UK Complex Weapons – Reference

From Brimstone to Storm Shadow, complex weapons form the core of UK military capability.

Each of the complex weapons in scope has a standalone article

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 Share on twitter Twitter

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Storm Shadow Missile

Storm Shadow is the RAF’s long range stand-off precision guided cruise missile, due to be replaced by the Future Cruise and Anti-Ship Weapon (FCASW) by

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Brimstone Guided Missile

The Brimstone missiles is a potent and precision guided anti-armour missile that arms RAF Typhoons and Protectors Share on twitter Twitter Share on facebook Facebook

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SPIKE NLOS, is an electro-optically guided missile with a range of up to 25km in service with the British Army, designated EXACTOR Share on twitter

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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.

Missiles and guided bombs are defined by a number of characteristics;

  • Range
  • Guidance
  • Launch platform and environment
  • Target effects

A missile used to destroy small fast attack craft e.g. Sea Skua, has very different characteristics to that of a penetrating cruise missile e.g. Storm Shadow. This may seem obvious but it is a good shorthand for describing the systems.

Range allows the launch platform to stand off beyond enemy air defences or observation. The recent trend to target effects has been to reduce, smaller warheads and more precision strike fit within evolving laws of armed concept interpretation.

A large warhead can still be important, especially for penetrating hard targets such as bunkers or aircraft shelters. Main in the loop guidance is another increasingly important factor in modern weapons, being able to break off an attack at the last minute has proven to provide attacking forces with a valuable means of reducing civilian deaths.

Launch platform can have a large influence on costs, helicopter launch, for example, is much less demanding than a fast jet.

All these factors interplay to define individual systems in response to requirements.

Complex Weapons Industry

For the UK defence industry, complex weapons are delivered by a number of manufacturers but the specific Complex Weapons Portfolio means MBDA (owned by BAE, EADS and Finmeccanica (Leonardo)) and Thales.

Following the 2005 Defence Industrial Strategy, in 2006, a new approach to managing the design, development, manufacture and through-life support was announced that would adopt a collaborative partnership, with MBDA and the MoD as the lead. Other partners in the team were Thales, Roxel and Qinetiq.

This arrangement was intended to maintain sovereign industrial capabilities by providing a predictable requirements roadmap. It 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 feast and famine reduced dramatically. In return for this assured workstream, industry would commit to a large block of efficiency savings over the initial ten-year timespan.

In 2010, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) signed a long-term partnering agreement with MBDA called the Initial Portfolio Management Agreement (PMA-I).

Key objectives of the portfolio partnership were a desire to maximise commonality, promote reuse of subcomponents, reduce development times improve collaboration with European partners. The agreement covered a spend of approximately £600m per annum.

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. This approach was perhaps due to industrial and sovereignty concerns but by putting Raytheon and Boeing ‘outside the tent’ the desired end to end capability management and cost advantages may not have been fully realised.

The portfolio approach was also intended to reduce single service focussed programmes that produce anomalies like RAF Harrier GR.3 rockets and RN Sea Harrier rockets not being interchangeable in 1982. These lessons were not learned by the time Brimstone was introduced but hopefully, SPEAR CAP 3 will have driven out this, frankly, nonsensical situation.

The Complex Weapons portfolio has seen increasing industrial consolidation and integration, indeed, this was one of the fundamental objectives of the portfolio approach. With increasing UK-French defence cooperation, complex weapons have also taken on a more UK/France focus.

The creation of MBDA came from a need to reduce the numerous missile vendors;

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.

MBDA-European-Company-2016It is jointly owned by BAE (37.5%), Airbus Group (37.5%) and Leonardo (25%)

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 will be followed by locations for complex warheads, guidance and navigation systems, algorithms and software.

Complex Weapons Programmes and Research

Extended to 2018, the Materials and Components for Missiles, Innovation and Technology Partnership (MCM ITP) is a joint UK/FRA research fund that feeds into the complex weapons pipeline. The funding is aimed at low Technology Level Readiness concepts, between 3 and 4, and organised into eight domains with each having a lead company;

  • Systems, Concepts and Navigation; MBDA, UK
  • RF Seekers; Thales Optronic, FR
  • Infra-Red Sensors; Selex ES, UK
  • Rocket Propulsion; Roxel, FR
  • Turbojet Propulsion; Safran Microturbo, FR
  • Warheads; QinetiQ (and Nexter), UK
  • SAUs and Fuzes; Thales Missile Electronics, UK
  • Materials and Electronics; MBDA, FR

The budget is a modest €13 million per annum but the programme has delivered some excellent research outcomes, all feeding into the complex weapon pipeline.


A more recent example of this research funding is the Co-operative Strike Weapons Technology Demonstrator (CSWTD)

Known as the Co-operative Strike Weapons Technology Demonstrator (CSWTD), the Dstl-led project will explore how inter-missile communication can enable the weapons systems to work together and also improve the performance of current systems.

The project aims to increase the flexibility of missiles, ensuring that they can react to a changing threat or situation as it emerges, and improve their responsiveness. It will change the way missiles operate together with an upgrade to the software system that allows this co-operative behaviour.


Complex Weapons Programmes

The Selective Precision Effects at Range (SPEAR) programme emerged around 2006 9although internal work had started before that) as a means of defining a number of air-launched weapons as part of the Complex Weapons portfolio. The weapons will be air-launched stand-off weapons that can be used against a wide range of stationary and moving targets in 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.

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

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 the OSD

SPEAR Capability 5; longer range replacement for Storm Shadow

This has evolved considerably since then but the basic building blocks and approach have remained, a real success story for UK defence

The UK has a long 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.


Outside of the formal complex weapons partnering arrangement there are also a number of programmes that will be included in this reference guide.

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