Air Defense: Delivering New Systems To Ukraine


October 12, 2022: Ukrainian soldiers are training to use the new mobile IRIS-T air defense system. Developed by a German firm, each self-contained 8x8 vehicle contains eight IRIS-T missiles, each in a storage/launch container and electricity generator. Another similar vehicle carries an AESA radar that detects targets up to 250 kilometers distant while a third vehicle carries the fire control center. This is an advanced version of IRIS-T with a more powerful rocket enabling it to hit targets 35 kilometers away and at altitudes up to 20 kilometers (62,000 feet). Ukraine will be the first user and that will give the manufacturer data on how the new system performs in combat. Germany pledged to provide needed upgrades. The missiles are shipped in a standard 20-foot shipping container, which can be flown in via a C-130 or A400M transport. Ukraine is supposed to receive eleven systems (each with a launcher vehicle, a radar vehicle and fire control vehicle. Germany announced that deliveries would be completed by the end of October. That means some of these systems are already in Ukraine, but there have been no reports of them in action. Ukraine tends to provide little information about when new weapons arrive and where they are operating. That information soon becomes obvious to the Russians when they encounter a new system. This system is effective against aircraft, helicopters, missiles and UAVs.

The original IRIS-T was very similar to the U.S. Sidewinder heat seeking missile, but built using European design specs and components, in Europe. The IRIS-T can be used by any aircraft that can use Sidewinder. The IRIS has been in development since the 1980s, with the U.S. as one of the original partners. But that arrangement fell apart when the Cold War ended in 1991, and it wasn't until 1995 that the project was revived.

The first test launch of IRIS-T took place in 2000, with mass production starting five years later. This IRIS-T is 3.2 meters (9.8 feet) long, weighs 87.3 kg (192 pounds), has a 12-kilometer range and is very maneuverable. Its rocket motor generates very little smoke. Most European nations planned to use the IRIS-T instead of the Sidewinder. From 1969-1998 the U.S. Army used the Sidewinder in a mobile SAM system (Chaparral). Several nations use the American AMRAAM (radar guided air-to-air missile) for SAM systems. The new IRIS-T SLM is heavier, using a more powerful rocket motor and improved guidance system and countermeasures for enemy electronic deceptions.

What Ukraine originally asked for in May were some NASAMS (National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System) batteries from Norway. While Ukraine needed NASAMS right away, Norway would have to send some of the NASAMS batteries it is using to protect itself from an increasingly hostile Russia. Instead, Norway (the developer of NASAMs) agreed to work with the American firm that manufactures NASAMS in the United States to build NASAMS systems that met Ukrainian specifications.

The Ukrainian NASAMS will use an improved AMRAAM missile with a range of 48 kilometers as well as a shorter range, heat seeking sidewinder missile with a range of 12 kilometers. A new radar is included. The Ukrainian NASAMS battery will contain four to eight launcher vehicles, each with six missiles, as well as one or two a mobile radar vehicle and vehicles carrying one or two fire control centers. Several other vehicles will carry maintenance equipment. One of these batteries is supposed to arrive in Ukraine some time in October with the second battery arriving a month later. Six more batteries will arrive in 2023 and 2024, which will probably be after the war is over. Fortunately, Russia is running out of S300 SAM systems as well as guided missiles of all types. The sanctions have made it difficult or impossible to manufacture more of these missiles and that can be seen in the reduced Russian use of these missiles. The problem with NASAMs is that, like any air defense system, it takes time to produce and rarely are their rush orders. The first two NASAMS batteries sent to Ukraine were assembled from existing NASAMS systems. The next six are being built for Ukraine and even with efforts to speed this up, there is only so much manufacturing capability available. European nations don’t want to give up their own systems because they are also threatened by Russian attack. The United States doesn’t have many systems operational in the United States meaning that there were few to send. Ukraine made do with SAM systems similar to those used by Russia as well as a growing number of captured systems. Military equipment captured from Russian forces since February now accounts for a majority of the weapons acquired since February.

NASAMS is far superior to the similar Russian Buk M1 system Ukraine and Russia use, NASAMS is a system developed by Norway in the early 1990s and entered service in 1998. Norway pioneered the use of AMRAAM air-to-air missiles as surface-to-air weapons and developed the fire control and launcher equipment needed to make it all work. It was a simple but very effective use of air-to-air missiles for air defense. Other air-to-air missiles have been used for ground-based air defense systems but the Norwegian version is seen as the best of the lot. Norway has six NASAMS batteries for its own defense. Fifteen other nations, like Australia, Indonesia, Netherlands, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, Taiwan, Hungary, Spain, Chile, the United States, Finland, Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine also use NASAMS or have it on order. The delays in delivering NASAMS to Ukraine has enabled Ukrainian maintenance personnel to receive more training on how to detect and fix problems with NASAMS equipment.

The NASAMS was initially developed for the Norwegian Air Force by Norwegian firm Kongsberg, in cooperation with American partner Raytheon, which produces AMRAAM. A major upgrade, NASAMS 2, officially entered service in 2007 and NASAMS 3 became available in 2019. Because of that NASAMs has gained interest in more nations.

NASAMS popularity is due to a truly open architecture that, unlike the competitor systems, allows NASMS to be used with a wide variety of radars. Initially NASAMS used the American made MPQ-64 Sentinel radar but some customers requested a system that can work with different radars and air-to-air missiles. NASAMS has been tested and configured to work with more than 25 different radar systems and can fire just about any air-to-air missile that can be fired from NATO aircraft. All that is required is modifications to the size and electrical connections in the NASAMS launcher cells and software modification of the fire control system. Since NATO has long-established standards for “NATO weapons” NASAMS takes full advantage of this.

So far NASAMS has been configured with AIM-120 AMRAAM (together with the longer-range ER variant), AIM-9X Sidewinder and the European IRIS-T. The last one is an interesting story. Norway has a big stock of IRIS-T for their F-16 fighters but the new Norwegian F-35 is not compatible with IRIS-T, so they decided to use this very modern European missile as an anti-aircraft missile in NASAMS systems. This example clearly shows how flexible this system is while the competitor systems are “tied” to a limited number of missiles and radar.

Ideally, a NASAMS battery consists of 12 launcher vehicles (each carrying six missiles), eight radar vehicles, one fire control center, and one tactical control vehicle.




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