Denel Dynamics punting Umkhonto to Vietnam


Denel Dynamics is bidding for a naval air defence contract in Vietnam and is offering the South-east Asian nation its Umkhonto short-range air defence missile as fitted on the South African Navy’s frigate fleet and six Finnish warships.

Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, currently in Hanoi, overnight said “Denel Dynamics has submitted a bid for a contract to supply its surface-to-air missile system to the Vietnamese Navy. We believe that the South African system is superior to other systems and that a successful bid would open new areas of cooperation between our two countries in the field of defence and would further strengthen the people-to-people contact.”

It is not clear on which ships the missiles will be installed. The Vietnamese People’ Navy operates two new Russian-build Gepard-class frigates commissioned this year as well as five older Petya-class frigates. It also also operates 15 Pauk and Tarantul-class corvettes, numerous patrol and torpedo boats, minesweepers and six Kilo-class diesel-electric attack submarines.

The missile house last month showcased Umkhonto’s capacity in the ground role at this years’ edition of the Africa Aerospace & Defence 2010 exhibition in Cape Town. “With 45 years of air defence experience, we are proud of this versatile world-class missile,” said Machiel Oberholzer, Executive Manager Air Defence at Denel Dynamics. The missile displayed – and likely on offer to Vietnam – is the Block 2 version of the weapon featuring much enhanced “clutter” performance proven earlier this year during live firing trials with the Finnish Navy that operates the system aboard four Hamina class missile boats and two Hämeenmaa class minelayers.

Oberholzer says the 125kg, 12km range missile is now proven as a surface-to-air and surface-to-surface missile in high clutter naval environments including littoral water and land warfare scenarios.. “Umkhonto can now comfortably be applied to Ground Based Air Defence Systems (GBADS),” he adds. The Umkhonto is part of an evolving family of multi-service vertically launched air defence missile solutions from Denel Dynamics that is being developed in unison with future SANDF and international customer requirements, he continues.

The Finnish Navy launched Umkhonto Block 2 surface-to-air missiles during two successful test firings at the Lohtaja test range in May 2010. Finnish Navy minelayer Uusimaa and other participating vessels made their way to the test range through the winter ice and after taking up their respective positions, and after system and safety checks were completed, a Banshee target drone was deployed from land. “For the first firing this extremely small target was tracked by the ship sensor systems,” Denel says in a statement. “After a white run confirmed all systems were working, Umkhonto promptly destroyed the target with a direct hit during the red run. The second firing utilised a different ship sensor to track the target. Again Umkhonto achieved a direct hit confirming the unique capability of this missile.”

The Umkhonto is also in service aboard the SA Navy’s four Valour-class frigates. Frigate project director Rear Admiral (JG) Johnny Kamerman at a media conference in 2006 said the development of the system had begun in 1993. South Africa decided to develop its own system even after sanctions was lifted because high-end systems such as the US Aegis were unaffordable — “we can’t afford the launchers, let alone the missiles,” Kamerman explained — and low-end systems like shoulder-launched missiles were “a waste of time”.

Land-based testing ended in July 2005 when the system was adjudged shore-qualified. The testing involved telemetry intercepts of a Skua target drone in various profiles, including low-level, head on and in evasive manoeuvres. The tests culminated in a Skua being destroyed with a “standard warhead”, Kamerman said.

In May 2008 Oberholzer told defenceWeb the Umkhonto development path included an extended range (ER) IR variant as well as an all-weather radar-guided version and an ER version of that. As stated above, the current infrared-guided Umkhonto has a range of 12km. Oberholzer said this was being expanded as part of a pre-planned product improvement initiative. An extended-range infrared version is planned and will range up to 22km. The radar version, dubbed the AWSAM – all weather surface to air missile – would have a 20km range, while an extended range version fitted with a booster rocket (AWSAM-E) – would hit out up to 30km – which placed it in the medium-range capability. He added the advantage of such a family of missiles was that “you can have a cocktail of missiles in your launchers so you can engage with the most appropriate one to the threat. Infrared missiles are cheaper than radar and you don’t want to use an expensive missile to shoot down an easy target.”

Denel Dynamics CE Jan Wessels has said the company is looking for funding partners for the advanced Umkhonto future configurations. “It will ideally be a programme like A-Darter”, the R1 billion joint venture 5th generation IR short-range air-to-air missile being developed with Brazil. But he also questions the notion that Umkhonto IR is just a good-weather system. “If you can just highlight that’s not the case. The fact that the SA and Finnish navies have selected Umkhonto after in-depth studies – despite typical naval weather conditions – says it all. How this missile works is you have an advanced 3D radar on the ship or launch point and that keeps tracking the target after the missile is fired and via datalink guides the missile to within the last kilometre or so.
“Only then does the IR seeker become active. The more accurate the 3D radar is, the more you can do and the better the performance as an all-weather system. The IR seeker is just used for the last pinpoint accuracy. The better the radar, the better the missile.” It is therefore no longer clear that the all-weather variant will be radar guided as was provided for in earlier thinking.