MISTRAL over Crete


Belgium ready for participation in European Union Battle Groups


The Belgian participation in the European Union Battle Groups 2006/II and 2007/I consists mainly of a Mistral very short-range air defence platoon. During the past seven months, much attention was given to prepare the members of the 43rd Battery of the 14th Regiment Anti-Aircraft Artillery at Lombardsijde for this international assignment. 

 European Union Battle Groups

In May 2004, the European Union decided to create 15 Battle Groups (EU BG) for intervention in crisis areas outside its territory. A battle group consists of 1,500 combat troops reinforced with the necessary support personnel, and two such groups are deployable at any time within 5 days after go-ahead. They are self-sufficient in operations for at least 30 days, extendable to up to 120 days by means of re-supply. A battle group assignment lasts six months and is preceded by a national training and certification phase of the same duration.

Belgium participates in two internationally composed battle groups and commences its first assignments with the European Union Battle Groups 2006/II and 2007/I. The Belgian participation consists of a Mistral very short-range air defence platoon and 31 support personnel for civil-military cooperation, information operations, military policing, logistics and headquarters liaison.

 The 36 troops strong air defence platoon is provided by the 43rd Battery of the 14th Regiment Anti-Aircraft Artillery (14A) at Lombardsijde. It is equipped with six Mistral firing units and is tasked with the protection of the battle group’s airport of debarkation (APOD), seaport of debarkation (SPOD), forward operating base (FOB) and headquarters (HQ). The Belgian unit is closely cooperating with the 57e Régiment d’Artillerie (57 RA) of the French Armée de Terre, which provides a radar system to enhance the battle group’s airspace and air defence management capabilities.

 Both France and Belgium field the Mistral surface-to-air missile system, enabling the two countries to collaborate closely in international frameworks. To enhance their interoperability, 14A and 57 RA initiated a common training programme in December 2005 when members of 14A were trained at Bitche, home of 57 RA, in the exploitation of data and information from the French MARTHA NC1 Mistral airspace and air defence management system for the tactical battlefield.

 A first joint Belgian-French field exercise took place in February and March 2006 in Biscarosse, Landes, at the Centre d’Essais de Lancement de Missiles, proving the successful integration of Belgian ground-based air-defence assets into the French airspace and air defence management system. It was followed by a tactical exercise in May 2006 in Limoges, Haute-Vienne, during which a Belgian Mistral platoon was placed under the command of 57 RA. The common training programme was completed with a live firing practice at the NATO Missile Firing Installation (NAMFI) in Akrotiri-Chania, Greece, from June 12th till 16th, 2006.


Mistral against homemade targets

 Missile manufacturer Matra started development of the Mistral missile in 1979 to meet a request launched by the French Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1977. The missile was test fired between 1983 and 1988 and production started in 1989. The system achieved initial operational capability with all three French Armed Forces services in 1990. Since then, more than 15,000 missiles were produced and delivered to 37 armed forces in 25 countries.

 Mistral is a passive infrared fire-and-forget missile with a seeker head capable of attacking aircraft in the front sector. The Mistral 1 variant, which Belgium purchased, weighs 19 kg, has a maximum advertised intercept range and altitude of 6,000 and 3,000 metres respectively, and a maximum speed of Mach 2.5.

 The Ultima Target Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (TUAV) target developed in-house by a Sea King pilot of No. 40 Squadron at Koksijde airbase exists in three versions. Ultima I is designed as a single-use target for infrared missiles. Ultima II is similar of construction and serves as target for anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) practice fire at the Lombardsijde shooting range. To simulate a real-size target, the small Ultima II is equipped with a mass distance indicator (MDI), counting all rounds passing within a certain distance from the target aircraft. Ultima III is used for pilot training as well as for experimental purposes, such as testing of new equipment or loads.


