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A multi-tiered approach

Although it is being designed using a more expeditionary mindset than its predecessors, the tri-national Medium Extended Air Defence System (MEADS) will not be a one-size-fits-all solution to NATO's force protection and national missile defence requirements. Several other national systems will be used across the alliance in coming years, including shipborne air defence missiles such as the Principal Anti-Air Missile System (PAAMS) that will equip next-generation naval vessels such as the UK Royal Navy's Type 45 destroyer and the French-Italian Horizon frigate.

PAAMS, to enter service late this decade, will use the same Aster missiles currently deployed aboard the French navy's aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle. The MBDA-developed Aster 15/30 missiles are also suitable for use as ground-based air defence weapons.

In the land environment, lower- level air defence systems will augment the high-end MEADS infrastructure, using smaller and lower-cost solutions that can be deployed even more rapidly than the larger system. Germany's BGT is among the European companies developing a solution for this emerging requirement, offering a surface-launched version of its IRIS-T short-range air-to-air missile for point defence applications.

Dubbed the IRIS-T SL, the vertically launched weapon will enter development early next year under a project funded by Germany's defence ministry. It will differ from the air-launched system through the addition of a 152mm (6in) -diameter booster motor, which will treble its effective range. If fielded for ground-based applications, the weapons will be mounted in an eight-cell launcher on a vehicle such as a Unimog 5000 truck. Two of these will be carried inside an Airbus Military A400M tactical transport.

The proposed system could be available several years ahead of the operational MEADS capability, with a target in-service date of around 2010.

MBDA also hopes to benefit from future air defence requirements and is promoting a vertically launched version of its MICA air-to-air missile to fill the same air defence niche. A ship-launched variant of the MICA weapon system is also being developed. The USA's Raytheon is under contract to deliver a ground vehicle-launched version of its market-leading AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile. Norway and Spain already use the weapon for ground-based air defence.

The wider availability of such adapted air-to-air missiles will provide an expanded point defence capability to nations unable to invest in a high-cost design such as MEADS, and will boost NATO's self-defence capabilities.