Naval Air and Ballistic Missile Defense: Capabilities, Threats and Market Outlook

Summary Planned and ongoing ship procurement programs by countries in the East Mediterranean, North Africa and the Mid-East regions highlight the growing demand for advanced surface combatants such as frigates and destroyers.  These ships will address an increasingly complex threat environment led by continued advancements in higher speeds and lower observability of cruise missiles as well as the proliferation of short and intermediate range ballistic missiles. 

AMI forecasts of new construction large surface combatants over the next 20 years include 447 new destroyer and frigate hulls at a total acquisition cost of USD 320B.  This represents about 35% of all new construction naval spending on all types of naval ships and craft through 2033.

Of these major ship programs, some 10% (48 hulls with a total acquisition cost of USD 33B) will be procured by 11 countries in the region stretching from the North African coast through the Aegean, Black and Eastern Mediterranean Seas and into the Red Sea and Arabian Gulf. 

This projected growth in spending on larger and more capable naval ships in that region is not surprising, given continuing instability and more complex threats that characterize those regions.  Specifically, the air and missile threats to naval ships have grown. 

Traditional shipboard tactical defense has focused on “point defense” against helicopter, propeller and jet aircraft—a task challenging enough for most warships.  The naval air defense task for regional navies is further complicated as a variety of advanced precision weapons up to an including ballistic missiles join the arsenals of potential adversaries. 

Over the next 5 years, several countries in the region will be making major investment decisions on new ship programs centered on strengthening sea-based air and missile defense capabilities.  Saudi Arabia is reviewing options for a new Eastern Fleet Surface combatant in a program estimated to be worth up to USD 6.5 B.

Turkey’s TF-2000 program is of similar scope, with the Turkish MOD committed to an indigenous ship hull design coupled with a Turkish-led radar and combat system development.  The recent award of “CAFRAD” Phase I naval air defense radar is an important first step on this development path. 

As these and other nations evaluate their options for the next generation of frigates and destroyers, the current threat, existing and emerging technologies in radars, weapons, and  current state of the market for ship designs will all shape program decisions.  The ultimate configuration of these future ship programs will also send a major market signal about which of many air and missile defense systems prove most successful in the naval marketplace.

Background:  That the navies of the world plan to spend about 1/3 of their new ship acquisition resources over the coming two decades on destroyers and frigates is largely explained by an expanding range of threats in the naval domain.  These threats range from maritime security issues to a global expansion in operational submarines to unmanned systems at sea and in the air.

The threat from the air appears to be a main driver for new investments in radars, other sensors, combat management and weapons observed on the current generation of frigates and destroyers.  These new investments are needed to offset improved range, speed and precision of the latest generation of anti-ship missiles, other cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles.

The reference points for BMD capability for frigates and destroyers will continue to be the current “state of the art” ships designed for fleet and national air/missile defense.  The AEGIS combat system on US Burke class destroyers are an example of successful evolution in both ship and system design to manage high end BMD as well as general naval missions.

And proven ship and systems designs are just the beginning.  As the U.S. Navy has learned through almost four decades of evolution of the AEGIS combat system, achieving and sustaining success in the naval outer air battle demands resources and more--a cohesive team and long-term institutional commitment by navy and industry alike.  All of these factors need to mesh to keep pace with a threat matrix that just keeps getting harder to beat.

The Threat Matrix
Conventional short range weapons:  these include airborne weapons typically used in direct attacks at short range—bullets and bombs from helicopters and manned fixed wing aircraft.  Attacking platforms gain stand-off advantages with tactical missiles such as the laser-guided Brimstone missile at a range of about 8 nautical miles.

Longer range precision anti-ship missiles such as Exocet and Harpoon (maximum ranges 75-100 NM) are being superseded by the newer generation of weapons such as Indian-Russian joint venture BrahMos missile—claimed to be the fastest ASCM currently in service at an operational range of up to 250 NM.

Land-attack cruise missiles are also a significant part of the threat matrix in designing naval air defense capability.  As indicated by the designation, LACM have not typically targeted naval ships as a primary objective—that task being left to ASCM in a variety of launch configurations—subsurface, ship, shore and air.  In such scenario, LACM would not be a direct threat to the survival of the naval platform.  However, given the LACM threat to critical infrastructure and leadership targets that are typically targeted by the LACM make them a “must kill” target for the defending ship.

As more “maturing” navies add to the numbers and sizes of ships in their fleet structures, the once firm dividing line between ASCM and LACM is blurring.  A “mission kill” or even sinking of an adversary’s major naval ships—even those as small as corvettes—can have a dramatic political effect, as shown most recently in the successful missile attack on the INS Hanit off Lebanon in 2006.

The Russian “Klub” series of missiles (NATO designation SS-N-27/SS-N-30) is one example of this increasingly complex missile threat confronted by the next generation of air and missile defense ships.  Klub uses a common missile design for long range (up to 600 NM for some variants) land attack and anti-ship variants.  Klub is widely exported (India, Algeria, Vietnam, China, possibly Iran) and can be launched on short notice from a wide variety of platforms.  Recent marketing literature on the system promotes its ability to be adapted to commercial shipping containers for sea, road or rail launch, as well as conventional submarine tube and surface ship vertical launch systems.

