Weapons of Choice

MBDA once again showcases its range of technology to Indian journalists

A FORCE Report

Schrobenhausen/Lostock: In the last week of October 2013, MBDA once again invited select journalists to visit its facilities. As the tradition has been for the last four years in which MBDA organised three such visits, this time also it took the journalists to places not visited before. The idea is threefold: one, it reinforces the essence of MBDA being a truly integrated European conglomerate, which has managed to smoothen national differences to pool in combined strengths; two, it showcases the range of technology at MBDA’s command; and three, it helps to put the focus on the current programmes.

MBDA

On this visit, the focus was the German facilities. Nearly an hour’s drive from Munchen in German Bavaria was Schrobenhausen, the nuclei of MBDA’s Deustche facilities, surrounded by dense forests. Being the newest member of the MBDA family, the Germans are not as well integrated in the parent company as the French, Italian and the British are, yet, the process is in full swing.

The Schrobenhausen facility combines the entire process of the missile business of MBDA Germany, right from development to production and testing. Leading its portfolio of air defence, air dominance, army and the naval missiles, are weapons like Taurus KEPD 350, Meteor BVRAAM, Pars 3LR and Marte among others. However, from the Indian market perspective, the focus at Schrobenhausen was on Pars 3LR and Taurus KEPD.

But first a little note on Schrobenhausen which is unlike any weapon manufacturing facility that FORCE has seen. The location itself, and the drive to the location, put it at par with a secluded holiday destination, where one might think of retiring to, to get away from the maddening crowd. So removed it is from the population centres, that it has had to be self-sustaining for all its needs, be it energy, water or water disposal. To keep the spirits of the workers high, it has its own gymnasium within its premises as well as a well-supplied cafeteria. Yet another reminder that efficiency improves with better facilities.

About 20 km away is Freinhausen, which houses MBDA Germany’s testing facilities for air defence systems. While currently, it is testing Patriot air defence system, it is developing facilities to test MEADS (Medium Extended Air Defense System) as well. With the US’ interest in the programme waning (the US hadn’t till then announced stopping funding the programme completely), the burden for further development has to be borne by Germany and Italy. So, the possibility of India joining in made for good evening conversation. But the focus of MBDA was not on that.

The focus was Pars 3LR and Taurus KEPD. MBDA is offering Pars 3LR (while three refers to its generation, LR stands for long range, as the range has been extended to seven kilometres for the Indian Army) missile to the Indian Army for the weaponised version of advanced light helicopter Dhruv. While the missiles for the German Army’s Tiger helicopter comes in a four launcher configuration, for ALH, MBDA has modified it into a twin-launcher configuration keeping the weight of the helicopter in mind.

So far, MBDA has carried out three test-firings of Pars 3LR for the Indian customer. The tests were carried out in Sweden where MBDA has a test-firing facility. The sweetener with the missile comes in the form of an Indian company which has been roped in to make the launcher, thereby incorporating some amount of indigenisation.
A fully passive missile, Pars 3LR is labelled as a fire and forget missile, which can be fired at stand-off distances also. Being highly resistant to decoys and with an infrared seeker that locks on to the target before firing, Pars 3LR allows the helicopter to move away immediately after firing, thereby reducing the risk of counter attack. As it comes with an in-built cooling system, it can fire a salvo of four missiles within 10 seconds. The missile is capable of engaging a variety of targets, such as tanks equipped with reactive armour, helicopters, bunkers and so on.

Despite facing competition from Rafael’s Spike ER missile, MBDA is confident about being in a good place as far as this programme is concerned. It is not just the years of working in India which is the source of this confidence, it also stems from the fact that its Mistral ATAM already arms ALH. So, some experience there.

The next missile on the drawing board was Taurus KEPD 350. In early 2011, Indian Air Force’s (IAF) directorate of offensive operations issued a Request for Information (RFI) for stand-off long range missiles. MBDA responded with Taurus KEPD 350. Even though not platform-specific, it could have equipped Eurofighter Typhoon, had the IAF selected the aircraft. However, the missile can also be integrated on Su-30MKIs. While the missile can go up to 500km, for exports the range has been limited to 300km. Even though the angular shape (as opposed to cylindrical) of the missile is probably its most unusual aspect, from India’s perspective, the interesting detail is that it claims to be GPS-independent. It draws its accuracy from a range of sensors, including an IR seeker. It is also capable of absorbing mid-course corrections.

