SPEAR Missile System
The SPEAR missile system will be the primary precision stand-off air to ground weapon for the UK's F-35 Lightning II fighters
Selected Precision Effects at Range (SPEAR) Capability 3 is the name given to a Category A project (>£400m) to deliver a weapon 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 relocatable targets, in all weathers, day and night, in all environments under tight rules of engagement.
SPEAR 3 is designed to provide the UK’s F-35B fleet with a weapon for attacks against integrated air defences and other targets, exploiting 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 and with some secondary capability against smaller targets at sea or in the littoral.
An Electronic Warfare variant is also in development.
SPEAR Capability 3 History
The SPEAR missile system is an MBDA Systems product.
The creation of MBDA came from a need to reduce the numerous missile vendors in Europe;
MBDA was created in December 2001 following the merger of the main missile systems companies in France, Italy and the United Kingdom. Each of these companies contributed the experience gained from fifty years of technological and operational success. The restructuring of the sector in Europe took its next step in March 2006 with the acquisition of LFK-Lenkflugkörpersysteme GmbH, the German missile subsidiary of EADS (now AIRBUS Group). This further enriched MBDA’s range of technologies and products, consolidating the Group’s world-leading position in the industry.
The diagram below shows the timeline.
It is jointly owned by BAE (37.5%), Airbus Group (37.5%) and Leonardo (25%)
SPEAR is also a product of Team Complex Weapons, an MoD/Industry partnering arrangement that started in 2010. The term ‘Complex Weapon’ can include a number of different types but as a convenient shorthand, they can be thought of as guided rockets and missiles, the official term being ‘strategic and tactical weapons reliant upon guidance systems to achieve precision effects.’
The 2005 Defence Industrial Strategy concluded that complex weapons were a key strategic capability but the then-current commercial arrangements and industry structure would be unable to support that strategic capability without some form of MoD/Industry partnership and predictable requirement roadmap. In 2006, this new approach to managing the design, development, and manufacturing and through-life support of complex weapons was announced, Team Complex Weapons, a collaborative partnership between MBDA (then owned by BAE, EADS and Finmeccanica (Leonardo) and the MoD. MBDA would be the lead industrial representative with other partners including Thales, Roxel and Qinetiq.
This was a smart move by the MoD and manufacturers, and one which I don’t think they get enough credit for. In moving outside of the old-fashioned adversarial supplier-customer arrangement and towards a portfolio partnership it has provided an environment where innovation can be accommodated and the adverse effects of commercial feast and famine reduced dramatically. In return for this assured work-stream, the industry would commit to a large block of efficiency savings over the initial ten-year timespan.
The Selected Precision Effects at Range (SPEAR) programme was in the concept phase by 2005, although internal work had started before that, as a means of defining a number of air-launched weapons as part of the Complex Weapons portfolio. They will all be air-launched stand-off weapons that can be used against a wide range of stationery and fast-moving targets day or night, and with the ability to defeat countermeasures.
It is defined as;
Selective Precision Effects at Range (SPEAR) is the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) research and development request for highly accurate, beyond visual range re-targetable weapons which can receive target information updates over a data-link (network) in near real-time as part of the UK’s Network Enabled Capability (NEC)
SPEAR has been split into a number of capability numbers that have evolved since then, with a number of them informed by operational experience, Kosovo and the Iraq conflict for example.
SPEAR Capability 1; Raytheon Paveway IV precision-guided bomb and subsequent improvements to include reduced collateral and penetrator warhead and enhanced capability against moving targets.
SPEAR Capability 2; a 50kg class powered missile, eventually Block 3, Brimstone 2, then Brimstone 3
SPEAR Capability 3; a longer range 100kg class weapon with the ability to be re-targeted in flight using two-way datalinks.
SPEAR Capability 4; upgrades to Storm Shadow to sustain it to its out of service date
SPEAR Capability 5; a longer-range replacement for Storm Shadow
In 2006, Lockheed Martin positioned their Surveilling Miniature Attack Cruise Missile (SMACM) to meet the Capability 3 requirement but this was not taken forward. By 2010, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) had signed a long-term partnering agreement with MBDA called the Initial Portfolio Management Agreement (PMA-I), cementing the arrangements and the £600million per year complex weapons enterprise. Key objectives of the portfolio partnership were a desire to maximise commonality, promote reuse of subcomponents, reduce development times improve collaboration with European partners. Non-MBDA/Thales weapons were not included in the portfolio agreements, the Raytheon Paveway IV, Boeing Tomahawk cruise or Hellfire missiles for example. It also excluded infantry weapons such as Javelin and NLAW.
