The Ministry of Defence is expected to wait until 2018 to make a decision on which medium range strike weapon to equip its 48 US built Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II fighters, destined to serve with the two Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers currently under construction. The F-35 is a joint strike fighter designed for just about any aerial combat role, a giant technological leap from the F/A18 Super Hornet that occupies a similar requirement.
The F-35B will replace the mothballed Harrier fleet for the Royal Navy with the F-35A eventually replacing, or at the very least supplementing, the Eurofighter Typhoon for the Royal Air Force. The latter is someway off but the order size is expected to be around 90 fighters making a total of 138 F-35 UK joint strike fighters costing somewhere in the region of £9.38 billion.
RAF F-35B - Image courtesy of the RAF
The issue surrounds the requirements laid out by the MoD for its Selective Precision Effects At Range 3 (Spear Cap 3). Whilst the US military has opted for the Raytheon built Small Diameter Bomb II (SDBII), the UK made Spear from MBDA has almost twice the range.
Air analysts from International Institute of Strategic Studies believe the hesitation isn’t just around cost but how the UK assesses threat and the concept of operations is very different to that of the US. With such a limited number of F-35Bs at their disposal it’s entirely likely that the MoD are erring on the side of caution, giving the pilots and hardware maximum breathing room to attack and withdraw in contested airspace.
What makes the selection process interesting is that it flies in the face of the Team Complex Weapons arrangement which was made between the UK government and key industries with the intention of protecting critical skills and capabilities in the UK by not offering certain contracts to foreign competition.
‘MBDA is undertaking assessment activity on their solution for the Spear Cap 3 requirement, and providing information to the UK MoD to enable cost, risk and capability forecasts to be undertaken. As Raytheon has a more mature product, they are able to provide established data into the UK MoD's operational and cost effective analysis work. Any subsequent down selection will be undertaken when there is sufficient confidence in the data and when a meaningful comparison can be made, currently forecast for after 2017,’ said an MoD spokesperson.
Doug Barrie from the International Institute of Strategic Studies commented: ‘This could be a bit of a litmus test for the UK government's commitment to sustaining a top-end indigenous or European-based missile business. Given there is natural tendency in the US to try and minimize the number of foreign weapons on the platform, partly because it cuts costs and also the more non-US stuff they can keep off the platform the more they can sell themselves.
‘From a European perspective, this is an important platform to get weapons integrated on so as to offer an alternative to the US and help their own weapons sector.’
Spear 3 - Image Courtesy of MBDA
The Spear Cap 3 requires a stand-off range of at least 100 kilometres to maximize chances of survival against threats like the Russian S350 and S400 class ground-based air defence weapons. And there certainly aren’t fewer threats in the world since the specification was drawn up.
SDBII - Image Courtesy of Raytheon
Raytheon claims their hardware would save the MoD £500 million. As the cost of a F-35 is around the £68 million mark it’s a saving but all but meaningless considering the size of the orders involved (£3.2 billion). It will come down to whether or not the MoD chooses to meet the requirements of Spear Cap 3 or save money. Raytheon appears to be trying to sweeten the deal by authorising the UK Raytheon facility to manufacture the weapon should their bid be successful.
Currently the official statement from the Ministry of Defence is that both MBDA and Raytheon weapon solutions are being considered and no investment or decision has been made. There is a review point to be held either at the end of 2015 or early 2016 which will assess the cost and capabilities of the Spear and the SDBII. A decision isn’t expected until 2018.
In addition to the operational ranges, the weapons are radically different. The MBDA made Spear is a turbo-jet powered winged weapon it is designed as a stand-off multirole weapon that can ‘see past’ countermeasures, camouflage and obscurants. The SDBII, on the other hand, is a glide bomb that is dropped rather than fired and glides towards its target using a sophisticated sensor suite to adjust its course.
Whatever the decision, Spear Cap 3 will eventually be a key part of the offensive strike capabilities planned for the fleet of F-35B jets to be purchased for the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy. Raytheon's Paveway IV precision-guided bomb is the only strike weapon confirmed for the British F-35Bs when they achieve initial operational capability, planned for the end of 2018, but MBDA's Storm Shadow cruise missile, the Brimstone 2 (also known as Spear Cap 2) could also eventually join Spear Cap 3 on the F-35.
Having worked closely with MBDA and Raytheon for many years we’re keeping a close eye on how this story progresses. If you have a background in defence and an interested in working for organisations like these register your details with us today.