A joint MBDA Germany (67 per cent) and Saab AB (33 per cent) product whose development started in 1998, Taurus today is deployed on the German Luftwaffe’s Tornado IDS and the EF-18 Hornet aircraft. It has been selected as the stand-off weapon for NATO Reaction Forces. Recently, Airbus Defence and Space (erstwhile Cassidian) started flight tests with Taurus on Eurofighter Instrumented Production Aircraft 7 (IPA7). According to MBDA, Taurus meets all the requirements of the Indian RFI.

After two days in Germany, which included two half days of sight-seeing in Munchen, the team was flown to Lostock in Manchester. However, instead of hosting the journalists at the industrial town of Manchester, MBDA very generously thought of a heritage property in the sleepy hamlet Mellor in the Lanchashire county. While it was no preparation for a visit to a missile factory, it sure was a balm for sore hearts and aching feet.

The MBDA Lostock facility’s core competency is inert missile systems and sub-system manufacturing. It also does inert missile integration as well as sub-system assembly and tests. But apart from walking through laboratory-like halls, which were a far-cry from what one would expect a missile factory to look like, the focus here was on four systems: ASRAAM, Meteor, Dual Mode Brimstone, Spear and Marte.

In service with the Royal Air Force for the last 10 years, ASRAAM has been MBDA’s offering for IAF’s Jaguar upgrade programme. The most peculiar aspect of the missile is that it has no wings or fins. It is the first missile to use body lift technology. The fins at the tail are for directional change only. Its pointy nose adds to its speed and reduces drag. Sometime last year the IAF down-selected ASRAAM as the lowest 1 and now MBDA awaits the final inking of the contract.

The other missiles which were showcased during the visit were more in the realm of probabilities. MBDA has been giving presentations to the Indian military over the last few years on its range of weapon systems and technologies with the option of technology transfer as well as joint-development and production. While this was not discussed during the visit, but despite less than encouraging progress on MBDA-Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) joint programme Maitri (SR-SAM), MBDA is planning to again offer another joint-development programme to India for the 5th Gen anti-tank guided missile (ATGM).

However, among the existing weaponry, MBDA is very optimistic about the six-nation missile Meteor air to air missile. Such is MBDA’s pride in this weapon system that nearly everyone in the company talks about it as a measure of its technological capability. As one senior executive associated with the Meteor programme said, “Meteor has the same size and weight as AMRAAM (the current in service beyond visual range missile), but thrice the ‘no escape zone’. It has proven its performance through clutter and electronic counter measure (ECM) environment.” Nearly eight years into development, Meteor is now in production, with Sweden being the first country to operationalise it on Gripen, followed by French who will fit it with Rafale. MBDA is hopeful that Meteor will be the weapon of choice for the IAF’s Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA).

Brimstone air to ground missile is another one in the company’s portfolio that has been the cause of much optimism. Originally a Cold War anti-tank weapon, the present Brimstone with two seekers (milliMetricWave and semi active laser) functioning in a three-mode configuration, was developed on the specific request of the UK MoD for a precision weapon to be used in Afghanistan. The brief was simple: they needed a weapon which could take on a target as small as a sniper or a water tank on the rooftop, without damaging anything else in the vicinity. Having proved its efficacy in Afghanistan, Brimstone is now seeking customers outside the Royal Air Force (RAF). According to MBDA, the IAF has shown a lot of interest in the Brimstone.

Apart from the MBDA UK-specific weapons, the Italian team was invited to Lostock to give an update on Marte ER, which MBDA is fielding for Indian Navy’s various requirements. Currently, Marte ER is competing for four naval programmes, RFIs for which have already been received. These are: maritime reconnaissance helicopter, for which field evaluation trials are completed; naval multirole helicopter, medium range anti-ship missile; and land based mobile coastal battery.

Once again, optimism is high on all these programmes and MBDA believes that indeed India is one of its home markets now.