Early Warning - The Phalcon “Phallacy”
Analysis of this Threat
[Air Commodore (Retd) SHAHID KAMAL KHAN]
Here we go again. Keeping up with the Joneses! Or more precisely, staying down with the Banyas. If the Indians are bent upon hurting themselves, why should we be left behind? And, if they are planning to hurt themselves a little bit, let us really upstage them. Let us hurt like hell. We now have over eleven billion dollars in the kitty. What better way to hurt than to buy ourselves an AWACS? And you can bet your bottom dollar that our AWACS is going to be better than the Indian Phalcon. And I do not mean “bottom dollar” in the proverbial sense, I actually mean the last greenback at the bottom of our national reserve pile; our AWACS is going to be the best money can buy. So that Pakistanis everywhere are able to look their Indian counterparts in the eye and say, “Mine is better than yours. It is bigger than yours. It can stay up longer, it can go further, penetrate deeper. Mine performs round the clock, day and night, in clear skies and in bad weather, over land, over sea, at high altitude and at low level. Mess with us and you can kiss your cute little synthetic aperture goodbye”.
The Indians are going to buy the Phalcon Airborne Radar and Command Centre. Pakistan is already studying the consequences of this acquisition and developing responses. The first, the unavoidable knee jerk response, is already very apparent. They have one. Let us have one too. Hopefully others, more prudent, more cogent shall follow. This article aims to present a somewhat different perception of this addition to the Indian military inventory. It is an attempt to temper our exuberance as we try to blow the issue out of proportion and argue the case for acquiring a similar capability for our nation. It may also to inject some rationality in the debilitating arms race in the Subcontinent.
Vision is a truly bountiful gift of God. Our eyes collect data which the optic nerve feeds to our brains where information is sifted, assimilated, analyzed, options formed, and the best course of action or, indeed, inaction determined. The further out one is able to see, the more information there is to be gathered and the more prepared one can be for dealing with the situation as it unfolds. At the ridiculous end of this vision scale is the ostrich that prefers not to see and buries its head in the sand while at the sublime end is Man's constant endeavour to peer into all distances, real and imagined, actual and contrived, physical and metaphysical, worldly and extraterrestrial. Man probes all corners, recesses, depths and heights in an attempt to understand and, having understood, man is forewarned. Being forewarned, he can then be forearmed.
To achieve expanded visibility, man has devised a whole series of physical, optical and electronic aids ranging from the simple to the esoteric. We are able to look through scanning electron microscopes powerful enough to display sub-atomic structures. We can gaze through a Hubble telescope that provides us with spectacular glimpses into interstellar space. We can “look” electronically at distant galaxies and can “listen” to telephone conversations across the world. We have trained dolphins to see for us under water, we have recruited bats to scan the night skies. Man's quest for knowledge prompts these advancements; modern technology enables them. The range of information we can access is truly impressive.
There is, however, one serious problem with an extended field of view. And that is that the more you can see, the more there is that can scare you!
Especially if you are faint of heart and feeble of mind.
Which unfortunately is largely the case for the residents of the Sub-Continent.
Our most impressive athletic ability perhaps is jumping to conclusions and, given this propensity of ours to overreact, it is perhaps not too good an idea for us to see a whole lot more than what is absolutely necessary! At least this is my experience. Let me share it with you.
When I first became an operational pilot in the Pakistan Air Force, we had but three fighter bases in what was then West Pakistan! At each base there were multiple squadrons that went about their peacetime task of training for war. Air combat, air to air gunnery, strike missions, air to ground bombing, navigation, instrument flying, night sorties. Heady, operational stuff. One other duty was Air Defence Alert (ADA). Standing by at short notice ready for immediate launch, prepared to intercept any intruder that ventured into Pakistani airspace. Each squadron carried out this duty for a few days each month, the aim being to keep the aircrew, the facilities and the procedures tuned for any eventuality.
Being detailed for ADA was actually a welcome break from the demanding Squadron routine. It was also a duty that had tremendous emotional content. It was an exhilarating experience to go into an underground environment, fully clad in our flying gear, Anti G suit donned, helmets at the ready. Above our subterranean refuge were readied fighters, all systems tested, switches on, systems primed, poised for launch. It was a place where senior pilots of the Squadron, normally aloof and distant, would mingle with us, the juniors. Comrades in arms, the Squadron Commander and the junior-most pilot together, trading pleasantries in intimate surroundings. It was also a gastronomic delight. Instead of the insipid mess food, bachelors were treated to home cooked meals of mouthwatering taste cooked lovingly by wives who believed that their husbands were out there on the front line laying their lives on the line for the country! The ADA complex was a different world altogether. Buried underground, accessed through a complex series of gates, passages and barriers, it was a world of red lights, multiple phone banks, land lines, secure encrypted electronic devices, coded phone rings, cipher messages, passwords and check words, silent signals, hand gestures, meaningful glances, all extremely impressive and adrenalin pumping stuff. One word, a simple call, would have the sirens wailing, lights flashing, us racing, first on the ground then on the runway and finally into the blue yonder to take on any intruder that ventured into our territory.
