Hard Sums Ahead for SPEAR Cap 3




Selective Precision Effects at Range (SPEAR) Capability 3 is the name for a set of requirements for an air-launched stand-off weapon to be used against a wide range of stationary and moving targets in day or night with the ability to defeat countermeasures.

This description could be given to Brimstone but the key difference between Brimstone and SPEAR Cap 3 is the latter has a turbojet engine and not a rocket motor, thus, it can travel much further. The warhead is also designed to provide selectable effects.

Clever stuff.

Clearly, it is designed to work with the UK’s future F35B fleet for attacks against integrated air defences using its increased stand-off distance to enhance the launch aircraft survivability. In other air interdiction missions against lesser capability air defences it will be used to destroy the full gamut of likely targets on the ground.

All well and good, but the problem with SPEAR Capability 3 is whilst it offers a number of technical benefits over the competition it represents a significant investment at a time of constrained budgets.

A key decision point is approaching to hard sums lie ahead for the MoD.

As part of my extended (sorry about that) look at the UK Complex Weapons portfolio approach this is a summary of the current position regarding SPEAR Cap 3.


SPEAR Capability 3 is part of a portfolio of air, land and sea-launched complex weapons.

Selective Precision Effects at Range, or SPEAR, is an RAF programme that is part of the 2010 Team Complex Weapons enabling contract that comprises a number of requirements and partners including Thales, MBDA and Roxel, QinetiQ and others.

The programme has evolved over time but the commonly accepted components are;

  • Fire Shadow Loitering Munition for the Royal Artillery that looks increasingly like it is going nowhere; click here to read more.
  • Future Anti-Surface Guided Weapon (Heavy), a joint programme with the French for Anti Navire Léger. FASGW (H)/ANL that will arm the Royal Navy’s AW159 Lynx Wildcat helicopter and the French Navy’s NH90 and Panther helicopters. This is now called Sea Venom and will be manufactured and bought into service by MBDA; click here to read more.
  • Lightweight Multirole Missile (LMM) or Future Anti-Surface Guided Weapon (Light), being developed by Thales Air Defence to arm the Royal Navy’s AW159 Lynx Wildcat helicopter. Now called Martlet; click here to read more.
  • Future Local Area Air Defence System/Common Anti-Air Modular Missile has been recently confirmed as a replacement for Sea Wolf for the Royal Navy Type 23 frigate and new Type 26 frigates. The same missile will also be used to replace the Rapier in the ground based air defence role. Now called Sea and Land Ceptor respectively, click here to read more.
  • Storm Shadow Capability Enhancement Programme. A joint UK/French joint programme to enhance the Storm Shadow and SCALP cruise missiles (this is still on my to-do list)
  • Selective Precision Effects At Range (SPEAR) is not a single weapon but a collection of requirements, 1 to 3. Capability 1 embodies a range of upgrades to the already impressive Raytheon Paveway IV precision guided bomb. Capability 2 is being met by Brimstone 2 and Capability 3 is commonly called SPEAR, confusingly.


SPEAR Capability 3 is a Category A project (>£400m) described as;

A new 100 kg class weapon being developed to be the primary air to ground armament for the Lightning II (Joint Strike Fighter) from 2021; and optimised for internal carriage. SPEAR Cap 3 will provide the capability to destroy/defeat a wide range of targets at range, including mobile and re locatable targets, in all weathers, day and night, in all environments under tight rules of engagement.

The conceptual requirement emerged some time ago but was been given particular impetus by the proliferation of advanced Russian and Chinese air defence systems, especially the SA-21 and related systems.

Its key features include;

  • Internal turbojet with flush intakes and folding wings
  • F35B internal or external carriage with 4 per bay on the F35
  • External carriage on the Typhoon (although this does not seem to be in the current plan)
  • 100km plus range (reportedly 120km)
  • Two way datalink for re-tasking during flight
  • GPS/INS, Millimetric Radar and Semi Active Laser (SAL) terminal guidance (final options to be confirmed)
  • Multi fuzing and tuneable warhead

The turbojet propulsion is used to provide extended range, headwind resistance, survivability against air defence weapons and additional flexibility.


MBDA SPEAR Internal Carriage F35

SPEAR Capability 3

SPEAR Capability QE Carrier

SPEAR mockup

There have been a number of feed in research programmes including the Sensor to Effector Phase 2 and Time Sensitive Target Test Bed that have developed the control and communication systems between the weapon and other platforms.

MBDA have also suggested that with a suitable booster, SPEAR Cap 3 could be quad packed in a Mk41 Vertical Launch System (VLS) silo to provide a 70km plus anti-surface weapon.

Quad Packed SPEAR

Status and Issues

The SPEAR Capability 3 Assessment Phase also included Capability 2 block 2 and Sea Ceptor so when the National Audit Office report, the individual component costs are not clear.

The real issue with SPEAR Capability 3 is that the MBDA version is not the only game in town. Raytheon has their Small Diameter Bomb (SDB) Increment II or GBU-53. There is no doubt SDB-II has less capability, it is a glide only weapon and thus has a lower time to target (which enables the launch aircraft the get the f**k out of dodge sooner) and longer range (greater stand-off distance).

The SDB-II has a tri-mode seeker (SAL, IR and MMW) and a larger warhead than SPEAR Cap 3.

What it does have though, is a production contract.


Raytheon are on the public relations offensive and have hinted that a UK SDB-II could be made at their UK manufacturing facility.

The MoD is keeping tight-lipped but what has been released indicates that both MBDA and Raytheon are providing data that will enable an informed decision point to be reached, possibly this year, with a final decision coming in 2017-2018.

