Monday, October 26, 2020
Home Fact-Check Of Radars and Morons: Prime Minister Narendra Modi was right, deal with it

Of Radars and Morons: Prime Minister Narendra Modi was right, deal with it

While political considerations are bound to play a role in the Prime Minister's critique by opposition members especially during election season, when it comes to defence and science, one would hope for an iota of sanity and logic.

It appears that many a feather was ruffled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statement when he said that he suggested going ahead with the Balakot strike on the original date, despite the cloudy weather, because the clouds would permit our aircraft to escape safely.

Instant experts on radar functioning, having managed to read through a couple of web pages on the subject, suddenly started pontificating as to why the Honourable PM’s statement was wrong. Indeed, no less an intellectual than Maryam Akhtar Mir weighed in on the subject.

Another referred to the USA’s DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) as “exotic.”

Rahul Gandhi, President of the Congress party too took a swipe at the Prime Minister. He said, “Modi ji, whenever it rains in India, do all aircraft disappear from the radar”.

Newbie Priyanka Gandhi Vadra too joined her brother. She said, “He believed that he won’t come on people’s radar due to the cloudy weather”.

Of course, the members of the Congress party were joined by scores of media outlets who never bothered to get domain experts to comment on the issue. They simply thought fit to run with the jokes because it suited a specific political agenda.

Most of the criticism that is being directed at the Prime Minister stems from political rivalry or hatred, rather than a thorough examination of facts or knowledge on how Radars work.

It is often said that contrary to what physics teaches us, the basic parts of the universe are electrons, protons, neutrons, and morons and perhaps, a detailed explanation about how radars work is imperative to present a counter to the ill-informed rambling we have been hearing in the past few days.

The Balakot airstrike was an elaborate military operation and in a mission like that on the Balakot terrorist camp, there are several “radars” involved.

The radar on our fighter aircraft

Any aircraft operating in the hostile territory should have the ability to sense whether it has been spotted by the defenders and whether any missiles have been fired at it. Since the aircraft would be flying above the clouds, its own radar would work quite well even if it is cloudy at the ground level. In the case of the Balakot attack, it appears that the Pakistani air defence did not even detect our aircraft (more on this below).

Another point is that our aircraft would have to “illuminate” the target via a laser beam so that the bombs dropped by the aircraft would be able to lock onto the target. The phrase “illuminate” is unfortunate, because the lasers would not be operating in the visible spectrum. If the weather consists of patchy clouds, the aircraft can wait for a hole in the clouds and illuminate the target. Also, the bombs can be programmed using the latitude and longitude coordinates of the target, if there is a thick and impenetrable cloud cover (though this would reduce the accuracy of the bombs).

The guidance system on the bombs

Strictly speaking, the bombs don’t require any radar, because their targets aren’t moving; but they do require the ability of terminal guidance so that they can hit the target precisely. Once they are below the cloud level (assuming there are clouds), they can follow the target as initially pinpointed by the laser, and GPS, or some combination thereof.

The radar for the Pakistani air defence system

Unlike our fighter aircraft, which know precisely where they are headed, the defence radars would have to scan the sky constantly and look for unfamiliar objects. All fighter planes, including ours, are coated with radar-absorbent material. Therefore the radar cross-section of a fighter plane is quite small. Consequently, if there are a lot of clouds in the sky, these would lead to a lot of spurious reflections of the radar beams and make it more difficult to detect an intruder. Additional information such as time of flight would be useful to differentiate between a low-level cloud patch and a high-altitude aircraft. But still, a lot of cloud cover would certainly make it easier for our aircraft to evade detection and return safely.

So in sum what PM Narendra Modi said is correct, even though it might cause heartburn to his critics. Clouds do affect several aspects of the radar system in various ways and tweeting a picture with a dog is not going to change that fact. 

I should also mention a few other factors related to the attack.

When the attack was being planned, I presume that the planners would have made a distinction between the mission failing, and our aircraft being jeopardized. If the cloudy weather would have jeopardized our aircraft, we would not have gone ahead. On the other hand, if our aircraft were not in jeopardy, I believe the mission would have gone ahead even if success was not guaranteed.

If our aircraft had gone to Balakot and merely “hit a few trees” as the Pakistani government kept lying, the mission would still have to be considered a success for several reasons:

  1. The IAF would have demonstrated its ability to penetrate deeply into Pakistani air space, deliver a load, and return safely. So if the bombs missed their target, the IAF would have repeated the exercise as many times as needed. The fact that there was ZERO response from Pakistani air defence systems is very significant.
  2. By launching the attack, the so-called “red line” regarding Pakistan’s alleged nuclear threat has been tossed into the Arabian sea.

In fact, Pakistan was so spooked by the attack that they kept their air space closed for a month after the attack. Right now they are dropping hints that they are purchasing anti-aircraft defence systems from Russia, but those hints can be discounted, for the following reasons:

  1. Pakistan has no money to pay for any weapons system. Russia is also not in good shape and cannot afford to sell “on credit.”
  2. The IMF won’t permit Pakistan to spend any part of its loan for defence procurement. Of course, Pakistan could cheat.
  3. Russia has also made it clear that any equipment it sells to Pakistan cannot be used against India. For the Russians, India is a far, far bigger market than Pakistan, and they would not do anything to antagonize India and get shut out of our market.

While political considerations are bound to play a role in the Prime Minister’s critique by opposition members especially during election season, when it comes to defence and science, one would hope for an iota of sanity and logic. However, as is becoming increasingly evident, that is a lot to ask from the ones who even questioned the Balakot airstrikes, let alone one statement by Prime Minister Modi.

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Mathukumalli Vidyasagar
M. Vidyasagar received his Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from the University of Wisconsin, Madison in 1969. During his fifty-year career he has received numerous awards in recognition of his research, including Fellowship in The Royal Society, the world's oldest scientific society. At present he is a Distinguished Professor at the Indian Institute of Technology Hyderabad.

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