Beyond NASAMS

In the shadow of the HX-fighter competition, the state of the ground based air defences in Finland has again appeared in the headlines. The short story is that in the mid-90’s Finland acquired the Russian Buk-M1 air defence system as part of Russia paying off the Soviet balance of the clearing accounts. However, while the system certainly is competent, questions soon arose if it was wise to operate a high-tech system which the main adversary had built? Especially as knowing the exact capabilities of the radar and missile is of crucial importance when it comes to defeating radar-guided missiles.

By the mid-00’s training new conscripts on the Buk stopped, and the system was phased out (never trust a Finn who says something is retired, the last conscripts who trained on the system most likely had another ten years in the reserve, during which they were assigned to a wartime unit operating the missiles, giving a ‘real’ retirement date around 2015) and replaced by the NASAMS II.

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The launcher of the NASAMS, sporting six canister mounted AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles. Source: Maavoimat FB

The NASAMS is a controversial system in Finnish service. Not because it is bad, it is very much amongst the most modern ones available, but because it is of significantly shorter range than the Buk it replaced. Most crucially it has a ceiling of around 10,000 meters, meaning that most modern fighter aircraft can simply operate above this. This isn’t necessarily as big a drawback as it is often portrayed to be. Operating above 10,000 meters place high demands on sensors and weapons if you are to hit anything, and it means that you are easily spotted by air surveillance radars, meaning that the advantage of surprise is long gone by the time the target is overflown.

Still, this has left Finland without a long-range surface-to-air missile for the first time since the late 70’s, and talk about the need for something heavier has been going since the decision to procure NASAMS instead of Aster. The big question is what?

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An Iskander TEL raising one of its missiles into firing position. Source: Vitaly Kuzmin/Wikimedia Commons

One issue which has been raised is the defence against ballistic missiles, i.e. missiles which are fired at a high angle, fly up to significant heights, and then ‘fall’ down at extreme speeds to hit a target. The Russian 9K270 Iskander-M is the embodiment of this threat, and comes equipped with either a conventional warhead (usually quoted at around 500 kg, but possibly with an option for a heavy penetrating warhead above 1,000 kg) or a nuclear one. The big improvement of the Iskander compared to the 9K79 Tochka U it replaced is the significant improvement of accuracy, which for the Iskander is quoted at a circular error probability of below 10 meters (i.e. half of the Iskanders will land within 10 meters of the intended target), meaning that it can reliably be assumed to hit individual buildings or bridges. As such, many has voiced the opinion that Finland need a system capable of shooting down ballistic missiles.

…and it is in the crossroad of these ideas that we find some of the most common misconceptions, which warrant a slight detour before looking at the latest developments.

To begin with, the ballistic missile threat is not new to Finland, nor is the associated A2/AD-problem, but these have been a part of the Soviet/Russian arsenal for decades. Even with the improved accuracy of the Iskander, it is not a war-winning weapon, as the limited number of missiles available and the rather limited damage caused by a single hit makes it impossible to take out dispersed targets. In other words, while it is possible to hit the command centre of a unit, it is not possible to wipe out the unit itself. The Iskander also needs target information before launch, meaning that it is best used against stationary targets.

Another issue often overlooked is how hard it is to shoot down a ballistic missile. Crucially, while a modern long-range air defence system can sport ranges of over 100 km against air targets (at high altitude, at lower altitude the earth’s curvature creates shadows), the corresponding ranges when trying to intercept a ballistic missile approaching at very high speed and steep angle are significantly shorter. While the exact performance is secret, some sources state that the maximum range is a few tens of kilometers, creating a significant problem with regards to how to base air defence batteries to be able to protect a certain target. The implications of this is that a single battery might have a hard time defending both the Upinniemi naval base and central Helsinki, depending on the parameters of the intercept.

