The British Army’s Got Its Hands On Its New Sky Sabre Air Defense Systems
Using the same missiles as Royal Navy warships, the Sky Sabre is a much-needed replacement for the veteran Rapier missile.
The British Army is now protecting objectives against aerial threats with the new-generation Sky Sabre air defense system, leveraging surface-to-air missile technology already in use on Royal Navy warships. The system, combining surveillance radar, tactical datalink, and missiles, provides a much-needed replacement for the Cold War-era Rapier low-level air-defense system.
The U.K. Ministry of Defence announced today that the Sky Sabre has now begun to enter service with the British Army’s 16 Regiment Royal Artillery and subsequent deliveries will “be configured to operate in all parts of the globe.”
The regiment, which is part of the 7th Air Defence Group, based at Baker Barracks on Thorney Island, West Sussex, has now embarked on an “extensive training package” to complete the transition from the Rapier, which will gradually be phased out of service.
“Sky Sabre’s spearheading technology has significantly upgraded the protection of our forces from threats from the air,” said U.K. Defence Procurement Minister Jeremy Quin. “This cutting-edge … defense system is a clear demonstration of our warfighting capabilities to those who wish to do us harm.”
“We will be able to compete with our peers and take on some of the toughest adversaries,” added Lt. Col. Chris Lane, Commanding Officer of 16 Regiment Royal Artillery. Sky Sabre ”gives us a capability we have not had before; this new missile system with its new launcher and world-class radar will absolutely put us at the forefront of ground-based air defense.”
The major components of the Sky Sabre include a Saab Giraffe Agile Multi-Beam (AMB) 3D medium-range surveillance radar mounted on an extending mast and with a range of up to 75 miles. Prior to being integrated within Sky Sabre, the same radar was already in use with the British Army for roles including air surveillance and counter rocket, artillery, and mortar.
Once detected, threats are processed using the Surface-to-Air Missile Operations Center (SAMOC) that handles command and control and also shares information with other land, sea, and air assets via the NATO-compatible Link 16 tactical datalink. The SAMOC’s fire-control computer can guide 24 missiles to individual targets simultaneously. This part of the system is supplied by Israel’s Rafael company.
The cutting edge of Sky Sabre is MBDA’s Common Anti-Air Modular Missile, or CAMM, also known as the Land Ceptor. The same CAMM missile is also used in naval applications — including aboard U.K. Royal Navy warships — as the Sea Ceptor. Fitted with an active-radar seeker, the CAMM is derived from the infrared-guided Advanced Short-Range Air-to-Air-Missile (ASRAAM) that’s in service on Royal Air Force Typhoon jet fighters, among others. The ASRAAM’s rocket motor, warhead, and proximity fuse are all ported into the CAMM.
Weighing over 200 pounds, each CAMM is twice as heavy as a Rapier missile and has three times the range: MBDA claims a range of more than 15 miles for the CAMM, while the British Army attributes its latest Rapier FSC version with a range of just over 5 miles.
As well as improved performance, the CAMM is able to tackle a wider range of threats more applicable to the modern battlefield, including low-observable targets, high-speed missiles, drones, and precision-guided air-to-ground weapons.
Like the Rapier FSC, each launcher carries eight missiles. Survivability is enhanced by having the missile launcher, radar, and command-and-control elements located over nine miles apart. The Sky Sabre launcher can also be reloaded in less than half the time that was needed to replenish missiles on the Rapier, using soft vertical launch canister rounds.
Although regularly updated, the original Rapier entered service with the British Army in the early 1970s and went on to see operational service in the Falklands campaign, during Operation Desert Storm, and, more recently in defense of London airspace during the 2012 Olympic Games. That latter assignment also reflects the likelihood that the Sky Sabre will also be deployed to protect domestic critical infrastructure when necessary.
As defense analysis website Navy Lookout explains: “Sky Sabre will typically be employed to protect Army formations or forward airbases and the 24 sets being purchased are a fraction of what would be required to establish a protective umbrella over the many vulnerable military and civilian sites in the U.K. To provide comprehensive in-depth defense, particularly at high-value sites or where radar range is constrained by the environment, Sky Sabre might need to be backed with additional short-range systems such as radar-directed cannons or Starstreak HVM batteries.”
