Summary: Modern air defences for Europe

I do sometimes still encounter some nostalgia regarding the long-gone 70's technology Gepard and Roland air defences of the German Heer and Stormer HVM vehicles of the British Army. The U.S.Army even brings some Avenger vehicles back into active service. Those are expressions of confidence in the SPAAG or the ManPADS approach to battlefield air defences.

I want to tell you that these are obsolete approaches. None of them address the service ceiling issue satisfactorily, which is disqualifying in light of the PGM threat: Strike fighters are now very effective above the effective ceiling of such air defences (unless there's a cloud cover).

Such approaches don't come close to exploit the state of the art and aren't adapted to changed threat munitions (fire and forget missiles of attack helicopters and cheap glide bombs).

A rebuilt, modern battlefield air defence should be an area air defence network that protects spearhead forces from 'behind'* rather than with very short ranged air defences organic to the spearhead forces. Such battlefield air defences shouldn't even differ much from rear area air defences.

Before you read on I'd like to point out that battlefield air defences do not necessarily have the job to reduce hostile air power by attrition. Their primary job is to lessen the effect of hostile air power on friendly land forces and operations. This includes not only damage, killing and destruction, but also reconnaissance, observation and jamming. Air defences may also support land operations by informing ground forces about clear skies, and some battlefield air defences happen to have a secondary ground combat (usually self-defence) capability. Launchers  for air defence missiles may very well be capable of launching drones or artillery rockets instead, air defence guns may very well be suitable as artillery or direct fire ground combat and radars have become amazingly multi-functional. Some radars with agile radio 'beams' can search for and track air targets, search for and track hostile artillery and mortar munitions, track friendly artillery munitions (giving info for correction of aim) and track meteorological balloons all at the same time within their field of view.
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Here's a summary of my opinions on battlefield air defence for Europeans. It's finally all together after having written about details of the subject many times. I'll point out the hardware, as most of air defence is very dominated by the technology in use.

Saab Giraffe 4A as brigade radar; capable of detecting aircraft, missiles, careless helicopters, drones well above treetop height and firing positions of 60+ mm mortars, howitzers and multiple rocket launchers all within reasonable ranges. This would be the universal "brigade" radar, located in support groups rather than battalion battlegroups of (forces of manoeuvre).
The west is lacking a battlefield radar in L band or other long wavelength radar bands for low observable aircraft detection.

HAMMR as battlegroup radar; capable of the same jobs as Giraffe 4A, but at shorter ranges. Advantages: True 360° and on-the-move capability. Giraffe 1X could be a substitute if and only if it can function on the move as a matter of routine. It should also get a rotation symmetric antenna cover to be less striking visually.
This would be the organic radar of battalion battlegroups (forces of manoeuvre), so it has to be more mobile, capable of on-the-move operation, provide 360° service and be less conspicuous than the brigade radar.

AMRAAM-ER as anti-platform area defence missile (could also be ESSM Blk II later on. CAMM-ER could substitute, but it almost certainly lacks the kinematics to help with the air superiority fight at 50,000-55,000 ft, and battlefield air defences should do so occasionally).
This is what one would classically think of as air defence missile; a missile so expensive and capable that it's really meant to shoot down strike fighters and occasionally attack helicopters.

IRIS-T SLM or VL MICA IR as redundancy backup (IR guidance just in case radar guidance fails due to countermeasures).
This is a necessary redundancy (risk management measure) in light of the already extreme dependency on the tiny active radars of AMRAAM, MICA and Meteor (systemic technological risk). IR guidance has issues with the window heating up at high speed flight through dense atmospheres, so IRIS-T SLM has  an ejectable protective nose cone to protect the window from friction until the missile needs to lock on.

Tamir (Iron Dome's interceptor missile, costs less than 100,000 USD) to deal with guided munitions (cruise missiles, glide bombs, loitering anti-radar missiles) and medium to large drones.
The other missiles cost way too much even for the intercept of cruise missiles (which could be cheaper decoys, after all). Tamir may have troublesome requirements for quality of fire control information, but I suppose Giraffe 4A could pull it off.

