High-tech protection against incoming missiles

4 min reading time

More and more countries are developing rocket technology as part of their space programme, and much of this technology can also be used, alas, for less peaceful purposes. The NATO partners are aware of this threat, and are working together on an effective defence system. For its part TNO developed the JROADS simulation, used to test defence systems against airbreathing and ballistic threats.

For Frans Kleyheeg, Business Director International at TNO, the problem is two-fold: “On the one hand, we are seeing a proliferation of rocket technology, which is particularly useful for space programmes but also, alas, for ballistic missiles. Because of the parallel proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction, these missiles can carry these payloads overlong distances. Both forms of proliferation are difficult to halt, because they can partly also be used for non-military purposes. Most concern is directed towards nuclear weapons, but we tend to forget that chemical weapons are much cheaper and easier to build and can still cause enormous damage.”

“The Netherlands has built up an outstanding reputation for radar within NATO, and that’s good for the industry, too”

Effective defence

The NATO partners are also aware of this threat and are working together to develop an effective defence system. This is tricky, because they all use their own radar and weapons systems, and these systems have to be able to communicate. Thanks to a collaboration between TNO, the Dutch armed forces and industry partner Thales – a so-called ‘triple helix’ partnership – the Netherlands are now at the forefront of this field. Dutch radar technology is amongst the best in the world, and many radar concepts are tied to TNO research. Kleyheeg: “The Netherlands has built up an outstanding reputation for radar within NATO, and that’s good for the industry too.”

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Testing air defence systems

Performing military exercises using live air defence munitions is extremely impractical as well as formidably expensive: a Patriot missile can easily cost two million dollars. TNO therefore developed the JROADS simulation, designed specifically to test all airborne threat defence systems: “We developed JROADS for the Dutch armed forces, to test our own air defence systems, and it turned out to be just as effective as a live exercise. We’re now testing in combination with the new F35 fighter jet systems.”

“We developed JROADS for the Dutch armed forces, to test our own air defence systems, and it turned out to be just as effective as a live exercise”

Global network

And that’s not all. Since the late 1990s TNO has been involved in the Joint Project Optic Windmill (JPOW), an exercise in which NATO partners link their own systems. The goal: to test whether the network of systems functioned as a whole. The last JPOW was held in 2017. “In an exercise like this, you’ve got a global network within which all the international partners have to cooperate: from a naval ship in the Mediterranean to a ground station in Germany,” explains Kleyheeg. “The network has to be absolutely secure and robust, and that’s our job. Lots of NATO states use the Patriot [air and missile defence system], but every national system has its own ‘software dialect’, so data exchange is a challenge. TNO makes sure that everything is connected, so that a Spanish Patriot system can be operated, for instance, on the basis of instructions given in Dutch.”

Detecting and tracking an exercise missile

The crew of the Dutch air defence and command frigate HNLMS De Ruyter recently succeeded in detecting and tracking an exercise missile that was travelling to its target at 15,000 km/h. The information was instantly communicated to an American naval vessel, which intercepted and destroyed the projectile. This was an unprecedented achievement, given that the NATO partners were all working with their own radar and weapons systems. “As soon as someone launches a rocket it is detected by satellites,” explains Kleyheeg. “The information goes to a ground station, and from that moment on, radar systems all over the world will be scanning the skies. But these radar systems have blind spots because of the curvature of the Earth. Information of other radars is used to already the launch in the right direction. So it’s vital that the right information reaches the right interceptor as fast as possible. The Royal Netherlands Navy has demonstrated that a rotating radar and a specific frequency can be an essential component in this information chain. Even though the US navy uses an entirely different frequency, thanks to the Dutch information it was able to initiate a launch procedure without having seen the approaching missile.”

“Lots of NATO states use the Patriot, but every national system has its own ‘software dialect’, so data exchange is a challenge. TNO makes sure that everything is connected”

Ensuring back-up

On board the De Ruyter TNO experts were closely watching to see whether the concept they had helped to develop also worked in practice; gratifyingly, it did. But there are plenty of problems left to solve. “If someone launches a missile by mistake, naturally you don’t want forty other missiles being launched at once to intercept it,” says Kleyheeg. “So we’re now working on concepts that ensure that the best positioned interceptor always gets the first shot. In the case of long-distance missiles, there’s time to ensure a back-up. Or we can fire two interception missiles at once.” Technically, not a problem.

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