Published on September 25th, 2016 | by Alan Dwyer


UK Ministry of Defence announces new contracts with MBDA UK Ltd as RAF modernisation continues

Following on from the significant orders for Boeing P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft and AH-64E Apache attack helicopters, announced by the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD), at the Farnborough air show, a further contract was announced for air-to-air missiles for the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which will be known in UK service as the Lightning II.

The contract, announced on 16th August, is worth around £184 million, (around € 212.5 million), and will ensure the UK’s new supersonic stealth combat aircraft will be equipped with the latest air-to-air missile. Designed and manufactured in the UK, ASRAAM is an advanced heat-seeking weapon which will give Royal Air Force (RAF) and Royal Navy F-35B Lightning II pilots, operating from land and the UK’s two new aircraft carriers, the ability to defeat current and future air adversaries.


ASRAAM, which uses a sophisticated infra-red seeker, is designed to enable UK pilots to engage and defend themselves against other aircraft.

It is capable of engaging hostile air targets ranging in size from large multi-engined aircraft to small drones. ASRAAM is currently in service with RAF Typhoon and Tornado aircraft and is being carried daily on missions over Iraq and Syria, as part of the coalition fight against Daesh.

The new contract will see MBDA, manufacture an additional stockpile of an updated version of the weapon, allowing F-35 combat jets to use the missile beyond 2022. MBDA was formed by a merger of French Aérospatiale-Matra Missiles (of EADS, now Airbus Group), Italian Alenia Marconi Systems (of Finmeccanica) and British Matra BAe Dynamics (of BAE Systems) in December 2001 and has grown into a multi-national group with 10,000 employees working together, across France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom. As the leading European developer and manufacturer of missiles, it is therefore the only European group capable of designing and producing missiles and missile systems to meet the whole range of current and future needs of all UK three armed forces. The current shareholding is divided as follows, Airbus Group (37.5%), BAE Systems (37.5%) and Leonardo Finmeccanica (25%).

Work to integrate the new ASRAAM missile onto the UK’s F-35 fleet will be carried out under a separate contract. The F-35 has been designed from the outset to carry out a wide range of mission types, being able to carry weapons on external pylons, as well as in the internal weapon bays. This allows a maximum weapon payload of six Paveway IV, two AIM-120C AMRAAM, two AIM-132 ASRAAM and a missionised 25mm gun pod. There is also a 360-degree laser pointer for guiding incoming ballistics. You can learn more about lasers and their use on guns on this Gun Laser Guide. The updated missile variant being secured under this new contract is expected to enter service on RAF Typhoon aircraft from 2018 and on RAF and Royal Navy F-35 aircraft from 2022, when the current variant will be taken out of service.

The signing of the current contract is part of an overarching agreement with MBDA, which is sustaining around 200 jobs at the company’s sites in Bristol, Stevenage and Bolton, with a further 200 sustained across the supply chain. Work on ASRAAM will be carried out at MBDA’s new, £40 million (around €46.2 million), state of the art manufacturing facility, which is nearing completion in the Logistic North commercial development, in Bolton. MBDA’s investment in this new facility is a demonstration of the company’s commitment to maintaining highly skilled engineering jobs in the region, as well as to providing the very best equipment required by the UK’s armed forces.

Modernisation of the Royal Air Force continues

The Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II will, when it enters service, place the RAF at the forefront of fighter technology and its new missiles will give it a true multi-role aircraft that will surpass the majority of other weapons systems in production today, or envisaged in the foreseeable future. Lightning II and Typhoon aircraft will make up the Fast Jet elements of Future Force 2020. The Lightning II will also form the backbone of Britain’s future carrier operations. As the first supersonic short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) fighter jet, the F-35B will provide vital 5th Generation carrier-strike capabilities to the Royal Navy’s two new carriers – the HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales.


The F-35 Lightning

The Royal Air Force and Royal Navy plan to operate 138 F-35B short take-off/vertical landing aircraft. Initial training is taking place at MCAS Beaufort, South Carolina, where British pilots and maintainers are embedded with the U.S. Marine Corps and their fleet of F-35Bs. In February 2015, the RAF’s 17 Squadron, which is responsible for the operational test and evaluation of the UK’s first F-35s, was formally stood up at Edwards AFB, California, where ZM135, ZM136 and ZM138 are assigned to that Squadron. A forth aircraft assigned to MCAS Beaufort, ZM137 became the first to touch down on UK soil, when it landed at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire for the first time on 29th June. The aircraft was flown by RAF pilot, Squadron Leader Hugh Nichols, and was accompanied by two United States Marine Corps F-35Bs (168726/VM18 and 168727/VM19) and supported on the flight from Beaufort, South Carolina, by refuelling tankers.

