By: Warren Gray
Copyright © 2023
“Sky Sabre is so accurate and agile that it is capable of hitting a tennis-ball-sized
object travelling at the speed of sound. In fact, it can control the flight of 24 missiles simultaneously while in flight, guiding them to intercept 24 separate targets. It is
an amazing capability.”
— Major Tim Oakes, Senior Training Officer for Sky Sabre
In January 2022, the brand-new British Sky Sabre air-defense missile system was declared fully operational, and only two months later, Sky Sabre and 100 British troops to operate it were deployed to Poland to bolster NATO air defenses in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The missile itself is a significantly upgraded and improved version of the existing ASRAAM (Advanced, Short-Range, Air-to-Air Missile, with the U.S. designation of AIM-132), in service since 1998, except that ASRAAM uses an infrared (heat-seeking) guidance system, whereas Sky Sabre employs active-radar homing instead. It was designed to replace Britain’s aging Rapier short-range, antiaircraft missiles.
Technically, Sky Sabre is referred to as the Common, Anti-air, Modular Missile (CAMM), built by MBDA U.K., using a basic, proven, ASRAAM missile body, 10 feet, six inches long (one foot longer than ASRAAM, to accommodate a new seeker) by 6.5 inches in diameter, with a 22-pound, high-explosive, blast-fragmentation warhead with laser-proximity and impact fuze. This permits a speed of Mach 3 in flight, “fire-and-forget” launch tactics, and an operational range of about 16 miles, with tail controls and the ability to maneuver at up to 50gs, outturning any aircraft that it may encounter.
By comparison, the older Rapier system that it replaces, in service since 1971, fired smaller missiles that weighed less than half as much (99 pounds, versus 218 pounds for Sky Sabre), and manual optical guidance (semi-automatic command to line-of-sight, or SACLOS), with a range of only five miles. It was certainly fast, maneuverable, and extremely accurate, but had very short range, and required manual tracking of the target until impact, with a small warhead of only 3.1 pounds. It scored an estimated five kills against Argentine aircraft during the Falklands War of 1982.
Sky Sabre/CAMM was initially produced for the Royal Navy as Sea Ceptor (as in, Sea Interceptor) in May 2018, entering operational service on Type 23 frigates. The ground component, Land Ceptor, was first delivered to the British Army in December 2021, acquiring operational status in January 2022, and it was immediately deployed to the Falkland Islands to replace the outdated Rapier systems there.
Just to clarify the terms, CAMM is the manufacturer’s designation for the missile itself, Land Ceptor is the British Army name for the same missile, and Sky Sabre is the British Army name for the overall air-defense system, including the Land Ceptor missiles, the Saab Group (Swedish) Giraffe AMB (Agile, Multi-Beam) surveillance radar (10 of these were delivered by June 2018), and Rafael (Israeli) Advanced Defense Systems MIC4AD (Modular, Integrated, Command, Control, Communications, and Computer system for Air Defense) command-and-control system. MBDA signed a contract worth £323m ($413.6m) with the U.K. government for the delivery of air-defense systems for the Royal Navy and the British Army in April 2017.
Currently operated by 16 Royal Artillery Regiment, part of the British Army’s 7 Air Defence Group, Sky Sabre’s Giraffe AMB radar provides 360-degree, rotating coverage on an extended mast, out to ranges as far as 75 miles, and it can identify enemy fighters, bombers, helicopters, and even cruise missiles, enemy bombs, and small drones.
Then, the Rafael MIC4AD system collates and correlates data from these and other air-defense radars and provides an optimized firing solution for the Land Ceptor missiles, tracking as many as 24 targets simultaneously, and assigning a separate target to each missile. Each of these three components are expected to operate about nine miles apart for safety in battle zones, to avoid targeting by enemy aircraft or missiles.
The missiles themselves are mounted upon a 440-horsepower, MAN (German) HX77 high-mobility, transporter-erector launcher (TEL) vehicle, each holding eight canisterized missiles. The missiles have double the launch weight of the older Rapier system, three times the range, and seven times the warhead power, so they are a vast improvement, and they are launched vertically, in a multi-directional manner, unlike Rapier.
There is also a CAMM-ER extended-range version of the Sea Ceptor missile, primarily for the Italian Navy, adding a new, Avio (Italian) rocket booster at the rear, to extend the range out to 28 miles. The maritime application of CAMM-ER is known as Albatros NG. The Sea Ceptor/CAMM and CAMM-ER are both capable of engaging small naval vessels in a limited, surface-to-surface role, as well as its normal air-defense duties.
Sky Sabre’s missiles use inertial guidance upon launch, with mid-course updates, and terminal, active-radar homing. This means that the Giraffe radar detects the target, and a missile is fired in that general direction (inertial guidance), and updated by datalink with radar signals from the Giraffe radar enroute. But, at approximately 10 to 12 miles from the target, the active radar switches on, and the missile’s own radar guides it in the terminal phase, directly toward the target. While the nominal range is 16 miles (beyond visual range, or BVR), testing has shown some limited capability out as far as 37 miles, and its normal, operational engagement altitude is 33,000 feet.
British Defence Procurement Minister Jeremy Quin has stated that, “Sky Sabre’s spearheading technology has significantly upgraded the protection of our forces from threats from the air. This cutting-edge, defence system is a clear demonstration of our warfighting capabilities to those who wish to do us harm.” The highly mobile Sky Sabre system is certainly one of the most advanced air-defense systems in the world, and the technologies and components developed for it have been used to upgrade the existing ASRAAM air-to-air missile system, as well.
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Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence 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, historian, and hunter. You may visit his website at: warrengray54.vistaprintdigital.com