“Probably the most complex airborne weapon that MBDA has ever done”. That’s how the chief engineer of the SPEAR 3 described this new British air-surface missile in a presentation to the Royal Aeronautical Society in London last week. As Stephen Temple described the ongoing development, I marveled at how his team are meeting a very demanding requirement. But I found myself wondering about the concept of operations, and the cost.

SPEAR is an acronym for Selective Precision Effects At Range, one of four air-surface weapons for the Royal Air Force. The new missile offers medium range to fill a gap between the other three, which are already in service: the short-range Paveway IV bomb (SPEAR 1) and Brimstone missile (SPEAR 2), and the long-range Storm Shadow cruise missile (SPEAR 4). It is also designed to provide the flexibility and precision that is demanded by the ever-more-stringent rules of engagement that Western nations have adopted, as they attempt to avoid civilian casualties. Especially in built-up areas (see my thoughts on Urban Close Air Support in a previous article).

By the time that SPEAR 3 is ready for production, MBDA will have been working on it for about 10 years. An assessment phase lasted from around 2012 to 2016 at a cost of £150 million ($195 million), which exceeded the original estimate. In May 2016, MBDA announced the receipt of a four-year development contract worth £411 million ($534 million). That’s a lot of time and money. But as Temple described the missile’s sophistication, and the extraordinary development effort involved, it became explainable.

SPEAR 3 is powered by a small, 150lb thrust turbojet; it navigates by GPS/INS and has a datalink for mid-course updates; the terminal guidance is by semi-active laser or a small radar so that moving targets can be engaged, similar to Brimstone; and the warhead effect is adjustable depending on the type of target (and with the possibility of inflight fuzing changes). Yet it is only some six-and-a-half feet long, seven inches wide, and weighs 220 lbs. Eight of them can fit inside the small weapons bay of an F-35B, on two four-missile launchers, and alongside two of MBDA’s Meteor long-range air-to-air missiles. Temple noted: “The packaging risk was high, with very little trade space. We had to make a series of changes, including a shock-mitigation scheme.” Whereas previous MBDA missiles had a maximum 5,000 wires per cubic metre, SPEAR 3 has 12,000. Flexible harness interconnects were required.

The “intelligent” launcher calculates acceptable launch windows and initializes the missiles, amongst other functions. The missiles are carried upside-down because even when they are folded before launch, the pop-out wings needed space that was only available at the bottom of the F-35B’s weapons bay. Temple said that because of the high temperatures in that weapons bay, a complex thermal model was needed. The missiles are pneumatically ejected, so that no gas feed from the host aircraft is required. The pitch rate must be low, as the weapons rolls through 180 degrees to the wings-on-top arrangement.

There were many other requirements: a salvo-fire option; the possibility of a ground operator taking control of the missile via Link 16; a long carriage life; a long shelf life; munitions safety; disassembly for maintenance, and so on.

During the assessment, a large amount of modelling was done to avoid extensive flight test. The seeker was trialled on a Piper Navajo. To date, SPEAR 3 has flown only once, to check the release, the starting of the turbojet, and aerodynamic performance. That test in May 2016 purposely ended with the missile flying into the sea: it has not yet been flown against a ground target.

That first flight was launched from a Eurofighter Typhoon. But the development funding does not include operational qualification of the missile on the Typhoon. Instead, the whole effort is focused on the F-35B. That seems strange, since the missile’s range was set to avoid the launch aircraft having to penetrate enemy air defences. But surely, the Typhoon needs that capability far more than the supposedly stealthy Lightning II.

Temple did not specify the range. Media reports have quoted 80 miles. MBDA’s publicity says that SPEAR 3 can engage targets “far beyond the horizon”. From 10,000 feet that would be well over 120 miles. That would seem to be necessary. The range of the radar used by the Russian S-400 air defence missile system is reportedly 250 miles, and its missile engagement up to 235 miles. And SPEAR 3 is designed to attack static and mobile air defence systems.

According to Temple, the other targets include armoured vehicles, semi-hardened structures, small-to-medium fast vessels, and “asymmetric targets such as pick-up trucks.” But why the latter, which are unlikely to be operating within the cover of a sophisticated air defence system, and are therefore suited to attack by the less expensive Brimstone missile, or by Paveway bombs?

The debate about using expensive aircraft and weapons to attack such low-cost targets is ongoing. It is a difficult debate to conduct, since weapons-makers (including MBDA) and their customers are so coy about unit costs. Short-range rocket-powered missiles like Brimstone cost upwards of £75,000 ($100,000). Cruise missiles like Storm Shadow reportedly cost nearly £800,000 ($1 million). With a range that falls somewhere between these weapons, what will a production SPEAR 3 cost?


