The AW159 Wildcat will be equipped with the lightweight multirole missile, using a rocket motor supplied by Nammo. (UK Royal Navy)
LONDON — Europe’s top rocket motor supplier has been replaced by a Norwegian rival on a missile program destined for Britain’s Royal Navy after the system failed to satisfy performance requirements, according to an industry executive.
Thales UK has switched to a Nammo-made motor for its lightweight multirole missile (LMM) development, ousting Roxel from the program four years after the French company’s UK arm unveiled plans for the new weapon.
A Thales UK spokesperson confirmed the switch to Norwegian rocket motor supplier Nammo but declined to comment further.
Technical problems that were not resolved by Roxel led to the switch, the industry executive said.
Thales appointed Nammo in late 2012, then canceled Roxel in 2013. The move was never made public by any of the parties involved. Thales UK also asked Roxel to pay back funds for the motor’s development.
LMM is a precision-strike, low-cost missile adopted by the British to equip the Royal Navy’s new AW159 Wildcat helicopter with a weapon capable of attacking small boats, fast attack craft and other targets.
A second Thales spokesperson declined to respond to questions about whether the two companies were still in dispute over Roxel’s ousting from the program.
Nobody at Roxel’s headquarters in France was available to respond to questions due to a public holiday celebrating the end of World War II.
The company is a joint venture between MBDA and Safran and has production facilities in Britain and France.
The Belfast, Northern Ireland, arm of Thales UK unveiled the LMM in 2008, revealing a multirole, 28-pound laser beam-riding weapon with a range of over four miles.
Company executives signed a deal with the UK Defence Ministry in 2011 to facilitate the full-scale development and series production of an initial 1,000 missiles for the Wildcat’s Future Anti-surface Guided Weapon (FASGW) (Light) program.
An MoD spokesperson said “Development deliveries of 1,000 LMMs have commenced and there has been no delay to the operational use of the missiles.”
A further contract phase for getting LMM on the Wildcat, expected for 2013, remains unsigned, though that is expected to be rectified within days, industry sources said.
It is not clear whether the issues over the rocket motor have contributed to the delay.
The original plan for LMM envisioned qualification of the weapon in 2013. The Wildcat is on target to enter Royal Navy service in 2015.
Roxel continues to supply rocket motors for Thales UK’s other major program, the Starstreak hypervelocity very-short-range air defense weapon.
The AgustaWestland helicopter remains on schedule for delivery next year, but the FASGW (Light) and a second weapon missile type, FASGW (Heavy), being developed by MBDA for British and French militaries, won’t be available until late 2020.
An integration contract with AgustaWestland for both weapons is expected to rapidly follow the LMM signing.
Fielding FASGW (Heavy) had been held up by French reluctance to commit to the program. That hurdle was overcome this year when the two governments signed a cooperative development program.
Like a number of European defense companies, Roxel is having a tough time with defense budgets under pressure. New orders were significantly down last year compared with 2012 and job cuts are expected.
Europe’s premier rocket motor supplier, though, is having better luck overcoming problems it has had elsewhere in the British missile industry.
In 2012, the company ran into significant technical issues in the development of the Vulcan rocket motor for the latest variant of the Brimstone ground attack missile, known as Brimstone 2.
The National Audit Office, Britain’s government spending watchdog, reported in February that while propellant cracking and liner debonding had delayed the program, there was increased confidence the motor would meet a revised inservice date of November 2015.
Brimstone 2 provides a number of performance and safety improvements, including fitting an insensitive munition compliant rocket motor.
An MBDA spokesman indicated the testing regime on the Vulcan motor was drawing to a successful conclusion.
“The revised rocket motor qualification continues to plan in line with the overall program. The majority of qualification testing has been completed satisfactorily, with only the final environmental test outstanding,” the spokesman said.
It’s Nammo’s second time in recent years coming to the rescue of a missile program.
The company stepped in 2012 to become the second source supplier for Raytheon’s AIM-120 advanced medium-range air-to-air missile (AMRAAM) after US supplier ATK ran into problems that resulted in the Pentagon temporarily suspending payments.
Nammo declined to respond to questions on the LMM and AMRAAM programs. ■
Pierre Tran in Paris contributed to this report.