A combined US/UK team of aircrew and engineers accompanied the aircraft to UK, where the 5th generation state of the art aircraft, flew at the Royal International Air Tattoo and Farnborough International Air Show. The aircraft are due to enter service with the Royal Navy and RAF from 2018. According to Air Commodore Harv Smyth, Lightning Force Commander, the Lightning Force is developing very quickly and the UK is well prepared for the arrival of its first operational squadron (617 Sqn ‘The Dambusters’), at RAF Marham in 2018.

MoD announce order of third Zephyr-S Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV)

On 17th August, the MoD announced an order for a third Zephyr-S Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), as part of a £13 million (around €15 million) contract with Airbus Defence and Space (ADS). Zephyr-S is the latest version of a highly sophisticated series of ultra-lightweight UAVs, capable of flying up to 70,000ft (21,336 m) – twice the altitude of a commercial airliner – for up to 45 days at a time. Referred to as a High Altitude Pseudo Satellite (HAPS), it performs more like a satellite designed to take historical satellite photos than a conventional UAV. The third Zephyr-S will join the two previously ordered by the MoD in February.

Built in Farnborough by ADS, all three will form part of an Operational Concept Demonstrator (OCD), to assess Zephyr’s capabilities and explore its potential for use by the UK Armed Forces and other Government Departments. The additional Zephyr-S will allow two airframes to be tested simultaneously and demonstrate operational handover, to show that the capability could be sustained indefinitely.

The OCD trials, which will be held in 2017, will inform Defence’s decisions around how best to provide next-generation battlefield intelligence, to the UK Armed Forces.

Assessing the potential of laser weapons – Dragonfire project

In another ground breaking and cutting edge technology contract, the MoD announced on 18th September, that is was finalising the agreement of a £30 million (around €34.65 million) contract. with MBDA UK Ltd., which will see it produce a Laser Directed Energy Weapon Capability Demonstrator.

The project will assess innovative laser directed energy weapon technologies and approaches, culminating in a demonstration of the system in 2018/19.

The contract will assess how the system can acquire and track targets at range, in varying weather conditions, over land and water, and, crucially, with sufficient precision to enable safe and effective engagement. MBDA UK Ltd intends to work with a number of partners, from across the UK with international reputations, including QinetiQ and Selex ES Ltd, BAE Systems, Marshall Aerospace & Defence, GKN PLC and Arke Ltd.

‘Dragonfire’ will be tested to see how it can identify and track targets at different ranges and in a variety of weather conditions. As the UK’s first laser weapon, it could be mounted on ships to shoot down enemy jets and missiles, or even used by ground forces to destroy incoming mortar rounds. If it is deemed viable, it could replace conventional systems, offering a lower cost and more efficient alternative to current weapons. A laser only needs a power source to fire, whereas conventional weapons need ammunition or use missiles, which relatively expensive and take up space.

On being notified of MoD’s decision to award the contract, Dave Armstrong of MBDA said:

“Under MBDA’s lead, UK Dragonfire will put the UK at the forefront of high energy laser systems, capitalising on the experience of joint MoD/Industry working in the complex weapons environment. Furthermore, it advances the UK towards a future product with significant export potential, as well as providing opportunities for partnerships with other nations’ armed forces that have similar requirements”.

MoD orders UK-designed mini missile decoy for RAF

On 16th September, the MoD announced that it had placed a £2.5 million (around €2.9 million) order, for UK-designed and built BriteCloud miniature decoys, which will help to protect its combat jets from missiles. Packed with missile-confusing advanced electronics, BriteCloud can be fired from an aircraft’s flare dispenser, without the need for modification to the aircraft.

The cutting-edge BriteCloud system, designed and manufactured in Bedfordshire and Scotland by Leonardo-Finmeccanica, will undergo flight trials on RAF Tornado aircraft, later this year. It is similar in size and appearance to a beverage can, and can be fired from an aircraft’s flare dispenser, without the need for modification to the aircraft. Once deployed, it uses powerful radar emissions to disrupt systems within radar-guided air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles. A pilot can launch the compact unit, which is packed with advanced electronics, to confuse an attacking missile, drawing it away to a point where it no longer poses a threat.

Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said that these new decoy systems, supported by the UK’s £178 billion (around €205.5 billion) investment in equipment, show that we are continually pushing the boundaries of innovation, making the most of Great British skills and brains to keep our Armed Forces safe from our adversaries”.

