By: Warren Gray
Copyright © 2024
“NASAMS provides air defenders with a tailorable, state-of-the-art defense
system that can maximize their ability to acquire, engage, and destroy current
and evolving enemy fixed and rotary-wing aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles
and emerging cruise-missile threats.”
— Raytheon website, 2024
Since 2005, the Washington, D.C., area has been defended by four firing batteries of the Kongsberg Defence (of Norway)/Raytheon NASAMS-1 (Norwegian/National, Advanced, Surface-to-Air Missile System), and at least one Boeing TWQ-1 Avenger mobile missile system. NASAMS is a short-to-medium-range, surface-to-air missile system, utilizing the Raytheon AIM-120C-7/C-8 Slammer air-to-air missile in a surface-launched configuration, employing active-radar homing, while the Avenger system fires eight FIM-92J Stinger short-range, infrared-guided (heat-seeking) missiles. Each of the four NASAMS-1 batteries around the nation’s capital is equipped with a single fixed, olive-green launcher holding six missiles.
The AIM-120C-7 is a combat-proven missile, carried by most American fighter aircraft, including the F-15C/E/EX Eagle/Strike Eagle, F-16CM Fighting Falcon, F/A-18C/D/E/F Hornet/Super Hornet, F-22A Raptor, and F-35A/B/C Lightning II, with an effective range of up to 57 nautical miles (65 miles) in aerial engagements. When fired from the ground, however, and constantly fighting the substantial effects of gravity, this same missile is limited to 16.2 nautical miles, and is also known as the SLAMRAAM (“Slam-ram,” or Surface-Launched, Advanced, Medium-Range, Air-to-Air Missile).
The NASAMS-1 system employs Raytheon’s MPQ-64F1 Improved Sentinel pulse-Doppler radar, with a target detection range of 75 miles, rapidly scanning the skies at 30 revolutions per minute. An MPQ-64A4 Enhanced Sentinel active, electronically-scanned array (AESA) radar was requested in 2019, offering extended range, faster and more accurate hostile target recognition, and the ability to track more threats. In addition to the radar, a Rheinmetall MSP500 or newer, MSP600 electro-optical sensor features a laser rangefinder, TV camera, and an upgraded, thermographic camera.
There is also a NASAMS-2 variant, since 2007, using the Link-16 data-link system, and a NASAMS-3 version, since 2019, with the ability to launch AIM-120C-7 Slammer, AIM-9X-2 Super Sidewinder, IRIS-T SLS, or AMRAAM-ER missiles. The latter model is an improved, AIM-120C-8/AIM-120D-3 missile, 16 inches longer, with a 50-percent increase in maximum range, out to 27 nautical miles. There are currently 13 nations equipped with NASAMS variants, including Finland, Hungary, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Ukraine (24 launchers from the U.S., and more later, from Canada and Norway), and the United States.
On September 3, 2020, the U.S. Air Force’s 780th Test Squadron from Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, conducted a very successful, NASAMS-1 missile test on Santa Rosa Island, near Pensacola, Florida, as part of the Vermilion Stallion program. This was a very-low-altitude NASAMS intercept of an unmanned BQM-167A Skeeter drone (20 feet long, with 10.5-foot wingspan, and speed up to .92 Mach), simulating an enemy cruise missile. This historic, live-fire engagement was the lowest-altitude, mock cruise missile ever intercepted and destroyed by a NASAMS missile.
In actual combat in Ukraine, the NASAMS-1 exhibited a 100-percent success rate during the Russian missile strikes of November 15, 2022, shooting down 10 enemy missiles of a total of 10 targeted. By April 2023, the Ukrainian Air Force stated that NASAMS had destroyed more than 100 enemy missiles and drones.
There is also a mobile version of NASAMS-3 on a high-mobility M1152A1 HMMWV (“Hum-vee”) launcher, primarily employed in Norway, able to launch four AIM-120C-7 missiles and two AIM-9X-2 missiles, but the variants defending Washington, D.C., are apparently the original, fixed-position, “vanilla,” NASAMS-1 systems.
In October 2021, Raytheon announced that the NASAMS-3 will be upgraded with the new, medium-range, GhostEye MR AESA radar, based upon technology developed for the MIM-104E/F Patriot missile system. In March 2022, Raytheon demonstrated that the High-Energy, Laser Weapon System (HELWS) can be mounted on a NASAMS launcher to destroy a swarm of hostile drones.
More recently, the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory and Kongsberg Defence, working with Raytheon, successfully demonstrated the integration of the GhostEye MR (Medium-Range) radar with NASAMS against a range of aerial threats, including enemy aircraft, drones, and cruise missiles, during an exercise at White Sands Missile Range (WSMR, usually pronounced “Wiz-mer”), New Mexico.
U.S. Air Force Air Base Air Defense Program Manager Jim Simonds stated that, “GhostEye MR is a viable sensor option for integrated air and missile defence…to detect and track live targets precisely at longer ranges, providing increased standoff and decision-making time.” This latest demonstration follows a series of successful experiments, including an air defence test in Andøya, Norway, demonstrating NASAMS’ superior target-engagement capabilities.