As is often the case, a number of feed-in research programmes informed the requirement for SPEAR Capability 3, the first of these was the Sensor to Effect Phase 2. The DSTL/QinetiQ/MBDA S2E2 prototyped a networked weapon based on a Brimstone missile to employ a datalink, GPS module and data fusion processor to deliver high levels of precision at stand-off distances. The data link was the result of another programme, Weapon Datalink 2. This integrated Link 16 terminals in a simulated environment using the Time Sensitive Target Test Bed (TST-TB). Both these programmes coalesced in the 2010/11 timeframe and culminated in test firings from an RAF Tornado GR.4. The final requirement for SPEAR Capability 3 was an internal carriage in the UK’s future Joint Combat Aircraft (JCA), the Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II.
At the same time as the partnering agreement was confirmed, the MoD also placed a contract for a number of complex weapon projects;
As part of the agreement, the MOD has placed a contract valued at some £330 million to demonstrate and manufacture both the fire shadow loitering munition which will be able to be used in operations by the British Army in Afghanistan and, using a development of the current Brimstone anti-armour weapon, the second element of the selective precision effects at range (SPEAR) programme for use by the RAF on Harrier GR9 and Tornado GR4 including on current operations. The contract also includes further work on the future local area air defence system and on future components of the SPEAR programme.
SPEAR Capability 3 cleared its initial design review with the MoD in 2011, commenting on this, the MBDA UK Managing Director said;
We’re now focused on the final two years to conclude the assessment phase, which, in 2013 and early 2014, will include subsystem and first flight trials of that weapon
MBDA revealed more details at Farnborough in 2012, describing it as both a step change and a mini cruise missile. Although several final design considerations had yet been finalised, the basic shape and requirements included a turbojet and fold-out wings, the ability to carry 4 internally on the F-35, a multimode seeker and a datalink to enable mid-course guidance.
This initial concept has since evolved, the location of control surfaces and body shape for example, and the UK’s reversion to the STOVL F-35B also required some changes to the launch rail.
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 were not clear. The real issue with SPEAR Capability 3 at the time was that the MBDA version was not the only game in town. Raytheon has their Small Diameter Bomb (SDB) Increment II (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 with SPEAR to ‘get the f**k out of dodge’ sooner) and SPEAR has a longer range (greater stand-off distance). However, the SDB-II has a tri-mode seeker (SAL, IR and MMW) like SPEAR and a larger warhead, and it was likely cheaper. This was the dilemma for the MoD, buy off the shelf or develop the MBDA system, but the underlying conditions that drove the creation of the complex weapons partnership remained, the MoD had a choice of sticking to what it agreed or abandoning the agreement.
Raytheon went on the public relations offensive and hinted that a UK SDB-II could be made at their UK manufacturing facility.
The 2013 National Audit Office Major Projects Report (published in 2014) described how SPEAR Capability 3 was still in Assessment Phase and the forecast cost of this was £139m, although as above, this was shared with other projects. MBDA released further imagery and video.
As 2013 came to an end, the Surface Attack Project Team presented a Review Note to the Investment Approvals Committee seeking approval for an increase in the cost and time of the project’s Assessment Phase, after further clarification work in 2014, this was approved in February 2015. This Assessment Phase extension effectively signalled the MoD’s choice between it and the SDB-II. The MoD confirmed that SDB-II did not meet a number of Key User Requirements but Main Gate would be deferred until 2018, by which time the extended Assessment Phase should have concluded.
In December 2015, as follow up from the 2010 Lancaster House agreements, France and the UK jointly signed contracts for the development of the Sea Venom missile that will replace Sea Skua in both nation’s armouries. Of more interest was confirmation that work would continue with the creation of a number of ‘Centres of Excellence.
