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Is Pakistan interested in the Umkhonto SAM?
November 20, 2019
The Umkhonto-IR point-defence surface-to-air missile system. Notice the vertical launch system in action. Picture source: Denel Dynamics

Is Pakistan interested in the Umkhonto SAM?

Last week, the Chief of Naval Staff of the Pakistan Navy, Admiral Muhammad Zakaullah, made an official visit to South Africa. In addition to meeting his counterparts in the South African Navy and discussing matters of mutual interest (such as an invitation to South Africa to participate in a Pakistani naval exercise), the visiting Pakistani delegation requested information about the Denel Dynamics Umkhonto surface-to-air missile (SAM) system.

The current iteration of the Umkhonto is an infrared-guided SAM system with a maximum range of 20km and maximum altitude reach of 8km. Designed to be vertically launched from land and sea (via vertical launch systems or VLS), the Umkhonto is marketed as a modern air defence solution. Besides the South African Navy, the Umkhonto has been adopted by Finland and Algeria.

Comment and Analysis

In terms of the Pakistan Navy, the Umkhonto could be looked at as a replacement for the HQ-7 or FM-90 being used on its four Zulfiqar-class multi-mission frigates. Swapping out the FM-90 with the Umkhonto would provide an improvement, and that too without a significant set of modifications or changes to the ship (besides inserting the VLS cell).

That said, the most interesting aspect of the Umkhonto is its potential for further development. Since 2010, Denel Dynamics has been looking for a funding source to help it develop longer range SAM systems using the Umkhonto as the basis. For example, using the current IR guidance system, Denel proposed that an extended-range version (20-30km) could be developed. Further out, a radar-guided version with 60km range could also be developed. Such SAMs could be great additions for larger frigates, should Pakistan be able to acquire them one day.

It is unlikely, at least at this stage, that Pakistan would foot the bill for development; the Army, Navy and Air Force seem to be on the search for readily available solutions. The Pakistan Air Force (PAF)’s interest in the A-Darter high off-boresight (HOBS) air-to-air missile (AAM) was officially noted by the JF-17’s Chief Project Director, Air Vice Marshal Arshad Malik. As for the Army, it may be on the search for a short-range air defence (SHORAD) system to augment – and in time potentially replace – the FM-90. The Umkhonto GBL would be a good fit and likely comparable to the systems Pakistan may be able to access from Russia.

If there is a measure of synergy between the Umkhonto and A-Darter, especially in terms of their seeker and rocket technology, then all the better for Pakistan should it decide to acquire both. Synergy as a result of shared or common system helps with controlling costs.

Earlier, we recommended that Pakistan fund the Denel Dynamics Marlin program. It should be noted that the apparent interest in the Umkhonto or even A-Darter is not from the route of developing the defence industry, but just off-the-shelf acquisitions. The Pakistani military does not have access to the funds necessary to engage in many development ventures, even with China (much less South Africa, Turkey or others). The advantage of the Umkhonto and A-Darter rests in the fact that they are available modern solutions that could be more affordable and politically accessible than comparable Western equivalents. In any case, the matter (assuming it is genuine) is evidently in its very early stages.

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