Sea-based Ballistic Missile Defence

German Contribution to a Future European Capability

By Rear Admiral (ret.)

By RAdm



, GE


 June 2018


Despite many UN resolutions, an ongoing series of North Korean missile tests have recently alarmed the world. Effective media propaganda, provocative performance displays, and the apparently unpredictable government are raising concerns about appropriate preventive measures. This escalation challenges the US in particular because of its role as a protective power in the North Pacific region. Moreover, US territory has come inside the effective range of such long-range ballistic missiles (BM).1 The geographically distant European nations and their close allies might feel safe in regard to this scenario. However, similar weapons also undoubtedly exist in Europe’s southern and south-eastern periphery. In fact, a number of states in the eastern Mediterranean and its adjacent regions meanwhile possess modern BM, whose advanced technology and extended ranges increase the probability of threats from more distant regions.2 If these weapons get into the wrong hands, the call for precautionary measures would suddenly be omnipresent.

At the 2016 Warsaw Summit, Heads of States and Governments committed to providing armed forces with sufficient and sustained resources for defending NATO territory and populations in a high-intensity conflict. With that in mind, national contributions to Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) are crucial to support the Alliance’s collective defence effort. From a European perspective, this means providing NATO with a self-sufficient European BMD capability. Consequently, provisions with respect to a flexible and effective BMD capability based in Europe, to include an easy to redeploy shipborne solution, are no vague, futuristic project but part of a responsible defence posture.

NATO’s BMD Dependence on the US

The development of a NATO ‘missile defence system’ has been discussed since the early 21st century. At the 2010 Lisbon Summit, it was decided to build up a defence capability for the whole Alliance territory (NATO BMD).3 Since the 2012 Chicago Summit, NATO has been running the BMD Operation Centre (BMDOC) at Ramstein, with Germany providing infrastructure and expertise. Voluntary contributions from Nations include stationing of sensors or intercept missiles (PATRIOT systems)4 for the lower layer, i.e. for shorter range BMD engaging targets well inside the Earth’s atmosphere.

As part of its ‘European Phased Adaptive Approach’ (EPAA) programme, the US is still the only provider of land-based and ship-based effectors for defence against long-range BM in the upper layer, i.e. outside the atmosphere.5 According to current knowledge, this is the most effective way to counter BM. None of the European national armed forces currently possess any comparable capability.

The US Navy thus provides four US Navy AEGIS destroyers6 stationed in Rota, Spain, and equipped with Raytheon’s Standard Missile 3 (SM-3). If necessary, these destroyers could provide a limited BMD umbrella to protect European and Israeli territory from BM attacks, potentially including Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). However, the US commitment to Europe may decrease, or capacities could be shifted to the Pacific depending on the situation. The current US administration, therefore, demands Europe, especially the economically strong nations, to contribute more capabilities for the defence of their region. While there is broad consensus among European nations about this requirement, the initiation of concrete measures to achieve the goal is apparently lagging behind, due to limited budgets and the previously perceived willingness of the US to take the precautions necessary for Europe.

German Contribution to Integrated Air Missile Defence

While the German Air Force is well equipped in the lower layer BM intercept level (or lower tier in US terminology), the Bundeswehr cannot contribute directly to the defence against medium- or long-range BM outside the atmosphere. The protection of Germany or an ally against such a threat is foreseeably dependent on the US to provide EPAA resources. However, the German Navy can contribute to the protection of naval units with its SACHSEN class (F124) frigates and Standard Missile 2 (SM-2) effectors to provide advanced air defence (AD), which encompasses short-range missile threats. This was convincingly demonstrated in former ‘Cooperative Deployments’ with US carrier battle groups including AEGIS ships operating in their BMD role. An upgrade of the F124 class’s obsolete SMART-L radar system7 is furthermore planned on the mid-term to achieve a BMD sensor capability. This will allow Germany to provide a substantial sensor contribution for early warning and target pre-assignment against BM in the upper layer. This BMD spotter capability could be expected in five to six years at the earliest (first modified F124).

