Air Defense: The Belgian Solution


June 7, 2017: Belgian has decided to phase out short range anti-aircraft missiles systems and instead depend on their F-16s and anti-aircraft missile protection provided by the integrated NATO air defense system. Since Belgium is small and surrounded by NATO allies this seems are reasonable decision. This is especially the case as it would be expensive to replace the current Mistral SAM (Surface to Air Missile) system that entered service in the early 1990s. Mistral still works, but it is old. During the last Mistral live-fire training which took place in Estonia during early May 7 out 8 missiles hit their targets. Some of these missiles were from the first 858 missiles ordered back in 1993. While the firing exercise in Estonia went well Belgian revealed that only about 86% of 643 Mistral missiles fired so far had hit their targets.

The mistral a very short-range air defense missile system which the most known from MANPADS (shoulder fired) variant but it can be also used from various other platforms vehicles, ships and helicopters. Its history dates to 1974 when French decided to design lightweight short range anti-air defense system for their armed forces. After a few years of development the missile finally entered series production in 1989 and in addition to France it has been adopted by more than 20 countries.

The Mistral is 1.86 meters (around 6 feet) long and weighs about 19.7 kilograms (43.6 pounds). The missile has range up to 8 kilometers and for guidance the passive cooled Imaging Infrared (IIR) seeker is used. Its large diameter (90mm) means it is bigger than in some competitors. That is one reason the Mistral has very good hit probability. Meanwhile the destructive power is provided by quite big 3 kg (6.6 pounds) high-explosive warhead filled with tungsten ball projectiles to maximize damage.

By phasing out their short range anti-air defense Belgium will protect their airspace only thorough aircraft. This solution makes sense for Belgium because it is surrounded by bigger and better equipped allies and by maintaining an effective jet fighter force together with good enough radar coverage you have air defense that is as effective and cheaper than layered anti-air defense systems using fighters and ground based weapons. Also the Mistral was useless against aircraft operating at high attitude. SAM systems designed to cover higher altitudes are much more expensive and complex designs. On the other hand relaying on aircraft alone located on one or only few airfields can be deadly in case surprise attack or enemy advantage in air. In this case highly mobile ground based anti-air defense systems fare better. -- Przemysław Juraszek


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