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A Patriot battery from the US Army deployed in Sweden during exercise Aurora 17 last autumn. Source: Astrid Amtén Skage/Forsvarsmakten

As such, it is no surprise that Finnish officers are focusing on dispersion and hardening strategic targets instead of acquiring anti-ballistic missile capabilities. This is in marked contrast to Sweden’s decision to acquire the Patriot. Here, while the decision is not yet finalised, the ability to field the PAC-3 missile (or potentially the upcoming PAAC-4/Stunner/SkyCeptor) to take down ballistic missiles has played a key role. However, the capability doesn’t come cheap, as the total price tag of approximately 1 to 1.2 billion Euro will buy three to four batteries, each with a single radar and three to four launchers. However, the amount and types of missiles acquired will also play a huge role when it comes to cost, and the preliminary request, described as being “generous in size”, lists 200 PAC-3 (for anti-ballistic missile use) and 100 PAC-2 for use against aircraft, for an additional 1.5 billion Euro. The exact kind of combat management system involved will also play a role, as it seen in the case of the 8.6 billion Euro Polish deal for a comparable number of firing units (four batteries with four launchers each, with 208 PAC-3 missiles) as the Swedish order.

All things considered, any kind of anti-ballistic missile coverage is probably outside of the scope of the Finnish Army’s wishlist, with the focus being solely on the ability to shoot down aircraft at longer and higher ranges than what the current equipment is capable of. However, even within these bounds, there are still a significant number of different options available on the market. With this in mind the Logistics Command has now issued a Request for Information to “around ten” companies. Interestingly enough, the interview with brigadier general Renko, deputy chief of the Logistics Command, says that he would like the new missile to be part of the current NASAMS systems. At the same time, he notes that this is not purely about introducing a new missile to old launchers, but that there needs to be more batteries out in the field to improve coverage.

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This unremarkable looking little truck is the Fire Distribution Centre (FDC), the ‘brains’ of the NASAMS II. Source: MKFI/Wikimedia Commons

The obvious choice which has figured in reporting is the AMRAAM-ER. Where the basic NASAMS uses the same AMRAAM missile as found on e.g. the Finnish F/A-18 Hornets, the AMRAAM-ER marries the basic AMRAAM seeker (with improved steering code) to the engine of the ESSM (Evolved Sea Sparrow surface-to-air missile), giving a significant increase in both range and ceiling (50 and 70% respectively according to Raytheon). This means that both goals of the RFI could be met by buying more NASAMS batteries, and having both baseline and ER-versions of the AMRAAM in service. The big problem for the AIM-120 AMRAAM is that it is something of a victim of its own success. It is operated by a stunning 37 countries, meaning that no small amount of Russian research is likely going into how to defeat it. Especially if the AMRAAM will continue to be a key part of the Finnish airborne air defences as well, which is likely to be the case unless Rafale takes home the HX-competition, it might be good to ask whether all air defence eggs should be placed in the same basket?

At this point it should be remembered that one of the key points of the NASAMS is its modularity. It is unclear exactly which parts are integrated into the Finnish NASAMS systems, e.g if our ITO 05 (RBS 70 BOLIDE) are able to plug into the NASAMS’s Fire Distribution Center (FDC), something which Kongsberg claim is possible. However, if the Army really likes the current AN/MPQ-64F1 Improved Sentinel radar and associated systems, another missile could potentially be integrated into it. It is hard to see the reasoning behind this, and I am tempted to believe that the journalist misunderstood the general, who instead expressed a wish for the new system to be part of the current Finnish integrated air defences, i.e. sharing the same air picture as well as command and control structures.

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A French SAMP/T launcher being readied. Picture from Swedish exercise Aurora 17 last year. Source: Astrid Amtén Skage/Forsvarsmakten

If we assume this is what the Logistics Command means, it opens up a vast number of possibilities. One is the very same SAMP/T-system which competed (and lost) against the NASAMS ten years ago. The SAMP/T, also known as ASTER, is the closest competitor to the Patriot, and is also available both with “normal” and anti-ballistic missile missiles. As was the case last time around, both it and Patriot will probably be judged to be too expensive (although the Swedish deal is controversial at it turned out the SAMP/T offer was 150 million Euro cheaper than the Patriot one).

