In recent days, the world saw the interesting show of force from Israel’s Iron Dome air defence system against the Hamas’ rockets fired from Gaza. The question is whether this is a new concept or it is an evolution of an old aged air defence system that integrates air radars, fire control station and fast intercepting missile? Image source: India Today
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You may hate Hitler and Nazism but admit that the German military in World War 2 had some of the best weapons and strategy against their counterparts on the other side of the battle. Flak 8.8 was indeed one of the best weapon created firstly to defend against air attacks and then against main battle tanks. Image source: Wikipedia
World War 2 – Air Defence System
Ever since nations have been using aircraft to fight battles from the air, air defence system have become a key part of the defence strategy. In World War 2, most countries defended their skies using anti-aircraft guns with the two famous weapons – one of which is the Bofors 40 mm gun which the modern variant is still in use today with some of the navies including Malaysia.
The other and more famous one is Germany’s Flak 8.8 gun which an 88 mm gun that was used as anti-aircraft but soon found its niche as a tank killer with it being mounted on Tiger II tanks. It was interesting how the Flak 8.8 was deployed similar to the Iron Dome system:-
Throughout the entire war, the majority of 88 mm guns were used in their original anti-aircraft role.
The guns were usually equipped with a Kommandogerät system, which was an analog gunnery computer. The Kommandogerät systems were introduced starting in 1925, and the Kommandogerät p40 was the standard system during the majority of the war.
It allowed extremely precise fire, and would even take into account how far away the guns were from one another and the aiming crew, cancelling out the offset and aiming all weapons at the same point. This allowed multiple guns to be aimed precisely at the same target by a single command crew of 5 men, instead of requiring trained crews on each gun.
Radar aiming systems were also developed to complement these systems. The Würzburg radar series of radars was produced in the thousands and used widely. It allowed general area fire without line of sight, but had poor accuracy compared to the visual systems.
This resulted in the Giant Würzburg, which had sufficient accuracy to precisely control guns without direct visual contact.
After World War 2 and as the military around the world moves to missiles instead of guns, there was a greater need to have a strong air defence system in place. In recent times, an integrated air defence system can be seen in naval ships as they are very vulnerable to ship missiles, air to ship missiles, fighter jets and attack helicopters. The Americans had Phalanx CIWS manufactured by the General Dynamics Corporation which basically a Vulcan cannon coupled with a radar dome on the top. It fires up to 4,500 rounds of shells a minute.
The Russians have a similar CIWS system onboard their naval ships – the familiar one is the AK-630 which is a six-barreled 30 mm rotary cannon, capable of shooting 5,000 rounds per minute.
On a larger scale at the height of the Cold War, the US even looked at a missile defence system called the “Star Wars Program” that uses a number of satellites in orbit to track any intercontinental ballistics missiles and feed the information to ground bases to launch intercepting missiles to intercept and destroy the on-coming missiles.
These days every country deploys a mix of radars and some form of surface to air missiles or anti-aircraft guns to form some kind of air defence, guarding military and strategic installations.
The Americans are always in constant battle with the Russians and despite the end of the Cold War, the battle was never over. Now there is a battle on who has the better air defence system – American’s Patriot or Russian’s S-400 air defence system. Image source: China Global Television Network
The Patriot Air Defence System
Then when the Gulf War started in 1991, the world started to know an air defence system from the US called the Patriot Air Defence System which deploys a series of surface to air missiles and tracking radars to intercept Iraq’s SCUD missiles. The effectiveness of this system however was called into question when some of the SCUD missiles managed to pass through and landed in Israel and Saudi Arabia. It was reported that a total of 88 SCUD missiles were launched and the worst tragedy was when a SCUD struck a military base in Saudi Arabia killing 28 soldiers.
During the 1991 Gulf War, the American public was informed that the Patriot missile had a near-perfect record, intercepting a total of 45 out of 47 Scud missiles.
This estimate was later revised down by the US army to about 50 percent. Even then, it noted “higher” confidence in only about 25 percent of the cases.
More recently, however, Saudi Arabia put its Patriot defences to the test and found them severely lacking, with outright failures.
In repeated missile strikes from Houthi rebels using unsophisticated ballistic missiles, the Patriot missile failed, at times spectacularly.
Despite Saudi Arabia claiming a high success rate for the missile system, it discussed obtaining advanced S-400 missile defences from Russia following the Patriot failures.
Further investigations revealed the root cause as being a software glitch:-
The report finds that the failure to track the Scud missile was caused by a precision problem in the software.
The computer used to control the Patriot missile is based on a 1970s design and uses 24-bit arithmetic. The Patriot system tracks its target by measuring the time it takes for radar pulses to bounce back from them. Time is recorded by the system clock in tenths of a second, but is stored as an integer.
To enable tracking calculations the time is converted to a 24-bit floating point number. Rounding errors in the time conversions cause shifts in the system’s “range gate”, which is used to track the target.
With the S-400 missile system from Russian showing its effectiveness over the Patriot air defence system, there is great concern in the West on the effectiveness of their air defence system. After all, S-400 basically trumps Patriots in all aspect:-
S-400 can shoot down targets moving at a speed of 17 km/hour while Patriot/PAC-3 could only shoot down a target moving at 8 km/hour
S-400 can engage with 72 targets simultaneously and track 160 targets at the same parameters for Patriot are 36 and 125 targets
S-400 locates a target at 600 km distance and can destroy at 400 km range (with the latest 40N6E missile that just has been successfully tested). Patriot can locate a plane at 180 km and an enemy’s missile at 100 km
S-400 is able to down targets flying as low as 10 meters and as high as 30 km while Patriot PAC-3 destroys its lowest target at a height of 50 meters with the highest at 25 km
The deployment time for S-400 and Patriot PAC-3 is 5 minutes and 25minutes respectively.