ALAS-A for non-line of sight engagement against terrain-hugging attack helicopters (if need be based on Helispot triangulation) with additional capacity as artillery counterfire munition. (The other anti-platform missiles could engage helicopters as well if only look down radar targeting info is available).
Fibre-optic guidance has issues especially over long distances, but it provides a man-in-the-loop capability even in most adverse electronic warfare environments. ALAS-A could be used to search for an attack helicopter whose approximate location was triangulated by infrasound only. It could even find and engage a helicopter that's static on the ground.

Any command post vehicle for battlefield air defence would need to be able to integrate such launchers, datalinks and preferably its emitting radio antennas hundreds of metres away. It would be great if a software-defined approach enabled to use some common land forces' battalion-level command post cabins for battlefield air defence after changing the software and adding the keys. Any attempt to realise such a versatile software-defined command post would bog down into a 20-year development program ruined by bureaucrats and lawyers, though.

Calibre .338 to 20 mm RCWS on many military motor vehicles with a 360°x90° passive near-24/7 search sensor, thermal sensor good enough for confirmation/identification and laser for rangefinding and IFF interrogation (response by IR strobe) - semi-automatic engagement mode for protection against small drones ranging from crawling/driving on the ground to about 1,500 m altitude.
20 mm is preferable because 20 mm HE shells can be self-destructing and thus there wouldn't thousands of lethal bullets rain down on the landscape after a couple RCWS opened fire on some low cost drone. The Nexter M621 is a reasonable gun for the purpose.

There are 20 mm RCWS, but none so far are true anti-drone RCWS as far as I know.
Early warning for everyone. Every single soldier can be aware of his or her position with satisfactory accuracy. This doesn't even require permanent GPS or Galileo services; an occasional calibration of a digital inertial navigation system would suffice. Radio technology has become so lightweight, compact and cheap that everyone could carry a personal radio with such an INS (infantry and scouts should have the most useful intra-squad personal radios anyway). Such a position-aware software-defined radio could issue an alert when artillery strikes are incoming and alerts about NBC threats or air attack (or observation) threats.
This awareness about relevant threats that are known to friendly forces could greatly enhance the survivability of the ground forces. They could hide temporarily, take cover, cease emissions, use NBC equipment, and even prepare for hard kill defence (against low level drones).
This benefit depends a lot on effective radio comm, which would be available most of the time, and especially so for 'rear area' support troops.

This should be the mix for battlefield air defences as of today.

Yes, it would be damn expensive. Some of those missiles cost almost € 2 million per piece. But even the most expensive fighter fleets could not fully substitute for such battlefield air defences.
A reminder: Even back in the 70's a single SPAAG did cost roughly three times as much as a MBT. Quality air defences were never cheap. You need to structure the land forces to your needs; perfect battlefield air defences would be too expensive, but too few could lead to horrific avoidable losses and setbacks of the land (and air!) forces.

Further characteristics for an ideal battlefield air defence:
  • Common missile launcher with rocket artillery (the latter is in Europe mostly reduced to launching PGMs anyway) mostly as a quick change pallet on a standard 15 ton 8x8 flat bed or MULTI/EPLS lorry.
  • Common radar with artillery (artillery needs no separate radar except maybe for ground and impact observation purposes**).
  • Integration in air war LINK-16 datalink.
  • No battery organisation, but a corps-wide air defence network (radio and fibreglass landline datalinks).
  • Encryption by one-time pads if possible, alternatively 256 bit keys.
I do not consider SRBMs (short range ballistic missiles) with cluster munitions to be a threat that requires extra countermeasures on the battlefield. The low end of ballistic threats could be countered by the Tamir munition (if not even SPGs in C-RAM mode) if they enter the defence footprint and the high end SRBMs are rather too expensive for mere cluster munitions delivery unless our forces stupidly and unnecessarily expose themselves as high density area targets.***

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Rear area (not "battlefield") air defences should have some BMD component (dedicated upward-looking radar with suitable wavelengths, Patriot PAC-3 or other dedicated interceptor missile against Iskander-ish threat missiles) instead of the anti-attack helicopter component.****

Rear area air defences would protect corps HQ, road bridges, airbases, logistical hubs (kinda railheads, but I expect roads to be the dominating supply route infrastructure instead of rails) and capitals in the theatre of war (Warsaw, for example) in wartime. There's little reason to count on them as defence against strategic surprise attacks, though.

