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British Army bids farewell to Rapier air defense system after 50 years of service

Rapier retirement ceremony
Photo: UK Strategic Command

The British Army has officially retired the Rapier air defense system after nearly 50 years of service.

In a ceremony at Baker Barracks on Thorney Island, the 16 Regiment, Royal Artillery bid farewell to the Rapier and officially welcomed its successor, the Sky Sabre.

The ceremony took place after the service first started fielding the new system in December last year.

16 Regiment received their new colors at a special parade that was in stark contrast to any other conducted by the infantry and cavalry regiments that form the British Army.

They hold their allegiances to richly embroidered silk standards (flags) and guidons (pennants). This being a Royal Artillery regiment means their weapons are their colors.

Regimental colors were once used to identify regiments amidst the smoke and chaos of the battlefield. They were in effect a rallying point for the troops of that regiment and as such, the colors instilled a deep sense of pride, loyalty and an esprit-de-corps among the troops. Once the colors were struck (taken or withdrawn) it symbolized defeat for that regiment, consequently the colors would be fiercely defended at all costs.

However, in the case of the Royal Artillery, their guns were their most cherished asset, similarly never to fall into the hands of the enemy just like the colors of the infantry regiments and so the guns assumed the mantle of the regimental colors. Fast forward to 2022 and 16 Regiment Royal Artillery, being an anti-aircraft unit, has missiles instead of cannons and so it is their missile systems that are their colors.

In front of Lieutenant General Sir Chris Tickell KBE, the inspecting officer, and hundreds of invited guests, many of whom were veterans of Rapier’s passed years along with engineers and technicians from the developers of Sky Sabre, Rapier was ceremonially driven off the parade square.

Having paid a fond farewell to Rapier, it was time for Sky Sabre to enter the occasion. To a specially written piece of music aptly titled ‘Sky Sabre Fanfare’ composed and performed by the British Army Band Tidworth, the troops on parade conducted a march past with a salute and eyes right to the all-new Sky Sabre proudly overlooking the ceremony, now their new regimental colors.

Sky Sabre system at Baker Barracks. Photo: British Army

Sky Sabre marks a massive leap forward in the UK’s armed forces’ capability to defend itself from fast attack jet fighters, missiles and even air dropped bombs. Its accuracy and agility means it is capable of intercepting an inbound object “the size of a tennis ball travelling at Mach 1,” according to the British Army.

In his address to the parade and assembled guests, Lieutenant General Chris Tickell KBE said, “This moment is nested in the most ambitious period of transformation that we have embarked upon in a generation, under the banner of Future Soldier over the next ten years we will invest between 35 and 40 billion pounds in new equipment. It will deliver a modernised and digital army fit to compete and win in the 21st century.”

Sky Sabre incorporates three key components that can operate up to 15km apart in the battlespace. These include the Saab-built Giraffe Agile Multi Beam 3D medium-range surveillance radar that rotates 360 degrees on an extending mast and can scan out to 120km for threats. The radar guides the system’s Common Anti-Air Modular Missiles (CAMM) that are delivered by MBDA. Weighing in at 99Kg each, they are double the weight of a Rapier with three times the range.

At the heart of the weapon system lies its battle management and intelligence suit. It is the link between the radar and the missile launcher and provides the vital targeting data. It also provides a Link 16 capability; a tactical datalink that allows Sky Sabre to converse with Royal Navy vessels, the Royal Air Force along with our allies. It means it can be integrated wholly with joint, combine or NATO operations.