Friday, March 21, 2014

MH370, Switched-Off Radars & Security Lapses: Clearing Misconceptions

By Mihir Shah

That Indian radars on the Andamans operate intermittently is not necessarily a security failure. Any moves to 'enhance' radar coverage over the archipelago at the expense of other sectors in the hope of catching the next potential hijack would be hasty and irresponsible.
As the search for Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 intensifies and new information comes to light, one of the hypotheses being advanced by several analysts is that the aircraft may have entered airspace that was under the coverage of Indian military radars on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands for at least a short while. At the same time, some Indian government officials and military commanders have declared that those radars did not operate round-the-clock, and may have been switched off when the flight went missing. These comments have prompted a lot of debate about the purported security lapse that the loss of radar coverage represents. I thought it would be a useful to put these comments in their proper context and determine if the incident truly exposed a gaping hole in India's security.

The radars being spoken about are long-range air search radars, also known as volume search radars (VSRs). There is a misconception that such systems are operated round-the-clock as a matter of course. In reality, this is rarely the case.  Getting VSRs, especially the legacy systems presently in Indian Air Force (IAF) service, to operate continuously is not only very expensive, but also very challenging. They consume copious amounts of power: the normal operating power of the THD-1955, the primary VSR in Indian service, is 2 MW; its peak operating power is 20 MW. The fuel to operate the generators supplying electricity to VSRs and other supporting systems on the A&N Islands has to be shipped from the Indian mainland at great cost. Moreover, these radars have heavy mechanically scanned antennae. That involves moving parts. And moving parts -- especially those that operate under heavy loads for long durations -- tend to experience failure at a rate that is directly proportional to their operating hours. The wear-and-tear is only accelerated by the harsh environment these radars are exposed to -- wind storms, rain, salt spray, and so on. They require constant maintenance and a steady supply of spares to keep working as desired, both of which are always in short supply on a remote island chain.

The key question, though, is, does the Indian threat scenario on the A&N Islands necessitate continuous air surveillance? The short answer to that question is, "no".

Let me flesh out what I'm saying. There is little doubt that the Andaman and Nicobar island chain is of great strategic significance to India, seeing that it sits astride the Straits of Malacca, one of the most vital shipping lanes in the world and a major Indian trade route. The tri-service A&N Command fulfills two primary objectives: it allows India to monitor activity (military and civilian) in the region, and rapidly deploy military if need be to secure its interests. What it does not do is defend against a major military offensive along the Andaman-Nicobar axis. That makes it very unlike, for instance, the South-Western Air Command or the Eastern Air Command, which have been set up to prosecute an air war against professional military adversaries. 

Coming to the allocation of equipment itself, it should be remembered that military assets are deployed on the basis of known/projected threat scenarios. Given limited budgets, it is impossible for defences to be strong everywhere. So military staffs have to allocate resources carefully, making defences strong in some sectors and leaving them relatively weak in others.

In India's case, those defences have to be strong along axes from where Chinese and Pakistani attacks would arise. I wouldn't be surprised if some other commands operated radars far more frequently than A&N Command did. After all, the IAF did manage to detect and track the Pakistan Navy Atlantique that came close to entering Indian airspace in 1999, and scramble fighters in time to intercept it. On the other hand, the probability of an air attack from the A&N quarter is remote.

Thus, for the A&N Command's given role, maintaining round-the-clock coverage would be overkill, and indicative of a more aggressive military posture in the region. On the other hand, intermittent radar coverage, combined with data from passive electronic sensors, satellite imagery, and naval vessels, would serve to build a reasonably complete picture of the threats and military deployments in the region while allowing the armed forces to maintain acceptable levels of training and readiness.

These arguments would obviously lead one question the validity of this approach in a world where terrorists and non-state-actors pose a significant threat. Here, it needs to be pointed out that such strikes are by nature highly unpredictable, completely unexpected, and often carried out where defences are the weakest. While counter-terrorism strategies are beyond the scope of this discussion, it is well understood that the path to reducing risk lies in improved intelligence gathering and analysis of available information. The utility of hastily deploying of war-fighting equipment to perform a role it is unsuited for, in reaction to a one-off event, is questionable at best. 

So it comes as no surprise to me that air search radars on the A&N Islands were turned off even as flight MH370 possibly entered airspace that they typically monitor. It is not necessarily a bad thing, and certainly not a security failure. If anything, a knee-jerk reaction to this incident -- compromising coverage available to Indian defences in the sectors under greater threat by re-deploying them to deal with one-of-a-kind black swan events -- would be a very real security lapse.

(Mihir Shah is a US-based engineer who tracks aerospace issues closely. He has contributed before to Livefist and Pragati magazine. Views expressed by the author are his own.)


Avinash said...

Very well written which is understandable by a not so tech savvy guy...

Anonymous said...

We did same stupid thing to combat piracy, overused Naval assets. Now the side effects of maintenance is there for all to see. Hope wiser counsel prevails.

Anonymous said...

I strongly disagree with Mihir's views on saving costs. The Andaman and Nicobar are of very high strategic value and any expenses of the Indian tax payers money for round the clock radar coverage is money well spent. Better this than corrupt individuals pocketing the same money in the middle of defence deals.

Money spent on defence assets is a waste of tax payers money from one point of view, but its necessary.

Anonymous said...

India can't protect itself from pakistan and china...China is far ahead of india. india cannot export high-tech gadgets because of corrupt politicians and bureaucrats and can't develop it in-house due to lack of skilled people.

Anonymous said...

systems like Radar are for early warning.Early warning in scenarios which are unpredictable (like this malaysian flight thing), & which are not available through intellegence. If the radars are shut,just to save cost, I wonder what is their use then ???

