STUTTGART, Germany — With the war in Ukraine serving as a sobering backdrop, NATO is preparing to start the next phase of two multinational air and missile defense programs that are several years in the making.
An effort to field a modular, ground-based air defense system, or GBAD, that would include solutions for very-short-range, short-range and medium-range defense now has 15 NATO allies and partners onboard. And they hope to field the platform by 2028.
At the same time, eight nations have come together to develop a new command-and-control capability for surface-based air and missile defense within a similar time frame.
These two programs “are part of our efforts to foster multinational cooperation among allies,” Camille Grand, NATO assistant secretary general for defense investment, said in an interview with Defense News.
Air defense is a domain “where we foresee that cooperation amongst allies would make a lot of sense,” he added.
Ten NATO allies and partners signed a letter of intent to move forward on the modular GBAD program at an October 2020 meeting of defense ministers. As of April 2022, five additional partners have joined. The current team includes Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States.
The alliance aims to sign a memorandum of understanding for the effort by the end of 2022, kick off the concept stage in 2023 and have a fielded capability around 2028, Grand said.
The user requirements and funding guidelines will be established once the memorandum is signed, but for now, off-the-shelf systems as well as future or emerging technology solutions are on the table. “Existing solutions, as long as they are interoperable and modular, would be acceptable. But there is, of course, an interest in also looking at the next generation of capabilities as part of this project,” Grand said.
The idea is for the nations involved to invest in as much of the modular system as desired: Some allies may only be interested in one layer of the shield while others will opt for the full suite.
“The technologies available, even if they come from different parts of industry, should be fully interoperable,” Grand noted. “There is really an effort to make this work very, very seamlessly so that the allies who join can sort of expand their participation by going to another layer, if they so decide at a later stage.”
The team already engaged with potential partners through the NATO Industry Advisory Group, under which certain companies have shared their solutions to show what’s available. But the majority of industry engagement will take place after the memorandum is signed, Grand noted.
NATO declined to identify companies that participated in initial sessions.
Meanwhile, the alliance also aims to sign a memorandum of understanding this year to build a multinational command-and-control capability for surface-based air and missile defense at the battalion and brigade level, known under the moniker SBAMD C2 Layer. At an April meeting of national armaments directors at the Brussels-based NATO headquarters, France and Hungary signed onto the initiative, joining Denmark, Italy, Portugal, Spain, the U.K. and the U.S.
The SBAMD C2 Layer is a relatively newer project, with a letter of intent signed in October 2021, but Grand said the delivery time frame is the same as the modular GBAD program — in the “second half of the 2020s.”
By design, the two efforts are linked.
“The issue is: How do we connect multiple sensors and effectors to cover multiple threat scenarios, from drones to cruise missiles to planes or ballistic missiles?” Grand said. While the team is still in the early stages of finalizing user requirements, off-the-shelf products and new designs are both on the table, he added.
No decisions have been made about where these systems might be stationed once fielded, “or even discussed at this stage,” Grand said. But it’s possible some systems will be based in member nations, while others could be forward deployed, he added.
Some regions stand out as being “of critical importance” when it comes to air defense capabilities, such as the Baltic region as well as the northern and eastern NATO member nations.
“When you see that countries like Latvia, Norway [and] Poland are involved, it is very clear that they have an interest in developing such capabilities for themselves,” Grand noted. But on the other hand, the 15 allies currently involved in the modular GBAD program cover practically “the whole spectrum of the alliance in terms of geography.”
While these two programs were initiated years before Russia invaded Ukraine, very-short- and short-range air defense systems have played an important role since the early stages of the war, countering attacks from planes, drones, helicopters and missiles, Grand noted. “We do see a number of lessons to be learned from [the Ukraine conflict], and that will inform our future decisions in regards to air and missile defense.”
Weapon systems used by Russia in its war against Ukraine include “an incredible volume of air sorties and cruise missiles and helicopters,” said retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, a former U.S. Army Europe chief who holds the Pershing chair of strategic studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis.
Those sorties have helped NATO and its allies identify the systems needed to counter such attacks, he noted. Capabilities such as the modular GBAD program and the SBAMD C2 effort reflect those requirements, but the alliance must ensure it has proper information-sharing policies to maximize the air defense capabilities, he noted.
Member nations should launch a joint multinational exercise that would inform what sort of policies are needed to ensure rapid, straightforward and secure communication, Hodges said.
“We’ve just done bits and pieces, but we have not done one [exercise] that would prepare us for the scenario that we see in Ukraine right now,” he added. “In the absence of doing an exercise like that, how can we have any confidence that all of our networks are going to work, [or] that we’re going to be able to have a common air picture?”
Vivienne Machi is a reporter based in Stuttgart, Germany, contributing to Defense News' European coverage. She previously reported for National Defense Magazine, Defense Daily, Via Satellite, Foreign Policy and the Dayton Daily News. She was named the Defence Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2020.