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Rapid advancement in science and technology has not only reshaped modern warfare but also transformed the contemporary battlefield. New technologies being more precise, and lethal have made many existing weapon systems redundant requiring replacement. Interestingly, however, some vintage systems considered obsolete some time ago have proved their efficacy and effectiveness, especially in asymmetric warfare in recent conflicts. One such case is the resurgence of vintage anti-aircraft guns, which were no longer considered capable of countering modern aerial threats. However, they have proved their effectiveness against drones, which are being extensively used in the ongoing Russian-Ukraine. This resurgence will likely mark a nuanced shift in air warfare strategies worldwide.

The early use of anti-aircraft guns on the battlefield dates back to the 20th Century, specifically during the tumultuous periods of World War I and World War II. Back then, these anti-aircraft guns were deemed as sole defences against the adversaries’ aircraft. However, with the advent of jet/rocket engines, aerial threats have become capable of reaching supersonic speeds. Thus, making it challenging for anti-aircraft guns to intercept them. Moreover, during the height of the Cold War, precision-guided weapons and stand-off munitions made their way to the battlefield which made anti-aircraft guns redundant. To counter high-speed intruding aircraft, surface-to-Air Missile Systems (SAMS) both for low and high-altitude threats were introduced. These systems offered extended range, enhanced precision, and supersonic speed to intercept incoming aerial threats. These characteristics made SAMS superior to traditional anti-aircraft guns. Consequently, the use of AA guns gradually began to decline.

In modern-day warfare, the drone revolution has enabled militaries to deploy hundreds of low-cost systems capable of destroying million-dollar equipment. This strategy allows forces to deploy drones in large numbers, knowing that intercepting them would be prohibitively expensive for the adversary. This strategy overwhelms missile defences and aims to deplete the interceptor stocks of adversaries by forcing them to shoot down tactical objects like low-cost drones.

Moreover, the Russian-Ukraine conflict illustrates a compelling Cost-Benefit Analysis (CBA) case. For instance, the ‘First Person View’ (FPV) drones, extensively used by the Ukrainian military, cost only USD 400 each. They can destroy targets at ranges far beyond those of much more expensive anti-tank missiles. This makes them an economical choice for targeting tanks and bunkers on the battlefield, as they can be deployed in large numbers without significant financial burden. Ukraine has been mass-producing these. Their manufacturing capacity is around 50,000 per month. Thus, cheap drones with modern interceptors such as Patriot and S-300 are intercepted, which cost around USD four and one million, respectively. In the ongoing Red Sea conflict, drones launched by the Houthis are being intercepted by SAMs. It is important to note that these Houthi drones cost only USD 2,000 each, while the interceptors used against them are valued at over USD 2 million apiece.

To cater this anomaly, modern anti-aircraft gun systems are the perfect economical solution as their ammunition can be produced in large quantities in a shorter duration. One such example is the new Rheinmetall ‘Skyranger 30’ anti-aircraft gunnery, which can fire more than 1000 rounds per minute. The 35mm system is guided by advanced AESA radar and can successfully target aerial objects at a 4000 metre range. The system is mobile, therefore it can be easily transported from one place to another. There are also numerous other new systems such as Serbia’s new SPAAG anti-aircraft guns which are being manufactured worldwide.

While one school of thought advocates the use of anti-drone technologies, such as jamming, to neutralise drones; and this is a viable solution, it relies on digital interfaces that are also susceptible to jamming by adversaries. In this scenario, the use of kinetic weapon systems like anti-aircraft guns is a reliable and cost-effective option because they use live ammunition to destroy their targets on the battlefield which is heavily dominated by electronic warfare.

In conclusion, modern air defence strategies typically involve a layered approach that includes a mix of missile systems, anti-aircraft artillery, and electronic warfare capabilities, rather than relying solely on one type of system. Previously considered obsolete, anti-aircraft artillery is once again becoming a vital component of this mix, enhancing comprehensive air defence capabilities in modern-day warfare.

Uswa Khan is a Research Assistant at the Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies (CASS), Islamabad, Pakistan. She can be reached cass.thinkers@casstt.com

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