Sea Viper (ASTER)
The Sea Viper missile, or ASTER, is described by MBDA as;
ASTER is part of the Sea Viper system, a system previously called the Principal Anti-Air Missile System (PAAMS).
It is currently in service with the UK in the Royal Navy’s Type 45 Destroyers.
Sea Viper (ASTER) History
Like ASRAAM, the Sea Viper missile system has a long, tortuous and complex back story, essentially, it is a replacement for Sea Dart and the Type 42 Destroyer following a recognition of changing threat environments and the need for improved capabilities, reinforced by the Falklands Conflict in 1982.
The NATO Frigate Replacement for 90’s (NFR-90), a multi-national programme that included France, Germany, Italy, the UK, the United States and Canada. NFR-90 had the perfectly laudable objective of creating a common ship design that could drive standardisation across the alliance partners, reduce costs and collectively, increase combat strength. The mission need document was created in 1979 and the outline staff requirement the year after. Pre-feasibility studies ran until 1982. The project team recognised that the ships would be built locally and that nation would choose different systems such as anti-ship missiles but by standardising on the basic design and major components, up t0 25% savings could be realised.
The project progressed through a number of milestones until the final study concluded in 1985 with a series of different design variants.
The Baseline (or Atlantic) design was to be a ship of 3,500 tonnes displacement constructed using modular techniques to accommodate different national requirements built in a quantity of 59, the UK planned to take 12.
In parallel with NFR-90, the various partner nations were also involved in one way or another with the anti-aircraft missile issue.
The USA came forward with a proposal for the-the NATO Anti-Air Warfare System (NAAWS) in 1987, initially called the Naval Defence Initiative. This proposed a multinational development to include five of the NFR-90 nations; the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, UK and the USA.
The remaining two NFR-90 nations, France and Italy, were having none of this and instead, proposed the Family of Air Missiles (FAMS). FAMS was a derivative of the already in development Aerospatial ASTER missile and Thompson-CSF Arabel phased array radar that was intended to protect the new French nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. France and Italy signed a Letter of Intent in 1987 that agreed to develop the Aster missile system, Aster 15 for the Navy and Aster 30 for the Army.
The UK decided to keep its feet in both camps, the FAMS camp by now including Spain, as well as the UK (BAE and Marconi Defence Systems), Italy and France. UK participation in NAAWS included BAE and Ferranti.
In parallel to NAAWS and FAMS were two studies looking at ground-based air defence, the Medium Surface to Air Missile (MSAM). In October 1987, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain and the UK began a one year MSAM study. Independently of the UK’s involvement in MSAM, the government let a 15-month study contract to BAE to investigate options to replace Bloodhound, the UK’s MSAM.
Options were being left open!
In 1988, despite this source of potential conflict, the UK joined the NFR-90 project definition stage but Germany had already decided to build the Type 123 Brandenburg class in 1987, thus reducing their NFR-90 requirement. By 1989, with interest waning and costs increasing, the UK, France and Italy, withdrew. A year later, Spain also withdrew.
And that was the end of NFR-90.
An exchange in the House of Commons in January 1990 confirmed the cost of the UK’s participation in NFR-90;
Back to air defence missiles.
In 1989, the UK was left with a choice.
NAAWS or FAMS.
It chose FAMS.
It was reported that NAAWS was the most capable but more expensive and that a proposed bid for Ferranti by a merged BAE/Thomson would be contingent on the UK selecting FAMS.
The UK variant of FAMS would be called the Local Area Missile System (LAMS).
So, the LAMS variant of FAMS would meet the Royal Navy’s Support Defence Missile System (SDMS) requirement.
Are you keeping up?
SDMS was by then intended to equip a new AAW Frigate (not a destroyer) to replace Type 42/Sea Dart, called Future Frigate.
The decision to select FAMS for the Royal Navy was formerly announced in December 1990.
In 1990, France and Italy formerly entered into a joint development and manufacture contract for the Aster system after signing contracts with the EuroSAM consortium. EuroSAM comprised Thomson-CSF and Selenia and was to start the SSAF programme that would develop the short range Aster 15 and medium range booster equipped Aster 30, together with radar, fore control and launching systems (land and naval). France would use the Arabel radar and Italy, EMPAR. The two systems would be called Sol-Air Moyenne Portee Terrain (SAMP/T), with Aster 15, and Sol-Air Moyenne Portee Naval (SAMP/N) with Aster 30.