Missiles like the Klub series will be increasingly difficult to identify, locate and destroy prior to launch, making post-launch neutralization by sea-based air/missile defense systems the main line of missile defense—for the fleet or the homeland.

Further, proliferation of the LACM makes it a primary concern for future threat and force planning.  Current U.S. Government threat assessments indicate 12 countries have LACMS in their inventories. 

Ballistic missiles include short and intermediate range weapons with ranges stretching out to 1000 NM and beyond operated by Iran.  The Iranian ballistic missile threat is the primary driver for the “European Phased Adaptive Approach” program that will see AEGIS capability established at shore sites in Romania and Poland and integrated with US sea-based BMD defense systems on Burke class DDGs.  Trials and testing continue to integrate sensors and weapons on European naval ships’ that could contribute to an overall BMD capability.

Missions and Capabilities:

Frigates and destroyers are the centerpiece of most modern fleet structures.  They are designed as multi-mission ships with capability to provide tactical and operational C4, conduct anti-submarine, anti-surface and anti-air missions as well as execute “peacetime” maritime security and representational tasks.

A representative mission list for air defense frigates and destroyers would include:

  • Defense of sea area--own ship, other fleet platforms, and key operational zones (such as an amphibious objective area) against manned and unmanned aircraft, cruise missiles and tactical ballistic missiles
  • Integrate with land-based air and missile defense capability for protection of land areas/zones/objective against tactical ballistic and cruise missile attacks
  • Defense of land forces in coastal areas against air and missile attack
  • Be prepared to contribute (with weapons, sensors, command and control capability) to a joint, coalition, allied or other tactical BMD defense effort to deter or defend against air or missile attack

With the exception of the first and most purely “naval” mission listed above, the other missions above imply that the air defense frigate or destroyer must have extensive and reliable command and control architecture on board.  These combat management capabilities—processing, algorithms, links, voice and data transmission on secure networks—can be as difficult to deliver and sustain as the actual “detect-classify-track-engage” elements of the kill chain required to defeat an air or missile threat.

Ballistic missile defense (BMD) is a (the) most challenging mission to integrate into a destroyer or frigate designed as a “generalist” platform whose service career may last 30 years or more.  Any BMD ship must mount an extremely complex mix of the right sensors, weapons and combat systems.  They must work together, effectively, the first time and every time to defeat a missiles that represent a strategic threat to population centers and critical infrastructure ashore as well as naval groups and even individual ships at sea. To date, only the AEGIS shipborne system has been proven to detect, track, and destroy ballistic missiles.

NATO navies are looking at options to increase the BMD capability of platforms in service now.  The Royal Navy is testing the Sampson radar on the Type 45 destroyer with Sea Viper/Aster 30 to detect and track TBMs, working with the US Navy and Missile Defense Agency.

The German Navy has reviewed the potential to upgrade the three F-124 Saschen class frigates to include a BMD capability.  This would involve updating or replacing the on-board radars and the Combat Management System (CMS) in order to detect and track ballistic missiles.  Denmark’s Iver Huitfeldt class frigate and the Netherlands De Zeven Provincien class could also be similarly upgraded.

None of these nations has yet asserted a requirement for their Navy ships to intercept a ballistic missile.  Should BMD become a formal requirement for upgrade and modernization, it would mean replacing Standard Missile (SM) 2 Blk IIIs with the SM3, as well as undertaking a significant test and certification programme.

State of the Market

Forecasted Value (US$M)
(Estimated $$ to be spent on new construction between 2013-2033)




Asia & Australia




Caribbean & Latin America




Middle East & North Africa








Non-NATO Europe
















The market value table above confirms future spend on frigates and destroyers will remain concentrated in the US with the Burke and Zumwalt-class DDGs.  European spending on the two ship types is also ambitious—with leading programs including the UK Type 26, French FREMM (and exports—to Morocco and possibly Greece).

The Asia-Pacific region also has significant market strength in advanced air defense ship programs—to include the Australian Hobart DDG, Korean KDX 2 and 3 series destroyers, Japan’s future DDG and a number of more complex Chinese frigate and destroyer designs

The figures for the Mid East and North Africa market also highlight how spending is shifting toward larger and higher value platforms and systems.  While many of these are corvette designs of 2000 tons or less, frigates and destroyers still make up about USD 15B in new ship buys.

Notably, the demand for larger ships in the MENA region is not limited to a few “high spender” markets.  Seven of the fifteen countries AMI tracks in the MENA region have current or future procurement programs to acquire new frigates or destroyers.  Among the most prominent:

  • Morocco’s program to acquire a FREMM class destroyer from French suppliers DCNS valued at almost US$700 million
  • Algeria’s 7 new frigates—a mix of German Meko and Chinese F-22A light frigate designs at a total estimated acquisition cost of over USD 3B.
  • Saudi Arabia’s program to acquire at least four Eastern Fleet Surface Combatants (frigates or destroyers) at a total program value that could reach more than US$6 billion

Bob Nugent
Affiliate Consultant
M:  (360) 850-7444

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