In the twenty-first century, ballistic missiles are making a resurgence because they allow countries like China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia to strike targets hundreds or thousands of kilometers distant without risking interception by enemy fighter jets.
Airbases, fuel and ammo stores, and even moving aircraft carriers are all fair game for non-nuclear missiles because of modern guidance systems’ precision.
That’s why it’s becoming increasingly crucial to have the means to shoot down incoming ballistic missiles. Surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) are effective at shooting down planes, but they have a hard time hitting missiles that are much faster and higher in the air.
However, the more distance a ballistic missile can travel, the higher and faster it must fly, making it more difficult to intercept.
All the way from the Patriot PAC-3 MSE, which can intercept tactical ballistic missiles, to the high-flying THAAD and naval SM-3 Block II missiles, which can counter short- to intermediate-range systems, to the GMD interceptors in Alaska, which can take on intercontinental-range missiles, the United States possesses a wide array of anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems.
Several European countries have developed a flexible SAM that arguably outperforms the Patriot missile and may eventually gain THAAD-like capabilities, bringing them up to speed with lower-tier ABMs.
In the 1990s, Eurosam, in cooperation with MBDA and Thales, developed the Aster missile (called after the Greek word for “Star”) to protect naval vessels from hostile aircraft and sea-skimming cruise missiles at close range.
As of right now, ships like the British Royal Navy’s Type 45 destroyers and the French Navy’s Horizon-class frigates are equipped with launch cells stocked with Aster missiles.
In the 2000s, Eurosam started working on a longer-ranged version of the Aster missile. This new Aster 30 is used to replace the older I-Hawk and Crotale SAMs and is launched on a land-based launcher known as the SAMP/T (French for “Surface-to-Air Medium-Range/Land-based”).
The most recent Aster-30 Block 1NT type is capable of intercepting aircraft from a distance of up to 75 miles away and can go fast enough and high enough (up to 65,000 feet) to destroy low-flying drones, cruise missiles, and aircraft in addition to tactical and short-range ballistic missiles.
How the SAMP/T Air Defense Missile System Works
Three different types of trucks make up a SAMP/T battery: an Arabel multi-function radar, a command and control vehicle, and four or six launch vehicles.
Road transportable batteries typically require 45 minutes to set up, and launchers are often located many miles from the radar. The minimum number of people needed to operate a battery is fourteen.
The frequency-agile, three-dimensional X-band Arabel radar can withstand jamming and other electronic countermeasures because it rotates once per second.
It can defend against attacks from any direction thanks to its 360-degree coverage, and it tracks up to a hundred targets and direct up to sixteen missiles at once.
Even though Arabel’s basic search range of 37 miles isn’t very impressive, it can connect to another radar, like a ground-based radar with a more extended range or an AWACS aircraft in orbit, to “focus” its scan and increase its range against high-flying targets to 75 miles. A Link-16 datalink is used to do this.
Low-flying targets can still only be hit up to 31 miles away by planes and 21 miles away by missiles. This is because the terrain in between limits the range.
The missile launchers transmit the radar coordinates by the SAMP/T battery’s command unit. Each truck can fire off all eight of its 4.9-meter-long Aster-30 missiles in under ten seconds.
After four seconds further of acceleration by its solid-fuel rocket boosters, the half-ton missile reaches Mach 4.5, or about a mile per second, when its second-stage booster releases it.
The Aster relies on its own inertial navigation system to get it where it needs to go, but if the target suddenly changes course, the command vehicle can provide uplink updates to the supersonic weapon so it can reroute itself.
The Aster’s active Ka-band AD4A doppler radar seeker is activated as it gets closer to its target. Four aft-facing gas thrusters make ultra-fast “side-strafing” corrections to achieve a nearly flawless intercept.
Tests have shown that Aster missiles can make direct hits on their targets, but they also include a small proximity-fused warhead weighing 33 pounds for extra damage.
Aster versus Patriot
There are now three SAMP/T regiments in the Italian Air Force, each with two batteries of six launchers installed on Atra 8×8 trucks. Rome sent two battalions to Turkey in 2016 to protect the country’s airspace along its border with Syria.
There is a perception that the Aster 30 combines the best features of the Patriot PAC-2 anti-aircraft missile and the PAC-3 missile, which is designed for shorter-range missile defense.
One analysis of current air defense missiles found that the SAMP/T was the most cost-effective option, with a battery costing only $500 million and individual Aster-30 missiles costing only $2 million. To put that in perspective, each PAC-2 and PAC-3 battery is estimated to cost between $800 million and $1 billion, with missiles costing an additional $2 or $3 million.
On the other hand, the SAMP/T seems to rely more on external radars to “see” far enough to use its maximum range, and its full engagement range is a little shorter than that of the PAC-2.
Already, Romania, Poland, and Sweden considered the SAMP/T but opted to purchase Patriot systems instead. The fact that the latter is combat-tested while the Aster is not may be a consideration.
Moreover, these purchasers may perceive that Patriot missiles come with the added benefit of currying favor with Washington, “purchasing” a security assurance from the United States.
The single export order for the SAMP/T has been placed by Singapore, which reportedly got three batteries and 300 Aster missiles in 2018 and 2019.
The introduction of the Aster missiles into the Singapore Navy service prompted the Singapore Air Force to link its SAMP/Ts with the more powerful American AN/FPS-117 and Swedish Giraffe radars.
Both Canada and Switzerland are debating whether to buy an Aster or a Patriot right now. After Ankara’s purchase of Russian S-400 air defense systems, rumors have surfaced that Azerbaijan has also purchased land-based Asters, and Turkey has reached a preliminary deal to study license-building the Aster missile. However, it is unclear whether the financing and political goodwill are there to make it happen.
The new Aster Block 2 missile being developed by Eurosam is expected to reach altitudes of approximately 230,000 feet, roughly four times that of the original Aster. A new exo-atmospheric interceptor with a hit-to-kill capability would be able to destroy ballistic missiles and hypersonic missiles flying at velocities of up to seven times the speed of sound.
To put it another way, Block 2 would be like a European version of THAAD; only it would cover an area of 360 degrees in all directions rather than just 120. Block two is said to be able to shoot down missiles with a range of up to 3 000 kilometers, putting it squarely in the categories of “medium-range” and “intermediate-range” ballistic missiles. Russia was formerly prohibited from using these weapons, but with the INF treaty’s demise, they are again free to do so.
Therefore, there is widespread agreement that a European version of THAAD is needed and desired, particularly in light of the recent rise of Russian and Iranian military power. However, the more established THAAD system and the urge to buy American to earn points with Washington will once again be obstacles for Eurosam to overcome.