At this point, FAMS contained four missiles, with different ranges and configurations;
- SAAM – Surface Anti-Air Missile (SAAM) with a range of 8km plus range
- SAMP/N – Medium Range Surface to Air Missile (MRSAM), 25km plus range
- SAMP/T – Land launched Medium Range Surface to Air Missile (MSAM), 40km plus range
- LAMS – UK version, Local Area Missile System, 10km plus range
Project Horizon, or the Common New Generation Frigate, was initiated after the NATO Frigate of the 90’s collapsed. The UK, Italy and France signed the Tri-Partite agreement in early 1992 with the intention of creating a common air defence ship that would meet the needs of all three participants. The simple intention was to achieve some economy of scale by using common systems and enhance European defence credentials.
The common systems would be the Aster missile, a vertical launch silo, a central combat management systems and multi-function radar, collectively called the Principal Anti-Air Modular System (PAAMS).
Under PAAMS, LAMS and SAMP/N were merged.
PAAMS would be delivered by EUROPAAMS, a joint venture established by EUROSAM comprising Thomson-CSF, Aerospatiale Matra, Alenia Marconi Systems and UKAMS, a subsidiary of Matra BAe Dynamics. Differing requirements and tensions arising soon emerged but many of these were resolved by the selection of two Multi-Function Radars (MFR), the BAE SAMPSON for the UK and Franco-Italian EMPAR. The UK always wanted a path to ballistic missile defence for PAAMS and thought EMPAR did not have sufficient growth potential to meet this future requirement.
The SAMPSON radar system was derived from a technology demonstration programme called Multi-Function Electronically Scanned Adaptive Radar (MESAR) developed by the Defence Research Establishment and Siemens Plessey. (read more about MESA 1 and 2 here)
The first firing of ASTER 30 took place in December 1994.
By 1996 good progress was being made with PAAMS but the ship design itself continued to be problematical, in service slippage and cost increases seemed to plague the project on a regular basis, with the UK’s Type 42’s becoming increasingly obsolete, this was a serious concern to the MoD. The UK’s workshare was much lower than its intended purchases suggested, another concern.
On top of this, the inability of the partners to agree on a prime contractor structure meant withdrawal was inevitable.
By early April 1998, another five successful tests had been conducted. The lack of a suitable supersonic target meant that no tests were able to be completed against a representative of the Raduga 3M-80 (SS-N-22 Sunburn) missile but simulations provided some assurance that the system could deal with such supersonic targets. Early concepts were also being developed for a two-stage booster to extend the anti-ballistic missile capabilities of the Aster missile. The MoD had awarded a study contract to BAE for Theatre Ballistic Missile Defence (TBMD) in 1996.
On April 26th, 1999, the UK withdrew from Project Horizon, confirming many months of speculation. Instead of the tri-nation collaboration the UK would go it alone with the Type 45 Destroyer.
The UK withdrew from the platform component but continued with PAAMS.
Commenting on the decision, the Secretary of State for Defence, George Robertson, said;
A memo to the select committee from British Aerospace Defence Systems in July 1999 described their view of the issues;
There were also crossover concerns, the UK’s involvement in the MRAV programme was also causing problems in the same time period.
Tests and development continued on PAAMS with a series of successful intercepts, including against supersonic targets and those involving scenarios such as friendly aircraft being pursued by enemy aircraft and complex EM environments.
EUROSAM received a €3 billion contract in 2003 for the production of 18 SAMP/T ground-based systems (12 for France and 6 for Italy) and 1,400 ASTER 15 and 30 missiles for the UK, France and Italy.
A 2003 National Audit Office Report on Type 45 provided some details on the UK’s involvement with Horizon. The original approved cost for twelve vessels was circa £6 Billion, as history showed, we still paid circa £6 Billion, but got 6 vessels instead of 12.
In 2004 the UK joined the Maritime Theatre Missile Defence Forum (MTMD) consisting of Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Norway, Spain, United Kingdom, and the United States.