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The launcher of the Israeli SPYDER-MR system. Source: Pritishp333/Wikimedia Commons

However, below the high-end Patriot and SAMP/T there are still plenty to choose from. MBDA, the company behind SAMP/T, offers the CAMM-ER and ASPIDE 2000, and while information is somewhat scarce, both are likely superior when it comes to range and height compared to the baseline AMRAAM. Saab has the SRSAM BAMSE, which offer an altitude coverage of 15,000 meters, and the benefit of operating on a different wavelength, Ka-band as opposed to X-band, than the NASAMS, making it harder to jam both at the same time. Israeli company Rafael offer the SPYDER-MR featuring their Derby-missile with a range of 50 km and a ceiling of 16,000 meters. A more exotic (and highly unlikely) option is the Japanese Type 11 missile system built by Toshiba, of which very limited information is available. Still, it does look like it could potentially fit the bill, and during the last years Japan has opened up for potential arms exports. South African Denel Systems has a number of different versions of the Umkhonto, the basic IR-version of which is currently in service with the Finnish Navy. Some of the more advanced concepts might be able to compete with the baseline AMRAAM, though it is doubtful if they will have enough reach to satisfy the demands of the current RFI. Still, Denel does offer a ground-based launcher, and is probably included amongst the companies receiving the RFI.

The winner of the eventual RFQ which is to follow the current RFI is likely found amongst those mentioned above. The defence forces would like to sign a deal in 2020, and notes that this is tied to HX and Squadron 2020, as all three programs play significant roles in the overall air defence of Finland. If e.g. the CAMM in its sea-going version is adopted for SQ2020, it might increase the chances for CAMM-ER being adopted as the ground-based solution. In the meantime, it does feel like the AMRAAM-ER is the favourite, with the big question being whether relying too much on a single missile seeker for both air and ground-based is too high a risk compared to the synergies it would give?

And as it happens, Kongsberg and Patria a week ago announced that they will open a Missile Competence Centre in Tampere, specifically mentioning their work NASAMS in the press release. Funny how these things come together sometimes.

8 thoughts on “Beyond NASAMS

  1. Kristian

    Great article!

    I am, as always, partial to the CAMM family but I think it will take something spectacular to beat NASAMS. Although if CAMM-ER is a serious contender for the army I don’t see why the navy would buy the basic CAMM. Both missiles should be able to launch from the same VLS and having the same type of missile in both services should help with logistics and enable larger block buys.

  2. Valium

    Could you elaborate on why would we be qoing forward with Amraam in HX, and Amraam – CAMM ER – CAMM would be frontrunner to Meteor – Amraam/Amraam ER – ESSM as a future missile selection?

    1. AMRAAM is still the premium mid-range missile for all fighters except Rafale. Meteor is longer-ranged, but cost and versatility means that AFAIK no-one is planning a complete replacement of AMRAAM by Meteor. If the Navy would opt for CAMM, the Army could choose whether they want a shared missile with either the Navy or the Air Force.

  3. Corsair

    US Congress approved yesterday a FMS project (no contract yet, just an approval) for ESSM missiles for Finland’s future Pohjanmaa corvettes (SQ20).. Could be an argumant towards NASAMS/AMRAAM-ER as they would share a partially common pool of parts.

    However I’m partial towards the SAMP/T… go Aster! 🙂

    1. Valium

      If the statement is correctly written, ESSM is only for corvettes. 68 missiles is clearly not enough, even for starters, for both corvettes and Haminas. So we might still see CAMM, at least in the navy. I would’t mind seeing CAMM (especially CAMM ER) in army too 🙂

      1. That’s correct, and even single-cell launchers might be difficult to fit to the Hamina, so I doubt we’ll see the ESSM there. CAMM might be an option, or then a minor upgrade to Umkhonto.

  4. Pingback: No Finnish Harpoon/ESSM-order (at least for now) – Corporal Frisk

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