Chief Executive Officer, at the MoD’s Defence Equipment and Support organisation, Tony Douglas, said that the development of BriteCloud has only recently been made possible, after many years of advances in technology. “It shows how UK Defence, in partnership with industry, is leading the charge when it comes to research and development,” he added.

Flight trials planned for later this year will test the system’s effectiveness against a wide range of current and potential threats. The MoD has been working with Leonardo-Finmeccanica to develop the BriteCloud system since 2012. The project is sustaining around 25 design jobs, at the company’s Edinburgh and Luton sites. Other companies in the supply chain include, Chemring, based in Whiteley, Hampshire, and QinetiQ, based in Farnborough, Hampshire, and Boscombe Down, Wiltshire.

To date, the MoD has invested around £25 million (around €28.87 million) in the BriteCloud system through a project commissioned by Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) and managed by Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S).

This new £2.5 million batch order, will allow the RAF to explore how BriteCloud, could best be deployed operationally. If successful, the system could be available for Tornado aircraft operations by mid-2017. Although the devices are highly advanced, they are straightforward to use. They can be easily re-programmed during operations to defeat new threats as they are encountered, giving the RAF an important advantage in engagements

RAF Airbus A400M Atlas C1 completes its soft surface landing trials

On Friday 2nd September, the Airbus A400M Atlas C1 completed its soft surface landing trials, at former RAF Woodbridge. The two week trial saw the A400M Atlas landing on a pre-prepared dirt surface, which had to be artificially softened, in order to fully test the airframe. The monumental task of producing a runway for Atlas to test this capability, was undertaken by 23 Parachute Engineer Regiment. Usually this high readiness regiment provides, close and general engineer support to 16 Air Assault Brigade.

The Atlas was acquired to bridge the gap between strategic and tactical flying, being able to carry a load of 25 tonnes (around 27.56 tons), over a range of 2,000 nautical miles (3,704 km), at speeds comparable with pure-jet military transports. It is also capable of operating either at low-level (down to 150ft (45.72 m), above ground level) or at high-level altitudes to 40,000ft (12,192 m), and is able to deploy troops and/or equipment between and within theatres of operation, either by parachute (up to 108 paratroopers), or by landing on short, unprepared or semi-prepared strips in austere locations.


The Airbus A400M

These recent trials mark an important step, which sees the Atlas moving closer, to achieving full operating capability. In RAF service, the aircraft is being initially operated in the strategic air transport role, although, Atlas is primarily, a tactical airlifter. Its tactical capabilities will be developed over the next eight years, as it assumes the roles performed by the Lockheed Martin C-130J Hercules, prior to the C-130’s planned retirement from RAF service in 2022.

In a comment, Air Officer Commanding number 2 Group, Air Vice-Marshal Gavin Parker said; “This is an incredibly important trial. A400M Atlas will be a very important aircraft for the Royal Air Force and the Army as we move forwards.”

The RAF took delivery of the first of Atlas aircraft, ZM400 (c/n 015), during an official ceremony, held at RAF Brize Norton, on 17th November 2014, and it took delivery of its ninth aircraft on 23rd July. ZM410 (c/n 0038), callsign ‘RRR4603’, was ferried from the manufacturers facility in Seville, Spain, by a crew from 206 (Reserve) Squadron, .landing at RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire, at 12:34. The other seven aircraft are ZM401, ZM402, ZM403, ZM404, ZM405, ZM406, ZM407 and ZM410. The most recent arrival prior to ZM410 was ZM407, which arrived at Brize Norton on 11th May.

Final RAF Voyager Delivered to Brize Norton

The RAF has taken delivery of the last of 14 Airbus A330-200 passenger aircraft, which provides it with Strategic Air Transport and Aeromedical capability, as well as extremely effective Air-to-Air Refuelling asset. Known as ‘Voyager’ in RAF service, there are two variants in service, the KC2 which is a two-point tanker, equipped with 1 FRL Mk32B 900E pod under each wing and the KC3, a three-point tanker with an additional centre line hose for larger ‘receiver’ aircraft. ZZ343 (c/n 1610), ex EC-331, which landed at RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire, on 13th July, after a ferry flight from Getafe, Spain using the callsign ‘AED329’, is a KC2. The aircraft are flown by 10 and 101. Squadrons based at Brize Norton.

This aircraft completes the fleet of nine core and five surge fleet aircraft, delivered through the through the Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft (FSTA) programme. This is a Private Finance Initiative (PFI) solution, in which the private sector, through civilian contractor AirTanker, provides not only replacement aircraft, but a complete and secure long-term service. While the RAF continue to retain responsibility for all military tasks involving Voyager, AirTanker own, manage and maintain the fleet and provide infrastructure, support, training facilities and some personnel.