Various informed sources have said that to hit an aircraft with a probability not less than 0.99, one will have to launch 1-2 S-400 missiles or 2-3 Patriot missiles. In case of fighting off a ballistic missile attack the ratio will be 1 / 2 or 3 in favor of S-400.
Of course, there is another argument that no system handles everything and each system has a specific role designed for specific target and warfare scenario:-
People compare S-400 to Patriot all the time without understanding how different the two really are.
The S-400 is more of a strategic anti-aircraft weapon designed to engage targets at long ranges (380 km) with limited anti-ballistic missile capability. It’s optimized for an anti-aircraft role with missiles like 40N6E designed specifically for non-manoeuvring targets (AWACS, Bombers, etc.)
Patriot on the other hand while originally designed as anti-aircraft is highly optimized for Tactical Ballistic Missiles Defence over the last 2 decades. PAC-3 was designed specifically for engaging TBMs with an AESA seeker and hit-to-kill warhead.
The range was reduced from PAC-2 for a smaller footprint and better performance against TBMs – making it possible to store 16 PAC-3 in each battery compared to 4 PAC-2.
This is because of different doctrine and requirement – over the last few decades Theatre Ballistic Missiles represented the biggest threat to the US and many countries’ forward-deployed forces.
Israel’s Iron Dome System
In recent days, we started to read about Israel’s Iron Dome air defence system which is basically similar to the US’s Patriot air defence system. It is developed mainly to intercept short-range rockets and 155mm artillery shell threats with ranges of up to 70km. It is reported that the air defence system had so far intercepted more than 2,000 incoming targets with a success rate of over 90%.
The Iron Dome was born from a necessity to protect its citizens and brought on by the rocket attacks by Hezbollah and Hamas:-
Its development was prompted after a series of rocket attacks on Israel by Hezbollah and Hamas in the 2000s.
In the 2006 Lebanon war, around 4,000 rockets were fired on the northern parts of Israel resulting in the death of about 44 Israeli civilians and the evacuation of around 250,000 citizens.
An Iron Dome battery consists of a battle management control unit, detection and tracking radar and a firing unit of three vertical launchers, with 20 interceptor missiles each. The interceptor missile uses a proximity fuse to detonate the target warhead in the air.
The Iron Dome is deployed in a layered defence along with David’s Sling and Arrow missile defence system which are designed for medium- and long-range threats.
According to a 2013 research paper by Yiftah S. Shapur on the Lessons from the Iron Dome in Military and Strategic Affairs, one of the system’s important advantages is its ability to identify the anticipated point of impact of the threatening rocket, to calculate whether it will fall in a built-up area or not, and to decide on this basis whether or not to engage it.
This prevents unnecessary interception of rockets that will fall in open areas and thus not cause damage, the paper states.
Like many other air defence systems in the market, it has its advantages and disadvantages and is designed around a series of other system and to work based on certain assumptions. The improvements of attacking rockets and missiles in the future may undermine the effectiveness of interception as well.
As long as the volume of rockets Hamas could shoot in a single salvo was small, this was almost a hermetic defence.
But Israeli intelligence and national security officials had long warned that Hezbollah had a sufficient number of rockets to pound the Jewish state with over 1,000 rockets in a day, an amount that could pierce the Iron Dome shield.
The other shortcoming is the cost of these air defence systems:-
The air-defence system is expensive, with each interceptor missile costing between $40,000 to $50,000. Hamas, on the other hand, spends approximately $800 to a few thousand dollars for each rocket it launches against Israel.
Thus, the Iron Dome system might be very effective in terms of interception rates, but it is financially inefficient compared to the threat.
Of course, it’s hard to put a price tag on the psychological benefits of your population knowing that there is an unseen umbrella that can protect you quite effectively from rocket or artillery attack.
Additionally, there is an undetermined financial benefit of preventing munitions from disrupting normal life.
Malaysian Air Defence System
Being a modern military that is keeping up with the latest technology, Malaysia is not far from an integrated defence system called ForceSHIELD defence system which works in tandem with radars, weapon systems and actual interceptors on the air.
For start, in addition to the old Bofors 40 mm guns, Malaysia has several batteries of Rapier surface to air missile system which was originally developed for the British Army for air defence. It has a speed of Mach 2.5 with a range of 400 to 8,200 meters and has a manual optical guidance system that provides guidance commands to the missiles in flight. Malaysia also deploys several batteries of Oerlikon 35 mm twin cannon for air defence role which is basically is a towed anti-aircraft gun that shoots about 550 rounds per minute and a firing range of 4,000 meters.
Of course, this is getting obsolete considering that there are many types of portable, man-held surface to air missiles system from various countries that Malaysia had bought to beef up the air defence system namely against low flying targets. It provides the man on the ground to have an option to intercept airborne treat quickly without the need for a large movement of logistics.
These include Russian made 9K38 Igla infrared homing surface-to-air missile that has a speed of Mach 1.9 and a range of almost 6 kilometres and the latest British made Starstreak short-range surface-to-air missile under the ForceSHIELD defence system and reputed to be the fastest short-range surface-to-air missile in the world with Mach 4. There is also a number of British made Javelin portable surface-to-air missile still in service with the armed forces.
On a cheaper note, Malaysia also bought a large number of Pakistan made Anza Mk-II surface to air portable missiles for air defence which are based on a Chinese system that is reported to incorporate features from the US-made FIM 92 Stinger portable surface to air missile which played a prominent role in the fight against the Soviet by the Mujahideens and also Russian made Igla-1 surface to air missile system.
Malaysia also has Chinese made FN-6 which is reputed to be a third-generation passive infrared homing advanced surface-to-air missile designed to intercept low flying targets with a range of 6 km and a maximum altitude of 3.8 km.