Main difference between anti-missile and anti-air defense: Can NASAMS stop Russian missiles?

As part of a U.S. military aid package Ukraine is about to receive two NASAMS systems. The NASAMS air defense system has extremely high capabilities for destroying air targets, including missiles, but not all.

NASAMS for Ukraine, which the USA is transferring in the next tranche of military aid , will already qualitatively strengthen the capabilities of the ground component of the air defense of the Air Force of Ukraine, which currently relies exclusively on Soviet complexes.

And it should be taken into account that the most modern of them is already more than 30 years old, and with each launch of missiles, more are not added to the Soviet systems. That is, the transfer of NASAMS is the first step for the creation of a new and much more modern ground-based air defense component. And on the example of many other supplies from the USA, it is already clear that a small batch of weapons will first be transferred to check its effectiveness, and only after that the USA transfers subsequent batches.

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But one should not be under the illusion of the omnipotence of Western weapons. Especially, giving it unusual properties. In particular, it is quite often possible to hear that NASAMS has anti-missile capabilities. But, as always, not everything is so simple.

And first of all, it is necessary to explain the difference between the complex of air defense and anti-missile defense, especially from the point of view of the Western understanding of these terms. In particular, the air defense complex is designed to destroy aerodynamic targets: airplanes, helicopters, and drones, as well as cruise missiles.

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All these targets have moderate speeds, in particular, fourth-generation aircraft do not accelerate above Mach 2-2.5 during unarmed flight at a high altitude. In the case of their flight on the ground, even a fairly “paper” indicator of the maximum speed is sharply reduced by half. As for cruise missiles, their speed is generally subsonic and is usually Mach 0.9. That is, it is much easier to “get” such targets, and this already directly affects the opportunities that were laid out for the developers of any anti-aircraft missile system.

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If we talk about anti-missile defense, then in the absolute majority of cases it is necessary to talk not about the extremely specific and specialized Israeli Iron Dome , but about such complexes as the American THAAD or Patriot PAC-3 MSE.

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The main difference between them and air defense systems is that they were created from the very beginning for the purpose of destroying ballistic missiles, which are much more difficult targets to intercept. Firstly, ballistic missiles have a flight path at a considerable height, in particular for Point-U it is up to 26 km, for Iskander it is declared up to 50 km. Secondly, it is a means of attack: usually ballistic missiles fall on the target at an angle close to 80-90 degrees and at a speed close to Mach 2.

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And most importantly, even if you hit an anti-aircraft ballistic missile with a high-explosive fragment, there is no guarantee that it will destroy it. In practice, this was proven during Operation Desert Storm, when Patriots with conventional anti-aircraft missiles hit Iraqi R-17s (better known by the NATO name Scud), but this did not lead to the explosion of the warhead and these missiles still fell to the ground and exploded. That is, for example, if the task of the air defense system is to cover the city, then even a hit ballistic missile will still fall on the houses.

That is why such THAAD or Patriot PAC-3 MSE systems use a kinetic means of interception when the anti-missile simply hits the target. Given the extremely high energy due to the huge oncoming speed, this leads to the guaranteed destruction of the ballistic missile while still in the air.

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And if we return to NASAMS, then the following aspects of this complex should be considered: it uses AIM-120 missiles, which are designed to destroy aerodynamic targets, when any damage with a high probability will cause the target to fall to the ground.

It has an inclined launch, which forms a certain dead zone above the launch, and the speed of the anti-aircraft missile, as well as the maximum height of destruction of targets, only in the AMRAAM-ER version gives certain theoretical chances of interception, based solely on the comparative characteristics of missiles and ballistic targets.

Of course, this does not mean the absolute inability of NASAMS to intercept ballistic missiles, but the manufacturers of air defense systems, both Raytheon and Kongsberg, did not even conduct such tests. In contrast to the test of the interception of cruise missiles, which proved this possibility in practice.

The NASAMS is one of the most advanced air defense systems developed in the West to date, and is capable of taking on airborne targets ranging from fixed-wing aircraft, rotary wing aircraft, cruise missiles, and unmanned aerial vehicles. Forming a critical element of air defenses surrounding the U.S. capital of Washington, D.C., the NASAMS was developed jointly by the American Raytheon Technologies Corporation and Norway’s Kongsberg Gruppen. The system is made up of three constituent parts: the AN/MPQ-64 Sentinel radar, Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM), and the Kongsberg-developed Fire Distribution Center.

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Capable of striking targets at a maximum range of almost 20 miles and an altitude of almost 70,000 feet, the NASAMS is solidly considered a medium-range range system, which gives it the ability to attack aircraft outside of visual range. While it is unclear which version of the NASAMS Ukraine will receive, it will certainly operate either the upgraded NASAMS-2 or NASAMS-3 variants. By purchasing the two announced NASAMS for Ukraine, the US hopes to provide Ukraine with the ability to better improve its ability to protect population centers and strategic points from Russian attacks. To date, the system has been integrated into the air defense systems in full by twelve countries in Europe, the Middle East, Oceania, and East Asia.