Air Defense: The New MICA Goes To Sea

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April 6, 2021: Egypt recently agreed to upgrade the air defense systems for the four French Gowind class corvettes they ordered in 2014. The upgrade involves using the VL-MICA air defense system. Since ordering the Gowinds, the VL-MICA system has gone through some major upgrades making it much more effective. The VL-MICA NG (New Generation) uses a new missile with a max range of 40 kilometers and much improved sensors. The current MICA missile has a max range of 15-20 kilometers. All MICA missiles are stored and launched vertically from a multi-cell box. Being launched vertically costs MICA a lot of range and maneuverability, which is why the original VL-MICA had a variable range that depended on how much the missile had to maneuver to hit the target. VL MICA is a ground (or ship based) version of the original MICA air-to-air missile that was introduced in the late 1990s. In 2008, noting the success of the Americans and Israelis in using air-to-air missiles for ground or ship-based air defense systems, the French manufacturer introduced a similar version of the MICA as the VL (Vertical launch) MICA. While the air-to-air MICA had a max range of 80 kilometers, the first version of VL-MICA had significantly less. The NG version of the missile has much better, and lighter, sensors as well as improved flight control software. The lighter new sensors allowed for more propellant to be carried while the new flight control software reduced the maneuvering that diminished range. The 12 kg (26 pound) warhead was also upgraded. The air and ground-based missile is similar in shape and weight. MICA is a 160mm 3.1-meter (10 foot) long 122 kg (268 pound) missile. MICA can be equipped with a heat seeking or radar homing onboard guidance system. The NG version combines the capabilities of both.

The American equivalent of MICA, the AMRAAM was put into a ground-based system called NASAMS (Norwegian Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System). 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. The Norwegian bought and deployed the first NASAMS system in 1998.

A box launcher is used by NASAMS and the ground launched AMRAAM can hit targets as high as 4,200 meters (13,000 feet) and as far away as 30 kilometers. NASAMS was developed so that it could easily work with different search radars. The AMRAAM SAM costs nearly twice as much as the air-to-air version, but is basically the same missile. The four-meter (twelve foot) long AMRAAM has a 22.7 kg (fifty pound) warhead, and can take down just about anything that flies, including wide-body commercial transports.

The first use of air-to-air missiles for ground-based systems was in the 1960s when the U.S. Army used air force Sidewinder heat-seeking air-to-air missiles in a vehicle mounted system called Chaparral, which remained in service into the 1990s.

The 2,500-ton Gowind corvettes Egypt bought cost about $330 million each. The first two have been delivered and the other two will arrive by 2024. The VL MICA missile and other system upgrades are supposed to be available by 2026.

As ordered, the Egyptian Gowinds are armed with a 76mm SRMF (Super Rapid Multi Feeding) automated cannon that can fire up to 120 rounds a minute. The gun and its turret weigh eight tons, which includes 80 rounds of ammo ready to fire. Max range of the 76mm shells is 20 kilometers. The SRMF is highly automated and linked to the ships radar and fire control system. The gun can handle aircraft, missiles and swarms of small armed boats. There will be four Exocet anti-ship missiles (180 kilometers range) and VL-MICA anti-aircraft missiles stored and fired from a twelve-cell box. There will also be four MU90 torpedoes for anti-submarine work. The 102 meter (332 foot) long ships have sonar and air-search radars. Three of the four Egyptian Gowinds will be built in Egypt and there is an option for Egypt to build two more. Egypt benefits from upgrading Egyptian shipyards to handle the Gowind construction as that makes those yards capable of building other modern warships. The first (French built) Gowind arrived in 2017 and first Egypt built one in 2021.

 


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