However, German defence planning does not foresee the development of a capability to engage BM outside the atmosphere (F124 or successor as shooter), since there has been no specific political guidance. Even if such political will was expressed right now, this capability could not be achieved earlier than in the mid-2020s. Nonetheless, for years, the German Navy has paid considerable attention to the further development of sea-based BMD. In relevant international panels and conferences, Germany has not only supported sensor development but also – at least in the long-term – encouraged building-up a maritime European BMD capability.

At the 2014 Summit in Wales, Germany above all favoured the Framework Nations Concept (FNC) for a capability build-up in areas (‘clusters’). The principal idea of the FNC is that individual Nations or single services take up the initiative and bear the main burden – or provide the framework – for the delivery and further development of certain capabilities. Since April 2015, the German Navy has taken leadership of ‘Upper Layer BMD’, which is a sub-cluster to the overall ‘Air & Missile Defence’ (AMD) cluster coordinated by the German Air Force. Cooperation partners in ‘Upper Layer BMD’ are Denmark, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

During the ‘At Sea Demo 2015’, which was planned and directed by the Maritime Theatre Missile Defence Forum (MTMD-F)8 and following a German-Dutch operational concept, units from eight nations tested for the first time in European waters a coordinated AD and BMD against targets in the upper layer. The German Navy participated with a number of field grade officers and manned the Chief of Staff position. In May 2017, Germany took over the MTMD-F lead for another sea-based BMD exercise (FORMIDABLE SHIELD) which took place in autumn 2017 in the area of the northern flank, again with corresponding German design and participation.

Suggestions for a European Sea-based Shooter Contribution

With regard to developing an affordable European contribution with maritime BMD shooters, one should discuss different options up to and including the leasing of intercept missiles. In particular, it would be worth considering a European missile pool with reasonable capacity that is also available for the US Navy. European allies such as Belgium, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, and Spain, together with the US, could provide enough sea-based BMD capacity for the Mediterranean, taking the four deployed US Navy AEGIS destroyers into account and presuming the six aforementioned European navies would altogether come up with six BMD frigates. Keeping the permanent operational duties of the European navies in mind, the call for this number of ships equipped for the BMD shooter role should be seen as appropriate (one per nation on average, or fewer nations sharing the cost of more than one). With a pool of ten total ships, the US and European forces could maintain a permanent presence of up to four BMD shooters in the Mediterranean area with a common stock of intercept missiles, while respecting a rotation cycle of mission, maintenance, and mission preparation.

Recommendations and Outlook

The Alliance’s planning objectives include the build-up of BMD capabilities under the principle of burden sharing. There are a number of NATO activities, concepts, and decisions pursuing this goal and the German Navy has a significant contribution to conceptual and tactical developments in the area of sea-based BMD. Its leading role in the FNC (subcluster Upper Layer BMD) is appreciated among nations and within NATO. With the SMART L ELR radar9 implemented on the Royal Netherlands Navy’s frigates starting in 2018/2019 and the later sensor upgrade on the German F124, there will be for the first time self-reliant European sensor capabilities available for the acquisition of BM targets in the upper intercept layer.

Meanwhile, the current security environment and future trends underline the necessity of maritime BMD shooters. ‘Persuasive’ efforts are required in this regard to achieve tangible impetus from the political leadership, because without political will the shooter option remains infeasible. In many European countries, to include Germany, public support, and therefore the politicians’ appetite for investing in new armament are rather low. Here, one should develop the basic understanding that AD and BMD capabilities – with or without shooter – are defensive by design and, hence, functionally reactive. Developing NATO BMD is therefore not an aggressive action and, in particular, not an offensive threat directed against Russia. However, current NATO-agreed threat estimates indicate that – apart from other perceived threat directions – BMD precautions are also necessary in regard to that military potential. For most of the related questions, one should seek broad consensus at the political and military level not only nationally but also with the allied nations, who are all facing the same challenges.