Future Eurofighter Typhoon credit Eurofighter Feb19

Fifteen years after it entered service, the Eurofighter Typhoon has finally achieved true multirole capability. Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF) says that a three-year effort to add the long-range Storm Shadow cruise missile and the shorter-range Brimstone ground attack missile has been completed. The Typhoon was already capable of dropping Paveway ‘smart’ bombs.

BAE Systems, together with weapons maker MBDA and radar/systems provider Leonardo have earned no less than £425 million ($550 million) from this effort – nice work if you can get it. Named Project Centurion, it also included integration of the long-range Meteor air-to-air missile. Completion of the work will allow the RAF to withdraw its long-serving Tornado strike aircraft next month. The service is also developing concepts of operations that allow Typhoons and F-35s to conduct synergistic joint missions. The RAF has just declared Initial Operating Capability (IOC) with its first nine F-35Bs to reach the UK.

I must admit, I was sceptical about the feasibility of adding heavy weapons like the Storm Shadow to the Typhoon. The jet was designed with a significantly aft centre of gravity that optimized it for agility in air-to-air missions. I suspect that it has taken some serious tweaking of the fly-by-wire software, and the fuel transfer system, to allow safe carriage of the Storm Shadow. But a senior RAF officer assured me recently that the envelope for launching that weapon from the Typhoon “is as good as on the Tornado”.

Most commentators have failed to acknowledge one significant capability that will not be transferred from the Tornado to the Typhoon. That is the RAPTOR imaging sensor pod, which has provided invaluable to coalition operations over Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. As force commanders repeatedly state, you can never get enough ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance). The maker of the RAPTOR, UTA Aerospace Systems (now Collins Aerospace) offered an updated version of the pod for carriage on the Typhoon’s centerline station. But it quickly became apparent that the idea was not affordable within the UK’s stretched defence budget – especially when BAE Systems’ charge for integration was considered.

Will the multirole Typhoon now attract new export customers? I doubt it. As the unit recurring flyaway cost of a fifth-generation F-35A reduces towards the promised $80 million, the more expensive fourth-generation Typhoon will be a tough sell. Even when it is equipped with the long-awaited AESA radar – one of many examples of the slow adoption of upgrades thanks to the unwieldy four-nation programme management. Yes, the life-cycle costs of the Typhoon are much better known than the F-35, but non-fiscal considerations weigh heavily in many countries.

The sad fact is, despite a huge marketing effort, Eurofighter has never won what I consider to be a thorough and professionally-run competition. Some years ago, Singapore and Switzerland both chose other options. (In a referendum, the Swiss people subsequently voted against acquiring a new combat aircraft). In this decade, India chose the Rafale and Belgium, Denmark and Korea chose the F-35. Who has bought Typhoons? Four oil-rich Arab nations and – controversially – Austria.

Germany has recently rejected the F-35 as its Tornado replacement, and may buy more Typhoons. But that is a political decision. The chief of the Luftwaffe was in favour of the F-35, as I explained in this article for AIN in November 2015. Since then, he has been obliged to retire early.


airlander 10 makes historic first flight hav photo aug16

For many years now, the prospect of a huge and revolutionary new form of aerial transport has been looming. The hybrid airship gains 60% of its lift from helium, but the other 40% is gained aerodynamically. There are many potential applications, such as long-endurance surveillance, airlift into remote locations without runways, and luxury tourism. Operating costs are much lower than conventional aircraft and helicopters. Operating characteristics are much better than conventional airships.

And yet, despite the best efforts of various enthusiastic developers, not a single customer has been secured. There have been many “Letters of Interest” and the like, from armed forces, coastguards, mineral exploitation companies, tour operators and so on. But that elusive first firm order has always been just over the horizon.

The two most credible projects are the Airlander (above) from Britain’s Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV), and the LMH-1 (below) from Lockheed Martin in the US. Both companies have sunk large amounts of money into progressing the state-of-the-art, and marketing. HAV claims leadership, having first flown its full-scale design in 2012 as the Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle (LEMV) for the US Army. After that programme was cancelled, HAV shipped the prototype to the UK where it was test-flown six times in 2016-17 before the second of two accidents destroyed it. Lockheed Martin flew a subscale prototype back in 2006 but won’t build the real thing without a launch order.


HAV has spent some £50 million on the Airlander since 2012. Some of that came from government grants, and some from loans. But until last year, the majority came from a few key investors, plus £3.3 million from a legion of small shareholders who were attracted by two ‘crowd funding’ rounds. It has been a heroic struggle, that was continued last year largely thanks to a £20 million insurance payout on the lost prototype.

Now, though, HAV needs another £4 million to keep going throughout 2019. It needs much more than that to launch production – assuming that a firm order is achieved. The company says that it is negotiating with a potential “strategic partner” in the aerospace/defence business, who could buy a “substantial” minority stake.