Quite the contrary: The battlefield and rear area air defences themselves would offer many high value targets (radars, missiles, command posts) that would be promising targets for a strategic surprise attack with ballistic and cruise missiles. Their exact peacetime location must thus be a well-kept secret (which means near-daily change of garages used by the vehicles) or they must be in really, really well-fortified bunkers that de facto cannot have all their exits blocked.

There are two battlefield air defence exceptions:
(1) Very "far forward" forces such as company-sized raiding elements or armoured recce platoons would have to leave such an air defence support umbrella and they couldn't have much air defence themselves. They could thus limit themselves to having organic passive early warning capacity (passive IR air search sensor such as Rheinmetall FIRST, infrasound-based helicopter detector Helispot) to survive hostile air power by hiding in time. The backup plan would be very short ranged air defences (high elevation guns up to 76 mm calibre, ManPADS). Their defence against drones would be the same RCWS tech as mentioned before. The larger raiding forces might also add a few missiles (such as IRIS-T SLM) so they can harass hostile air power (combat aviation close to airbases, transport and utility helicopters) but this would be a luxury.
(2) "Low budget" land forces and very small size land forces couldn't afford the whole battlefield air defence umbrella. They could still afford a minimum of robust ManPADS (such as RBS 70 NG with Bolide missile) for below-clouds defences, but this would not be a necessity as such "low budget" brigades and battlegroups should operate under the area air defence 'umbrella' of an allied and  more lavishly funded armed service.
Anti-drone RCWS are still a necessity. At least some very survivable passive sensors (Rheinmetall FIRST, Helispot) and datalink connectivity are a necessity if the allied air defences cannot rely on target data from allied air power (AEW, fighters). A partial radar equipment (battlegroup radar) could make sense, but would be quite expensive (thus rather not HAMMR or Giraffe 4A).

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Now let's talk about vulnerabilities: The need to reach high with hard kill air defences requires large missiles that then happen to have long ranges at least at lower altitudes. For manoeuvre forces to dispense with the burden of organic air defences requires the use of area air defences (again, large missiles) to still keep the manoeuvre elements covered. All this leads to what's fashionably called "network centric" air defence. It's no more about one AFV carrying a search radar, a fire control radar and armament to independently sense and destroy an air threat (the concept of the Gepard SPAAG). The dispersion of the air defence network's parts to many different vehicles leads to a demand for decentralised electrical power supply (no more central generators as in SPAAGs or old school SAM batteries) and a dependence on communication (data) links. These data links would overwhelmingly be radio links, and they could be disrupted at least temporarily and locally. Some jamming-proof means of data transmission can be used (such as fibre optic cables, and potentially laser communication), and redundancy (HF AND SatCom  instead of but one) could help alleviate the rest of the problem. Radio datalink reliability is a general problem of high tech armed forces.
Another vulnerability is in the stationary operation of the Giraffe 4A radar, albeit this is utterly commonplace. Airborne radar support may furthermore be pushed back by hostile fighter threats, which reduces such air force support just as air force fighter cover to a likely intermittent support.

There's one more thing to mention, but it's more about theatre operations and air superiority than about battlefield air defence or rear area object defences: SM-6 missiles could be used to intervene in the  air superiority fight or push hostile tanker and AEW aircraft far back, also deny access to hostile transport aircraft in hundreds of km radius. Such SM-6 launchers would not really need to be integrated with the battlefield air defences; they would rather be a rare asset that's posing a latent threat and headache to the opposing air forces' leadership ('fleet-in-being' effect). 100 such missiles on 25 datalink-equipped semi-trailers under central air war command & control could suffice to achieve this effect in Eastern Europe.


So now you can nail me down on this if any of these items or underlying methods prove to be a failure or dead end in the future.


