The UK defense ministry has awarded French missile specialist MBDA a £550 million (approx. $746M) contract for new SPEAR3 surface-attack missiles for its F-35B Lightning jets.
The high-subsonic missile, which MBDA describes as a network-enabled miniature cruise missile, will become the F-35’s primary air-to-ground weapon.
At 1.8 meters long, the missile system has a range of over 140 kilometers and, powered by a turbojet engine, can operate across land and sea. Its ability to attack moving targets will enhance the UK’s future combat air capability and provide lethal capability to the Royal Navy Queen Elizabeth-class carrier strike group.
“The placement of this contract marks the next major stage of the SPEAR3 weapon system’s development and is a result of months of detailed negotiations between MBDA and the LMAS project team,” Colonel Martin French, DE&S’ Lightweight and Medium Attack Systems (LMAS) team leader, said.
“Building on the successes and technology achievements of the previous four years’ work with MBDA, we now enter the exciting and challenging demonstration phase where we start to prove the system against the UK’s requirements and ramp up activities to integrate this highly-capable weapon system onto the F-35B aircraft.”
The initial demonstration phase will assess the weapon system against the UK military’s requirement through, testing, simulation and trials, which will include controlled firings from a Typhoon aircraft.
Guided firings of SPEAR will start within 18 months from a Eurofighter Typhoon fighter aircraft, with missile and launcher production beginning in 2023. The new contract follows the implementation of the weapon development phase contract for SPEAR placed in 2016 and the contracting of integration of SPEAR onto F-35 in 2019.
The UK currently has 21 fifth-generation F-35Bs, having received three new jets on November 30, 2020. They are used by both the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy. The platform’s initial operating capability (maritime) was recently declared and, later this year, F-35 jets will sail with HMS Queen Elizabeth on her maiden global carrier strike group ‘21 deployment.