The next missile system defending Washington, D.C., in general, and the White House specifically, is the Boeing TWQ-1 Avenger, originally developed in 1989, and mounted upon a heavily-modified M998, M1097, or M1113 Hum-vee vehicle chassis. The Avenger is loaded with eight FIM-92J Stinger heat-seeking missiles, with a maximum range of 2.6 nautical miles (three miles), and an FN M3P .50-caliber machine gun with 250 rounds of ammunition, firing at 18 rounds per second. Some versions had the gun removed.
The Avenger system is equipped with an optical sight, a FLIR sensor, and a laser rangefinder. It has been exported to eight countries, including Ukraine, which received 20 examples in late 2022, and eight more in January 2023.
The U.S. Army’s short-range, mobile Avenger missile system has been deployed numerous times in the greater Washington, D.C., area, mostly in its standard configuration. However, on November 26, 2019, during a full-scale air defense alert, a woodland-camouflaged Avenger system was photographed high atop the 10-story-tall, red-brick, New Executive Office Building (NEOB), just across Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, from the White House, a mere 250 yards from the president’s own Oval Office!
Another Avenger missile battery appeared on satellite imagery dated April 21, 2009, atop the multi-story parking garage behind the Washington Navy Yard Visitor Center, 1.4 miles southeast of the Capitol Building, so these mobile missile systems clearly do not stay in any one location for very long.
Locating the actual NASAMS-1 missiles sites defending the nation’s capital is no simple task, since most of the detailed satellite imagery and information previously posted to the Internet has been taken down over time. There are, however, four confirmed, fenced-in sites: Moving from west to east, the first is located at the Carderock Naval Surface Weapons Center (NSWC), in Maryland, just north of the Clara Barton Parkway, on a U.S. Navy base. You can zoom in on the GoogleEarth imagery and easily count the three missile canisters of the top row.
The second NASAMS-1 site is surrounded by a forest on Fort Belvoir, Virginia, 800 yards south of Route 1/Richmond Highway, on a U.S. Army installation, in a heavily-wooded area called Pohick Neck. You can magnify the imagery and actually count the square tips of the six missile canisters.
The third site may be seen at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling (formerly Bolling Air Force Base), in Washington, D.C., just 96 yards west of the U.S. Secret Service building at 245 Murray Lane, SW, and only 42 yards from the Potomac River. By zooming in on the imagery, you can see the three rows of missile canisters from above. In addition, a probable Improved Sentinel radar system appears only 30 yards to the north.
The fourth missile site is just over 500 yards east of the main parking ramp for KC-135R Stratotanker jets of the 756th Air Refueling Squadron at Joint Base Andrews (JBA, formerly Andrews Air Force Base), in Maryland. This last site had to be repositioned about 2.5 miles to the northeast from its original location southwest of Runway 01 Left, due to the expansion of the base golf course, and new hangar construction. If you zoom in very closely on the GoogleEarth imagery, you can clearly count the six square, green tips of the missile canisters clustered together in a single launcher. It’s an incredible photo in that regard, readily confirming the new position of this vital NASAMS-1 missile site.
Andrews is also home for the 121st Fighter Squadron (“Capital Guardians”) of the D.C. Air National Guard, flying 24 F-16CM Fighting Falcon jet fighters, each potentially armed for air defense duty with two AIM-120C-7 Slammers, two AIM-9X-2 Super Sidewinders, and an M61A1 20mm Gatling gun. (See my Gunpowder Magazine article entitled “Was Flight 93 Shot Down?” from April 19, 2023, for more information on this important fighter squadron and its busy activities on 9/11/2001.)
The four NASAMS-1 missile sites surrounding D.C. are not difficult to locate on GoogleEarth satellite imagery, and you can clearly see all four olive-drab launchers at these separate locations. The Avenger missile system on top of the New EOB/NEOB is mobile, and does not appear in the latest GoogleEarth imagery of the city, but it was definitely photographed there in 2019, and may still be present, or nearby, today.
This has been an up-close examination of the four confirmed NASAMS-1 missile batteries defending Washington, D.C., and at least one of the Avenger systems protecting the White House. They’re all located within a 16-mile (14-nautical mile) radius from the White House and Capitol building for overlapping coverage.
It’s interesting that they’re still using the first-generation NASAMS-1, and not the latest-and-greatest NASAMS-3 with the ultra-sophisticated GhostEye MR radar yet, but you’d have to have served in the military to understand that we don’t always get the very best, up-to-date equipment, even for defending Washington, D.C. There’s an old Air Force joke that cynically goes, “Nothing but the best for our boys in blue!”
And, of course, there’s the well-known aphorism that, “The perfect is the enemy of the good,” usually attributed to the famous French philosopher and writer Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet) in 1770. So, while there are surely newer and better versions of the NASAMS system available, maybe the still-efficient, modestly upgraded NASAMS-1 is just good enough, for now, at least, to defend our capital city and seat of government.
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Warren Gray is a retired U.S. Air Force intelligence officer and missile officer, with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism. He served in Europe and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, four college degrees, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian.