The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) confirmed development of a sovereign air-to-surface weapon for its forthcoming F-35 fleet, by awarding a contract worth $596 million to MBDA for the Spear missile. The move follows a protracted assessment phase since the design was revealed in 2012. Development will take another four years, and the weapon will not enter service until the mid-2020s, according to the MoD.
Spear is an acronym for Selected Precision Effects At Range. The new missile has a range of more than 60 miles thanks to pop-out wings and an innovative turbojet powerplant. It has a multi-mode seeker and a multi-effects warhead. It can be used as a "fire-and-forget" weapon, or in a semi-active mode via laser designation, or in a fully networked mode thanks to a two-way datalink. It is designed to attack a broad range of targets.
MBDA’s UK managing director Dave Armstrong said that Spear “will provide the kind of precision against moving targets previously seen with Brimstone, but at stand-off ranges that give the F-35 aircrew numerous advantages in terms of operational flexibility and survivability.” The company has previously briefed a typical employment scenario for Spear involving a multi-missile attack from different directions on a mobile air defense system. The F-35 will be able to carry four missiles internally in each of its two weapons bays.
The contract “confirms Spear as the only weapon to meet the UK’s operational requirement,” according to Armstrong. The MoD had the option to procure from Raytheon the GBU-53/B small-diameter bomb (SDB) II that will equip U.S. F-35s. But although winged, this is unpowered, and therefore offers less range. MBDA noted that the Spear development contract would employ “350 highly skilled missile engineering jobs…with an equivalent number in the wider supply chain.”
The MoD revealed that a Spear test round had been successfully fired in March from a Eurofighter Typhoon. MBDA has shown two designs for short and long pylons for external carriage of three and four missiles, respectively. But the MoD has not committed to integrating and operationally deploying SPEAR on the Royal Air Force Typhoon fleet.