In 2009, two test firings of an Aster missile from the Longbow trials barge failed at very high G manoeuvres. This set the deployment programme back whilst the issues were resolved.
The PAAMS systems were renamed Sea Viper in January 2009.
It was reported that the failures were due to a manufacturing process change precipitating an unexpected failure mode.
In 2010, HMS Dauntless became the first Royal Navy vessel to fire an Aster missile
Captain Richard Powell, Commanding Officer of HMS Dauntless, said:
Richard Smart, Head of Team Complex Weapons at the MOD, said:
At Naval Command Headquarters, news of the successful first firing at sea from a Royal Navy warship was received warmly by the Chief of Staff (Capability), Major General Garry Robison. He said:
2011 also saw the first ASTER test firing against a theatre ballistic missile (TBM) target, an Israeli Black Sparrow, fired from an F-15. The Black Sparrow is designed to simulate a SCUD-B ballistic missile.
By 2012, other Tye 45’s had conducted their test firings and MBDA had produced their thousandth ASTER missile. A successful test had also been conducted against a supersonic sea skimming target, the ATK GQM-163A Coyote, flying at 5m and Mach 2.5.
The Longbow trials barge was recycled in Turkey in 2012.
In 2013, HMS Daring demonstrated the ability of Sea Viper to detect and track two medium-range ballistic missile targets at the US Reagan Test Site in the Marshall Islands. This was the culmination of a research stream that had started around 2000 and the MESAR research programme., leading into the £10 million Type 45 Science and Technology Programme (TSAT)
The 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review stated;
The At Sea Demonstration 2015 (ASD15) was a multinational exercise in which members of the Maritime Theatre Missile Defence (MTMD) Forum conducted a number of operationally realistic tests of maritime ballistic missile defence.
ASD15 was a serious and impressive demonstration of capability and clearly set the roadmap for further development of the Sea Viper as a ballistic missile defence system working in conjunction with allies, funding permitting.
In early 2016, the French DGA launched an upgrade programme that included the Block 1 NT (New Technology) missile.
This upgrade, which includes a new Ka band seeker frpm Thales and various software improvements, will allow the Aster missile to engage short-range ballistic missiles (1,000km range) and some flight segments of medium-range ballistic missiles. First deliveries are planned to commence in 2023.
The agreement was formally signed between France and Italy at Eurosatory, on the 15th of June 2016.
The UK is considering Block 1NT for Type 45.
Sea Viper (ASTER) Capabilities
The Principal Anti-Air Missile System (PAAMS) is called Sea Viper in UK service and comprises a number of components. Technically, the UK has the PAAMS(S) with the S denoting Sampson, or Sea Viper, depending on what sources one reads.
- SYLVER Vertical Launch System
- ASTER Missiles
- Long Range Search Radar
- Fire Control System based on the SAMPSON Multi-Function Radar
SYLVER Vertical Launch System
SLYVER (SYstème de Lancement VERtical) is a comparable vertical launch system to the US Mk41, designed by DCNS. There are four variants, each of a different depth and configuration.
- Sylver A35, for antimissiles and air-defence
- Sylver A43, for self-defence missiles
- Sylver A50, for tactical missiles
- Sylver A70, for deep-strike missiles
Type 45 Destroyers use the A50 configuration, six of, for a total of 48 cells.
The upper plate, missile hatches and the centre line pressure-controlled uptake hatch form a watertight, RATTAM (Response to ATTack on AMmunition) proof assembly
There are two variants of the ASTER missile in service with the UK, ASTER 15 and ASTER 30 Block 0.
The ASTER 15 missile weighs 310kg and is 4.2m long, the ASTER 30 missile weighs 450kg and is 4.9m long. Both are of a two-stage design with a booster that falls away mid-flight and an identical main missile body. ASTER 30 has a larger booster than ASTER 15, reflective of their range and role.
ASTER 15 is generally reported to have a range and altitude of 1.7km to 40 plus km and 13km respectively, and a maximum speed of Mach 3.5.
ASTER 30 is generally reported to have a range and altitude of 3km to 120 plus km and 20km respectively, and a maximum speed of Mach 3.5.