- France; weapon controllers and test equipment
- UK; datalinks and actuators
These four would be followed by locations for complex warheads, guidance and navigation systems, algorithms and software.
MBDA released another video, this time showing SPEAR Capability 3 being deployed from a Typhoon.
Initial flight development work was carried out on the Typhoon.
Main Gate decision on Demonstration and Manufacture phase was not planned until 2018 but several media outlets had reported in early May that MBDA were about to be awarded a £411 Million contract to develop SPEAR Cap 3. and on the 18th of May 2016, the MoD announced the next stage of development for SPEAR Capability 3
The Ministry of Defence has awarded a £411 million contract to develop a new missile for the UK’s future F-35B supersonic stealth aircraft.
The contract secures around 350 highly skilled missile engineering jobs across MBDA’s sites in Stevenage, Bristol and Lostock, with an equivalent number of jobs in the wider supply chain, and will draw on engineering and manufacturing expertise from companies across the UK. Spear 3 is from the same family of weapons as Brimstone, currently being used by the RAF to combat Daesh in Syria and Iraq, but it packs a bigger punch and has a significantly increased range.
The contract, with MBDA, will enable four years of critical design and development work which will tailor the weapon for use within the internal weapons bay of F-35B, the world’s most advanced combat aircraft. It is being designed specifically for F-35B Lightning II operations launched from HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, the Royal Navy’s two £3 billion aircraft carriers.
The £411 million contract award follows an initial £150 million assessment phase and, if successful, it is expected that Spear 3 will enter service in the mid-2020s
It was later announced that the first test-firing had taken place in March 2016;
MBDA’s Spear missile, intended primarily for the UK’s F-35 fleet but also for Typhoon, has been fired for the first time. The trial was undertaken in March at the Aberporth range in the Irish Sea from a standard production Typhoon (aircraft BS116), flown by BAE Systems chief test pilot Steve Formoso. During the test, the missile righted itself from its inverted carriage position, deployed its wings, started its motor, made a number of maneuvers and flew to a predetermined point of impact
Paul Wester, SPEAR Programme Director, explained the significance of the test firings;
This trial systematically demonstrated an advanced degree of maturity and technical progress that is unusual in an Assessment Phase. The trial had to achieve a variety of “firsts” for SPEAR including the safe separation from the jet, commencement of powered flight, the manoeuvre whereby it rolled and opened its wing in free flight, navigation and the final simulated precision attack. All those actions were a challenge with a new airframe that had never flown and we are building on this very successful foundation with the weapon development phase.
No news on Typhoon integration but several outlets have reported it is an aspiration and will hopefully use the new three-round common launcher for a total of twelve carried munitions.
We’ve flown SPEAR on Typhoon, launched it, proved the separation, the propulsion, the guidance and the final phase. That gives us the potential to integrate SPEAR onto Typhoon as well. It was a trials fit on Typhoon, but there was nothing on there we wouldn’t foresee taking forward into a real fit. We would need to go through a more rigorous qualification and certification for a production run, but there are no show-stoppers in there that we can see now that we’ve done the trials fit.
So although SPEAR Cap 3 has been dropped from Typhoon over the sea, integration would require more detailed and demanding activity.
MBDA awarded a contract to L3 Harris to complete development work on their Scorpion Eject Release Unit (ERU) to enable the carriage and release of four SPEAR weapons per F35-B bay. MBDA also showcased its Smart Glider munition at the Dubai Airshow in 2017, this being perhaps a closer analogue to SDB-II than SPEAR.
In July 2018, the Secretary of State for Defence opened a new MBDA manufacturing and development facility in Bolton
In March 2019, BAE announced they had been awarded a contract by Lockheed Martin to start work on the integration of SPEAR and Meteor missiles onto the F-35B
This is a significant milestone for the UK Combat Air’s capability. This initial package of work officially commences the integration of Meteor and SPEAR and will enhance the operational capability of the UK’s Lightning Force in the future; it is also a positive step for the wider F-35 enterprise as it adds additional capability choice for international customers. MBDA’s integration team have worked well with our BAE Systems and Lockheed Martin colleagues and we plan to build on this excellent foundation into the future on this follow-on modernisation work
MBDA also released details on an Electronic Warfare variant of SPEAR in development with Leonardo under an MoD Technical Demonstration Programme contract.