Anonymous said...

tommorow, if we lose 2-3 aircrafts of ours due to a terror strike, how much will it cost ???..Saving one aircraft from a terror strike will make up for, I guess 10 years of radar maintanance costs,Apart from saving the nation's grace.

Anonymous said...

Politicians are not to be trusted. They waste he'll lot of money on sops and subsidies. Just to protect their seats. A&N being a strategic area for India don't tell us that defence forces cannot afford to operate a decent modern radar.

Anonymous said...

What will india do with Andaman Nicobar islands...india is not powerful enough to project power from there, better give it to US and let them defend it and us (india).

Anonymous said...

Mihir has a well written article. There are valid reasons why the VSR radars are not active all the time. But the intermittent radar coverage is still a concern. The reason for having Early Warning radars is to have sufficient reaction time for organizing a timely defensive measure using fixed and mobile military assets. Operating an EW station is cheaper than other measures like fighter CAP or Naval patrol in the area.

History has shown that areas claimed to be “low risk” or “impregnable” has been the route of successful surprise attacks. (Think Tanaji conquering Kondana fort, Hannibal crossing the Alps). Hitler’s blitzkrieg tactics are another testament for the need of having full time surveillance. Modern high speed long range combat aircraft can cause an adversary to get tremendous amount of advantage over a less defended area.

I am sure that the military strategists understand these factors better than civilians. But it is time to reevaluate the threat condition. They can consider investing in better low power radars that use Phased Array antennas. Hopefully that acquisition won’t be as sluggish as the MMRCA deal.

Anonymous said...

Not a very convincing argument for maintaining the status quo. A security flaw has been exposed, and instead of rectifying it- doing what it takes to improve radar coverage- the author advocates shirking our national responsibility.

capital P said...

balanced view expressed by the author..

caution from going over-board in our knee jerk reaction is far more important than frittering resources in every inch of area thought out as vulnerable.

we may eventually seek to acquire that capability, but lets graduate there in terms of national resource allocation & capability.

and as a big nation we should be in a position to absorb a surprise attack and retaliate well..the power of retaliatory strike, intelligence on a potential enemy are more deterring than building defences endlessly.

permeate potential enemy and quietly keep winning small battles..let it be by arresting a few thugs here and there or eliminating a potential striker at plan location be it nepal or bangkok or anywhere else in the world

Anonymous said...

A 9/11 style attack coming from A&N side ... undetected and slamming into Chennai or Vizag could be a real threat scenario !

Not operating air defence 24x7x365 is simply not acceptable !

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately Mihir (I am not sure of his education and training level) is parroting the idiotic and stupid assessments made by Indian bureaucracy - here is why ? If India thinks A and N to be stratgic and has a command in place - why can't India develop a closed loop cycle Nuclear reactor to generate power at cheaper rate there ? Not only that there are other methods - ingenious methods to generate electricity which include tidal, solar and wind power - I am no troll and mean no disrespect but

Anonymous said...

but these kind of idiots - who self establish their credentials without going thru a market test of their broader thinking -dominate indian estt thinking. If you have a command with thousands of people there for 50-60 years - you need to develop infrastructure there w/o relying on main land - do you think Japan is well connected to the Asia continent or Hawaii or honolulu ? It is poverty of their thinking which gets me. I hope he doesn't look for a job sooner - these kind of people should have been sent on MH 370 instead of representing Indian people - parasite on tax payers ?

shailesh said...

The author has presented a lame argument. The country gets attacked in 1962 by China, and leadership " postulated" they will never do it ( Gen. Kaul, Nehru, and Mennon). I just read that China has a hypersonic vehicle. How long the Indian autocrats going to behave like ostriches? Protecting a country from all levels of threat is not easy. We waste billions in unproven technology, but fail to upgrade and maintain the most important technology under " given circumstances".

Anonymous said...

If the airliner was not detected inside , or in a classified distance outside of official Indian airspace, it points black & white to a security LAPSE.

1> A&N is a strategic location of great importance, whichever way you look at it.

2> A Triservice command setup there is for a reason which we can all guess, & to limb it with half-time surveillance is a crime at best.

3> Get back enough money from the corrupts, pull down the legacy VSR & implement multiple AESA VSRs. Mechanical steering is from a bygone era. How to power? Use tidal power, solar, wind , whatever... just get the damn thing running 24x7. China is at the gates & their carriers can launch volleys from all around the island chain.

4> What if this airliner was bomb laden & targeted at ANC? What will be your "sorry explanation" then? With the kind of route it had taken, this would have been another Pearl harbor.

4> A country like India which has no major allies & all kinds of enemies cannot afford to be weak even in sleep. ANC is a major checkpost, or maybe the only one at defense before our ports on both seaboards comes under attack.

Anonymous said...

problem is : we have a corrupt, inefficient, insensitive and ignorant leadership - contrary to the claims of Oxford pedigree, etc. Utilizing manpower in defence projects , in maoist areas, in northeast etc is considered by these bastards as waste of money - in a country or population of 1.3 billion - they can't find handful of people with integrity, sense of purpose and intelligence. A and N can be a rival to tourist destination like Bali, bangkok and even for millions of govt employees who can be motivated to take their vacation there -

Anonymous said...

not only that, why ship out fuel from main land when your own coal comes from Australia, etc. wind turbine in the sea, solar power can just reduce their own requirements. government has no sense of being efficient - they have one set of excuses for islands - but gues what, if you ask- - you will get the same set of excuses for Ladakh, kashmir, north east and orissa, jharkhand and other maoist areas -