S-500 Defense System: Deadly Attacks On Israel Could Prompt India To Acquire ‘World’s Best’ Missiles From Russia: Ex-General

The territorial integrity of any sovereign state is not one of the most important aspects but is undoubtedly the most critical to a nation’s existence. The extent of this territorial integrity is not only limited to the land borders but also extends to the airspace and maritime space. It is, therefore, natural for any country to keep its defense forces prepared to defend each of these three domains.

In the events on October 7, Hamas attacked Israel unprecedentedly. It was a coordinated attack from all three dimensions — land, air, and sea — besides a large barrage of rockets fired by Hamas targeting Israel.

Israel, a known country in the world for its war preparedness, standing at the top of the ranking ladder, was taken aback, suffering many civilian casualties. Hamas’s entire training and preparation was done under the nose of Israel in the area of Gaza. However, it was still undetected by the national intelligence agencies of Israel.

‘Mossad,’ the primary national intelligence agency ranked as one of the best intelligence agencies in the world, was caught by surprise and failed the nation. While this debate will continue for times to come, including the initiation of corrective measures in due course of time, it is essential to look at the response mechanism more so in the air defense domain.

Having failed at the intelligence level, the next level relates to the country’s response in such a situation. At this stage, the ‘Air Defense’ system is tested.

A practical, gap-free, and responsive Air Defense system capable of handling saturated attacks can still come to the country’s rescue even if the intelligence agencies fail to detect the threat in time, which happened in the case of Israel.

Where Israel Failed

Surprisingly for Israel, its Air Defense system, popularly known as ’Iron Dome,’ responded, but it still failed to neutralize many incoming rockets. Reasons for the ‘not so effective’ air defense system need to be deliberately analyzed, but some of the apparent reasons are as follows:

  • Israel was ‘overconfident’ on the efficacy of this ‘air defense’ system as it has been using it effectively since 2011. The system has given successful results in handling incoming threats in the past. It is ranked as one of the best air defense systems in the world. It never thought that Hamas could fire thousands and thousands of rockets on Israel in such a short time, and probably, therefore, did not enhance its target handling capability beyond its initial configuration as it existed in 2011.
  • Israel did not have ‘gap-free’ coverage, an essential requirement for assured air defense, though it is very costly given the vast need for resources. Israel also adopted a compromise formula, deploying the ‘Iron Dome’ system only in populated areas and areas with critical national infrastructure. It resulted in specific gaps, which were exploited.
  • The Iron Dome system was also not configured to neutralize all rockets/missiles trespassing Israeli air space. Still, it ran a ‘decision matrix’ and engaged only those likely to land in a populated area. An additional parameter like this also affects the air defense system adversely.
  • It had a fixed capacity to handle the incoming rockets/missiles, but the projectiles in the thousands fired by Hamas saturated the ‘Iron Dome’ air defense system, resulting in the non-destruction of some missiles and damage in Israel.
  • Israel did not have a mix of air defense systems; therefore, the radar frequency range covered by the radar of the ‘Iron Dome’ radar was the only one that could be addressed. A mix of weapon systems is needed for effective air defense of the country.

As Israel is grappling with its losses and surprises, it has launched an unprecedented attack on Hamas and the entire infrastructure of Gaza, killing Hamas leaders and many civilians, including mass-scale migration of ethnic population.

The initial attacks, conducted by Israel Defense Forces (IDF), have been undertaken by its Air Force (AF), followed by a large-scale ground offensive. The intensity of the response of Israel has the vast potential to reshape the entire Middle East as more and more nations are likely to be involved in this conflict.

Lessons For India

While analysts of geo-political issues will focus on different facets of this conflict, the response of the ‘Iron Dome’ system of Israel has some definitive lessons for India. IAF is responsible for the air defense of the country in India, which it executes with the support of the ground-based Army Air Defense arm of the Indian Army. Some of the important lessons for India could be as follows:

S-500 air defense system
File Image: S-500 air defense system
  • Due to its peninsular geography, India has large borders not only on the land but also in the maritime domain. This extended border automatically enhances the dimension of air space to be protected. Due to having adversarial neighbors in the form of China and Pakistan, its bulk land border can potentially be ‘contested’ besides risks in the maritime domain. India has to, therefore, arrange a gap-free coverage both in the horizontal as well as in the vertical environment. Since the requirement of the resources will be very high, it may adopt a weighted plan factoring the long-range surveillance system incorporated, due to which fewer resources with longer ranges will be able to handle the air threat better.
  • There is a need for a potent as well as an indigenous missile defense system in the country. India is handling its air threat through IAF, ground-based air defense resources, and the recently acquired Russian S-400 missile defense system. Due to the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the induction has been delayed. India must now insist on the S-500 missile system from Russia, as it can handle the incoming threat better.
  • India has done well to have a mix of air defense systems. Still, it needs to re-audit its inventory for vertical and horizontal coverage besides carrying out a frequency scan of the incoming threat. It needs to factor in the emerging threat from drones and possess counter-drone resources for soft and hard kill.
  • Unlike Israel’s ‘Iron Dome’ system, India should not distinguish between incoming rockets/missiles, and anything else entering the Indian air space should be treated ‘hostile,’ and neutralization action has to be initiated.
  • The response should not be limited to incoming rockets and missiles, another peculiarity of Israel’s ‘Iron Dome’ system. However, the sources of origin of these rockets and missiles should also be destroyed.
  • As against only remaining defensive, auto link-up with offensive weapons must exist to respond effectively to the adversaries.

The ferocity with which Israel has responded against Hamas will obliterate its intelligence and air defense failures. Still, those are valuable lessons to be learned by India to keep its defense forces ready.

  • Major General (Dr) Ashok Kumar, VSM, (Retd), is a 1999 Kargil war veteran, visiting fellow of the New Delhi-based Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), and defense & strategic analyst with a special focus on China. He tweets @ChanakyaOracle. VIEWS PERSONAL OF THE AUTHOR
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