(Not) Rocket Science: NATO’s Main Defense Systems Explained

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After Russia invaded Ukraine, numerous countries – including Germany – began to discuss the possibility of acquiring a missile defense system. At a NATO meeting in October, fourteen other countries committed to jointly strengthening European air defense and closing existing gaps within the framework of the European Sky Shield Initiative (ESSI). But how does such a shield work? And what technologies are NATO’s proven defense systems, such as the Patriot and Arrow 3 systems, built on? In this article, we provide the answers.

How does a protective shield work?

An effective protective shield consists of several systems with different ranges that build on each other, are interconnected, and span across the protected area like a dome. In a given airspace, a radar detects all moving objects, such as aircraft, missiles, and drones. If any hostile contact is detected, a defensive missile is launched. This missile’s flight path can be continuously adjusted in conjunction with the radar until it finally hits the flying object and renders it harmless.

What role does the power supply play in this?

The challenge is to always supply just as much power as is needed. Defense systems rely on increasingly high-performance components, such as the latest generation of LTAMDS radar or complete protective shields that are capable of expanding and being linked with each other via plug-and-fight features. At the same time, there is a demand for resource-friendly components. As a result, emissions, fuel consumption, and thus operating costs need to be kept as low as possible. Hybrid systems can offer valuable benefits in this respect, as they can be operated in stationary mode connected to the grid and are therefore more efficient.

Did you know?

VINCORION supplies power for the Patriot radar system and missile launcher and the IRIS-T launcher.

Which defense systems does NATO currently have deployed?

Patriot (current version: Patriot PAC-3 MSE) is one of the best-known defense systems. It has been on the market since the 1980s and is continuously being advanced by manufacturer Raytheon. Patriot guided missiles can engage up to five targets, such as ballistic missiles, simultaneously. Patriot is available in different ranges. The version currently in use by the German Armed Forces has a range of 70 kilometers. Ukraine recently asked the US government to supply it with a Patriot system – the decision is still pending.

THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) is a US system used by the US and the United Arab Emirates. With an average range of about 200 kilometers, THAAD can stop missiles in the final stages of their flight.

IRIS-T is still a relatively new addition to the market. The German defense system uses field-tested missiles, however, based on an earlier development for the Eurofighter. IRIS-T can engage jets, helicopters, short-range missiles, drones, and guided missiles with a range of up to 40 kilometers. The first of these systems was recently delivered to Ukraine, and three more are to follow in the course of 2023. Future deployment by the German Armed Forces is likely.

Arrow 3 has an extremely long flight range, and can intercept long-range and medium-range missiles. The defense system has proven to be very flexible, and is engineered to destroy enemy missiles via direct hits. Development began back in 1986 in Israel with support from the United States. Germany is currently planning to acquire Arrow 3 for the outer part of the protective shields, which are designed like domes.

SAMP/T has been in use since 2002. It is manufactured in France and Italy. The defense system can be equipped with different missiles that reach a range of between 30 and 120 kilometers (Aster 15 and Aster 30, respectively). The missiles are smaller than those used by the Patriot system.

NASAMS is not only used in Lithuania and the Netherlands, the United States is also supporting Ukraine with the defense system. One unit has already been delivered there, with up to seven more to follow. The current version, NASAMS 3, achieves a range of up to 50 kilometers. It can be coupled with Patriot, which is intended for longer ranges.

S-300 and S-400 are currently deployed by Russia in its war of aggression. NATO studies certified that the systems had lower hit rates than Patriot. In recent missile attacks, this system has achieved intercept rates of up to 50 percent. Ukraine also has the S-300 with a range of 75 to 100 km. This defense system recently made headlines when an errant missile caused an explosion in southeastern Poland.

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