German Air Defense after the Zeitenwende

Published on:

In the wake of the Zeitenwende, a pivotal turning point in global security dynamics, Germany stands poised to reinforce its air defense capabilities for the Army, Navy and Air Force. Therefore, the Bundeswehr has embarked on a new strategy to enhance its land-based air defense capabilities. This article explores the key elements of Germany’s post-Zeitenwende air defense plans, highlighting the country’s approach in adapting to the changing security landscape.

Status-quo

Ever since the so-called Peace Dividend of the 1990s, German air defense capabilities have been on the decline. At one point, the Bundeswehr operated a total of 24 Patriot surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries, over 150 Roland air defense vehicles and 420 Gepard self-propelled anti-aircraft guns (SPAAG).

After the final disbanding of the Army’s air defense branch in 2012, the Air Force (Luftwaffe) is now the sole branch responsible to deal with threats from the skies with land-based systems. To fulfill this task, the service currently is left with 11 Patriot SAM batteries, two Mantis static counter rocket, artillery, and mortar (C-RAM) systems and three leFlaSys Stinger SAM batteries. The Mantis systems are due to be donated to Slovakia in the near future.

Army: The way ahead

With the release of its future structure the German Army has provided the first details of its plans to stand up new air defense capabilities. To quickly generate sufficient resources and manpower the new units will be attached to and integrated with artillery units located at both brigade and divisional level. Plans for (very) short range air defense (V/SHORAD) systems known as the NNbS projects have been inside the drawers of planners for a while, however, efforts only gained traction with the start of the full scale invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Armed Forces in February 2022. Since then, two systems have emerged as to meet demands.

The first platform in question is the Rheinmetall Skyranger 30 turret mounted to a Boxer chassis (see illustration below). Designed to detect and destroy small unmanned aerial systems (UAS), helicopters and RAM targets in the VSHORAD domain. In the current presentations the turret is equipped with multiple flat panel actively electronically scanned array (AESA) radars and an electro-optical (EO) targeting system to detect potential threats. The proposed main armaments are the KCE 30mm gun capable of firing air-burst munition (ABM) and two surface-to-air missiles. Additionally, Rheinmetall also offers a laser and radio-frequency (RF) jammer, both of which are in the development stage.

To harmonize efforts of multilateral acquisitions within the European Sky Shield Initiative (ESSI) the armament will be chosen according to the demands of multiple European armed forces. This could be using the model recently purchased by the Danish Armed Forces, which selected the KCE 30mm gun as its armament of choice. So far there has been no type selection regarding the choice of missile for the vehicles. Frontrunners are Stinger (Raytheon), Mistral (MBDA) or Small Anti Drone Missile (MBDA).

In order to fulfill the requirements in the echelon beyond VSHORAD, the German industry joint-venture ARGE NNbS consisting of industrial partners Diehl Defence, Rheinmetall Electronics and Hensoldt Sensors has proposed a SHORAD vehicle. The platform is a Boxer vehicle fitted with a IRIS-T SLS turret (see illustration below). Like the Skyranger turret, this vehicle would also make use of a combination of AESA radars and EO turrets for surveillance and targeting. To intercept targets the turret has four or six IRIS-T SLS missiles, depending on configuration. The missile has a range of approximately 13km.

Recently published parliamentary audits outline details of contracts that are to be signed by end of July. The statement in question implies that the Boxer 30mm SPAAG will join the forces in 2025, while the first IRIS-T units will be delivered by 2024. These deliveries will mark the re-introduction of the army air defense branch, the Heeresflugabwehr.

The Luftwaffe

The new reforms will be most beneficial to the German Air Force. With its current air and missile defense (AMD) capabilities mainly centered around the Patriot system, the service will see a significant capability uplift in the next decade.

IRIS-T SLM

In order to fill the capability gap in the interception layer beneath Patriot, and to replace the increasingly obsolescent leFlaSys units, the Ministry of Defense (BMVg) has initiated a rapid procurement program to buy six Diehl Defence IRIS-T SLM systems and 4 mixed IRIS-T SLS & SLM batteries. The IRIS-T SLM system has been a candidate for adoption since the early 2000s, initially meant to complement the now abandoned MEADS/TLVS SAM system.

The air defense system has received a spike in interest from European countries due to its recent performance in the hands of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, which are slated to receive a total of eight batteries. IRIS-T SLM is also one of the projects within the ESSI framework, with a number of participating nations also purchasing the system.

A battery, or one system, is made up of several elements. The usual composition entails four or more attached launch vehicles. Each launch vehicle can be equipped with eight interceptors. The IRIS-T SLM interceptor missile has a range of about 40km, covering altitudes of up to 20km. The missile is equipped with a tactical datalink and has a Infrared (IR) seeker for terminal homing. The launchers are controlled by a Tactical Operations Center (TOC), connected by either optical fibre links or radio, allowing for dispersed formation with a maximum of 20km distance between the TOC and a launcher. The system’s sensor is a Hensoldt TRML-4D AESA radar able to find and track targets at 250km away. Additionally, IRIS-SLM has been certified to use tracking data from the Luftwaffe’s Surface-to-Air-Missile Operations Center (SAMOC) command and control system.