Because of the expected cost implications, Nations should cooperate from the outset with selected European partners, who already have specially designed anti-air warfare frigates equipped with respective sensor technology and shooter upgrade options (or will introduce these in the foreseeable future). Because of the broad BM threat spectrum and massive cost of capability development, BMD in Europe cannot be a purely national endeavour. Also, one should prefer the procurement of already developed and introduced technology fulfilling the requirement. In fact, the SM-3 is an already available intercept missile for the upper layer, which over many years has well proven its functional and operational capability in over 30 test firings at and from the sea. Investment in SM-3 might be the swiftest and most expeditious way to acquire a full BMD capability for the European NATO Nations.

Ballistic Missiles (BM) or rockets reach their target under the physical law of ballistics. Principally, their trajectory (a launch parable) corresponds to that of a projectile. Contrary to cruise missiles or guided weapons, they do not have a wing structure or cruise engine and are accelerated only in the boost phase. BM can reach both tactical ranges (Theatre Ballistic Missile – TBM) and strategic ranges and are able to carry different kinds of warheads.
While BM are generally employed against targets on land, recent technological developments also include the emergence of Anti-ship Ballistic Missiles (e.g.: DONG FENG 21-D). Altogether, an increase of SRBM (short range ballistic missiles with ranges of up to 1,000 Km), MRBM (medium range ballistic missiles/range 1,000–3,000 Km) and IRBM (intermediate range ballistic missiles/range 3,000–5,500 Km) can be observed.
Principally, it is differentiated in (1) Theatre Ballistic Missile Defence (TBMD) as the protection of NATO forces, objects and installations, and (2) NATO BMD as the protection of territory and population of the European NATO partners.
The MIM-104 Patriot is a Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) system manufactured by the US defence contractor Raytheon and derives its name from the AN/MPQ-53 radar component of the weapon system known as the ‘Phased array Tracking Radar to Intercept on Target’ (PATRIOT).
US contribution to the NATO BMD structure in Europe: AEGIS ships, mobile sensor AN-TPY-2, installation of two land-based AEGIS systems in Poland and Romania with SM-3 Block IIa.
The AEGIS combat system is designed for air defence as well as BMD, currently presenting the only basis for SM-3 interceptor employment. The US Navy is the main AEGIS user on the Arleigh-Burke- and Ticonderoga-Class. Other users include the Norwegian, Spanish, Japanese, Australian, and South Korean navies. Basically an AEGIS command guidance will be not necessarily the only option to employ the SM-3.
Signal Multibeam Radar for Tracking, L band (SMART-L).
The MTMD-F is an eleven-nation informal body and think tank formed in 1999 to create international cooperation in the area of Maritime Theater Missile Defence. Although initially set up for maritime BMD, the Forum has evolved to consider cooperation in other mission areas, such as land attack and ship self-defence.
As designed, SMART-L has a maximum range of 400 km (220 nmi) against patrol aircraft, and 65 km (35 nmi) against stealthy missiles. A software upgrade, Extended Long Range (ELR) Mode, extends the maximum range to 480 km (260 nmi).
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Rear Admiral (ret.)

Rear Admiral Juergen Mannhardt (ret.) has served aboard fast patrol boats, destroyers, and frigates in various positions up to deputy and Chief of Staff DEU Flotilla 1. During his last assignment at sea, he was Commander Maritime Task Force 448 UNIFIL and served two times under US Central Command in Tampa and Bahrain, earning various awards like the OEF- and the UNIFIL-medal. Holding a Master’s Degree in economics, he took part in the 29th Admiral Staff Course and was a lecturer for Leadership & Management and Operational Art at the Bundeswehr Command and General Staff College in Hamburg. Before he retired at the end of 2016, his last flag officer assignments were Superintendent of the German Naval Academy in Flensburg, Deputy Commander of the Naval Office and Head of Plans and Policy Directorate of German Navy Headquarters in Rostock. Today he consults for a number of German and international companies on defence matters.

Information provided is current as of June 2018

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