Excellent results

 The primary aim of the mid-June practice firing was to give young trainees their first experience in live firing the Mistral missile. The second objective was to further perfect the interoperability of the Belgian missile launching systems and the French airspace and air defence management system. The third purpose consisted of testing the quality of missiles nearing the limit of their present shelf life of 10 years with the aim to examine the feasibility to extend their shelf life with two to ten years.

 Thirty-four crews had the opportunity to fire a missile. Thirty-two missiles hit the bull’s-eye and destroyed the drone, confirming and exceeding the missile’s advertised 93% success rate. The fact that all 34 missiles were fired in only half of the anticipated time and with a very high success rate proves that personnel and equipment of both countries are well integrated and that they have reached a high degree of interoperability, making them ready to participate in a common European Union Battle Group.


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Range references

 A multilateral agreement to built and operate a NATO Missile Firing Installation in the north-western part of the island of Crete was signed in June 1964 by Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Norway and the USA. After four years of construction, the first live missile firings took place in 1968. NAMFI is under control of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE), but is administered by the Hellenic National Defence General Staff.

 The firing installation consists of a sea range and several land installations. The sea range covers an area 166 kilometres long and 87 kilometres wide, allowing live firings of a wide variety of air defence, air-to-ground and naval missiles and guns. Land installations include a large multifunctional launching area, radar and telemetry stations and a base support area.

 For Mistral live missile firings, the NAMFI launching area is equipped with:

1.       Crew preparation and rest zone

2.       SAMANTHA radar vehicle

3.       SAMANTHA remote radar operating post

4.       SAMOS

5.       Mistral MANPADS training position

6.       Target aircraft preparation, launch and control zone

7.       Missile preparation zone

8.       Mistral MANPADS firing position

9.       Mistral PAMELA-B firing position


 The principal element of the MARTHA NC1 Mistral system is the Thales SAMANTHA air defence early warning and command & control unit, built around the Thales Raytheon Systems TRS 2630 Griffon two-dimensional pulse Doppler radar and the Thales SB 16 IFF-interrogator. The radar has a tactical detection range of 30 kilometres and engagement ranges of 20 and 10 kilometres against aircraft and hovering helicopters respectively. SAMANTHA can track up to 16 targets simultaneously and coordinate up to eleven Mistral firing units. The radar can be controlled remotely from a secondary operating post at a distance of up to 400 metres from the main radar station. The aim of this secondary operating position is to avoid casualties during anti-radiation missile attacks against the radar.


 NAMFI is responsible for the monitoring and destruction of missiles in flight should this turn out to be necessary. The users of the range take additional safety measures, especially for ground handling of weapons. 14A brought along its proper Safety Monitoring System (SAMOS). SAMOS consists of a truck equipped with a multitude of high performance cameras and television screens on which a safety crew can observe the key safety elements and processes of the preparation and actual firing of a missile.

 Mistral is a containerised missile. A Mistral 1 missile weighs 19 kg, 24.4 kg in its launcher-container (being handled in the foreground) and 55 kg in its transport-container (background). The missile’s facetted seeker head gives it better aerodynamic characteristics, improving its range and manoeuvrability.


 Mistral missiles can be launched from tripods, light vehicles, naval mounts or helicopters. Belgium ordered the MANPADS (Man Portable Air Defence System) for its army anti-aircraft artillery units and the ATLAS (Affût Terrestre Léger Anti-Saturation) twin missile launching system for the static defence of its principal airbases. Following reforms within the armed forces, the ATLAS firing system was withdrawn from use in 2003.

 Initially, the Belgian armed forces fielded the Mistral only as a daytime, good-weather air defence weapon. It was in April 2005, when the MATIS (Medium wavelength Advanced Thermal Imaging System) digital thermal imaging cameras were delivered, that the anti-aircraft artillery units became fully day/night and limited adverse weather capable. MATIS operates in the same 3 to 5 μm waveband as the missile’s seeker head, giving the gunner an exact copy of the seeker head’s image. This allows him to distinguish easily a real target from a flare decoy or a parasitic heat source like a smoking chimney or the illuminated border of a cloud and to take corrective measures. The camera’s images can also be recorded and used for debriefing and training purposes. MATIS can be seen in this photograph in front of the gunner’s head. The second person standing behind the gunner is the firing unit commander.