Introducing the Sky Sabre is clearly a huge advance over the older system, essentially extending air defense cover beyond the short-range domain to help bridge the gap with longer-range systems.
In fact, in its latest defense review, published earlier this year, the U.K. Ministry of Defence describes Sky Sabre as a medium-range capability, intended to supplement a new short-range system, based on the Thales Lightweight Multirole Missile, or LMM, which has a range of less than five miles:
“Investment in ground-based air defense will deliver a system of survivable and digitally connected platforms with a new short-range capability, including small drones, and a new deployable medium-range capability. These will give the Army an air defense capability to defeat modern airborne threats.”
In particular, the same document outlines the threats posed by China’s development of a “full spectrum of air capabilities including fourth and fifth-generation fighters, multiple Intelligence Surveillance Targeting Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) aircraft, the Y-20 heavy transport aircraft, [and] armed stealth Uncrewed Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).”
Attention was also brought to the ability of even smaller state or non-state actors to threaten existing air defenses through “the imaginative employment of relatively low-cost capabilities,” with Libya offered as an example. Here, Russian-made Pantsir-S1 air defense systems have proven vulnerable to attack by armed drones and other weapons.
Video showing the destruction of Pantsir-S1 systems in Libya by various Turkish drone strikes:
Beyond these scenarios, there is also a growing requirement for high-end air defense in the European context, an issue that’s only becoming more pressing as Russia continues to build up its defenses on its western borders as well as challenging NATO’s resolve in the Baltic region, the Black Sea, and elsewhere.
MBDA is meanwhile working on an extended-range version of the missile, the CAMM-ER, primarily to meet an Italian requirement. This missile is expected to have its range increased to around 30 miles, thanks to a new motor, making it much more of a medium-range system, although there is so far no sign that the British Army is currently looking at acquiring it.
Whatever happens with CAMM-ER, the British Army still lacks a ground-based long-range air-defense capability, in the class of the Patriot PAC-3. While the Royal Navy’s Type 45 destroyers, with their Sea Viper missiles, have the range, there are only limited scenarios in which the warship’s defensive umbrella could actually be integrated with the land-based Sky Sabre.
Realistically, however, the British Army would be working closely with allies, primarily the United States, in most potential large-scale conflicts that would require extended air defense coverage. No doubt with this in mind, the CAMM became the first foreign missile to be integrated within the U.S. Army’s Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System (IAMD IBCS). This is the service’s new missile defense network, and the integration work was completed back in 2019 by MBDA and Northrop Grumman. On the other hand, there are already not enough Patriot batteries available, so it might not always be possible for the United States or another ally to simply plug the gap when required.
While the U.K. Ministry of Defence says the Sky Sabre is “expected to see service worldwide, much like [its] predecessor Rapier,” there remains the fact that the new system is less mobile, with three separate and bulky, truck-mounted components. In comparison, the Rapier FSC was a towed unit with integrated radar that could be towed by a light all-terrain vehicle or transported as a slung load by a single helicopter.
Meanwhile, outside the British Army, Poland is the next customer for the ground-based CAMM, with an agreement signed last month between the defense ministries of the two countries.
Under this Statement of Intent, the United Kingdom will collaborate with Poland on NAREW, Poland’s future ground-based air defense system, which will use the CAMM missile.
NAREW will provide a lower-tier complement to Poland’s forthcoming Patriot air defense systems, due to be delivered from next year in PAC-3+ configuration together with the Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System (IAMD IBCS) architecture that will allow Patriot and CAMM to be integrated within the country’s missile defense network.
The resurgence of the short-range air defense, or SHORAD role, is something we have discussed at The War Zone in the past, notably in relation to the U.S. Army’s gaps in this regard. Moreover, the growing threat from peer and near-peer opponents means that, once again, more traditional threats like low-flying fighter aircraft, attack helicopters, and cruise missiles are also making a resurgence.
After many years of operations in mainly uncontested environments, the challenge of guaranteeing air superiority, especially over large areas, has come back into focus. While the British Army may lack the ground-based long-range air defense systems of many of its allies and potential opponents, the Sky Sabre will offer enhanced protection across lower tiers as the U.K. Armed Forces at large continue to recalibrate toward tackling more sophisticated aerial threats.
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