formed at National Capital Region to counter any threat posed by anti national elements through the medium of air. Since then, this organisation has been getting activated primarily on days of national importance wherein the threat to the assets is more pronounced. This mechanism involved marking a no flying area around the national assets for a particular time along with deployment of additional low level sensors, observation posts along with terminal weapons for engaging low level threats [10] .

15. Joint Mechanism. On 11 Sep 01, when the civil aircraft hijacked in USA were used as missiles to attack selected targets and the objective of the hijackers was to destroy selected strategic targets, it exposed the vulnerability of our national institutions against such attacks. Thus a need was felt to develop comprehensive procedures for surveillance of air space and action to be taken to terminate the threat posed by hijacked aircraft. This gave birth to a joint organisation with Civil Aviation called Joint Control and Analysis Centre.

16. JCAC. JCAC comprising of elements from the Indian Air Force and Airport Authority of India was established at IGI airport Delhi to look out for erratic behaviour and classify civilian aircraft as doubtful, rogue or threat. The classification of suspect aircraft was to be done by JCAC and informed to Operational Direction

Centre (ODC). ODC manned by IAF personnel would have air defence radar, fighter aircraft and Surface to Air Guided Weapons under it. ODC would activate all weapon system and get a decision on shooting down of the civil airliners after co-ordinating with Executive Authority, who in turn would activate Committee of Secretaries on Anti Hijacking. The COSAH would then take permission from the Prime Minister for shooting down of the aircraft.

17. JCAC [11] and ODC were set up at the International airport and were established to work on round the clock basis. JCAC was authorised to monitor the RT channel of civil aircraft which might potentially pose an aerial threat. ODC was to function as weapon activation and control agency during hijack ac contingency. ODC is presently in the process of acquiring specialised weapons to take on the threats which might give very less early warning.

Limitations of Present Mechanism

18. Philosophy of Threat Appreciation. Events of 09/11 in US and 26/11 in Mumbai have revealed that the threat to vital and strategic assets in the country is real and can raise its ugly head any day. Our presumption of threat emanating only on important occasions like 26 Jan, 15 Aug or any other important day is flawed. The

activation of special anti aerial terrorism organisation on limited occasions is a fallout of this misplaced conception. The possibility of anti national elements carrying out

LTTE type of attack or hijacking a civil airliner to use it as a missile on to our strategic targets has to be dealt with on a daily basis round the year.

19. Mechanism of dealing with threat. The country has been reacting to the various forms of threats to strategic targets by creating threat specific organizations. Special terror organisation was created in eighties to deal with ultra low level aircraft threat and JCAC/ODC was created in 2003 to deal with hijack type of threat. However, the overall responsibility of the air defence of all assets remained with the existing AD organisation of the Indian Air Force.

20. All these organisations are protecting the same strategic targets from almost similar kind of threats, but having overlapping area of responsibilities. The existences of special anti terror organisation & JCAC / ODC have practically made the existing AD structure defunct. This has led to duplication of effort and wastage of Air Defence resources both in terms of men and material.

21. Non Availability of Suitable Sensors. The present sensors of AD system are only suitable for countering threats of a conventional nature and are incapable of picking up small aircraft /gliders flying at low level and at very slow speeds.

22. Non availability of suitable weapon System. The weapon systems most suited to counter a threat which may originate without giving any early warning are presently not available. As can be perceived, the infrastructure is designed for a conventional air attack both in terms of weapon capability as well as detection. The major shortcomings are: -

(a) Weapons are not capable to take on aerial threat at short notice.

(b) All weapons have a limited capability to engage low RCS targets.

23. Inadequacy of Present Identification Procedures. Our identification procedures were designed to handle limited civil air traffic of 100-200 ac in a day. However, due to the boom in civil aviation industry, today our AD system handles 800-1000 flights every day. The present identification procedures are cumbersome to deal with this phenomenal growth in air traffic. This leads to a considerable delay in identifying an aircraft that may have hostile intentions and is heading towards any of our strategic target.


24. The 9/11 commission [12] which was formed to investigate the events of Sep 11

found that the North American Aerospace Defence Command had imagined the possible use of aircraft as weapons and developed exercises to counter such a threat from planes coming to the United States from overseas. However, the military planners assumed that since such aircraft would be coming from overseas, they would have time to identify the target and scramble the interceptors.

25. The 9/11 commission also brought that the methods of detecting and then warning of surprise attack that the US government had so painstakingly developed in the decades after Pearl Harbour did not fail, instead they were not really tried. They were not employed to take on the enemy that was most likely to launch a surprise attack directly against the United States.

Rebuilding of Homeland Defence

26. It was brought out by the commission that maintaining the current status quo

about the air defence was out of the question therefore, it was suggested that rebuilding the original air defense system was feasible both economically and technologically.

27. Radar Network. The radar network was beefed up with Aegis [13] high power radars deployed onshore with data linking for providing early warning. A single radar station was to cover several cities, with perhaps three or four on the East Coast, one or two on the Gulf and four on the Pacific coast. Though the project was expensive, but was found necessary to obviate any possibility of another 9/11 attack.