 To improve the mobility of the MANPADS-type launchers, they were installed on an adapted light, air transportable Unimog 1350L truck, carrying one launcher and a basic load of six missiles. The new system was designated PAMELA-B (Plate-forme Adaptable MANDPADS Équipée Légère Air transportable - Belgique).

 Weighing less than 12 kg and with a cylinder capacity of less than 50 cc, the Ultima is a TUAV of class 1. The aircraft is mainly made of glass fibre and epoxy. It is 2 metres long and has a wingspan of 1.9 metres. Power is provided by a 4.1 hp 35 cc two-stroke engine using a mix of 133 octane fuel and 10% nitro methane. A full 1-litre fuel tank gives the aircraft 20 minutes endurance. Ultima cruises at 120 km/h and has a top speed of 160 km/h. Take-off weight is 8 kg. Given its low survivability rate against infrared missiles, the aircraft lacks a landing gear and is hand-launched, while the rare recoveries take place by belly landing. The drone is controlled with a Graupner MC-24 40 mHz radio control unit, which has a range of 12 kilometres.

 In its role as target aircraft for infrared missiles, Ultima I is equipped with a smoke-generator and a flare on each wingtip. Smoke facilitates visual tracking by the pilot, while flares act as an infrared source for the seeker head of the Mistral missile. Armourers are seen here installing the smoke and flare pyrotechnics on the wingtips of an Ultima I target aircraft.

   During live practice firings in Crete, targets usually fly at a distance of approximately 4.5 kilometres from the launching site. A crew of four, two pilots and two support personnel, flies the aircraft. The first pilot carries out the aircraft’s take-off and subsequently performs a number of manoeuvres to trim it for straight horizontal flight. Once trimmed, he hands the aircraft over to the second pilot who flies it to the target area with the help of an optical tracking unit (OTU) as the aircraft’s small dimensions make it difficult to follow with the naked eye at such large distances. The OTU consists of a powerful pair of binoculars that can be adjusted in azimuth and elevation by the two support personnel, who also follow the target aircraft by binoculars.

 Experts of the Belgian Defence and of missile manufacturer MBDA missile systems scrutinised each of the 34 launched missiles, of which some were 9 years old. The fail-safety of electronic components of a missile can easily be tested before launch. The state of the chemical components of batteries and of the booster and sustainer motors, however, is much more difficult to determine. An indicator for the good preservation of the fuel of the motors is its even and complete combustion. To establish this, launches were filmed with an Artemis high-speed camera, shooting 500 images per second. Examination of these images will give indications on the state of the missile’s fuels and will serve as guidelines to extend their shelf life with two to ten years. Early observations indicated that, at first glance, there were no signs of degradation of the missile’s chemical components.

 Typical of a Mistral missile two-stage launch is the cloud of yellow smoke of the booster motor, followed by a trail of white smoke of the sustainer motor. The booster motor ejects the missile from its container and the sustainer rocket motor accelerates it to its maximum speed. Flight control of the self-spinning airframe is exercised by movable canards near the front end of the missile and navigation is proportional. 1,800 tungsten balls for increased target surface penetration surround a 3 kg heavy high explosive warhead, which can be detonated by both contact and laser proximity fuses. The cooled passive infrared seeker has a narrow field of view to reduce decoy effectiveness and a multi-element array sensor with digital processing. These give the missile the capability to acquire non-afterburning jets head-on as well as helicopters with a reduced infrared signature at ranges of respectively up to 6,000 and 4,000 metres. The seeker operates in two different wavebands between 3 and 5 μm to improve countermeasure resistance.


 Text and pictures by

 Jos Schoofs (July 2006)

Last updated 12/04/08 09:06   Daniel Brackx