One Step at a Time

MBDA combines technology with technique to build state of the art missiles

A FORCE Report

Bourges, France: Bourges, nearly 300km north of Paris, is a sleepy town. Not metaphorically, but actually. On Sunday, the day the media team landed in this quaint medieval town with a 13th century palace and a 16th century cathedral, nothing stirred, not even children who usually try to make the most of a holiday by scampering around on the streets. Reeling under unprecedented cold wave in May, the people of Bourges had decided to stay indoors. Just as well. The sleepiness of Bourges contrasted very well with the visit to the MBDA factory in the middle of the town where bustle of the people and whirring of heavy machines reflected the pace at which missiles are produced every year.

Referred to as the middle of France, Bourges houses three factories, MBDA Bourges, MBDA Aeroport and MBDA Subdray, and another factory a little distance away in Selles Saint-Denis (the latter two in the middle of dense forests owing to the hazardous nature of work) which between them take care of engineering, tooling, manufacturing, testing, assembling and customer service. In one of the factories, the MBDA is also building a demilitarisation facility, where missiles that have completed their lifespan would be destroyed. “MBDA is conscious of its responsibility towards the environment,” says MBDA country head for India, Loic Piedevache. Once operational, this facility will become part of MBDA’s customer service. Hence, Bourges, in a short capsule showcases the entire cradle to grave process of missiles.

The missile-making process at Bourges starts with the raw materials, Aluminium and stainless steel which come in the round or square forms depending upon the need. They are machined, forged and welded according to the design. Certain raw materials are put through a flow forming machine where without chipping at the substance, the metal is moulded to the desired shape, like pottery. This state of the art machine, which is MBDA’s pride yields funnels, elongated tubes and other shapes in perfect symmetry that go in the structure of the missile. Another unit deals with Titanium and yet another works on composites. According to the escort who was explaining various processes with infectious enthusiasm, “We use the combination of Aluminium, Titanium, stainless steel and composites depending upon the role of the missiles.”

The high-security factories do not get too many visitors as each visit implies loss of man-hours of work. According to the company rules, all work stops whenever there are visitors, except in certain sections of machining and tooling, for the risk of accidents. Yet, certain visits cannot be avoided, for instance, those by the customers or potential customers. In November 2009, the Indian Air Force team visited the Bourges factory as part of evaluation for the Mirage upgrade programme. MBDA is offering its MICA missiles for Mirage 2000 in both Infra Red (IR) and Radio Frequency (RF) configurations. According to Jean Marc Bouchilloux, head of airborne segment and weapon systems of the Technical & Military Operations Directorate, MBDA, “Six MICA missiles, four under the fuselage in RF/IR configuration and two IR MICAs can be fitted in a Mirage 2000 fighter.” A totally stealthy missile, IR MICA is capable of multi-targeting and can lock on before or after launch.

Close to the structures of MICA was the assembly of Etam launchers which are being built on order from Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd for Advanced Light Helicopter Dhruv. Made entirely of composites these lightweight launchers can carry the Mistral missile. Interestingly, the IAF is yet to place the order for the missile, even as the launchers are being made. But as one senior MBDA official conducting the tour says, “The weapons are delivered directly to the user and not to the industry,” the orders perhaps would be placed in due course.

Assembling missiles is a very unusual process. Unlike the assembly halls for big platforms like fighter planes, each part of the missile is assembled in a small blast-proof room by a single worker. Once his portion is done, he puts the missile on a belt which carries it into the next blast-proof room for the following step. Since the nature of the work is such no one is allowed in the chamber where assembly takes place. Perhaps, it is because of such caution that MBDA can claim to never have had any accidents in its factories. The journalists were taken around the final assembly lines of Eryx anti-tank missile as well as the Exocet MM 40 Block 2. While less than 10 Eryx missiles are built in a day, MBDA has the capacity to build 70 MICA’s in a month, even though at present 20 are churned out. Once the missiles are ready they are put through tests, in which 800 parameters are tested in 40 minutes, after which they are packed in containers and shipped to customers.