ADA was fun, it was the stuff stories are made of, it was heroism as depicted in war movies. Being on ADA also meant missing the dreaded PT and Parade! And equally importantly, ADA was also, to borrow a phrase from the younger generation, a babe magnet! In those days no officer could be seen in the mess premises in flying gear. That is, nobody except the ADA pilots. They could roam the Officers Mess fully clad in flying gear, helmets in hand. The Anti G suit was and perhaps still is an amazing article of apparel that transforms the most plain of men into handsome heroes. Women have their wonderbras; fighter pilots their Anti G suits!
And then, Pakistan acquired PADS 77, a highly sophisticated and modern low level radar system consisting of a contiguous chain of low level radars, supported by high level radars, linked by radio relays, controlled by operations centres. It was a complex system comprising command consoles, large screen displays, impressive electronics, sophisticated technologies; a computer controlled network that enabled real time, accurate and highly detailed continuous coverage of all aerial activity both in height and in depth. Huge portions of our borders were “lit up” and we were able to see anything that moved at any altitude. Not only could we monitor activity within our own frontiers, we could also see well beyond our borders. And, by that time, we had also expanded from our original three fighter bases to more than double that number. The entire Pakistan countryside was dotted with modern, fully equipped airfields, linked together in a well planned infrastructure in support of an Air Force which was already recognized as one of the finest in the world.
With PADS 77 and its multifold increase in our visibility, the inevitable had to happen. ADA became a permanent feature of our peacetime operations. Something truly romantic was transformed into tedious routine.
Being prepared is a key to being successful. Forewarned is forearmed. Well begun is half done. These are platitudes that not only sound nice but also are worthy of being implemented. However, these need to be weighed against another set of similar sentiments such as prudence being the better part of valour, waste not want not, act, don't react and similar sensible exhortations.
Whereas PADS 77 was undoubtedly a major force multiplier and something that had a truly sobering effect on any adventurism that our eastern neighbour may have had in mind, it also caused us considerable grief. An unhealthy part of the entire Air Force effort was spent flying air defence missions, scrambling for aircraft flying in the circuit of forward air bases of our neighbour, intercepting Siberian geese on their winter journey to the south, chasing elusive weather phenomena, furiously trying to lock on and intercept spurious computer generated blips and other such false tracks. Once scrambled for these nebulous targets, interceptor aircraft were prevented from doing any meaningful air exercise by virtue of their being fully armed, “hot” guns and “cooled” missiles.
Not that this could have been avoided. Over the years not only had we added air bases to our infrastructure, the nation too had developed a whole series of facilities, industries, factories, businesses, dams, bridges and other national structures that were potential targets for any hostile forces. And the political climate had not been too favourable either. Only six years before this induction of PADS 77 we had witnessed the dismemberment of our country, we had fought an inconclusive war. The wounds were still raw.
Given this situation, continuous ADA was an absolute necessity. And, with such heightened readiness, it was naïve to imagine that there could be an air defence commander cool enough, bold enough and perhaps stupid enough to ignore what appeared to be a developing threat. No one in his right mind could sit back in the hope that what the displays showed was a flock of geese, an electromagnetic aberration, a false alarm.
But then, ironically, this is exactly what early warning is all about. Early warning can only be improved upon if you maintain your present reaction status and enhance your visibility. If however, as you increase your ability to see further, deeper, in greater detail AND you then simultaneously elect to respond to any perceived threat more rapidly and at greater distance, warning times have NOT improved. All that you have actually done is increased your agony, prolonged your exposure and fretted for a longer duration. In acquiring the ability to see further, you have simply amplified your insecurity. You have also ensured colossal waste of precious resources.
Consider this. Four high speed tracks are picked up well outside our borders heading towards Pakistan at low level, high speed. Basic calculations indicate that if these aircraft continue on this path, they would reach our borders in five minutes and, if they have an evil intent, they could be reaching one of our sensitive installations (Vulnerable Point or VP, in Air Defence jargon) another five minutes later. The Air Defence commander has no option but to move his interceptor force to an ever increasing state of readiness. Five minutes away would most probably warrant moving pilots into cockpits from their underground bunkers thereby saving valuable minutes to launch. As the four blips approach two minutes short of our border, the Air Defence Commander would necessarily launch the fighter aircraft considering that they have to cover a fair distance to be in position to defend the VP. In less than a minute, two or more jets thunder down the runway and get airborne, accelerating in a ear shattering dash across the skies towards the hostile intruders. And, if the Commander cannot be sure which direction they may turn when the blips cross the border, he may scramble more than one pair from more than one base.
