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Soldier on the battlefield using Giraffe 1X radar.

Changing battlefield threats make ground-based air defence more vital than ever

5 min read

Over the past decade, battlefield threats have evolved into something much more complex and unpredictable, through a mixture of new advanced weapons technology, shifting geopolitical tides and changing battle scenarios. Ground-based air defence is more important than ever, but in updated, more mobile form, as Emil Holm from Saab explains.

Ground-based air defence (GBAD) - the use of portable or fixed missile platforms on land to protect ground-based military forces from airborne attack - is a tried and tested concept that’s been around for a century. But it has never been more important than it is now because today’s battlefield is a complex, multi-layered series of threats.

“We need a more flexible, mobile response to the challenges that the world is facing now, as there are more complex geopolitical realities, more advanced weapons and greater access to those weapons than ever before. GBAD is a key part of a more holistic approach to nations’ defence capabilities,” says Emil Holm, Director of Technical Sales Support for GBAD Missile Systems at Saab.

The traditional battle landscape

Saab has many years’ experience in developing GBAD systems. The company’s laser-guided RBS 70 short-range air defence missile system has been a mainstay of many nations’ armouries since the technology was first developed from 1967 to 1977 for the Swedish Defence Materiel Administration (FMV).

From infantry support guns to the RBS 70 and Bamse

But the RBS 70 was not fully mobile with a deployment time of 30 seconds. It was either deployed over longer times, or used together with a number of other RBS 70 units to move along with a mobile protected asset; the threats coming from the air were most often low-flying fighter aircraft and attack helicopters.

Even Saab’s subsequent upgrades to the technology, culminating in RBS 70 NG, made welcome improvements but didn’t change the fundamental application. Since then, Saab has focused on the product care side of GBAD and developing existing systems, while competitors have not launched new models. Why so?

“We were in a relatively peaceful age,” says Emil Holm.

“The Cold War was over, and it was fairly calm in Europe and between East and West. The main conflicts such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq were short wars followed by long peacekeeping and peace enforcement missions.

“And in terms of GBAD, the ‘threat catalogue’ was not advanced. It was more likely to be propeller aircraft with the enemy throwing hand grenades at refugee camps, or mortar fire.”

So, some countries chose not to spend money on updating GBAD systems. They bought fighter aircraft with better sensors.

“The market was quite quiet,” says Holm.

The changing threat landscape

However, the landscape has become much more uncertain over the past decade. The first thing to alter was global geopolitics.

Soldier aims with the RBS 70 NG

“Some politicians and countries are becoming more nationalistic,” says Holm.

“There are new powers on the rise all over the world and as economies do better, defence budgets rise. Nations tend to spend more money on weaponry.

“Things have happened on the international arena that made them realise that while it had been calm for years it may not be as calm in future. This made them start to think about national integrity and protection instead of peacekeeping missions, so they need to start spending defence money to protect themselves rather than everyone else. Some countries started spending a lot of money on upgrading their weapons arsenals.”

The second change was the development of more advanced weaponry. The proliferation of unmanned aerial system (UAS drones) and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology has dramatically expanded the range of attack and disruption options, as has the commercial accessibility of such technology; remember the Gatwick Airport drone incident of 2018?

“Fighter aircraft technology has been continuously evolving and money has been spent there. But I believe that as a function of peacekeeping missions, people have been more sensitive to losses of personnel than during big wars. That’s partly why there’s been so much investment in UAS and UAVs: to save human lives,” says Emil Holm.

Soldier aiming with RBS 70 NG.

“Before the GBAD investment pause, there were almost no examples of UAS other than big reconnaissance drones such as Predator, flying at very high altitude. All of a sudden, we have armed drones, suicide drones, drone swarms. So GBAD still has its traditional targets and threats, such as attack helicopters and bomber aircraft, but now we have unmanned drones and rocket artillery mortar targets coming into our envelope; we need to be able to engage with those.”

In turn, these technologies expand the battle theatre. Together with a lightweight radar, such as Saab’s Giraffe 1X a GBAD system further expands its capabilities. GBAD now has to become much more mobile to keep up with constantly moving threats, from the countryside to the city over the course of the same engagement. A man powered GBAD system can’t give you that capability. The next step is to integrate it into vehicles.

“The requirements have changed,” says Holm.