skip to Main Content

AVALON 2023: MBDA is back – and armed

A Tornado GR4 fitted with the Brimstone Missile 

European guided weapons company MBDA is set to re-open its office in Canberra as it positions itself for an Australian market that will be shaped by the Defence Strategic Review (DSR).

While it has yet to name a new in-country CEO, MBDA Australia’s Head of Engineering, Ms Sarah Webb, is already located in Canberra. The company is about to build on the deep relationship it established with the former DSTO’s Adelaide-based Weapons Systems Division on the back of the ASRAAM air-air missile program by opening an office in Adelaide’s Lot Fourteen.

The company is also part of the Australian Missile Corporation, headed by CEO Lee Goddard, which is positioning itself to win a substantial part of the manufacturing work associated with the Sovereign Guided Weapons and Explosive Ordnance Enterprise (GWEO) which may feature in some of the DSR announcements.

And at AVALON 2023 the company confirmed it had signed a GWEO-related MoU with BAE Systems Australia (see separate story).

On display at AVALON 2023 were a range of MBDA air-launch and ground-launched weapons, many of them already in service and combat proven.

The 50kg, 1.8m rocket-powered Brimstone has seen more than 700 firings at the time of writing, according to export sales manager Chris Wells. At 180mm in diameter, it has a tandem shaped-charge warhead, a dual seeker – millimetric-wave radar and semi-active laser – and the company says it can defeat all known conventional and reactive armour

Developed for the Royal Air Force, Brimstone has been used in Afghanistan and Libya aboard the Tornado with a 98% success rate and is now integrated on the F-35B; integration on the F-35A wouldn’t be a problem. But Brimstone lends itself to a variety of launch platforms, including Uncrewed Air Systems and Ground Vehicles (UAS and UGV). It has been integrated on RAF Typhoons and Apache attack helicopters, demonstrated aboard an MQ-9 drone and demonstrated also in a six-pack configuration on the Milrem Robotics TheMIS UGV. And it can engage moving targets.

With Australia potentially about to acquire armed UAS (possibly the MQ-9B SkyGuardian) and seeking to achieve what Minister for Defence Richard Marles terms ‘impactful projection’, Australia could become a new market for the weapon.

The company’s SPEAR is another contender for ADF adoption. This turbojet-powered weapon, derived from Brimstone, weighs less than 100kg but has a range of 140km (greater than the US Small Diameter Bomb) and an AI-enabled RF seeker which grants it an anti-ship capability. An Electronic Warfare (EW) variant is also in development, but MBDA declined to comment in detail.

The company’s Meteor Beyond Visual Range (BVR) air-to-air missile has been integrated with the UK’s F-35Bs and is currently being integrated with Italy’s F-35A and is in service or on order for all six MBDA partner nations as well as with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, India, Brazil and South Korea, where it is being integrated with Korea’s KF-21 stealth fighter.

The ramjet-powered Meteor boasts a 120km range and the largest no-escape zone of any missile in its class. That zone is due in part to the weapon’s high speed and also to its ramjet propulsion which provides maximum manoeuvrability right out to the edge of its envelope. Thanks to its Lock-On After Launch (LOAL) capability it also has a 360o engagement envelope and over the shoulder capability.

A harder sell is likely to be MBDA’s CAMM-ER, its Common Anti-air Modular Missile – Extended Range, a vertically-launched naval anti-air missile that is integrated with the strike-length Mk41 Vertical Launch System (VLS). Designed to compete with the Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM) that’s already in RAN service, it is smaller and lighter than the ESSM (and reportedly cheaper), has a 45km range thanks to the booster developed by Italy, and can be quad-packed. It also has a soft launch, which reduces weight and increases flexibility.

The CAMM-ER uses active RF guidance with an RF datalink for mid-course correction. It forms the missile element of the Royal Navy’s Sea Ceptor ship-based air defence system; it may not be able to displace ESSM on the RAN’s major warships, but its lightness could see it in the frame to equip any armed patrol boats the RAN might acquire as a result of the DSR.

However, exactly the same missile – down to the canister it is delivered in – forms the core of the Ground-Based Air Defence (GBAD) system adopted by the British Army as a replacement for its Rapier missile system and it will be adopted also by the Italian Army. Vertically launched, its soft-launch capability reduces both the weapon’s signature and the risk to nearby personnel.

The MBDA ground-launched family has been augmented by the relatively recently introduced Enforcer shoulder-launched missile and by the more established Akeron.

The former was developed in response to a German Army requirement coming out of Afghanistan. It weighs less than 12kg, has a missile weight of less than 7kg and a range of 2km. It is a fire-and-forget weapon with a clip-on optical sight and can be fired from confined spaces.

The Akeron is a tripod-mounted weapon similar in appearance to the Javelin, but can also be fitted to an armoured vehicle or attack helicopter. It has a 4km range and a tandem warhead capable of defeating up to 1000mm of Rolled Homogenous Armour (RHA) and all generations of Explosive Reactive Armour (ERA). Akeron was a contender to equip the Army’s Boxer Combat Reconnaissance Vehicle (CRV) and planned Infantry Fighting Vehicles, to be acquired under Project Land 400 Ph.3, but lost out to Israeli company Rafael and the Spike-LR which is set to be manufactured in Australia by Varley Rafael Australia (VRA).

MBDA points to its willingness to share Intellectual Property (IP) and co-develop it: this was the basis of its relationship with DSTI during the 1990s when the Advanced Short-Range Air-Air Missile (ASRAAM) was selected to arm the RAAF’s classic Hornets. The result was software testing and hardware-in-the-loop facilities at Edinburgh Parks, South Australia, and deep maintenance facilities at Edinburgh Parks then at Defence Establishment Orchard Hills, NSW.

The DSTO Weapons System Division developed much of the software that enabled the weapon to be used in moist, humid, tropical climates and made the ASRAAM a feared air-air missile. Integrating it with the notoriously closed Operational Flight Program on the Hornet was considered to be well worth the effort and expense because of the capability it bestowed on the aircraft.

If MBDA can leverage this cost-capability trade-off in the future – make it worth doing the integration because the capability benefits are so obvious – it may have a unique selling point.

A topic the company didn’t address, but which has attracted a great deal of adverse comment recently, is the US government’s notoriously opaque and torturously slow ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) regime. Whether or not the tripartite AUKUS (Australia-UK-US) agreement addresses these regulations remains to be seen. But as long as they exist, there’s another strong reason for seeking a non-ITAR solution if a suitable one can be found – and MBDA is convinced it has those solutions.

Back To Top