A Voyager touches down at Brize Norton on delivery

One interesting aspect of the AirTanker contract, is the facility to lease the aircraft for civil operations. The considerable commercial demand for the aircraft makes it attractive to third-parties who would operate those aircraft from the fleet that are not immediately required for RAF use.

In a comment, Group Captain Simon Edwards, Station Commander RAF Brize Norton, said; “Voyager has been delivering operationally for well over two years now, and is already admired as a troop carrier and air-to air refuelling tanker.” On a typical deployment across the Atlantic, a single aircraft would be able to refuel four Tornados and still carry 11,000lb (5000kg) of freight/passengers. Voyager also has a flexible Aeromedical configuration, which includes the ability to carry up to forty stretchers and three critical care patients.

Following the arrival of the final aircraft, the RAF reached the significant milestone of the 10,000th flight on 25th July and the combined operations of both the military and civilian fleet have contributed to this achievement. The fleet continues to demonstrate their capabilities, in all their roles, since the first RAF aircraft took to the skies, in April 2012.

In addition to its Strategic and Aeromedical transport capability and Air-to-Air Refuelling role, the UK’s Strategic Defence and Security Review – published last November – confirmed the fleet would also be available for VIP transport, provided through a roll-on, roll-off system that can be applied to any of the aircraft in the fleet.

A specially adapted Voyager, (ZZ336), configured with 58 business-class seats, rather than the usual 291 economy seats, was revealed ahead of its first deployment – transporting the UK defence secretary Michael Fallon to a NATO summit in Warsaw, on 8th July. The modification is claimed to be “significantly cheaper” than chartering flights for government officials, or the royal family.

It will still be able to function as a tanker, and will reside at RAF Brize Norton alongside the rest of the Voyager fleet. Should ZZ336 be out of service for any reason, the VIP configuration can be fitted to any of the other A330s, in the RAF fleet.

Update on other major contracts

In a piece posted on 8th February, we noted that the MoD had placed a £1.1 billion (around €1.27 billion) contract, with Ascent Flight Training,. to design, deliver and manage the future RAF Fixed Wing training service. Under the contract, Ascent, will conduct Elementary Flying Training on the Grob 120TP – to be named the ‘Prefect’ for the UK – before going on to complete either Multi Engine Pilot Training on the Embraer ‘Phenom’ 100, or Basic Flying Training, on the Beechcraft ‘Texan’ T-6C. These aircraft will be provided Affinity under a contract worth approximately £500 million (around €577.4 million).


The first EMBRAER Phenom 100

According to Affinity, the first of the 23 Grob 120TPs, ZM300 (c/n 11099), first flew on 31st August at Grob’s home airfield in Bavaria. In the first week of September, it was joined by a second aircraft, ZM301, and the pair took to the skies for their inaugural photoshoot. The two aircraft have now finished production, complete with their UKMFTS livery, and are on their testing phase prior to aircraft acceptance and delivery at the end of October this year. Serials ZM300 to ZM322 have been reserved for these aircraft.


Grob 120TP’s in formation

Affinity have also confirmed the construction of the first two Embraer ‘Phenom’ 100s, ZM333 and ZM334, which are now complete and undergoing flight testing. Serials ZM3333 to ZM337 have been reserved for the five aircraft involved.

Ascent, are also to supply rotary wing training to the UK Armed Forces. As part of a contract, confirmed in an announcement by Babcock International Group, to the stock exchange, on 20th May, (see here) Ascent has ordered 29 Airbus H135 and H145 training helicopters. The first H135 destined for the UK Military Flying Training System (MFTS) programme, test registration D-HECZ (c/n 2001), flew for the first time on 29th July, at the company’s plant at Donauwörth, Germany. The current schedule should see early deliveries later in the year, with the majority of aircraft following during 2017 and final examples in early 2018. Following delivery, completion and fitting out will take place at the company’s UK headquarters at Kidlington Airport, Oxfordshire.

……….and finally

15th of September marked the anniversary of the Battle of Britain. That day in 1940 was the height of the battle, and the Prime Minister Winston Churchill made it quite clear that, in his view, the UK could not have won the war without the courage, dedication, sacrifice and hard won success of the RAF during the Battle of Britain. See here

Now 76 years on, and to mark the occasion as they do every year, RAF Halton, one of the largest Royal Air Force stations in the United Kingdom, located near the village of Halton near Wendover, Buckinghamshire., held a Battle Of Britain Service of Remembrance at St George’s Church. The Station Commander, Wing Commander Niki Stacey, was joined by personnel from across the Whole Force to mark the anniversary with readings, song and reflection.

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