The MBDA Meteor ramjet, active radar homing air-to-air missile (AAM) program is still alive and kicking, but has had to focus its efforts on meeting the deadlines imposed by the original December 2002 contract in order to avoid cancellation penalties. Under the terms of this contract, failure to achieve the technology demonstration milestones would allow the six partner nations (France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Sweden and the UK) to terminate the contract and recover all monies paid for the developmental phase.
Judgment Day for this program came on June 20 when the second “do-or-die” test firing of the Meteor missile took place on the FMV Vidsel test range in northern Sweden. The Meteor performed as advertised when the booster rocket motor took the missile off the rail to a safe distance from the Saab JAS-39 Gripen test bed aircraft before igniting the sustainer ramjet motor that is the signature of this missile’s design.
This test was critical because the previous test firing that had been attempted on May 9 resulted in a failure of the ramjet motor to light and had placed the program in jeopardy. “If the June 20 test had failed,” said MBDA Meteor business performance executive Richard Jones to Aviation International News, “we could have been in some trouble and could have fallen outside of the contract’s stated technology milestone deadlines.”
According to the original contract, MBDA had to “demonstrate the ramjet propulsion system” at month 40 of the program, which put the June 20 shot just under the wire. However, both MBDA and their test program partners at Saab stress that the problems associated with the first test were minor software glitches that were corrected in the second test shot.
The Meteor includes software that interacts with the flight control system that sends “talkback” in order to ready the missile to transition to the sustainer ramjet motor. “Unfortunately, on the first shot this did not happen in time, the sustainer did not light off and the ‘break up’ command was sent to the missile so that it would continue to travel on downrange,” explained Thomas Hellström, the Meteor project manager at Saab Aerosystems.
Jones and Hellström told AIN that when the recovery team retrieved the pieces of the missile and performed a test on the reassembled elements after the first shot, the talkback function worked properly, so a second–and successful test–was made on June 20. In addition to meeting the contract deadlines–more of which are on the near-term horizon–the Meteor program has to juggle between achieving these milestones on time and the integration programs for the three major platforms that are slated to be employing this weapon: Gripen, Eurofighter Typhoon and the Dassault Rafale.
Other sources within Saab had previously told AIN that the reason the Gripen has been leading the pack in the effort to integrate and test the Meteor is because the Swedish fighter is the path of least resistance for now. Utilizing the JAS-39 as the primary test vehicle for now is cheaper due to the smaller airframe and lower flight hour cost, they say, and because Saab has designed the aircraft’s 1760 mil standard databus to be easy to modify and integrate new systems.
An additional issue is that both Rafale and Eurofighter are not at the same stage of introduction into service as the JAS-39. Trying to make the Meteor functional on these platforms at this time would throw in additional technical tasking on programs that already have their hands full. Among other technical issues, the Eurofighter’s Captor radar requires both hardware and software modifications in order to achieve full Meteor integration. Eurofighter sources state that they will eventually receive a contract from the program’s multinational managing authority, NETMA, to proceed with these steps, but that this could be as much as 18 months away.
Long term, however, both Saab Aerosystems are looking at a bright future for the program, as they see enormous export prospects for the program. “The U.S. has no ramjet active-homing AAM at this stage of development,” said Hellström “and no one is likely to be able to produce an analog in the near term.” So, beyond the six nations that originally signed up for the Meteor, MBDA has been engaged in discussions as to how to integrate the missile onto the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which could take the European consortium into some head-to-head export fights with U.S. firms.