LONDON — A decision on whether to purchase a homegrown missile or buy a US-developed rival to equip British F-35B combat jets with a medium-range strike weapon may not be made until at least 2018, according to the Ministry of Defence.
The British are studying whether to push ahead with development work under a long-running assessment phase agreement with Europe's top missile maker, MBDA, or purchase the more mature Small Diameter Bomb II (SDBII) weapon being offered by Raytheon to meet the Selective Precision Effects At Range 3 (Spear Cap 3) requirement.
"MBDA and Raytheon weapon solutions are being considered and no investment decision has been taken at this time. ... The next review point is in late 2015 or early 2016. ... It is likely that down selection won't be made until the full relationship between cost and capability has been assessed and validated. ... It is expected that a decision will be able to be taken in 2018 on current plans," said a Defence Equipment & Support (DE&S) organization spokesperson.
The spokesperson said the timeline on Spear Cap 3 is being guided by the introduction of new block capability upgrades planned for the F-35.
"The timeline brings the program into alignment with a key multination decision on the make-up and timing of the next available upgrade package for the joint strike fighter. ... The timescales for the weapon procurement and integration programs are defined by those international agreements," said the spokesperson.
The rival weapons, both intended for internal carriage on the F-35, are radically different.
Most notably, MBDA is working on a turbo-jet powered winged weapon, known as Spear, with a range thought to be around 70 nautical miles while the SDBII is a glide bomb with a 40-nautical-mile range.
The Raytheon weapon has already been ordered by the US military in substantial numbers for a range of platforms including the F-35B, where it is targeted to achieve initial operating capability in 2022.
Doug Barrie, the senior air analyst at the International Institute of Strategic Studies think tank in London, reckons cost could be a big factor in any selection.
"The choice may come down to whether they go for something that meets the requirement or whether they lowball it because they can't afford to do anything else. If you are in an environment where you are financially constrained then the temptation might be to say actually that [the SDBII] is good enough," he said.
Barrie said that while it was reasonable to follow all very well following the US lead on a weapon for its F-35Bs, the British concept of operations is completely different.
"In the UK scenario, where you have a very limited number of platforms, you really want to minimize the risk to that platform per se. So marrying up a low observable platform with a stand-off weapon gives you greater survivability," he said.
"Even for a weapon coming out of an F-35, they still felt they needed a stand-off range of at least 100 kilometers to maximize chances of survival against threats like the Russian S350 and S400 class [ground-based air defense] weapons. That's what you are looking to live with in terms of contested airspace. I can see no reason why the threat environment is now more benign than when they first drew up the requirement for Spear Cap 3," he said.
In an interview with Defense News recently, Raytheon's Richard Daniel said Britain could save some "£500 to £600 million [US $771 million to $925.2 million] in integration, development and manufacturing" costs by adopting the SDBII compared with the MBDA weapon.
"We want to offer them choices with value-for-money solutions, that's where SDBII comes in compared with a unique and bespoke weapon [Spear]," he said.
Daniel said the MoD would consider be actively considering the options for Spear Cap 3 in the strategic defense and security review underway in Britain.
The Raytheon UK boss said the company already had clearance from the US to look at the possibility of options for Britain becoming part of the global supply chain for the SDBII.
The guidance area, a key manufacturing capability for Raytheon in Britain, is one of the potential sectors being looked at for possible local manufacture, he said.
MBDA declined to discuss any aspect of the Spear Cap 3 requirement.
Spear Cap 3 will eventually be a key part of the offensive strike capabilities planned for the fleet of F-35B jets to be purchased for the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy.
Raytheon's Paveway IV precision-guided bomb is the only strike weapon slated for the British F-35Bs when they achieve initial operational capability, planned for the end of 2018, but MBDA's Storm Shadow cruise missile, the Brimstone 2 (also known as Spear Cap 2) could also eventually join Spear Cap 3 on the F-35.
At present there are no plans to deploy Spear Cap 3 on Britain's other strike jet, the Typhoon, but the aircraft is being used in Spear trials, said the DE&S spokesperson.
"Currently, Typhoon is only being used as a platform to trial the MBDA-designed solution. This is solely in support of the planned Lightning II integration timelines," said the spokesperson.
That may be the current position but an announcement that was scheduled for June 1 by BAE Systems that it has been awarded a small contract to research a common weapon launcher for Typhoon may eventually change that.
The new system is primarily aimed at allowing Typhoon to carry a mixed load of Brimstone 2 and Paveway IV's off a single launcher but Martin Taylor, the managing director of BAE's combat air activities, said that Spear Cap 3 was one of the options being looked at for the common launcher.
Originally, the British were looking at pushing ahead with the MBDA Spear missile development under the Team Complex Weapons arrangement between government and industry designed to protect critical skills and capabilities in the UK by not opening up certain requirements to foreign competition.
That position has been set aside for Spear Cap 3 with the SDBII now being part of the evaluation process.
The DE&S spokesperson said the current studies being conducted by the procurement team cover cost, capability, technical maturity and platform integration aspects of the two weapons with information being provided by the two potential suppliers.
The process stops short of a formal competition though.
"MBDA is undertaking assessment activity on their solution for the Spear Cap 3 requirement, and providing information to the UK MoD to enable cost, risk and capability forecasts to be undertaken. As Raytheon has a more mature product, they are able to provide established data into the UK MoD's operational and cost effective analysis work. Any subsequent down selection will be undertaken when there is sufficient confidence in the data and when a meaningful comparison can be made, currently forecast for after 2017," said the spokesperson.
Barrie said the eventual procurement decision by the MoD will be a test of the Conservative government's policy on retaining skills and capabilities in the sector.
"This could be a bit of a litmus test for the UK government's commitment to sustaining a top-end indigenous or European-based missile business. Given there is natural tendency in the US to try and minimize the number of foreign weapons on the platform, partly because it cuts costs and also the more non-US stuff they can keep off the platform the more they can sell themselves," he said.
"From a European perspective, this is an important platform to get weapons integrated on so as to offer an alternative to the US and help their own weapons sector," he said.