Modern light air defence rests in great part on portable missiles, so-called ManPADS (man portable air defence systems). These missiles fit into the VSHORAD (very short range air defence) category. They're portable, light and small (in context of motorized troops) and affordable (some models have nevertheless a questionable price:effectiveness ratio).

The earliest such missiles were the Redeye and Strela-2, while the most well-known one is certainly the Stinger, which became famous when it was given to Afghan Mujaheddin in order to fight off Soviet air power in the 80's.

The technology of such missiles was enhanced, their range increased and guidance technologies less susceptible to countermeasures were introduced.

That wasn't enough, though; modern combat aircraft can easily attack from beyond the reach of such small missiles. An altitude of 15,000 ft (about 4,500 m) is enough to almost ensure the aircraft's safety. Modern infrared sensors can pick up (and enable identification of) small targets well beyond that distance.

This begs the question:
Why don't portable VSHORAD systems evolve into portable SHORAD systems?

The principal problem is obviously weight, with cost coming second. The guidance and energy supply section have a quite fixed weight (although the sensor may become greater for longer range), the warhead also needs to weight several kilograms unless the guidance is good enough to offer a very good direct hit chance.
Finally, the rocket needs to propel this weight and its own at a useful speed (faster is better, and a minimum is about Mach 1.5-2 top speed) to the required range.
A greater range requirement adds up terribly much missile weight - and the limit of man-portable systems was already reached with existing systems (about 15 kg for missile + launcher).

Mountain troops had similar problems with their heavy equipment - especially artillery. Their solution was simple: disassemble the gun. Mountain guns ("pack guns") could be disassembled into eight to ten different pieces, none too heavy for a mule.

A "pack" CrewPADS in the SHORAD category would likely be technically feasible. It would naturally come to be a two-stage (three with the initial ejector) missiles unless it's enough to just disassemble into warhead/seeker and rocket sections.

The increased range isn't necessarily enough, though. I already mentioned the increased range requirements for the guidance.

Another problem could be the early warning - some aircraft with good optical camouflage (possibly including lighting up the downside with light emitters in pylons) could remain unseen and unheard at a distance between ManPADS and CrewPADS effective maximum ranges. This problem is even greater with air attacks at night.

The conventional response to this problem is (besides passive measures like camouflage, concealment, cover and deception) the use of a radar (team) that transmits target information to a launcher (team). This is easily visible in the new German LeFlySys.

An alternative are powerful passive sensors that are much less susceptible to countermeasures (like SEAD).
The Thales ADAD is such a system (passive infrared), and seems to be quite successful. Western forces usually don't care much about enemy SEAD capabilities and are therefore quite happy users of radars.

Such early warning systems tend to be too heavy and not portable, but portable battlefield surveillance radars hint at the technical feasibility of actually crew-portable early air warning systems.

Western air power enjoys a period of range advantages in its favour, and even a time of enemies poor and ill-supplied enough to not have any effective air defence. The technical possibility for more effective and less susceptible air defences exists, though. We should keep this in mind if we think about the future of air attack.

edit 2016: The AD/AD has a modern de facto successor in Rheinmetall's FIRST.



  1. Sven,

    Does it really make sense to try to force SHORADs range and altituded into a manpack package?

    Why not just carry them on ever smaller vehicles.

    SLAMRAAM fits on a HMMWV already.

    RBS-23 comes on a fairly lightweight, towed launcher.

  2. I was thinking of a "AD for guerrillas" scenario similar to Stingers for Mujaheddin in the 80's.

    Russia and the PRC might be the origin of such a weapon, they have the know how and also some normal ManPADS.

    Air defence does not need to hit or even kill in order to be effective. A bit more range than current ManPADS offer may be enough to degrade the sensory capabilities of air power significantly (by pushing the air power to higher altitudes).

  3. Larger MANPADS like RBS70, Starstreak 2, and Mistral 2 might already fall in this category.

  4. RBS70 and RBS90 are from Sweden - very restrictive arms export laws.

    Starstreak and Mistral 2 are still form Western powers and only Mistral 2 is really relevant for export.

  5. Personally, I'm glad there are no large CrewPADS on the open market.

    The systems mentioned above still don't solve your problem. They all top out at around 15k-17k ft, according to open sources. So aircraft can just fly a bit higher.

    To really deny the mid-to-high altitude band one would need a significantly larger missile and targeting system.

    SA-19, for example, weighs 57kg. Even breaking it down into stages would make for a heavy load for one person.