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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

America is Giving NASAMS Air Defenses to Ukraine: Russia’s Air Force Beware?

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Russia's Tu-22M3 bomber. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

On June 26, CNN national security reporter Natasha Bertrand reported that the White House will soon announce it has bought National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System, or NASAMS, for Ukraine. The quantity and exact subvariant of the air defense systems purchased remain unspecified. 

The provision of NASAMS is a big deal, because it seems likely to be the first air defense system provided to Ukraine that is both a medium-range system and an advanced Western design. The only medium- or long-range air defense provided to Ukraine until now has been a Soviet-era S-300 system. All Western systems delivered to Ukraine have been short-range – mostly man-portable missiles.

Medium-range air defense can handle threats at both relatively low and high altitudes. It can protect a roughly city-sized area against aircraft beyond visual range. 

That said, Germany previously announced it would provide IRIS-T SLM systems in a similar class to the NASAMS – and with which NASAMS can be integrated – but these will not be ready for delivery until late in the year.

What Is NASAMs and What Can It Do?

Jointly developed by the U.S. firm Raytheon and the Norwegian firm Kongsberg, NASAMS is more obscure than the beefier Patriot missile system used by the U.S. military for medium-to-long-range air defense. However, anyone who has walked around the U.S. capitol in Washington, D.C., since 2005 has fallen under the protective umbrella of NASAMS batteries. 

NASAMS was first conceived in the 1990s to offer an intermediate-level air defense capability more affordable than powerful and expensive Patriot batteries, but farther-reaching than Avenger Humvees armed with very short-range Stinger missiles.

The system pairs a Norwegian fire control system with an American radar, and it uses the exact same AIM-120 AMRAAM medium/long-range air-to-air missiles used by U.S.-built fighters, guaranteeing a large supply of available munitions. 

A NASAMS-2 battery typically consists of nine to 12 truck-mounted launchers armed with six AIM-120 missiles each. These are divisible into platoons of three launchers, and the system is supported by six to eight MPQ-64F1 Sentinel radars, an additional vehicle mounting a short-range MSP-500 sensor, and command and fire direction center vehicles. The battery can engage a target within 10 seconds of detection. It can decamp after firing in just three minutes to avoid retaliatory attacks, though it then requires 15 minutes to deploy at a new position.

Because the launchers, radars, and control units can disperse up to 12 miles away from the fire direction center, and they are designed for signature-reduction, NASAMS is highly resilient to air defense suppression strikes

Air-launched AIM-120Cs can achieve ranges of 60 miles and have destroyed over a dozen aircraft in combat. However, a ground-launched AIM-120C doesn’t start with the huge speed and altitude boost provided by a fighter plane; it must expend more energy and fuel to accelerate and defy gravity. Thus NASAMS has an effective range of about 15.5 miles using AIM-120C-5 missiles, and 18.5 miles with AIM-120C-7s. 

However, ground-launched AIM-120Cs still boast a maximum intercept altitude of nearly 69,000 feet, which is adequate to threaten manned warplanes even at maximum altitude. They still work against aircraft skimming as low as 100 feet, and they can engage targets traveling up to Mach 2.9. This makes them able to target any manned aircraft, and most cruise missiles.

It is unclear whether NASAMS can be paired with the latest AIM-120D missile, which has substantially greater range.

While the AIM-120 has a radar-seeker with a 12-mile range in its nose for terminal guidance, a NASAMS battery uses ground-based MPQ-64F1 Sentinel X-Band targeting radar. This helps the battery not only handle target acquisition, but also tell the missile where to fly on the initial approach, and transmit course corrections if the target changes trajectory.

The Sentinel’s antenna rotates at 30 RPM to provide 360-degree coverage, and it can track up to 60 targets simultaneously. The F1 model used by NASAMS-2 can detect aircraft 75 miles away. It is relatively small,weighing 2 tons. It is mobile and stealthy, and hardened against enemy jamming.

Ukraine has already received at least four older-generation MPQ-64A1 radars since April. Some of these have been deployed in the Donbas, so Ukrainian air defense specialists may benefit from at least a little familiarity when they adopt the newer F1 model.

NASAMS batteries can also discretely engage targets using targeting data relayed by a truck-mounted Rheinmetall MSP-500 electro-optical sensor, without tripping the target’s radar-warning receivers. This makes it harder for the target to recognize an incoming missile until it is too late.

