Air Defense: NASAMS Take On The New Delhi Curse


August 8, 2018: India has decided to provide upgraded air defense for its capital with the same American-Norwegian NASAMS (Norwegian Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System) that has defended Washington DC since 2005 and many other major cities (or small countries) since. India is spending about a billion dollars on NASAMS, which is an incredibly flexible and configurable system that can use a wide variety of commercial equipment (radars, networking software) as well as several different relatively inexpensive (but combat tested) SAMs (Surface to Air Missiles) to defend New Delhi, the capital of India and long a target for Islamic terrorists.

As its name implies, NASAMS got its start in a large Norwegian defense firm (Kongsberg) that came up with the idea, in the 1990s, of using the combat-proven American AMRAAM air-to-air missiles as a SAM (surface to air missile). This was not a new idea, but using AMRAAM was the most ambitious use of air-to-air missiles as SAMs to date. One reason for using AMRAAM was that the United States was constantly updating the AMRAAM to improve performance and reliability. Norway bought and deployed the first NASAMS in 1998. While other systems have been developed using AMRAAM the Norwegian version is seen as the best of the lot. Norway has six NASAMS batteries for its own defense and ten other nations have purchased them as well. NASAMS is a cost-effective defense against all forms of aerial attack, including cruise missiles and terrorists trying to use UAVs or small commercial aircraft for suicide attacks.

A major upgrade (NASAMS 2) entered service in 2007. The new version had major improvements in the software and the ability to use the American Link 16 encrypted digital communications system that has become common in NATO aircraft and ground systems. NASAMS 2 was also adapted to work on a wider variety of radars and missiles. NASAMS 2 also made it possible to handle more targets (over 50) simultaneously and use the network to constantly know which launchers are within range when the fire order comes. The distributed nature of the many radars, launchers and fire control computers made NASAMS 2 very difficult to destroy.

There is no standard organization for a NASAMS 2 battery but most consist of 12 launchers (each carrying six missiles) on heavy trucks or stationary on the ground, eight target acquisition radars (usually the American MPQ-64), one or more FDCs (fire distribution center), and one tactical control vehicle (or in a fixed location) for overall control of the battery. The MPQ-64 costs about $3 million each and is a widely used American ground-based radar for detecting aerial targets.

NASAMS most often uses AMRAMM and the ground-based AMRAAM missile weighs 159 kg (350 pounds), has a range of 30 kilometers (its radar can see out 50-70 kilometers), and can hit targets as high as 21 kilometers (65,000 feet). What makes AMRAMM effective as a SAM (surface-to-air missile) is the capabilities of its guidance system (which is about two-thirds of the $400,000 missile's cost).

The NASAMS has a uniquely flexible open architecture that than now handles more than 25 different target acquisition radar systems and can fire just about any air-to-air missile that can be fired from NATO aircraft. All that is required is modifications to the size and electrical connections in the NASAMS launcher cells and software modification of the FDC. Since NATO has long established standards for “NATO weapons” and NASAMS takes full advantage of this.

So far NASAMS has been configured with AIM-120 AMRAAM (together with ER variant), AIM-9X Sidewinder, ESSM (Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile) and European IRIS-T. The last one is an interesting story. Norway has a big stock of them for their F-16 but the new F-35 is not compatible with IRIS-T so they have decided to use this very modern European missile as anti-aircraft one in NASAMS system. This example clearly shows how flexible this system is while the competitor systems are “tied” to a limited number of missiles and radar.

To enable NASAMS to grow and be exportable Kongsberg (the largest defense firm in Norway doing about a billion dollars a year in sales) formed a joint venture with a major American defense firm (Raytheon, $25 billion a year). As a NATO member and heavy user of American weapons systems, Kongsberg easily handled the various security aspects of all the military tech involved. Thus the new ER version of AMRAAM, with a more powerful rocket motor, is expected to be available for NASAMS by 2020. The new missile will have a max range of 50 kilometers and a max altitude of 25 kilometers (85,000 feet). For most NASAMS users this is more than they need because NASAMS takes full advantage of its ability to network a large number of target acquisition radars, FDCs and missile launchers to cover as a large an areas as there are target acquisition radars connected to the network. This is apparently a major reason why India choose NASAMS as it could make use of the many radars already watching the busy skies over the sprawling capital. Another factor at work here is that the more senior of the normally obstructionist Indian procurement bureaucrats live and work in New Delhi and the NASAMS has demonstrated its ability to handle terrorist threats. So getting this billion dollar deal approved and installed might be expedited out of a sense of self-preservation. Then again, maybe not. Strange (and epically inefficient) are the ways of the Indian bureaucracy.




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