This happens fairly routinely across the length and breadth of our country. The good part is that nothing much ever happens beyond this. The approaching aircraft turn out to be transiting aircraft landing at a border airfield, migrating geese or pilots with poor navigation ability or something equally innocuous. The fighters are recalled and everyone stands down. The bad part is that precious resources have been expended.
Events such as these, lost pilots, transiting aircraft, migrating birds, anomalous propagation have always happened. Before 1977 we could not see them happening and therefore did not respond. Post 1977 we can and therefore we do; indeed we must.
Contemplate this. Analyze it, Assimilate it. This done, Extrapolate.
When we could only see high level, distant threats, we reacted in a particular manner. When we acquired a low level visibility slightly beyond our borders, our response was much larger, much more widespread, much more reactive.
What if we could see farther, better, and in greater detail?
Would we respond less, the same or more?
Before you answer, ponder upon this in all seriousness.
What would WE do if we had an AWACS?
And while you do so, let me narrate another illustrative experience where enhanced visibility and blinkered vision exist side by side.
Join me at Thirty Thousand Feet. In pitch black darkness, in a jewel studded night sky over the North West Frontier Province at CAP Station Alpha. In an F-16 cockpit twiddling knobs, pressing buttons, listening to the ALR-69 Radar Warning Receiver, selecting threat libraries, identifying blips, monitoring radio transmissions and performing a host of other complex tasks. Working the APG-66 radar, varying tilt angles, scan modes, zooming in to targets, locking, unlocking, zooming out to distant targets, trying to identify, sort and prioritize the threat posed by each one of the blips that appear on the airborne radar display screen.
This is a particularly busy night. Some major ground action is underway, fully supported by air power. The small, square radar screen between my knees is lit up like the proverbial Christmas tree with multiple targets at various ranges, different altitudes and differing speeds. Those six slow moving blips flying low, close to the ground are obviously night attack helicopters probably targeting some Mujahideen ground concentrations. The four faster, higher targets conclusively identified as specialized ground attack aircraft in a weapon delivery pattern, dropping flares, lighting up the area for both the helicopters and themselves as they pound the earth below. Another set of four blips further back, patrolling at fifteen thousand feet. Obviously fighters, judging by their speed and other parameters that the on-board systems have analyzed. Parked high above and beyond the ground combat zone, these lethal machines providing cover and the wherewithal to assist the ponderous, heavily laden, less manoeuvrable ground attack aircraft in case they are attacked. And the lone blip, well in the distance, lumbering across the sky in a defined orbit. The Airborne Command Centre from where this major ground assault, fully supported by air assets is most probably being orchestrated. Watching me watching them. More blips dotted across the screen. Aircraft transiting back to base, having done their bit and soon, another set of blips indicating the arrival of replacements.
At CAP Station Alpha we are able to look deep inside Afghanistan while remaining safely inside our borders. Powerful sensors on board the F-16 provide us this very sobering vision. Our task is to watch and ensure that the action does not drift into our airspace. Airborne early warning packing a lethal punch.
The eastern sky starts to light up in an amazing kaleidoscope of colour, hues and radiating shafts of brilliance. Dawn comes early at this altitude. Down below, still in darkness, my replacements are preparing to come up, take over from me and continue the vigil as the new day approaches. A pair of day interceptors are getting ready to take off as soon as the day breaks at ground level. Fast, nimble, lightweight and lethal but without the radar and the other electronics that the F-16 carries. The replacements are machines optimized for clear weather, daytime combat. piloted by bright, talented. hawkeyed pilots who work closely with ground based radars and use their sharp visual acquisition skills to pick up threats in the sky. Pilots trained and skilled in “burn and turn” tactics, excelling in fighting Within Visual Range.
Soon their voices come crackling across on the radio. Sharp, fresh, confident, mutually supportive calls confirming to each other “tails clear”, a term designed to confirm the absence of any threat in their cone of vulnerability.
Here am I in my modern cockpit surrounded with technology providing me with a fairly sobering picture of what lies out there, and there they are, completely oblivious of the threat. This is not as foolhardy as it sounds; the combat ready pair is fully capable of taking on any hostile aircraft that enters its zone of lethality. They sing a different song, they dance to a different tune. They know their tactics well. Tactics based on forcing the enemy to come within their visual range if he is to hurt them. Tactics based on long range visual acquisition of anything airborne. Tactics that ensure that once an enemy is sighted, he is outmanoeuvred and overwhelmed. Brilliant, gut wrenching tactics. These pilots do not see what lies beyond their considerable visual acquisition range. Frankly, they couldn't care less. A lethal punch with negligible early warning.
Contemplate this. Analyze it, Assimilate it. This done, Extrapolate.
When we could only see high level, distant threats, we reacted in a particular manner. When we acquired a low level visibility slightly beyond our borders, our response was much larger, much more widespread, much more reactive. And when we employ air intercept (AI) radar equipped aircraft our actions and reactions are completely different from when we operate using non-AI equipped aircraft.