Commenting in the new variant, MBDA Director of Sales and New Business, said;
SPEAR-EW is a revolutionary new capability that, alongside the existing SPEAR3 weapon, marks a fundamental change in the ability of friendly air forces to conduct their missions despite the presence of enemy air defences. Our vision for SPEAR is to create a swarm of networked weapons able to saturate and neutralise the most sophisticated air defences. Adding SPEAR-EW to the family alongside our existing SPEAR strike missile demonstrates the principle of introducing complementary variants to the SPEAR family that will add significant capability and force multiplication without the need to repeat the platform integration. We have an exciting roadmap of variants, spirals and technology insertions in the pipeline to further enhance the family as we move forward
An unpowered version, called SPEAR Glide, was also shown, although this was an MBDA concept only, and during the year there were a number of events that featured SPEAR in the context of the future combat cloud and Tempest programmes.
In early 2021, the MoD awarded MBDA with a seven-year £550million Demonstration and Manufacture contract for the SPEAR missile system.
Known as SPEAR3, the next-generation missile can travel long distances at high-subsonic speed and over the next decade will become the F-35’s primary air-to-ground weapon. At 1.8 metres long, the missile system has a range of more than 140-kilometres and, powered by a turbojet engine, can operate across land and sea, day or night, to overpower enemy air defence systems, while the pilot and aircraft remains a safe distance away. Its ability to attack moving targets will enhance the UK’s future combat air capability and provide immense lethal capability to the Queen Elizabeth class carrier strike group.
Guided firings from a Typhoon will start within 18 months of this contract award with missile and launcher production starting in 2023.
Costs to date have been;
- Concept Phase; part of a wider £330m contract including other systems so difficult to determine exact costs
- Assessment Phase I; £150m
- Assessment Phase II; £440m
- Development and Manufacture; £550m
There will have been some costs associated with lead in research programmes and it is not yet clear if the Development and Manufacture phase includes Block 4 F-35B integration costs, but taken in the round, SPEAR 3 is a Billion Pound system, not dissimilar to the total cost of Storm Shadow. Final manufacture quantities of the missile have not been disclosed, making unit cost calculations impossible.
There are no plans to integrate SPEAR3 onto anything other than F-35B at this stage.
Finally, I have seen it described in official publications as SPEAR, SPEAR CAP 3, SPEAR3, SPEAR Capability 3 and even different versions of what the S in SPEAR means, selected or selective. The latest just seems to be SPEAR3, although MBDA describes it as just SPEAR, so take your pick!
MBDA probably don’t like these characterisations, given the scale of the SPEAR development, but many have described it as either a longer-ranged Brimstone or a jet-powered SDB-II (Stormbreaker). As SPEAR has developed over the last couple of decades, its capabilities and use cases have also changed. Undoubtedly, the requirement stemmed from the RAF’s experience in Kosovo, but since then, it has evolved into a class of weapons with enormous development potential.
In addition to the above, SPEAR3 has sophisticated Insensitive Munitions warhead from TDW Gesellschaft für verteidigungstechnische Wirksysteme mbH (TDW GMbH) and a variant TJ-150-3) of the Whitney AeroPower (Hamilton Sundstrand) TJ-150 turbojet that is also used on the MALD and MALD-J systems.
The range is of course, not in the public domain, but various outlets have reported it is in excess of 140km, as does the latest graphic from the MoD. The turbojet propulsion is used to provide extended range, headwind resistance and additional flexibility against targets in difficult to reach areas. It also provides a much shorter time to target than a glide weapon which improves the survivability of the aircraft.
The two-way datalink and combined RF imaging sensor and semi-active laser (SAL), together with very powerful onboard processing and a tunable warhead, and a GPS/INS guidance system from Collins Aerospace provides maximum flexibility, allowing a very wide range of targets to be attacked in a range of weather and threat conditions. It can even be controlled from the ground using a Link 16 terminal and has high levels of shelf and carriage life, and much-improved maintainability compared to other missiles.
SPEAR really is at the cutting edge, with every single optional extra box ticked.