Why should such a partner be interested? HAV says it has developed unrivalled intellectual property and know-how. It has been refining the Airlander design: new engines, fuel tanks, cabin configuration, landing arrangement, and a different configuration of ballonets (the air-filled bags within the envelope whose main purpose is to maintain a constant pressure differential as the helium expands or contracts due to altitude or temperature).

At first glance, HAV and Lockheed Martin are rivals, engaged in a ‘David and Goliath’ struggle. But in practice, they are addressing different markets. The payload of the Airlander is really only 3-5 tonnes, depending on the endurance required (which can be up to five days). That’s enough to carry a good suite of surveillance sensors, or 16 passengers. The LMH-1 is being designed to carry 20 tonnes in a cargo bay that has the same cross-section as a C-130. It is therefore more suited to the “remote lift” market.

I really hope that 2019 brings good news for both these projects. The development of the hybrid airship over the past 25 years is a fascinating story, which I hope to tell in full-length book. And I would like that book to have a happy ending.



IMG_6479 lower res

Did you notice that when the US Secretaries of State and Defense called for a ceasefire in Yemen this week, they emphasised the harm caused by airstrikes on urban areas? The air forces of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and supporting states have targeted population centres throughout their three-year campaign to defeat Shia Houthi rebels backed by Iran. The Saudis call it “Operation Restoring Hope.”

On this website last July, I questioned the purpose and effectiveness of such airstrikes. Despite stringent precautions taken by the US-led coalition to minimise collateral damage during Operation Inherent Resolve over Iraq and Syria, civilians there have been killed and displaced in significant numbers, and cities destroyed in part or whole.

In Yemen, the situation is far worse. According to a recent statement by the United Nations, “intense fighting, shelling and air strikes have continued to hit Hudaydah, leading to more than half a million having to leave their homes. Over 5,000 separate violations of international humanitarian law by all parties to the conflict have been recorded since May, including mass civilian casualties.”

Western complicity in Operation Restoring Hope is substantial. The US, the UK and France have supplied most of the combat aircraft used in the airstrikes, and most of their weapons. The US has been providing some 20% of the air-to-air refuelling capacity.

Moreover, American and British airmen have been located in the operations centre in Saudi Arabia which directs the air campaign. What are they doing there? I presume that they are advising on the capabilities and employment of the F-15s, F-16s, Tornados and Typhoons. According to a statement to Parliament by then-foreign secretary Philip Hammond in early 2016, the UK is “working with the Saudi Arabians to ensure the following of correct procedures to avoid breaches of international humanitarian law—to ensure that target sets are correctly identified and processes correctly followed and that only legitimate military targets are struck.” But are those Western airmen in Saudi Arabia also trying to persuade the Saudis and Emiratis to adhere to the strict rules of engagement as practiced by Western air forces over Iraq and Syria?

If so, they have not been very successful.


POST - Perlan Project image

Congratulations to the Perlan II mission team, that has now flown this pressurized two-seat glider to a record-breaking 76,124 feet, by exploiting stratospheric mountain waves that are found only over southern South America at this time of the year, when they combine with the Polar Vortex. And congratulations to Airbus ceo Tom Enders, who agreed to become the main financial supporter of the Perlan project in early 2014.

The original, unpressurised Perlan I glider reached 50,671 feet in 2006, flown by test pilot and project founder Einar Enevoldson and millionaire adventurer Steve Fossett. But when Fossett died the following year, the project lost its main backer. The purpose-built Perlan II was completed and flown in the US in 2015, and this is the third year that the team has deployed to Argentina.

The official altitude record for a wingborne subsonic aircraft was previously 73,737 feet, set by a U-2C Dragon Lady spyplane in 1989. But the U-2 is still flying, in an updated and re-engined version that can fly higher, under certain conditions. The US Air Force will only say that the maximum altitude of the U-2S is “above 70,000 feet”. I was privileged to fly to 72,000 feet in a U-2S in 1995, wearing a similar pressure suit to the one flown by Perlan II pilots Jim Payne and Tim Gardner on September 2nd. You can read more about the U-2 on my other website,

The ultimate goal for the Perlan II project is to reach 90,000 feet. That is 5,000 feet higher than the record set by the supersonic SR-71 Blackbird. On the way, the instruments onboard this extraordinary glider are collecting lots of “untainted scientific data”, according to Airbus.


Airbus Zephyr production line via AB Jul18 lower-res

At the recent Farnborough Airshow, my personal highlight was a visit to the Airbus Zephyr production facility (above), in the nearby Science Park. I wrote about this for AIN here and, as predicted, this fascinating solar-powered design has since claimed a new endurance record for an aircraft – more than 25 days.

The Zephyr project was started at Farnborough in 2001, and was sold to Airbus Defence & Space by QinetiQ in 2013. But apparently, satellite provider EADS Astrium (a predecessor of Airbus D & S) had already invested in the project, when it needed more money.

