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Exclusive: Staring into Space

The UK has articulated a requirement for a ballistic missile defence radar. How close is this aspiration to realisation? 

Military Technology’s recent ‘Final Warning’ article on ballistic missile defence radar in Issue-7/8 of the publication. The author provided some discussion of UK plans to acquire a new ground-based air surveillance radar capable of performing ballistic missile defence and tracking. 

One year ago, the UK government announced plans to acquire the new radar, reflecting a requirement outlined in the country’s 2015 National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review, published by the government to articulate the country’s defence strategy out to 2025 by identifying threats to the UK and her interests, and the capabilities needed to deter and counter them. 

The document stipulated that the government “will invest in a ground-based BMD (Ballistic Missile Defence) radar, which will enhance the coverage and effectiveness of the NATO BMD system.” Although not referring to it explicitly the BMD system in question is the so-called European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) initiative which, from 2011, has rolled out a cornucopia of land- and sea-based radars and Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs), and Command and Control (C2) systems to protect Europe against short, medium and intermediate range ballistic missiles with a ranges of between 540 nautical miles/nm (1,000 kilometres/km) and 2,970nm (5,500km) launched by the Islamic Republic of Iran, according to an online summary of the EPAA published by the Washington-DC based Arms Control Association think tank.

Currently, this architecture includes US Navy ‘Arleigh Burke’ class destroyers and ‘Ticonderoga’ class cruisers equipped with Lockheed Martin AN/APY-1 series S-band (2.3 gigahertz/GHz to 2.5GHz/2.7GHz to 3.7GHz) naval surveillance radars, and a surfeit of SAMs including Raytheon RIM-156 SM-2, RIM-161 Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) and RIM-174 SM-6 series active radar homing/semi-active radar homing and infrared guided SAMs. The EPAA architecture also includes two land-based sites known as ‘Aegis Ashore’ installations due to their use of a land-based version of the AN/SPY-1 radar, and the same Lockheed Martin Aegis Combat Management System used by the US Navy ships supporting the EPAA. These two Aegis Ashore sites at Deveselu airbase in southern Romania, which opened in 2015, and at Redzikowo airbase on Poland’s north Baltic coast, expected to commence operations in 2020, will also be outfitted with RIM-161 SM-3 series weapons. Supporting these land installations and naval vessels, three of which are permanently deployed to the Mediterranean, and homeported at the Rota naval base in southern Spain, is a single Raytheon AN/TPY-2 X-band (8.5GHz to 10.68GHz) ground-surveillance radar provided by the US Department of Defence and located at Kürecik airbase, eastern Turkey. The C2 of these sensors and effectors is provided by the ThalesRaytheonSystems’ ALTBMD C2 hardware and software ensemble located at NATO’s Combined Air Operations Centre at Ramstein airbase in western Germany.

UK Efforts 

On 10 July 2017 a written question tabled to the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) by Kevan Jones, the member of parliament for North Durham in the northeast of England, asked what progress had been made by the MOD regarding plans to invest in the radar. The response, provided by Harriet Baldwin, the parliamentary undersecretary for defence, is worth quoting in its entirety: “Since the Strategic Defence and Security Review announcement, the UK missile defence community has been undertaking detailed scoping of the options for the future ground-based Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) radar. A Request For Information (RFI) was issued to Industry in June this year to gather information about radar technology and capability.” Ms. Baldwin added that the MOD expects the radar to be operational by the mid-2020s. However, since Ms. Baldwin’s response the trail appears to have gone cold regarding the planned acquisition of this new radar, with precious little news emerging regarding the progress of this initiative. 

The UK already hosts a ground-based air surveillance radar capable of performing ballistic missile detection and tracking in the form of the Raytheon AN/FPS-132 PAVE PAWS Ultra High Frequency (420 megahertz/MHz to 450MHz) active electronically-scanned array radar which is based at RAF Fylingdales airbase in northeast England. This radar has a reported range of up to 3,000nm (5,555km). It forms part of a large deployment of similar radars in Greenland and the northern continental United States and Alaska which detect and track Intercontinental and Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs/SLBMs) targeting the US. The radars have a secondary mission to track objects in orbit around the Earth to ensure the safety of space launches, satellites and space-faring in general, via the US Air Force’s Space Surveillance System initiative. Crucially, these radars also share their information with the US Ground-Based Midcourse Defence (GBMD) BMD system which is being led by Boeing, and which provides BMD protection for the continental United States via the deployment of surface-to-air missile interceptors based in Fort Greely airbase in central Alaska and Vandenburg airbase on the southern Pacific coast of California. These two installations house launch silos for the Orbital ATK/Northrop Grumman Ground-Based Interceptor SAMs equipped with Raytheon’s Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle which effect the destruction of an incoming ballistic missile by force of kinetic impact alone. Although the AN/FPS-132 at RAF Fylingdales is operated and commanded by the Royal Air Force, it feeds its information, like the other similar radars, directly into the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD); the joint US-Canadian initiative which monitors and protects the airspace above both countries. 

