New Firepower: The British Royal Navy's Wildcat maritime attack helicopter is scheduled to enter service next year. (AgustaWestland)
LONDON — Two missiles planned to equip a fleet of new Royal Navy helicopters due to become operational next year won’t enter service until the next decade, Britain’s Ministry of Defence has admitted.
The British had originally planned to have MBDA’s future air-to-surface guided weapon (heavy), known as FASGW (H), ready when the new AgustaWestland AW159 Wildcat maritime attack helicopter entered service in 2015.
That was to be followed by the installation of a Thales UK-developed lightweight modular missile to meet the FASGW (Light) requirement.
But the MoD admitted that while contract developments can be expected soon, the in-service date for both missiles will be much later than planned.
“FASGW contracts will be awarded as soon as is reasonably practicable in order to support a planned in-service date of late 2020,” a spokeswomen for the MoD said Feb 28.
Until now, details of the FASGW (H) in-service date have not been revealed ahead of the completion of commercial negotiations between MBDA and its two customers.
The British are reckoned to be close to announcing as many as three contracts with industry for development of the heavy and light missile types as well as a deal with AgustaWestland’s UK operation to integrate the weapons onto the Wildcat.
MBDA’s FASGW (H) development has been stalled for several years after the French government dragged its feet over committing to a joint program to build the missile because of pressure on the defense budget. Also, Paris didn’t have a requirement for the weapon until at least the early 2020s.
Delays in French approval threatened to cause a serious rift in the Anglo-French Defence Treaty before Paris signaled last year it would go ahead with the program.
The two sides signed a memorandum of understanding to take forward the program, known as the Anti-Navire Leger in France, at the January Anglo-French summit involving UK Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande held at Brize Norton air base in the UK.
The French 2014-19 multiyear budget law published last year only sets out joint development and certification with the UK on the missile in the six years covered, and sets a delivery of weapons for its military in the next budget law.
A decision on which French helicopter will be armed with the new missile will depend on talks between the Navy and the procurement officials, with cost one of the factors, said officials in Paris.
When fitted, the new missiles will give the Wildcat the ability to strike naval targets ranging in size from a corvette down to fast moving small attack craft, as well as land targets.
FASGW (H) is a 100-kilogram class weapon replacing Sea Skua and the AS15TT; FASGW (L) is a 13-kilogram class missile already ordered by the British MoD.
Weapons currently fitted to the new helicopter to be deployed on Royal Navy warships include torpedoes and machine guns.
A National Audit Office (NAO) report into major MoD projects released in early 2013 listed the MBDA weapon as ready for service in January 2018, a date already revised from earlier plans.
Working on the 2018 date, the report by the government spending watchdog said there would be at least a 19-month gap between the existing capability leaving service and the new missile becoming available.
Delays to the missile development have raised speculation the British might be looking at using the aging Sea Skua missile, which FASGW (H) is meant to replace, to help close the capability gap caused by the misalignment of the new weapon and new airframe.
The Sea Skua missile is carried by Royal Navy Lynx Mk8 helicopters. The Mk8s were meant to have gone out of service in 2015, but that exit date for the final airframes was amended to March 2016.
In line with that, the MoD awarded MBDA a £41 million (US $68.4 million) deal a few weeks ago to continue supporting the Sea Skua in service for 27 months with an option to extend by a further 12 months if required.
The MoD won’t say what, if any, plans it has to further close the gap between Sea Skua and FASGW (H).
“Plans for the future of Sea Skua are ongoing, and it would be inappropriate to speculate further at this time,” said the MoD spokeswomen.
The NAO said in the 2013 Major Projects Report that the heavy and light versions of FASGW were fundamental to the Wildcat’s role.
“Failure to provide a FASGW capability synchronous with Initial Operating Capability will mean significant elements of attack capability will not be available in several mission scenarios.
“These core attack missions are dependent upon the ability to deliver a proportional and autonomous attack capability for which FASGW Light and Heavy variants are fundamental,” said the report.
Deliveries of the Wildcat for the Royal Navy started last year and all 28 are scheduled to have been handed over by 2016, when the new-generation machines based on the Lynx are planned to enter service.
A further 34 Wildcats are being delivered to the British Army. These AW159s will not be equipped with FASGW weapons.
Wildcat deliveries for the UK started in 2012 and over a third of the 62 aircraft ordered have been handed over by AgustaWestland’s Yeovil, southwest England-based operation.
The helicopter company also expects next year to start delivering the first of eight AW159s destined for export customer South Korea.
The South Korean Navy has selected the Spike non-line-of-sight missile from Israeli manufacturer Rafael for its main missile armament. ■
Pierre Tran in Paris contributed to this report.