Meanwhile, the US government funded similar efforts, such as Pathfinder, Helios, Solar Eagle and Vulture. None led anywhere, but in the last few years there have been advances in in solar cell and battery technology, and miniaturisation of payloads. In the US, IT giants Facebook and Google both funded solar-powered HAPS in recent years, with the ambition of filling the gaps in worldwide internet coverage. Surprisingly, perhaps, both projects have foundered, but back in the UK, some former Zephyr pioneers have developed a rival design named PHASA (Persistent High-Altitude Solar Aircraft). BAE Systems has invested in their company, named Prismatic.

Questions remain. Is there an optimum wingspan/payload ratio? Are all the flutter problems solved? What is the best way to climb and descend these delicate airframes through turbulent air to the calmer conditions of the stratosphere? Can a ‘constellation’ of them be successfully connected by laser communications? Will their role as loitering imaging platforms be challenged by the proliferation of small satellites offering ever-decreasing revisit rates at much lower cost and much higher resolution than previous spaceborne imaging systems?

Solar-powered airships are an alternative, theoretically offering greater stability and payloads. Again, though, some US projects burned through a serious amount of taxpayer’s money in the last decade. Remember HiSentinel, HALE-D and ISIS, all now abandoned? There are fabric and thermal management issues. The only current airship project appears to be the Thales Alenia Stratobus, due to fly in 2021. However, the Italian Aerospace Research Centre (Italian acronym CIRA) believes that hybrid airship would be best, and it showed a model at Farnborough.

For the moment, Airbus is clearly leading the way, with a real customer for the current Zephyr S (the UK Ministry of Defence) and a larger-payload version (Zephyr T) coming next. Airbus has even designed a multi-mode radar imaging system for Zephyr-T, weighing just 20kg.

However, a more prosaic means of filling the internet communications gap is already in service. The high-altitude balloons of Google’s Project Loon have proved their worth over remote locations in Africa, New Zealand and elsewhere, and as emergency substitutes for damaged ground base stations during the Puerto Rican hurricane disaster last year. The project employs massive computational power to accurately model the winds in the upper atmosphere so that the positions of these balloons can be adjusted through control of the gas volume. Their payloads are solar-powered, but they don’t rely on batteries to stay at 65,000 feet.


The Malaysian-led team investigating the disappearance of flight MH370 for ICAO has issued a new 450-page report into what has become the greatest aviation mystery of all time. There’s not much new, except for the first official release of data found by the Royal Malaysian Police on the flight simulator that Captain Zahari kept at his home.

This simulator contained seven waypoints that approximately coincide with the known diversion of MH370 westward into the Strait of Malacca, then northwestward to the Andaman Sea and then south into the Indian Ocean. Why then, did the lead investigator Kok Soo Chon declare at a press conference this week that the loss of MH370 could not “have been an event committed by the pilot”? The report itself makes no such statement. But on page 379 it does say that the three unexpected turns that placed the B777 on course for a watery ending in a remote ocean “are difficult to attribute to any system failures. It is more likely that such manoeuvres are due to the systems being manipulated.”

Most independent investigators concluded long ago that the circumstantial evidence linking Zahari to the disappearance is too strong to ignore. I explored this evidence in various articles for Aviation International News in 2015, notably this one. Since then, it has become clear that the ACARS reporting system as well as the transponder and the radios can be turned off from within the cockpit. That left only the Inmarsat SatCom ‘handshakes’ as a means to track the aircraft, other than primary radar returns.

MH370 Penang radar my photo closeup Feb18

The latest report describes the returns obtained by Malaysian military radar in a little more detail than previously. My photo above shows the one on Penang that recorded the last radar trace of MH370 as it headed towards the Andaman Sea.

The report says that despite the 180-degree turn back of MH370 to fly a track along the Malaysia/Thailand border from the South China Sea, with no transponder operating, “the military did not pursue to intercept the aircraft since it was ‘friendly’ and did not pose any threat to national airspace”. Oh, really? It’s much more likely that the air defence operators were not alert to any unusual event in the small hours of the night. Remember, all the analysis of the primary radar returns was done from recordings, some time after the disappearance, which is why the search for MH370 was not switched from the South China Sea for such a long time.

It is most unfortunate that the extensive searches of the southern Indian Ocean have failed to find wreckage. Great work has been done by many experts to try and define the search area from the satellite ‘handshakes’ and log-ons. Most believe that MH370 eventually ran out of fuel at cruising altitude somewhere along the seventh Arc defined by Immarsat, and then descended steeply. But a minority believe that the aircraft was still under control when it hit the ocean. If that is the case, “the search is an almost impossible task”, the former head of the Australian Transportation Safety Board (ATSB) told a 60 Minutes documentary in his country last May.