Given that the AN/FPS-132 is already tasked with feeding its imagery into NORAD it is little surprise that any radar acquired as the result of the announcement in the National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review is intended to share information with the EPAA. Responding to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request submitted by the author to the MOD, the Ministry added a little more flesh on the bones as to the intended tasks of the radar. Despite the articulation in the original document in 2015 the FOI response stated that the requirement for the new BMD radar has not yet been confirmed. Therefore, it remains little more than an aspiration at present, although this may change once the responses to the MOD’s RFI as articulated by Ms. Baldwin are received. Once the MOD is fully briefed on the capabilities available as per its requirements, it may then decide whether to push ahead with making this aspiration into a formal requirement? The response also stated that any radar which is acquired will not either replace or augment the current ballistic missile defence capabilities of the AN/FPS-132, seemingly suggesting that the imagery obtained by this radar will not be shared with NORAD. That said, this does not appear to have been ruled out “Any additional interfaces over and above enhancing NATO BMD need to be carefully considered and justified.”

Several ground-based air surveillance radar manufacturers whom the author has spoken to over the past year have confirmed that they have responded to the RFI, although they have demurred from providing additional details as regards the products they are proposing and the precise requirements articulated in the MOD’s RFI. Similarly the MOD declined to provide details on where the radar may be sited if the procurement goes ahead, the likely timelines of the procurement or the radar’s specifications. Regarding the possible acquisition budget, the FOI response stated that “this has not been set,” adding that; “due to commercial sensitivities, particularly regarding any competitive procurement routes, we are unlikely to disclose the budget once set.” 

The French Option

In terms of procurement, one option for the UK could be to ‘piggy back’ onto a planned French acquisition of a ground-based air surveillance radar to perform the BMD mission. The French government is the midst of similar radar acquisition under the Démonstrateur de Radar Très Longue Portée (DRTLP: Long Range Radar Demonstrator) programme. Documents published by the Senat, the upper house of the French parliament, on 21 March, provided an overview of the initiative. The radar is the result of a cooperative development involving Thales, the DGA (Direction Générale de l’Armement/General Armaments Directorate) and ONERA (Office National d’Etudes et de Recherches Aérospatiales/National Aerospace Research and Studies Office) to realise a transportable BMEW radar which will cost circa $234 million for a radar capable of providing 120 degrees’ surveillance in azimuth. The Senat report continued that the French will eschew a system capable of providing 360 degrees of surveillance on account of this option costing two to three times more than the cost estimate for the DRTLP. The choice to procure a transportable radar is partially to offset the disadvantage of having a single antenna providing 120 degrees’ surveillance by ensuring that the radar can be moved in anticipation of the origin of possible threats; such a capability could also help to improve its survivability as such radars are almost certainly early targets during any counterforce attack. 

According to the Senat report, France’s Spirale-A/B satellites will provide the infrared detection of incoming ballistic missiles, with the DRLTP providing similar detection of short- and medium range threats. Interestingly, some official French documents have hinted that the transportability of any radar which is eventually developed as a result of the DRTLP could enable the equipment to be stationed in either Turkey or the United Arab Emirates, to provide a forward line of surveillance regarding any ballistic missile launches from the Islamic Republic of Iran. France already maintains a sizeable military base at the Camp de la Paix (Peace Camp) in Abu Dhabi, which could potentially house such a radar. Once activated, this radar could also feed information into the EPAA and the Armeé de l’Air (French Air Force) SCCOA (Système de Commandement et de Conduite des Opérations Aériennes/Air Operations Command and Control System) integrated air defence system.

The Lancaster House Treaties signed by the British and French governments on 2 November 2010 are both aimed at deepening bilateral defence and security cooperation. The Equipment and Capabilities section of the treaties provide for Anglo-French cooperation in a diverse array of fields including sensors. A vehicle is thus already present which could act as a useful catalyst for the mutual development of a ground-based air surveillance radar with a BMD capability suited to British and French needs with a single design that could potentially be realised and procured by both nations, and then customised to local requirements. Both countries already contain the expertise for such an initiative, home as they are to several radar specialists such as BAE Systems, Leonardo and Thales. The existence of a similar requirement in a similar timeframe for both nations could facilitate a useful level of cooperation for a capability which both nations clearly feel they cannot do without.

Thomas Withington


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