The battlefield air defences service ceiling issue

Long-time readers may remember that my emphasis on battlefield air defences is usually twofold

(1) integration with C-RAM (counter-rocket/artillery/mortar) capability and thus a connection or overlap  with artillery radars

(2) Importance of low level air defence against drones, for a Typhoon or Raptor fighter won't swoop down from 15+ km altitude to deal with a bird-like 1 kg drone at 300 m altitude.

This time I'll write about something different; the service ceiling.

High altitude air/ground attacks on deployed ground forces haven't been particularly promising to combat aircraft until the 90's. A SA-6 battlefield air defence screen was formidable even in face of the reinforced Israeli Air Force of 1973. This 'Kub' missile had an effective service ceiling of 7,000 m.

Modern combat aircraft pilots can shrug at this. Their infrared sensors have difficulties at such altitudes, but their radars don't. They could still detect plenty valuable ground targets and engage them effectively unless the hostiles on the ground hide and deceive well or are assisted by favourable terrain (settlements).

Many battlefield air defences are still rooted in the Cold War and do not account for this.

All ManPADS  and ManPADS lookalikes (Stinger, RBS 90 et cetera) don't even reach as high as 7 km.
All gun systems don't even reach up to 7 km, including the very few 76 mm proposals.
All dogfight missiles on ground launchers (Sidewinder, PL-9C et cetera) don't reach that high either.
Roland, Crotale, Jernas are weak at altitude as well (at most 7 km).

Here are some which reach or supposedly exceed 10 km effective ceiling, albeit the area protected at this altitude is questionable and the missiles may be no practical or reliable defence at this altitude:

Tunguska missile (9M311M): up to 10,000 m
MBDA MICA VL: more than 10,000 m
RBS 23 BAMSE: more than 15,000 m

(I doubt the RBS 23 claim; it's probably the maximum ceiling for a vertical flight, not maximum service ceiling.)

As a consequence, ground forces facing capable modern air power need at least one of five things
(a) really good hiding/deception and favourable terrain
(b) good enough information about presence and absence of aerial threats to synchronise exposure times with the absence of aerial threats
(c) area air defence missile cover (Patriot, SA-17, Aster et cetera).
(d) a hard kill air defence which defeats incoming munitions even though it's unable to intercept the launch platforms at high altitude
(e) fighter cover

(a) and (b) not satisfactory for mobile warfare. (c) and (d) are unlikely at least during mobile warfare phases. (e) is only a temporary feature; permanent combat air patrol coverage over manoeuvre formations is unlikely if the opposing forces are capable.

Modern air power cannot easily or magically wipe out entire brigades in European terrain, but modern and well-financed ground forces should want to mitigate the threat somewhat. I suppose the absence of area air defences on the battlefield (likely, though not ensured) means that (e) - hard kill defences - will probably be more important than battlefield air defences engaging manned fixed wing aircraft themselves.

The challenge is probably not C-RAM, but C-RAMBM (counter rocket artillery mortar bomb missile) or shorter C-M (counter munitions, an entirely made-up acronym). MI (munitions interception) would be fine if this wasn't in use for an oxymoron already.

Modern battlefield air defences should thus strive to have two things
(1) gun-based systems to defeat low-level drones from sparrow to 100 kg size up to about 2 km ceiling
(2) a system with cheap missiles (automatic command control) to defeat incoming munitions and bigger drones, probably similar to Iron Dome and RBS-23. The practical ceiling for this would be defined by the practical ceiling of the drones' payload (which may be a problem with drones using radar or radar/radio jammer equipment).

The footprint (protected area) of gun-based C-M systems would be necessarily unsatisfactory unless one uses really big guns (there was as far as I know an experiment with a 155 mm howitzer in the C-RAM role*). An integration of field artillery firepower for C-M purposes would be an even more astonishing integration of artillery and air defence.

An alternative would be to revive the 90's approach of trying to use Mach 5 or 6 missiles (such as the German LFK HFK L-2 of '97), but combat aircraft may operate at much more than 15,000 m altitude nowadays, even at supersonic speed without excessive fuel consumption. It's unreasonable to expect a manoeuvre element's organic air defences to detect and intercept such a threat because both radar and unpowered glide bombs have huge ranges. Even HV technology doesn't change this.
The Bundeswehr didn't follow the hypervelocity path with its IRIS-T project, but follows the 'agile missile' path both for IRIS-T SL and IRIS-T SLS, so the HV project was apparently not fully convincing.
I'm not fully convinced that the IRIS-T SL's approach of a high cost missile makes a lot of sense, for most of its targets (such as cruise missiles) would not cost much more, or would even cost much less (and the priciest targets may stay out of range, which is of course not necessarily a bad thing, but it can be had much cheaper).

Battlefield air defences are an area in which it's reasonable to expect Western powers to keep falling behind. The belief in Raptors, Typhoons and Rafales is too strong and air defence personnel isn't of much use for bullying, beating up and occupying small powers.

Advances can rather be expected from Russia (the classic), South Korea, Japan and probably both Chinas. South Africa used to be good at it as well, but they have no incentives for ShoRAD development any more. Germany keeps trying, but its projects are prime candidates for cancellation and not very imaginative. I wouldn't bet on CAMM either.

More importantly than falling behind in the the mere race for new and shiny systems is that the incremental improvement of Cold War-style concepts may fail to re-focus the attention of battlefield air defences towards munitions and drones, away from the ever-enticing classic target categories of manned combat aviation.


The data in this blog post is based on "Jane's Land-Based Air Defence 2003-2004", a still useful source in my opinion. It did lack IRIS-T SL, though.

*: C-RAM capability claimed for the robot version of Panzerhaubitze 2000, DONAR.


  1. As long as the majority of western militaries entrust their air defence needs to the US Air Force and US Navy, your theories (valid as I believe them to be) will probably remain nothing more than blog musings.

    Have your thoughts on the 75mm rapid fire ARES gun changed at all over the years? I still think it's a concept that would be of value on today's battlefield, albeit at a lower altitude than you mention here.

    1. The XM274 showed what's possible, but ammo commonality with the Naval 76 mm L/62 would be desirable. The problem is that OTO Melara's concepts such as Draco and the old OTOMATIC are much too bulky and not suitable for a line of sight ground combat vehicle.

      AAA may also be required far away from mech forces, so a look back at Skysweeper / 40 mm Bofors AAA approaches may be required.
      Finally, ground forces self-defence capability of all units should include capability against micro drones just as it is custom to give them AT weapons to fend off at least straggler tanks or armoured recce platoons.