Air Defense: Switzerland Joins European Sky Shield


April 24, 2024: In 2023 a coalition consisting of Germany, Belgium, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Slovenia and Latvia and the Netherlands agreed to jointly select and purchase enough air defense systems to protect all of them from missile attacks by Russia. Now Switzerland wants to join. The Swiss have stayed out of European wars for over 200 years but the recent Russian aggressiveness and frequent use of guided missile carrying non-nuclear warheads has changed Swiss attitudes towards total neutrality.

There are another nine nations in eastern Europe making similar joint purchasing plans. The most likely purchases will be of systems like the American Patriot, the European IRIS-T, the Norwegian NASAMS and the Israeli Arrow system for use against longer range, and thus faster ballistic missiles. In addition to the Russian threat, Iran also has guided missiles and has threatened to use them against Europe. Israel has been subject to that threat for over a decade and developed the Arrow system to deal with it. Arrow works and some European nations are looking into purchasing Arrow as well.

Until Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022, Europe was not concerned about air defense systems because there was no threat. But the war in Ukraine involved heavy use of cruise and ballistic warheads with high-explosive warheads. In effect, these missiles were unmanned bombers that were difficult, but not impossible to stop. Western Europeans realized that they were within range of these missiles and now they had an air defense problem they could not avoid. That led to the Sky Shield Coalition.

While Patriot has been in combat before, especially during the 2003 Iraq War, it has seen a lot of combat actions since. That enabled more improvement to the system that made the Patriot more capable, especially against ballistic missiles. The European IRIS-T is undergoing a similar situation in Ukraine. The Ukrainians were quick to master the operation of both Patriot and IRIS-T systems they received. The Ukrainians had experience with Russian built systems and found Patriot and IRIS-T a major improvement. Ukraine also obtained the Norwegian NASAMS systems, which was favored because of its adaptability.

The Ukraine War was the first time there was heavy demand for the European IRIS-T SAM (Surface to Air Missile) system. Until 2022, IRIS-T found it difficult to compete against the similar and earlier NASAMS system. While demand for NASAMS was also heavy, IRIS-T was a bit cheaper and available for NASAMS customers who did not want to wait.

This all began in 1998 when Norway pioneered the use of American 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. Eleven other nations, like Hungary, Spain, Holland, Chile, and the United States, Finland and Lithuania also bought NASAMS before the Ukraine War. Fortunately, NASAMS was still in production but soon found itself unable to keep up with demand.

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 since then it has gained interest in more nations.

NASAMS popularity is due to a truly open architecture that, unlike the competitor systems, allows NASAMS 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 could work with different radars and air-to-air missiles. NASAMS has been tested and configured to work with nearly 30 different radar systems and can fire just about any air-to-air missile that can be fired from NATO aircraft. All that is required are 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 had a big stock of the initial air-to-air version 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 a ground-to-air 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.

A typical NASAMS battery consists of 12 launcher vehicles (each carrying six missiles), eight radar vehicles, one fire control center, and one tactical control vehicle. NASAMS does not provide protection for a large area because the max range of its missiles is 30-50 kilometers while range of battery radar target detection is up t0 160 kilometers.

Seven years later, in 2005, Germany introduced a similar and cheaper SSM system based on and called IRIS-T. The IRIS-T missile has a shorter range than NASAMs systems that use the American AMRAAM. Launched from the ground, AMRAAM has a range of 30 kilometers. The updated AMRAAM 2 has a 50 kilometers range. IRIS-T has a range of 25 kilometers.

Ukraine received both NASAMS and IRIS-T and found that both systems were equally effective at intercepting Russian missiles fired at cities. Ukraine also received the longer range (200 kilometers) Patriot air defense system. The Ukrainians found a way to use Patriot against Russian hypersonic missiles aimed at ground targets. The Russians were not expecting this and were not pleased.

One IRIS-T battery consists of three truck-mounted launchers, carrying eight missiles each. The missiles have a range of 40 kilometers or 25 miles), and a separate command vehicle that can be positioned up to 20 kilometers (12 mi) away. A NASAMS battery consists of six to nine launcher vehicles, each with six missiles in storage/launching containers. These are controlled by a radar and fire control system, each mounted on trucks.




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