The South African Navy may soon receive Umkhonto Mk II short-range point air defence missiles when it replenishes its stock of the 125kg, 12km-range vertical launch infra-red (IR) guided weapon.
SA joined the handful of nations to have fielded a functional operational anti-missile air defence systems with the successful firing of the Umkhonto from aboard the Valour-class frigate SAS Amatola in November 2005. Since then the SA Navy has regularly fired the weapon that carries a 23kg warhead against various target drones most recently during Exercise Good Hope IV, a joint multinational undertaking with Germany.
“We heard it went very well,” says Denel Dynamics CE Jan Wessels. “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.”
Wessels adds that the Mk II version has been developed over the last three years for the Finnish navy. “Our engineering attention has been on Finland for the last three years and more. We’ve developed the Mk II version of Umkhonto optimised for a more challenging operational environment, that experienced in the Baltic archipelago environment. So the missile seeker has to be very advanced to lock onto target and not some background object. We are very confident that Umkhonto MkII offers unique competitive capabilities in this regard,” Wessels adds.
Six systems have been delivered to Finland and have been fitted to four Hamina class missile boats and two Hämeenmaa class minelayers. The Finnish success came against the US-German Rolling Air Frame Missile and the Swedish Bofors Bamse. The weapon is also still under consideration by Sweden for fitment aboard five of its new Visby-class stealth corvettes.
The Dynamics CE adds the Mk 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 stocks. It will be the Mk II, we’ll stop doing the Mk I, there’s no point going back to it. 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.”
Denel Dynamics is also moving ahead with the further development of a land-based Umkhonto system for the SA Army and other customers. At the moment this is being funded by the SA DoD as a technology programme. “We are busy with risk mitigation work to advance it so that when the programme is finally switched on we are ready.” Wessels says 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 radar also currently under development.
Wessels adds 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.
This process started as early as November 23 2005 when the SAS Amatola fired its first 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 RAdm (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 ended in July 2005 when the system was adjudged shore-qualified. The testing involved telemetry intercepts of a Skua 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 then-Denel Dynamics air defence missiles executive manager Machiel 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. “It is a good concept, six missiles in an ISO-container that can be mounted on any type of vehicle, that has a 360-degree engagement capability and a high kill probability due to is large warhead,” Oberholzer says.
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.”
Wessels says Denel Dynamics is looking for funding partners for the advanced Umkhonto future configurations . “It will ideally be a programme like A-Darter”, the R1 billion JV 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 & 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.”