The South African Navy (SAN) has ordered what appears to be a R42 million resupply of Umkhonto surface-to-air missiles (SAM) for its Valour-class frigates. The order, for R41 986 000, was placed last week Thursday.
South Africa in November 2005 joined a handful of nations to have fielded a functional operational anti-missile air defence systems with the successful firing of the Umkhonto-IR from aboard the Valour-class frigate SAS Amatola. Since then the SA Navy has regularly fired the 125kg, 12km-range weapon that carries a 23kg warhead, most recently this year during Exercise Good Hope IV, a joint multinational undertaking with German, where the missile was also successfully fired against a surface target. “We heard it went very well,” Denel Dynamics CE Jan Wessels told defenceWeb in April last year. “The system has now been in service with the Navy for three years and all the feedback we get is very positive, it is really performing as advertised and more.”
Each of the four German-built stealth warships is fitted with a Denel Dynamics-designed 16-cell vertical launch system (VLS) for the Umkhonto (Zulu: Spear) that can be increased to 32. The first naval firing of the weapon took place on November 23, 2005 when the SAS Amatola fired an Umkhonto at a high-speed Skua target drone off Cape Agulhas. It fired a second a week later. Both were fired with telemetry warheads to tell developers at Denel’s nearby Overberg Test Range how the missiles were performing. Had real warheads been fitted, both targets would have been destroyed according to the data read-outs. “Both hits were within the specifications. The ranges achieved were even better than those specified,” then-Sitron project director Rear Admiral (JG) Johnny Kamerman said in a media conference in 2006. The admiral added 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 of the original Mark I 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.
Machiel Oberholzer, Executive Manager Air Defence at Denel Dynamics, 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 said just before last September’s African Aerospace & Defence (AAD) exhibition in Cape Town, a reference to the SA Army’s Project Protector, a land-based version of the missile.
Wessels said the land variant will twin the Mk II with a containerised launcher is developed in close consultation with with the SA Army Air Defence Artillery. This will integrate with a command centre and a new three dimensional Reutech Radar Systems RSR 320 also currently under development. Wessels noted that several potential “export customers are already looking impatiently at the system.” He says the naval system “is getting a very good name” in the mlitary community, further exciting interest in the system’s landwards application.
If last week’s order is for missiles, it is likely to be the Mark II version of the weapon featuring much enhanced “clutter” performance proven last year during live firing trials with the Finnish Navy that operates the short-range air defence system (SHORADS) aboard four Hamina class missile boats and two Hämeenmaa class minelayers.
The Finnish Navy launched the Mark II missiles during two successful test firings at the Lohtaja test range in May last year. 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 said in a statement at the time. “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 Dynamics CE added the Mark II has now met all specifications and is in production for Finland. They will also be supplied to the SA Navy once the latter has placed an order for replacement missiles. “They’re using their stocks for trials and need to replenish… It will be the Mk II, we’ll stop doing the Mk I, there’s no point going back to it,”he said in August last year. “This is will be invisible to the SA Navy client from an integration viewpoint and is an example where the SA Department of Defence (DoD) gets the benefit without having to invest directly, it is a benefit gained through export. Denel Dynamics’ investment to secure the export opportunity ultimately funded this Mk II, after the SA Navy initial investment funded the Umkhonto MkI development.”
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. Oberholzer said 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.”
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.
Umkhonto surface-to-air missiles systems for the SA Navy
ETMG/2010/378 13 Apr 2011 R41 986 000,00 Denel (Pty) Ltd t/a Denel Aerospace
Maintenance and support services of the Umkhonto Surface-to-Air missile system for the SA Navy
ETMG/2009/516 30 Sep 2010 R6 885 092,00 Denel (Pty) Ltd t/a Denel Dynamics
Umkhonto-IR missile electromagnetic compatibility test with SAN-PC
ETMG/2006/164 29 Mar 2007 R344 722,50 Denel (Pty) Ltd t/a Denel Aerospace
Pic: An Umkhonto MkI firing from the SAS Amatola