*: This isn't literally "behind". I'm thinking of support elements with self-defence capability (support groups) providing support to manoeuvre elements (battalion battlegroups). The greater the radius of the 'umbrella of support', the more lean, agile and freely manoeuvring the manoeuvre combat forces may be. So this is far from a linear front line doctrine's idea of "behind".
**: And I think those should be operating on the move, using the Hovermast approach. 
***: Such as the classic traffic jams ahead of a crossroad or bottleneck, or a too compact bivouac. 
****: A defence against longer-ranged ballistic missiles isn't necessary; those would likely be nuclear-tipped anyway, and to undermine such strategic nuclear deterrence is expensive, but not wise. Our protection against such missiles are our (British and French) equivalent missiles.


  1. Lasers may just about be to the point where they can do the counter drone mission.

    Also the 50mm EAPS gun with course correcting rounds would be a good C-RAM and anti drone candidate, if development continues.

    1. Lasers and 50 mm guns are not suitable approaches against small drones that fly, glide, crawl, climb, run below treetop height and between buildings. You need a gazillion of defence systems against those, and that's affordable only if they are versatile and cheap. RCWS is my bet in this regard.

      Combat troops may additionally secure their bivouac with special equipment (including nets) and defend themselves with small arms.

      50 mm guns and specialised and thus few lasers sound rather like an answer to larger drones that fly above treetop and building roof heights. I suppose a gazillion of 20 mm RCWS can deal with that easily.

    2. Given their lack of recoil, one could consider elevated masts or aerostats equipped with lasers. This might not allow them to cover the super low altitude, NOE quad copters, but might be able to handle small drones above tree top height over a fairly wide area (weather dependent).

      To actually afford a gazillion RCWSes, and the vehicles to mount them on, the RCWSes would have to be upgraded versions of regular, multi-purpose RCWSes (e.g. M151 Protector on Stryker).

      I wonder if resurrecting the 25mm ACSW, with its air burst round, might make sense here, or the LW25 chain gun variant. Air burst rounds would appear to have a better chance of achieving hits on small, nimble drones like quad copters.


      Handling the low tier also seems like a good job for upgraded IFV armaments, especially if future IFVs will already have AESA radars for their Active Defense Systems.

      For the low/mid tier, another system worth mentioning is the MHTK missile. It's smaller and probably cheaper than Tamir.

      On the higher end, it might be worthwhile to consider an anti-drone drone (ADD). There are a range of options here, from a smallish drone carrying MHTK or other missiles, to larger drones carrying lasers or AAMs.

      If you look at the DoD tier system for UAVs,

      Table 1 UAVs Classification according to the US Department of Defense (DoD)
      Category Size Maximum Gross Takeoff Weight (MGTW) (lbs) Normal Operating Altitude (ft) Airspeed (knots)
      Group 1 Small 0-20 <1,200 AGL* <100
      Group 2 Medium 21-55 <3,500 <250
      Group 3 Large <1320 <18,000 MSL** <250
      Group 4 Larger >1320 <18,000 MSL Any airspeed
      Group 5 Largest >1320 >18,000 Any airspeed
      *AGL = Above Ground Level
      **MSL = Mean Sea Level
      Note: If the UAS has even one characteristic of the next level, it is classified in that level.
      Source: “Eyes of the Army” U.S. Army Roadmap for UAS 2010-2035

      So, roughly speaking, possible defenses might be,
      Group 1 - RCWS, IFV, lasers, jamming, personal weapons (i.e. skeet shooting).
      Group 2 - RCWS, IFV, jamming, MHTK, lasers
      Group 3 - Tamir, lasers, existing V/SHORADs, ADD
      Group 4 - SAM systems, fighters, ADD

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    1. My opinion is that the neglect of NBC defence makes the use of BC agents by an aggressor more likely.
      Infantry and scouts should at least have respiration and eye protection for one hour at hand, and this could be much more basic and lightweight than a classic NBC mask. The full NBC gear (gloves, boots, clothes, mask with straw port) should be stored in nearby motor vehicles.
      The lightweight compact equipment should keep the men alive till they reach the comprehensive suite.

      A high readiness in this regard would reduce the promise of a BC first use without encumbering the infantry and scout troops too much.
      About the consumer drug idea: That would backfire to Russia even worse and more reliably than the use of biological agents. It seems impractical.

    2. Thanks for going off on that tangent.

      While you are right for the use of BC against hardend targets, how is the protection of weaker targets such as the civilian population producing the goods used in a conflict?