The UK will have to fund development of the MBDA weapon and integration with any aircraft the MoD want to launch it from, at least the F35 and potentially, the Typhoon and any future unmanned aircraft in the FCAS vision. If the SDB-II were selected at least the F35B integration costs could be eliminated. This might sound trivial but as we know, integration of complex weapons onto complex aircraft is a very expensive hobby, Storm Shadow on Typhoon is costing £150m for example.

Apart from Saudi Arabia, the air-launched weapons (Brimstone and Paveway IV) have not done well in export market and prospects for Sea Venom and Martlet remain unclear beyond the launch customers of France and the UK, although to be fair, they have yet to enter service. By contrast, Sea Ceptor has secured export orders even before it comes into service, a promising sign for longer term success.

Where does this leave the export potential for Cap 3?

Difficult to say, after all, who can predict the future, but will potential buyers be interested given the likely cost differential between it and SDB-II or will the F35 partner nations simply go for the cheaper option and accept the performance compromise, assuming SDB-II is in fact, cheaper.

The F35B is not scheduled to carry the SDB-II until 2022 as part of Block 4a software and recent news indicates some minor modifications (hydraulic line and bracket) to the bomb way will be required in order to allow the carriage of 4 per bay, these are planned to be incorporated into the production aircraft from 2019 onwards.

Whether these plans come to fruition within the proposed timescale is open for discussion.

Another interesting aspect of the Boeing SDB-I offering is its potential for carriage on a GMLRS rocket.

This has nothing to do with the SDB-II from Raytheon but it is still an interesting concept and one which is likely to be explored further for the SDB-II.

A Few Thoughts

There is no doubt the MBDA SPEAR Cap 3 weapons could be as a significant a step forward as Meteor is over AMRAAM but the ever present question remains. In shooting for the moon will the UK fall short and end up with an overly expensive, exquisite spec, UK only weapon, ordered in tiny quantities that cannot take advantage of economies of scale, and one that is rapidly overtaken?

The SDB-II is likely to be produced in thousands, current plans indicate approximately 17,000 for the US forces alone. It is this scale that allows it to develop and improve at a reasonable cost.

Could Raytheon simply add a turbojet, however much a redesign that would take, and would this cut the MBDA missile off at the legs, Raytheon are reportedly open to the idea?

If SPEAR 3 is the only UK weapon that has some possibility of export sales into the future F35 market then it should be a no brainer but only if it offers a compelling technical and financial proposition to that market.

As usual with these decisions they are not taken in isolation, issues such as sovereign design and manufacturing capability need to be considered and if the USA do not take Brimstone (as they clearly should) why should we take SDB-II?

The MoD has a finite budget, and certainly a finite budget for complex weapons. There are many competing draws on the defence Pound and it has to ask a very simple question.

Is the MBDA SPEAR Cap 3 worth the extra cost?

Make no mistake, every Pound spent on developing the weapon will be a Pound not spent on something else so it is not a simple question of specification.

Rather than spreading our jam too thinly, could the UK double down on Brimstone and the other complex weapons to get a greater capability return?

There is certainly much potential in Brimstone to keep the UK parts of MBDA in design and production work.

Change the rocket motor and add a TV imager and data link for a Spike NLOS replacement, integrate it on Predator and Apache to remove Hellfire from the inventory, investigate drop launch, push on with Sea Spear, get it onto Wildcat and the F35B, develop a tripod launched version for SF and coastal defence and even replace the gapped Swingfire capability as armoured recce overwatch.

I like every single one these concepts, they allow us to maximise our not inconsiderable investment in the Brimstone missile, open up further export opportunities and provide a range of capability enhancements for use in our most likely operating scenarios.

There are also other systems in the complex weapons pipeline that need investment.

A UK F35B with Paveway IV, ASRAAM and SDB-II compared to a UK F35B with Paveway IV, ASRAAM and SPEAR Cap 3 (MBDA) doesn’t seem all that different.

However, if that difference is the difference between being inside or outside the IAD danger bubble then actually, it is a big difference, potentially the difference between exiting the bubble or not.

The S-400 has a range in excess of 250km, far outranging either weapon in any event but against medium-range missile systems like the SA-11 (BUK), and those projected to be in service in the next decade or so, the difference between the SDB-II and SPEAR Cap 3 may be more significant.

The other question is that of operational likelihoods, how often will the additional capability actually be needed?. Personally I find it unlikely we will be duking it out with Russia anytime soon and see playing whack-a-mole in the Middle East and Africa as the more likely operational template. How many times are we likely to go up against a sophisticated air defence system, alone, or will the UK more likely be in a coalition with the US. I know many of you think this is simply subscribing to the doctrine of ‘someone else will do it’ i.e. the US, but matching the US on a capability basis across the board leads to only one thing, not enough of everything.

All of this will no doubt form part of the detailed assessment.

Without seeing the detailed information, I must admit to being sceptical that the MBDA SPEAR Cap 3 represents good value for money for the UK’s stretched defence budget. It is easy to say we should develop our own or go for the 100% solution but in doing so, somewhere in the MoD, another capability will suffer.

Words are easy.

Maybe a better option would be to consolidate and expand on what we already have and invest in what comes after SDB and Brimstone, interestingly, at the Paris Air Show MBDA floated their CVW102 Flexis concept, one missile to rule them all, or perhaps more accurately, one kits of parts to rule them all.

Janes have a good article on Flexis, here

Hard sums and tough decisions ahead.

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