28. Location of Interceptors. The F-15 Eagle was chosen as the aircraft to perform the role of the interceptor for the homeland defence. The interceptors were to be based, not necessarily at Air Force bases, but at regional airports scattered around the country, much as the Air National Guard [14] is today. Like the old Air Defence Command, these units would be on 24 hours alert. Pilots and ground crew would live in the community, and have no other duties other than air defense

29. SAM Defence. As for direct city defenses, Patriot Pac-2 batteries were properly placed to protect the various cities. The only challenge was to get adequate

early warning for these missiles batteries for which they were data linked to the Aegis radar network.

30. Future Development. 9/11 tragedy gave impetus to various R&D projects in pipeline for providing a seamless air defence cover to the homeland. The various futuristic projects are the following

(a) Un manned Aircraft. Air defense is a perfect role for armed drones. Small aircraft with large wingspans could patrol large areas for periods that pilot fatigue currently renders impossible. Such fighters could be directed from either AWACS or ground stations, with monitors or even virtual reality helmets providing operators with a clear view. On interception, the operators could examine any suspect aircraft, and either escort them in or, if necessary, attack with Sidewinder or AMRAAM missiles.

(b) Energy weapons. Energy Weapons is another area which has raised great possibilities. The YAL-1A, a modified 747, is proposed to provide a defensive umbrella for the complete United States. These aircraft could also fly regular patrols off the coasts, with flight plans prearranged so that laser coverage of each aircraft would slightly overlap with the other

(c) Air Ships. Research is underway to develop lighter than aircraft airships. The air defense role could be easily given to such airships, which would overcome the problem of large aircraft patrols which are limited by both fuel consumption and pilot fatigue. Many of the proposed designs of these airships are enormous and could carry much larger loads than a 747, including AWACS class radar systems, and extra chemical 'ammunition' for laser shots.

(d) High Altitude Aerostat. Airship designers have proposed models which are able to operate for years without coming down. This has led to the possibility of the high altitude aerostat. Such a structure could lift hundreds of

tons, allowing tracking and targeting systems of unparallel power along with weapons that would dwarf those of the YAL-1A aircraft. They would be capable of defending against not only cruise missiles and aircraft, but also most types of ballistic missiles as well [15] .


Unified Command and Control

31. There should be a Unified Air Defence agency looking after all aspects of AD

of the strategic assets against all forms of aerial threats including those posed by aerial terrorism on 24x7 basis, round the year. This agency should be linked to the National Command Post to ensure timely decisions during emergency situations. The military and civilian command and control structures and systems should be seamlessly integrated to ensure faster decision cycles.

Early Warning

32. Sensors. Surveillance capabilities must include detection of air targets at both high and low altitudes. To ensure seamless radar cover at all levels, all air force and civil radars must be integrated in one AD network to have better situational awareness. Radars should have the capability to operate for prolong periods without maintenance or cooling requirements. Modern technologies like tethered balloon radar which will cover all levels of the air space must be deployed.

33. As a back up against the failure of electronic sensors mobile observation posts manned by specially trained personnel are deployed all around strategic assets.

These OPs will also give early warning of threats which are not picked up by the low level sensors due to the reasons of low RCS.

34. Communication. A reliable and secure communication system must be provided by a mix of FOCL, SATCOM, RR, and microwave. Redundancy must be catered for both speech and data connectivity for real time information transfer at all levels [16] .

Proposed Weapon Systems

35. Weapons. The weapon systems should be catered for an all round coverage of the strategic asset through out the year. To deal with the threat posed by aerial terrorism, the deployment of the following weapon systems is proposed.

(a) Fighter and Helicopter interceptors at heightened readiness state

(b) LLQRMS. A low level quick reaction surface to air missile system is required to counter attacks by aircrafts, helicopters, UAVs and micro lights. The system should be able to react within a short warning time of about 5 sec from fully readiness state.

(c) LRSAM. These SAM systems would be able to engage the hostile aircraft from a much longer range. These are highly advanced missile system which will be highly effective against all aerial threats. The threat from cruise missiles and ballistic missiles can also addressed by deploying these weapon systems.

Security Measures

36. No Fly Zones. These zones must be set around all national assets which could be high on terrorist's hit list. A safe or no fly zone [17] will not allow any civil traffic

to enter or operate in these areas thereby making the process of identification of any hostile aircraft easier.

37. Flying Clubs. With the boom in civil aviation industry, there has been a mushrooming growth of flying clubs all over the country. They clubs operate small single or twin engine aircraft. These aircraft generally fly within 5 nm of the airfield from where they operate, however, they have the range and endurance to fly for longer duration. These clubs pose major security risk as these aircraft can be used by terrorist to target strategic targets. It is therefore, important that their operations are kept under scanner by the security agencies.

38. Abandoned Strips. The availability of abandoned air strips in the countryside also poses a major security challenge as these can be used to launch small UAV or micro light aircraft by the terrorists. Therefore, it is imperative that all these are identified and sanitise by the security forces on a regular interval, especially those falling in far flung areas and are not in use.


39. The 9/11 type attacks were viewed as too flamboyant and implausible to happen and after the attacks it was said that 9/11 should not be judged only as a failure of intelligence. In fact, it was more of a failure of 'imagination' on the part of the state than 'intelligence'. It is not necessary that the next aerial threat would follow a 'conventional' path. The terrorists have become tech-savvy and are using modern technology instead of the traditional ones, therefore, an out-of-box threat and risk assessment is needed in this regard.

40. In the wake of recent acts of terrorism using aerial route in various parts of the world, India needs to remain prepared to address the threat of aerial terrorism for which an active AD system is the need of the hour.