Air Defense: Never Enough Air Defense Missiles


April 18, 2024: The US Navy now has a shortage of air and space defense missiles, especially the SM-6 missiles that can be used against aircraft, ballistic missiles, other ships, and even low earth orbit satellites. These missiles were used at a high rate during the recent actions in the Red Sea to prevent Iran-backed Yemen Shia rebels from hitting commercial ships with Iranian missiles. SM-6 missiles were used to intercept the Iranian missiles fired at ships.

The U.S. Navy has a lot of SM-6 missiles in storage/launch VLS (Vertical Launch System) cells on American destroyers and cruisers. Each of the 85 U.S. Navy destroyers and cruisers has between 96 and 122 VLS cells, each usually containing an SM-2, 3 or 6 anti-aircraft missile. These cells can also contain Rolling Airframe missiles as well as Tomahawk land attack missiles, or anti-submarine or electronic warfare missiles. Four Sea Sparrow anti-aircraft missiles can be carried and launched from a single VLS cell.

The primary VLS missile is the SM-6. Each one is 6.6 meters long and half a meter in diameter. The missile weighs 1.5 tons with a warhead containing 64 kg of explosives. SM-6s have been used to intercept ballistic missiles as well as aircraft. The SM-6 can also be used against ships and low-earth-orbit satellites. Until recently the navy purchased, for $4 million each, 125 SM-6 missiles a year and had a stockpile of 600 to be used as reloads for VLS cells emptied by test firing or use against attackers. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began in early 2022 SM-6 production has increased

The US and allies navies use nearly 10,000 VLS cells on their warships. In wartime many of these cells would be emptied as missiles were fired at enemy targets. Currently VLS cells can only be reloaded when the ship is dockside.

While the U.S. Navy is using few of its VLS cell missiles against hostiles, it’s a different story in Ukraine, where the U.S. and its NATO allies have supplied Ukraine with nearly a thousand Patriot missiles to deal with Russian missile attacks and a few Russian warplanes. Four of the smaller PAC-3 missiles can be stored and launched from one launch tube that would usually carry one full size PAC-2 anti-aircraft missile. Ukraine wants more Patriot missiles and support equipment. The United States and European NATO countries are sending all they have.

One reason for this urgency and generosity is that Ukraine has developed some new ways to use Patriot missiles more efficiently and effectively. In early 2023 Ukraine received two Patriot batteries plus some reloads. Another battery is supposed to arrive by the end of the year. Soon after Ukraine received the first Patriot batteries, they managed to destroy two Russian jet fighters and three helicopters that were carrying out bombing attacks on Ukrainian targets in the north, near the border with Russia’s Bryansk province. This happened so quickly that Russia decided to cease launching airstrikes from bases in this region. The main reason for this was the unexpectedly effective Ukrainian use of their Patriot systems. The Ukrainians had developed some new techniques to do this. For example, Ukrainian Patriot system operators have developed methods for reliably and consistently using Patriot against several different Russian ballistic missile systems. These methods have stopped dozens of Russian ballistic and high-speed cruise missiles sent to attack the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, as well as other targets in Ukraine.

Ukrainians were not the first Patriot users to come up with novel ways to use the system. Patriot has proved to be very configurable and able to deal with many new situations the Patriot System designers never expected. That sort of thing has kept Patriots in service for over three decades.

Patriot has been in service since 1984 and experienced its first sustained combat in 1990, when it was used against Iraqi SCUD ballistic missiles fired at Israel and Saudi Arabia. Its success rate, 40 to 70 percent, was mediocre at best. That was largely due to the improvised modifications Iraqis made to their SCUDs to extend their range. As a result, the SCUDs tended to fall apart during the terminal (speeding down towards the target) flight phase which created unintended countermeasures. Some of the larger pieces of these modified SCUDs, like additional fuel tanks, broke away and were seen by Patriot radar as the actual missile warhead section. In some cases, non-warhead portions, like the fuel tanks carrying very toxic fuel, of the SCUD came down on military or civilian personnel on the ground. Subsequent upgrades to Patriot increased accuracy against deliberate or accidental countermeasures.

Patriot has been used against UAVs but firing a missile costing over three million dollars at homemade UAVs, as Israeli forces did a few times, isn’t healthy for the economy so Israel developed cheaper solutions for UAVs.

Although initially designed to be used against manned aircraft, the Patriot did not face this threat very often and it wasn’t until 2014 when Patriot downed one. An Israeli Patriot shot down a Syrian Su-24 fighter-bomber. While Patriot was originally designed for use against aircraft, most of what it has shot down have been ballistic missiles, either SCUDs or more recent Iranian and Russian designs. The UAE sent a battery to Yemen where it successfully defended major military bases from Iranian ballistic missile attacks. Arab Patriot users have developed a lot of missile crews with combat experience and that has helped attract capable recruits to air defense work, which is usually seen as less prestigious than traditional service with ground, air, and naval combat units. During 2023 Patriot systems began operating in Ukraine, with the usual spectacular results. This was especially the case with the Ukrainians, who tended to find additional uses for many of the weapons they received from NATO countries.

Since 1970 over 10,000 Patriot missiles and 1,500 launchers have been produced. After decades of service, some were updated while others were scrapped. Patriot missiles can, with regular upgrades and refurbishment, remain in use for over 40 years. A growing number of Patriot missiles are doing just that, but many are still fired each year for training and testing. Most Patriot batteries are equipped with both longer-range GEM-T missiles for aircraft and shorter-range PAC-3 MSE ones for ballistic missiles or, if necessary, aircraft. The PAC 2 is older, cheaper, and designed to intercept manned aircraft at ranges up to 160 kilometers, while the PAC 3 is the newest and about twice as expensive at over $4 million. The Patriot system, with continued upgrades, will likely remain in production until the 2040s, though it badly needs a mobile replacement for various reasons such as attack by swarms of cheap UAVs, plus that the precise location of Patriot radars can be easily determined from orbit. Demand for Patriot missiles in Ukraine means that nearly all the older Patriot missiles are being used and the manufacturer is working overtime to produce more missiles.

Each Patriot battery is manned by about a hundred troops and contains a radar plus four or more launchers. The launcher is designed to use both the smaller PAC 3 missile as well as the original and larger PAC 2 anti-aircraft version. A Patriot launcher can hold sixteen PAC 3 missiles versus four PAC 2s. A PAC 2 missile weighs about a ton while a PAC 3 weighs about a third of that. The PAC 3 has a shorter range that was originally 20 kilometers, but the latest version can do 35 kilometers. The larger PAC-2 can reach 160 kilometers.

NATO countries are being asked to send all the Patriot missiles they can. The NATO countries are also sending their Patriot experts in order to learn about the novel methods Ukrainians have developed. It did not take long to train Ukrainian crews. Ukraine points out that it will take a lot less time for Ukrainians to master Patriot operation because it is wartime and time is of the essence. That proved to be the case. Ukrainians were also impressed with the reliability, accuracy, and flexibility of the Patriot missiles. Having been in service for forty years, Patriot has evolved into a very capable anti-missile missile that can also take down any warplanes foolish enough to come within Patriot missile range of 160 kilometers.




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