The modular approach taken by Brimstone 2 and ASRAAM was also used on SPEAR, MBDA has claimed this would allow SPEAR to be modified to include a booster motor that would allow it to be used in the land attack and counter Fast Inshore Attack Craft (FIAC) role. MBDA released a graphic a few years ago showing a concept for a Common Anti-Surface Modular Missile (CAsMM) that used the same launch cell as the Common Anti-Air Modular Missile (CAMM).
Vertical launch SPEAR remains an interesting option for land attack from RN vessels equipped with Sea Ceptor or Mk41 VLS, or perhaps even smaller vessels, and although not on the development roadmap yet, helicopters and UAS remain potential launch platforms.
Despite this, the UK is only contracted so far for F-35B carriage. The F-35B is not scheduled to carry the SDB-II until 2022 as part of Block 4a software and SPEAR3 will be in the Block 4 software release on the F-35 programme, alongside Meteor, although Meteor will be the highest priority given the UK’s F-35B’s will have Paveway IV as part of its threshold integration.
The latest image below demonstrates I think, how SPEAR3 has evolved since its inception, in a word, swarms.
Recent graphics would also indicate a desire to integrate SPEAR onto Typhoon, especially the EW variant. The EW variant uses the SPEAR body but replaces the warhead and seeker with more fuel and an electronic package derived from the world-leading Britecloud EW decoy.
SPEAR-EW has been reported as having three times the range of the normal version whilst retaining physical compatibility to ease of aircraft integration i.e. we won’t need to pay twice for integration like we would have if selecting something like the MALD-J/X.
Eurofighter describe it as
SPEAR EW acts as a stand-in jammer which greatly increases the survivability of the Eurofighter by suppressing enemy air defences. It can be used for multiple different types of EW. At one end of the spectrum it could simply jam a radar, effectively blinding it, and at the other it could mimic 100s of different objects, therefore creating a mask.
This flexibility gives a pilot a range of options. Blinding a threat radar is an overt action but they can call on more subtle effects. For example, SPEAR EW can be used to create a decoy by making you appear bigger or appear as though there are 50 targets so that it’s impossible for an adversary to determine which is the real target.
Alternatively, you might want to encourage the threat target to start shooting which would enable your forces to find it. Another option could be to get the adversary to train their fire at an imaginary target and therefore allow you through their defences.
SPEAR EW isn’t simply restricted to land targets. It could be used for maritime strike to blind or confuse a ship.
As both the threat and likelihood of use against triple-digit SAM’s will likely increase, the ability to penetrate anti-access bubbles will become paramount to operational success, it is here where the combination of aircraft and systems like the F-35 and SPEAR will become invaluable. And the combination is the key, operations have always, and will always, be a team sport, having multiple means, both electronic and with things that go bang (I refuse to say kinetic!), will provide the best set of options for the mission. Germany is also looking very closely as SPEAR for use in the SEAD/DEAD role, in combination with new variants of the Typhoon CAPTOR radar and other electronic systems. The UK is well placed here also, having the low observability of the F-35B, internal carriage of SPEAR, and options for very high payloads of SPEAR missiles on Typhoon creates a very potent combination. Put the ability to mount F-35B operations from the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carriers or forward locations together with that, and it gets even better.
As Tempest becomes a reality in the next couple of decades, later versions of and successors to SPEAR will have built on this early development and possible operational experience of using swarms of different variant ‘mini-cruise missiles’. It is certainly possible that we will see SPEAR, SPEAR-EW and SPEAR-GLIDER in service in the next decade or so, with SPEAR leading the way on the RAF/RN’s F-35B fleet as a lead into Tempest and FCAS.
Will SPEAR achieve export success in a way that Brimstone didn’t, that is a tough question, it can certainly address the F-35 marketplace without repeating complex integration activity for each user, but the US market does not look like it will become more open to non-US systems any time soon. If it is eventually integrated onto Typhoon, there is a market access window before Tempest and FCAS materialise.
The UK has a long and successful track record with guided weapons, as I am sure we all know, the world’s first practical guided weapon, the Brennan Torpedo, was operated by men of the Royal Engineers, SPEAR is the latest in this long line, a bright future hopefully awaits.
But the real question remains, is it SPEAR, SPEAR 3, or SPEAR Cap 3 :)
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