      The natural development of multiresistant bacteria strains for example offers itself for an artificial boost for sneak attacks to make medical care very difficult with a long enough incubation to be unnoticed with the usual detection measures.

      Regarding consumer drugs as weapons, I agree that it doesn't seem to be a suitable idea for Russia, but neither is Russia an industrial power with much capability for an arms race in comparison to Europe or the US. It would be more suitable for the existing and rising industrial powers beyond Russia in Asia. They are in a situation, where such a utilization could pay off and where other parts of world, such as Europe could be affected by the fallout as its specifically targeted at another culture's habits.

  3. A very broad approach with interesting fine details. Enjoyed the part about the rapid and detailed warning for ground troops. Very much a smart and capex-light addition or augmentation with a big potential pay-off.°

    You mentioned active radar, infrared and infrasound. What is your take on passive radar?


    °Reminded me about the increasingly granular warning zones in Israel which are one of the reasons why investments in civil defence were by far the most cost-efficient.

    "Israel's $140 million investment in warning systems has yielded increasingly precise alerts (State of Israel 2015, 110); the country was divided into only 25 warning zones in 2006, but 248 in 2015 (Isby and Richardson 2014; Lappin 2015). Three thousand zones are expected by 2018 (Cohen 2016)."


    1. Passive radar is either using the aircraft's emissions (then it's simply part of what the EW troops do) or it's about using reflections off aircraft without emissions from the receiver.

      I suppose radars could in part operate in a bi- or multistatic mode, especially when there's more than one ready for operation during a leap-frogging scheme or more static phases. This could be similar to bistatic or multistatic sonar. I don't remember having read anything about such radar operation, though.
      Maybe there's something about it deep in the EW 103 or EW104 books, but I never bothered to read much of those.

      The popular notion of passive radar that makes it into newspapers and journals once in a while (cell phone mast and TV sender emissions reflected by stealth aircraft) is irrelevant in my opinion. There would be no such emissions on the battlefield because the electric grid would be powered down.

    2. Thanks for the answer.

      Keeping the communication networks up should be a priority and I wonder to which extent backup solutions from generators to batteries are feasible.

      In general passive radar certainly does profit overproportionally from the increase in computing power and there seems to be considerable basic and advanced research going on which should yield better algorithms.

      Of course it is a complex topic which makes it hard to comprehend fully with it's implications.


  4. I admit I'm reading this on my lunch break, but I didn't see any mention of directed energy weapons, which appear to show a lot of promise. Even a 5kw version would work against smaller drones with a very low cost per engagement and a 30kw should be very capable vs even manned aircraft. It would appear to be unlikely for them to be located based on their emissions alone. Chris W.

    1. High-powered lasers are super-easy to detect when 'firing' because the high energy beam ionises the air, which AFAIK is easily visible to suitably prepared IR, EO and RF sensors. A modern strike fighter can 'see' the beam almost as well as in Sci-fi space battles.

      Moreover, lasers are completely line of sight, and all those lock-on after launch missiles I mentioned are in part so promising because they do not require a LOS between launcher and target.

      It may be that strike fighters are better defeated by a bunch of converging 10-100 kW laser beams than missiles, but only below (beam scattering) clouds and snowfall/rainfall. I wouldn't prefer lasers over missiles unless there' reason to believe that either guidance or fuse are defeated. My answer to countermeasures is rather some redundancy of approaches than sci-fi weapons.

      Regarding smaller drones see my other comment.

    2. I think lasers could certainly augment missiles. There is a huge advantage in terms of cost per kill (particularly vs small drones), zero time of flight and magazine depth. I would guess that they offer less potential for collateral damage in the anti quadcopter role - those things are likely to turn up at very low altitude and close proximity and hurling lots of self destructing 20mm around at low angles might not be a lot better than 0.50 in terms of collateral damage. That said, the laser must have a very long range to have to deconflict - recent trials were limited by not being able to fire at targets above the horizon for that reason. Even though it would mean a substantially more expensive weapon and ammunition, I think time-fused projectiles make more sense than point detonating self destruct vs smaller drones and quadcopters etc. both in effectiveness and reduced danger/collateral damage.