NASAMS 2 or NASAMS 3?

The subvariant received by Ukraine will surely be either the second-generation NASAMS-2, or the NASAMS-3 introduced in 2019 and currently in production. The original NASAMS-1 has been phased out.

NASAMS-3 can employ a wider variety of missiles. To more effectively engage closer, low-flying aircraft, it can launch ultra-maneuverable heat-seeking AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles (also ordinarily mounted on fighter aircraft) and the comparable German IRIS-T SL. When ground-launched, these have effective ranges of 6.2 miles and 7.5 miles respectively, and the latter has an effective ceiling of 26,000 feet.

If Ukraine receives the NASAMS-3, it could provide high-quality short-range air defense. But NASAMS-3 can also provide a longer reach by employing the larger AMRAAM-ER missile, which would boost its range to 28 miles. This variant is also better able to hit more evasive targets thanks to its thrust-vectoring engine.

NASAMS-3 also boasts an improved fire direction system that can network more radars and launchers and can integrate the GhostEye S-Band phased-array radar, which, once it enters production, could extend the threat detection range.

How Ukraine Could Use NASAMS

Broadly speaking, Ukraine’s air defenses must deal with two distinct threats: tactical aircraft operating near its frontline (mostly from low altitude), and long-distance cruise and ballistic missiles hurled at strategic targets deep inside Ukraine. A tertiary objective may be to inflict greater attrition on Russian drones, which, although cheaper than many anti-aircraft missiles, are key to Russia’s ability to accurately deliver deadly artillery strikes.

As a medium-range system effective at both high and relatively low altitudes, NASAMS can help with all of these problems, though Kyiv will have to choose which to address.

For cruise missile defense, Ukraine’s military could position NASAMS batteries around cities like Kharkiv, Lviv, Odessa, and Kyiv. This would likely substantially reduce the number of cruise missiles reaching nearby targets.

However, if Kyiv prioritizes protecting its ground forces and inflicting attrition on Russian aviation, it may deploy NASAMS batteries closer to frontlines in eastern and southern Ukraine, even if that places them at greater risk.

Russian tactical aviation has been particularly active over the Donbas, where it has reportedly inflicted casualties on Ukrainian infantry despite relying on unguided rockets and bombs.

Fearing Ukraine’s existing medium-to-long-range S-300P and Buk missile systems, Russian jet and helicopter pilots are approaching at low altitude and high speed, hoping to minimize detection time and reduce the viable firing windows of Ukraine’s short-range air defense missiles, which have downed dozens of Russian combat aircraft. Indeed, Russian ground attack pilots are flying so low that at least two Su-25 jets recently crashed after colliding with trees while still over Russian airspace.

Because NASAMS interfaces directly with Sentinel low-altitude air defense radars and uses missiles with integral radar seekers, it could detect and engage ground-skimming aircraft from farther away, before they enter visual range and release their weapons. That could make strikes by Russian ground attack aircraft riskier than before.

While Kyiv initially must choose between protecting cities and frontline troops with any NASAMS system it receives, the U.S. delivery might trigger additional donations or sales by other NASAMS operators, which include Australia, Finland, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, and Spain – all governments that have already contributed substantial military assistance to Ukraine.

Radar-guided air defense systems are expensive, complicated, and require extensive training and technical expertise. These realities have so far made Ukraine’s allies reluctant to transfer more capable systems if Ukraine’s military does not already know how to use them. 

But if Ukraine can successfully integrate NASAMS delivered by the U.S. and create a corps of trained operators and maintainers – as seems likely given Ukraine’s rapid integration of other advanced Western weapons – then other allies of Kyiv may feel encouraged to donate or sell NASAMS batteries too, trusting they could quickly be put to effective use.

Realistically, Kyiv would need many NASAMS batteries to cover all the cities, military bases and key battlefields in need of air defense. But Washington’s delivery of NASAMS arguably marks an important turning point in protecting Ukraine from Russian air strikes.

Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including the The National InterestNBC NewsForbes.com, War is Boring and 19FortyFive, where he is Defense-in-Depth editor.  He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China.  You can follow his articles on Twitter.

Written By

Sebastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical, and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including the 19FortyFive, The National Interest, NBC News, Forbes.com, and War is Boring. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China.  

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