MBDA Deutschland to integrate Meteor BVRAAM into Lockheed’s F-35 stealth jets

European missile manufacturer MBDA plans adjustments to its Meteor beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM) to make it capable of deployment on Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). The MBDA Meteor compete with Raytheon’s medium range semi-active homing AIM-20 AMRAAM missile, though Meteor possesses longer range and several additional advances in technology. This move expands the Meteor’s original designated market, which was the Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, and Saab’s JAS-39 Gripen fighter systems.

European missile manufacturer MBDA plans adjustments to its long-range Meteor active radar guided air-to-air missile, to make it capable of deployment on Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). The MBDA Meteor will compete for orders with Raytheon’s medium range AIM-120C AMRAAM active radar missile, though the Meteor possesses longer range and several additional technological advances.

This move expands the Meteor’s original designated market, which was the Dassault Rafale, EADS Eurofighter Typhoon, and Saab’s JAS-39 Gripen fighter systems. MBDA’s move is interesting for a number of reasons, ranging from the convergence of different fighter system design philosophies to what it implicitly says about their projections re: future fighter exports.

Conventional rocket powered missiles rely upon an initial boost phase to achieve high speed, followed by a ‘coast’ phase to intercept. Latest generation, highly maneuverable aircraft have the ability to outrun or outmaneuver conventional missiles at the extremes of their range, where their energy state is weakest. In contrast, the Meteor’s Bayern-Chemie solid propellant, throttleable, ducted-ramjet motor gives it sustained Mach 4 speed in order to chase and destroy targets even at the outer edges of the missile’s 100+ km/ 60+ mile range.

As one can see from the pictures that accompany this article, however, these same characteristics create challenges around fitting the missile into the stealth-enhancing internal weapon bays of the F-35 JSF and F/A-22 Raptor.

The divergence goes to a fundamental disagreement about future threats and tactics. American doctrine to address the proliferation of weapons systems like Russia’s Sukhoi SU-27 family with AA-12 “AMRAAMski” missiles was predicated on having planes (F/A-22, F-35 JSF to some extent) with stealth features that would reduce the range of detection and engagement, while using vectored thrust technologies and other enhancements that would combine with stealth to give its planes the edge in close-in fights.

In contrast, the Europeans chose a combination of less stealthy and maneuverable 4th generation aircraft with long-range missiles carried externally, in order to defeat foes at the outer edge of the engagement range. Hence the Meteor BVRAAM and its design characteristics, including 100 km est. maximum range which is roughly double that of the AIM-120C AMRAAM. There are also reports that the Meteor missile will include “hand-off” capability to other aircraft, which could further improve fighter survivability in head-on closing engagements by avoiding situations in which the enemy can get close enough for a return shot with today’s increasingly accurate 5th generation short-range missiles.

One may speculate that MBDA’s change in plans owes much to a candid assessment of the export futures of the Rafale, Gripen, and Eurofighter aircraft in the face of present and future competition. As noted in our coverage of Singapore’s decision to drop the Eurofighter from its fighter purchase competition, the Eurofighter has yet to win any export orders outside Europe, and the Rafale has yet to win a single export competition anywhere. The Gripen’s exports, meanwhile, are limited thus far to small orders by former East Bloc countries.

MBDA appears to have decided that if its designated fighter platforms were already losing competitions to the F-15 Strike Eagle and to an F-35 that was still 10 years away, diversification would be a wise option.

Furthermore, many European countries will be operating the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and they will tend to standardize on attached weapons systems for reasons of costs and efficiency. As Jane’s Defense Weekly put it:

“With the F-35 set to become as widespread in use as the F-16 multirole fighter, getting the Meteor, Storm Shadow cruise missile, Brimstone anti-armour missile and Advanced Short-Range Air-to-Air Missile (ASRAAM) integrated on the new aircraft is key to MBDA’s future prospects.”

Countries involved in the Meteor program include France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, and the UK. Industrial partners for MBDA’s Meteor program include Thales (collaborating on the seeker warhead), SAAB Bofors Dynamics of Sweden (proximity fuses), EADS (via Finmeccania’s Alenia and DASA LFK of Germany), and the Spanish INMIZE joint venture (MBDA 40%/ Indra 40%/ IZAR 10%/ EADS-CASA 10%). The program is supported by Boeing, which is providing marketing support in the USA and expertise on program management.

As of July 2014, the Meteor has will be qualified on the JAS-39C/D Gripen with the upcoming MS20 operating software upgrade, expected by the beginning of 2015. The Eurofighter is slated for 2017, and the Rafael with its 1-way only datalink by 2018. There’s no date set for F-35 integration, and the earliest opportunity in F-35 Block 4 software isn’t expected to field until 2021-2025.

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