The aforementioned delivery schedule will see the first system delivered in 2024, with completion of the order in 2027. By then the Luftwaffe will field a total of 10 combined IRIS-T batteries.

Patriot

The AMD layer above IRIS-T SLM is covered by the in-service Patriot system. The Luftwaffe first adopted the type in 1989, acquiring a total of over 24 batteries. With subsequent budget cuts, sales to foreign militaries, and weapons aid to Ukraine, that number has shrunk to 11 batteries. And while Patriot has proven itself to be a reliable and dependable asset, the current capabilities are not sufficient to deal with all threats.

The Luftwaffe’s Patriots currently make use of mostly legacy and upgraded components of the U.S. manufactured system. Among these are notably the PAC-2 GEM-T and PAC-3 CRI interceptors.

The threats posed by systems such as the SS-26 Iskander or AS-24 Kinzhal have been further demonstrated by recent attacks on Ukraine. In order to deal with this threat, to enhance interception ranges and to ensure future reliability, the Luftwaffe is also becoming an operator of the PAC-3 MSE, an enhanced interceptor built for Patriot by Lockheed Martin.

In order to be able to keep the system viable until its end-of-life date in 2048, MBDA Germany has been tasked to integrate modern PDB 8.1 software into the SAM systems, to ensure its compatibility with further developments. The company is also looking at establishing a local production capacity for GEM-T interceptors, aiming to satisfy local and European demand. That demand has also been grown by the inclusion of the Patriot system within the ESSI framework.

A critical area within the Patriot program is the sensor element. Currently the Luftwaffe fields the AN/MPQ-65, a decade old upgrade of the original AN/MPQ-53 radar first fielded in 1984. The branch’s planners have been evaluating the advanced Raytheon LTAMDS radar, which would bring a 360° surveillance capability with a modern AESA radar to the system. However the service is grappling with funding issues, putting the plans into question.

Arrow 3

The area in which European and NATO air defense has struggled the most has historically always been Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD). The resulting risk and danger to own forces and civilian targets translates into a requirement to defend against these and similar types of missiles.

To deal with this threat and to give the Luftwaffe the ability to intercept targets in all relevant envelopes, the Ministry of Defense (BMVg) has decided to purchase the Arrow 3 air defense system made by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and Boeing.

The system’s main organic sensor is the EL/M-2080S radar system, manufactured by IAI and ELTA. It is an AESA long range surveillance radar operating in the L-Band. The radar has a detection range of 900km. Arrow 3 makes use of flatbed erector launchers, fitted with six missiles each.

The interceptor consists of a two-stage solid-fuel booster and an attached kinetic kill vehicle (KV). Both the boosters and the KV make use of thrust vectoring to increase maneuverability. The kill vehicle is based on the concept of exoatmospheric hit to kill interception, like the SM-3 missile. However the Arrow 3 KV differs in the fact that it relies on a single pivoting rear thruster. The implemented EO seeker is mounted on a gimbal installation, to enable high off bore angle tracking.

According to the manufacturer, the missile can be retargeted in flight, and has advanced detection algorithms for decoys used by targets such as Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM).

After the necessary U.S. government approval, the BMVg is now aiming for an acquisition contract to be signed in the second half of 2023. The total contract value is estimated at 2.5-3 billion Euros. The schedule set by the Luftwaffe & IAI foresees the first deliveries to take place in 2025. The Bundeswehr plans with the delivery of three EL/M-2080S radar sets and at least 10 launchers.

Like all other aforementioned projects, Arrow 3 will be part of the ESSI program. Therefore the German government has invited more nations to put components like single launchers into service, to benefit from a joint ecosystem for long range air defense.

HADR-NF

The HADR-NF radars supplied by Hensoldt and ELTA are new generation systems meant to replace the Hughes Air Defense Radars (HADR) systems that have been in service since the mid-1980s and are nearing the end of their lifecycle. The radars will be installed in five different locations inside Germany, enabling coverage over large parts of airspace in central Europe. Unlike the old HADR radars the new sensors are able to track challenging targets like ballistic missiles.

The HADR-NF radar sets have a range of 500km in surveillance mode. The radars also feature a dedicated BMD tracking mode with a range of over 2000km, enabled by the large S-Band AESA antenna in the installations. This was a specific customer requirement, to facilitate other air defense systems such as Patriot or Arrow 3 in their respective roles.

Outlook into hypersonics & space

Although the Bundeswehr has existing ambitious air defense plans, the threat picture is already expanding beyond the challenging environment armed forces find themselves in. With the increasing proliferation of hypersonic missiles and glide vehicles, air defense will have to adapt accordingly.

Germany and its European allies are therefore working on several projects to deal with emerging threats. On a unilateral basis, Germany has committed money from its 100 billion Euro defense fund to develop and field a space-borne early warning system. This ties into the Timely Warning and Interception with Space-based Theater surveillance (TWISTER) program and its associated hypersonic interceptor projects. It remains to be seen what comes of these efforts, but it is safe to say that without cooperation no single European nation will be able to deal with the newly emerging threats.

Moritz
Former defense industry employee, currently serving in the German Armed Forces. Based in Bavaria, Germany.