  5. I think that the "rear" brigade radar should have more range (and power for jamming). So the "umbrella" (where the enemy fighters have to fly very low in order to not be engaged) will be larger. It's like naval forces: AWD + ASW frigates + OPV... or only "multi-mission" frigates?
    NOTE: For a more limited range perhaps an APAR block 2 radar in a vehicle could perform very well joined with ESSM missiles. It will need development, but should be doable (TRML-4D seems an Airbus TRS-4D in a vehicle https://www.hensoldt.net/solutions/land/radar/mobile-multi-function-surveillance-and-target-acquisition-radar-trml-4d/ ).

    I also think that your proposal includes too many systems. HAMMR and long range missile are necessary, also the SAMs with IR seekers, and Early Warning... and MANPADS! But not Tamir, and to search enemies are better some small (recoverables but also expendables) UAVs, not ALAS-A... and if the enemy wants to give their positions firing their RCWS to a difficult target... that seems a good objective for artillery shells!
    NOTE: Small UAVs like Scaneagle can fly above 5.000 m for hours, so (in the future) at lower altitudes the UAVs probably will be very small (and agile) multicopters (or swarms... but they should not be a thread if troops are supported with heavy AAA capable of "cleaning" a good sector of space quickly).

    RCWS are not cheap, they will cost a lot more money than a "simple" small multirotor programmed to do some aerobatics following a path. So, if you want to fire at small UAVs (instead of using smoke for concealment and/or jamming) probably you should use a lot of "light tanks" (for 35-40 mm autocannons) or weaponized UGVs (< 25 mm -if they could also operate from the roof of an APC... then they y could act as RCWS too!!-).

    1. SPGs can be used as heavy AAA and then one would have a substitute for Tamir. It's just questionable whether the available SPGs should be burdened with this, at least in the 'rear'.

      ALAS-A has the advantage of man-in-the-loop without a RF datalink, I don't trust the kamikaze drones that deppend on high bandwith radio links, but don't have proper directional antennas.

      I did not include a more powerful radar than Giraffe 4A because it should be versatile and becuase much of the air search should be done by airborne radars. The land-based radars are merely meant as backups. This is similar to what I wrote about naval AAW.

    2. I am talking about flexibility: SPG's are more flexible than Tamir (can fire smoke, mines, destroy "arrows", be "the killer king" of enemy troops,...), so better to have a lot of them available. If number of vehicles is a factor... then put two guns (seen in a russian prototype of a 152 mm SPG) or more in the every SPG!! (auto-loaders allow more than a gun in a vehicle).

      I am not a fan of kamikaze drones (as ALAS-A). Some multicopters are more flexible than some ALAS-A... for instance multicopters could provide video footage for damage assessment after artillery fire!
      NOTE: I am thinking that those multicopters could act as CL-289 or Rheinmetall KZO UAVs: recording and/or emitting their flight (Scaneagle can act as communications relay).

      About radar power/size in a truck (plus airborne radar)... I think it is like gun range for SPGs: more is better... as long as you can keep your mobility.

  6. Unless you are using guided projectiles, heavy AA now makes little sense as attack aircraft can attack with precision from relatively high altitudes whilst flying sufficiently evasively.

    1. Heavy AAA probably is not a thread for fighters/bombers launching o lot of gliding bombs (or swarms of tiny UAVs) far away (against "archers" you should use long range SAM). But heavy AAA could be the best counter to those "arrows".

  7. Here's the USMC solution to the low-end, GBAD and Counter-UAS issue,


    Combines a fixed panel S-band AESA radar, with an optical system, an ECM system, the Coyote anti-drone UAV and what looks to be an M230LF 30mm cannon on an M-ATV (or pair of smaller 4x4 ATVs).

    I believe this is the result of the Ground Based Air Defense - On The Move effort (GBAD-OTM).

    Wonder if they plan to add an airburst round for the 30mm. Would make sense in this context.

    1. Minor correction. It's the XM914 variant of the M230, and they are designing either airburst or proximity rounds for it.

      The turret is the Moog Reconfigurable Integrated-weapons Platform (RIwP) that can handle a variety of weapon and sight combinations.