A video shared by the Ukrainian military appears to show that Crotale-NG air defense systems donated from France have notched their first confirmed kill.
The clip, from inside the one of the battery’s vehicles, shows the system’s optical sensor locked onto a Russian cruise missile hurtling toward its target in Ukraine. An initial shot at the missile appears to miss, but the second can be seen overtaking its target and exploding dramatically, eliciting raucous cheers from the crew onboard the vehicle.
#Ukraine: The first footage of a 🇫🇷 French Crotale NG short-range air-defense system in service with the Ukrainian army.
We can see two missiles fired in an attempt to take down a Russian cruise missile- the second one hits the target. pic.twitter.com/avdf9HBn5J
— 🇺🇦 Ukraine Weapons Tracker (@UAWeapons) March 20, 2023
French defense minister Sébastien Lecornu first confirmed the transfer of two Crotale-NG batteries in November 2022. President Emmanuel Macron then called out the donation during a speech on the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle in December.
The Crotale is a short-range air defense system designed during the Cold War to defend a local area against low-flying aircraft—for which the surface-skimming cruise missiles that Russia routinely launches at Ukraine certainly qualify.
Though they can’t reach aircraft at high altitudes, they remain dangerous to helicopters, low-to-medium altitude drones, and warplanes swooping down to accurately employ the unguided bombs or rockets which remain both side's primary ground attack weapon.
The Crotale-NG (“Rattlesnake”) batteries donated by Paris consist of one fire-control truck networked with two to four launchers on towed trailers, each with a rotating 4.3-ton turret loaded with eight VT1 missile. The acquisition truck provides initial detection and tracking of up to 12 incoming threats using S-band wider-area Mirador IV doppler radar effective out to 12.4 miles. It can also classify targets using identify-friend-or-foe (IFF) functionality. This vehicle then assigns targets to specific launchers.
Next, these launchers lock onto target using their own Ku-band fire-control radar mounted onto the turret; this radar can narrowly track a specific target out to a longer range 18.6 miles. The turret also uses both Castro thermal and Mascot daylight optical sensors and an infrared rangefinder that can track targets visually out to 9-12 miles.
Thanks to a high degree of automation, the detection, identification, and engagement process can be completed in just five seconds, upon which the launchers may release up to two VT-1 missiles per target in rapid succession. A two-shot salvo is estimated to achieve a 90 percent kill probability against viable targets.
The VT1s accelerate up to 3.5 times the speed of sound and are guided via narrow-beam radio commands based on a fusion of radar and optical sensor tracks in the battery. The use of multiple sensors for guidance system is more accurate, harder to defeat with countermeasures, and able to operate in all weather conditions.
The missile is actually designed to pass its target before discharging its 30-pound pre-fragmented warhead, which shreds everything behind it in an 8-meter-long arc.
The analog, classic Star Trek look of the interface—with its CRT screen and flashing colored lights—reflect that Crotale NG dates back to the late 1980s compared to modern NASAMS and IRIS-T short-range air defense systems also donated to Ukraine.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has publicly stated that he still hopes to receive the French/Italian SAMP/T medium-to-long range air defense system armed with the Aster missile, the closest West European equivalent to the U.S.’s Patriot systems.
The ‘zoo’ of diverse air defense systems donated to Ukraine also imposes challenges for sustainment, inter-operability, and training of personnel. Currently, Ukraine has/is receiving roughly a dozen different types of Western SAMs (not counting man-portable types like the Stinger and Mistral), as well as more familiar Soviet weapons.
But it would be a mistake to deride transfers of older SAMs like the Crotale or U.S. MIM-23 HAWK missiles to Ukraine. Russia’s long-range missile attacks on Ukrainian cities amount to a war of attrition on the inventory of Ukraine’s air defense systems. The numerous Soviet missiles Ukraine has relied upon—especially S-300 and Buk long- and medium-range systems—are mostly non-replenishable due to reliance on components built only in Russia, including klystron vacuum tubes. (Prior to Russia’s 2022 invasion, Ukraine had to smuggle in more via black market channels in Russia.)
As Russia burns through its cruise missile inventory, it has thrown everything including the kitchen sink into the fight by re-purposing Bastion and Kh-22 anti-ship missiles and S-300 air-defense missiles for land-attack purposes, as well as removing nuclear warheads from some cruise missiles so they can be lobbed at Ukraine with a conventional warhead.
Thus, simply disposing of more missiles of varying cost/value, and effective at different ranges, is vital. This way, Kyiv doesn’t run out of air defense weapons and can reserve its most capable ones to deal with manned combat aircraft, expensive high-altitude drones, or ballistic missiles; and relegate slower cruise missiles or cheap Iranian kamikaze drones to be tackled with shorter-range and/or less expensive means. Reducing the predominantly civilian casualties of Russia’s missile campaign is arguably a good use for systems that otherwise would be destined for retirement in the next decade.
The Crotale, Past and Present
The Crotale short-range air defense system was originally developed by French defense firm Thomson (today known as Thales) along with U.S. companies Rockwell and LTV for use by South Africa’s Apartheid-era military, which furnished 85 percent of funding.
However, the French Air Force and Navy subsequently tested and procured many of the original R440-model Crotales, which were also widely exported. The Crotale’s appeal lay in its ability to engage supersonic warplanes, its relative mobility (a battery can set up to fire in five minutes), and its rotating launcher neatly combining a radar and either four, six or eight missiles. Even the original model’s range and speed placed it in a superior weight class compared to short-range U.S. Chapparal mobile systems using Sidewinder missiles.
In the Cold War’s final two decades, Crotales saw action in the Iran-Iraq war, were launched at Libyan Tu-22 bombers over Chad, and by Libya at American F-111 bombers on a 1986 raid attempting to assassinate Qaddafi, and deployed in various incarnations by both sides during the 1991 Gulf War.
Crotale turrets were mounted on a variety of ground vehicles and warships over the years, notable examples of the former including South Korea’s K200 APC-based K-SAM Pegasus vehicles, and the AMX-30B2 tank hull used for Saudi Arabia’s Shahine system. There was even a proposal to mount the R440 system on the hull of an M1 Abrams tank, reinforced with 25-millimeter flak cannons.
The Crotale-NG received by Ukraine is a heavily revised second-generation design introduced in 1989. Its VT1 missile has a nearly 50 percent higher maximum speed of Mach 3.5, a range of 8 miles, and an intercept altitude of 19,690 feet. The French military retains at least 10 Crotale-NG batteries after its donation to Ukraine, while fellow NATO members Finland and Greece retain the type in service, as well as Pakistan, the UAE, Oman and Bahrain.
One of the more prolific users of the Crotale remains China, which acquired a few batteries for “evaluation” in the 1970s and reverse-engineered them into the HQ-7 system on a 4x4 truck. This later evolved into the HHQ-7 naval SAM, typically on an eight-shot launcher (used for air defense on many 1990s-and 2000s-era PLAN warships), and the HQ-7B with improved infrared-guided missiles mounted on a 6x6 armored vehicle. China’s FM-80 and FM-90 export models serve in the armed forces of Algeria, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, and Iran, which in turn has developed multiple reverse-engineered variants too!
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