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Profile: Denel Dynamics Umkhonto SAM

The Denel Dynamics Umkhonto is a short-range (15-20km) infrared (IR)-guided surface-to-air missile (SAM) system designed to be operable from land and sea (via surface warships).

The missile is paired with a radar which is used to detect and track specific targets for the missile to engage. Like a semi-active radar homing (SARH) missile, the Umkhonto would travel towards the target based on the radar’s information, but when in the terminal stage, the Umkhonto will switch to its IR seeker, and engage the target based on the target’s IR signature.

The Umkhonto entered service in 2001, and it is currently in use with South Africa, Finland and Algeria. Recently, the Pakistan Navy has also apprently shown interest in the Umkhonto system.

The Umkhonto has thus far been applied as a naval anti-air warfare (AAW) solution. The South African Navy and Algerian Navy use the Umkhonto on their respective MEKO A200 frigates via vertical launch system (VLS) cells. The Finnish Navy uses the Umkhonto from its Hamina-class fast attack crafts. The ground-based version – i.e. Umkhonto Ground-based Launcher (GBL) – is also available for armies and air forces interested in using the system as a short-range air defence (SHORAD) system from land.

As per Denel Group’s 2016 financial report, Algeria paid U.S. $61 million for Umkhonto systems for its two MEKO A-200AN frigates. The contract included missiles, fire control hardware, integration and testing. Each MEKO A-200AN has 32 VLS cells.

At present, the Umkhonto is a short-range SAM system capable of reaching 20km and an altitude of 8km. However, Denel Dynamics is at work to continue developing the Umkhonto into a more capable platform. The first iteration to enter the development pipeline is the extended-range Umkhonto IR – it is designated as the Umkhonto EIR. The Umkhonto EIR is slotted to have a maximum range of 25-35km, positioning it as a short-to-medium range SAM similar in scope to the MBDA Aster-15.

For the Umkhonto EIR, in 2014 Denel Dynamics said that it was examining the prospect of developing new generation motors for the missile. While it is unclear if that has happened (or will), Denel Dynamics did succeed in indigenously producing its own missile radomes, making South Africa one a few countries in the world capable of such a feat. It currently seems that the Umkhonto EIR is not too far from coming to fruition, although it is a question of years if one accounts for the time necessary for testing and clearance.

Using the Umkhonto EIR as the basis, Denel Dynamics is hoping to incorporate a radar-guided seeker (not known if it is going to active or SARH). This will form the core of the Umkhonto R series, which in turn will result in solid medium and medium-to-long range SAM designs. Of course, these programs are still in their infancy compared to the Umkhonto EIR, but they hold considerable promise if given the requisite funding.

It is likely that the Umkhonto ER (or LR) and Marlin beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM) are being developed using the same core set of propulsion and guidance technology. This would make sense considering that the Marlin program was envisaged as a SAM and BVRAAM. According to Denel Dynamics itself, this extended range Umkhonto could have a range of up to 60km. However, if tied with the Marlin, then this program will not get off the ground (in the immediate future) without sustained and adequate development funding. As a result, Denel has been seeking a foreign partner to fund the program.

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