The blast fragmentation warhead is initiated by a Thales dual contact/proximity fuze and guidance is provided by a combination of off-board direction and onboard active RF seeker. The missile is characterised by extreme manoeuvrability, up to 60g, derived direct thrust vector approach called PIF/PAF (Pilotage enforce/Pilotage aerodynamique fort, inertial steering by force/aerodynamic steering by force) and large control surfaces.
Within the ASTER 30 family, there are a number of sub-variants;
ASTER 30 Block 0; In service with the Royal Navy and others.
ASTER 30 Block 1; Part of the Italian/French SAMP/T land-based air defence system with dual capability against ballistic and conventional missiles. This version has updated seeker software not found in Block 0 and proven as part of previous SAMP/T development activities.
ASTER 30 Block 1NT (new Technology); Currently in development for France and Italy, utilising a new seeker and other improvements to provide enhanced capabilities against tactical ballistic missiles and some capabilities against medium-range ballistic missiles. ASTER 30 Block 1NT is fully compatible with existing SYLVER A50 VLS cells. It is anticipated to enter service with France in 2022.
ASTER 30 Block 2; yet to be developed but reportedly capable of addressing 3,000km range ballistic missiles
Long Range Search Radar
The Type 1046 radar is a derivative of the Thales Netherlands SMART-L radar, also known as the S1850M. The role of the S1850M is to identify threats at long range and in large volumes, passing the data into the Sea Viper Combat Management System (CMS).
BAE describe it as;
The S1850M will also be fitted to the QE Class aircraft carriers.
The S1850M is the large black radar on the aft mast in the image above.
Fire Control System based on the SAMPSON Multi-Function Radar
SAMPSON is derived from the earlier Multi-Function Electronically Scanned Adaptive Radar (MESAR) programme and is an advanced multi-function S-Band radar providing both search, precision tracking and fire control, central to the PAAMS/Sea Viper System. Designed to operate in a heavy clutter and ECM environment it is also designed to be highly robust and resilient. Each of the two arrays have two thousand radiation elements and the distinctive antenna housing rotates at 30rpm to provide high throughput 360 degree coverage.
The radar is placed as high as possible to extend the distance to the horizon for detection of sea skimming missiles. The combat management system integrates the information from both SAMPSON and the S1850. Tests have shown the system capable of simultaneously tracking a high number of targets including aircraft, ballistic missiles and conventional missiles.
SAMPSON, together with the combat management system and other components make Sea Viper extremely effective. Although true performance rightly remains classified, anecdotally, it is said to be world beating.
The Road to Ballistic Missile Defence
The path to ballistic missile defence capability depends on what kind of ballistic missile we are talking about.
Although 2015 SDSR made a number of supportive statements on ballistic missile defence there is no specific requirement yet. That said, the Royal Navy has been involved in a number of research and collaborative programmes over the years, building up a solid body of experience on which to expand the already hugely impressive Sea Viper system into.
One of the recent emergent threats is the Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM), the Chinese DF-21 for example. The first phase of the roadmap to ballistic missile defence would be to address the anti-ship ballistic missile, a threat to deployed naval shipping.
The Block 1 ASTER 30 missile, currently in service with the land based SAMP/T system is capable of defeating short-range ballistic missiles. The difference between Block 1 and Block 0 missiles, the same Block 0 missiles in service with the Royal Navy, is a software upgrade. MBDA have stated that this Block 0 to Block 1 upgrade could be completed at the Munition Maintenance Facility at Gosport. The required software enhancements for the combat management system have already been demonstrated in 2013 as part of the Type 45 Science and Technology Demonstration (TSAT). MBDA completed a Project Definition and Risk Reduction study in 2015 for an Initial Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile Defence Capability.
So it would seem that this first rung, enhancing the Type 45’s area air defence capability to include anti-ship ballistic missiles would be, and I use the word carefully, relatively straightforward and low risk.
The next step, against medium-range ballistic missiles, would require the UK to purchase the Block 1NT Aster 30 missile.
The step after that is the proposed Block 2 missile, and possibly, an A70 SLYVER VLS.
And no mention of supersonic cricket balls!