On Strong Wicket

MBDA prepares for opportunities beyond MMRCA

A FORCE Report

Fusaro/Lostock/Stevenage: As Eurofighter Typhoon and Dassault Aviation slug it out in the last lap of the Indian Air Force’s competition for Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA), one company which already appears to have won the competition is the European missile behemoth, MBDA, which arms both platforms.

 MBDA prepares for opportunities beyond MMRCA

But as the saying goes, there’s many a slip between the cup and the lip, MBDA is not celebrating, just yet. Instead, before the opening of the commercial bids on the MMRCA, it flew select Indian journalists to its facilities in Italy and the UK. The idea was twofold: to familiarise the Indian media with its range of capabilities and to announce that MBDA was indeed a global company with manufacturing capacities across countries and business interests across continents. Hence, not only it brings to the table state-of-the-art technologies but also the promise of long-term partnership. Lest this be construed as an MMRCA pitch, MBDA carefully skirted the multi-billion deal to focus on its current interests across the three defence services on various platforms.

Calling MBDA a truly global company, MBDA’s chief executive officer, Antoine Bouvier introduced the company as the, “Airbus equivalent of the missile industry in Europe.” Talking to the journalists through a teleconference, Bouvier said that India has a long term objective of developing its defence industry. “We want to be part of that development,” he said, adding that, “MBDA is by far the most integrated European company. Sure, integration has been a difficult process but it has set a strong foundation for future cooperation with newer markets and companies.”

With this as the background, MBDA has been pitching not only sales in India but joint development and co-production, despite the fact that its ambitious plans of co-developing short range surface to air missile (SR SAM) with Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is yet to fructify even after four years of discussion. Clearly, doing business in India calls for a lot of patience. Bouvier smiled at this. “We have been holding intense discussion with the DRDO on joint development and production of SR SAM. This will be a completely new missile and will not be an equivalent of any in our existing inventory,” he said. “DRDO had some concerns about co-development. But we have now improved our offer.”

Apart from DRDO, with which it is discussing other ideas as well, MBDA has also started interaction with a few private sector Indian companies to explore the possibility of co-production not only for India but for its other customers in the region. With static European markets and the US being virtually shut to outsiders, exploring new markets and consolidating the existing ones is very important for MBDA. Given Indian appetite for defence equipment, its uncertain neighbourhood and reasonably vibrant economy, its importance cannot be overemphasised. What adds to MBDA optimism about India is the fact that as a multi-national company, it brings the weight of at least four home countries, France, UK, Germany and Italy, to its proposals. To assert this point, Bouvier referred to the September 2011 agreement between the DRDO and UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL). According to the agreement, both organisations will ‘facilitate making best use of respective research and technology development capability through joint projects, collaborative research and industry and academia participation.’ “This agreement reinforces our belief that we have to go beyond selling equipment to India and encourages us to invest more in India,” said Bouvier.

However, currently on the table are several proposals to sell. Top of the list are the confirmed projects like the MICA IR/RF missiles as part of the Mirage upgrade package. In addition to that, several MBDA missiles are in the fray in various IAF, army and navy competitions. Starting with the IAF, in the last one year, MBDA has given a series of presentation at various levels at the air headquarters. Upgrade of the Mirage 2000 fighter apart, the IAF is looking for new weapon systems for fighters like Jaguar and Su-30MKI, as well as for the helicopters.

Earlier this year, IAF’s directorate of offensive operations issued a RFI for stand-off long range missiles. MBDA has responded with a proposal on Taurus 350 KEPD MR, which it claims can be integrated on Su-30MKIs. Modular, all-weather, high precision, stand-off Taurus air to ground missile with the range of 300km belongs to MBDA Germany’s family which was incorporated a few years back with the acquisition of German company LFK GMBH by MBDA. Jointly developed and owned by MBDA Germany (67 per cent) and Saab Dynamics AB (33 per cent), Taurus can be successfully utilised against hard and deeply buried bunkers, bridges, runways, stationary ships and so on. To convince the IAF about the capabilities of the missile, MBDA invited IAF to witness the test-firing of Taurus by the German Air Force in South Africa (where it has its ranges). Apart from the IAF, MBDA is also in talks with the DRDO trying to seek a tri-service capability for this Nato-certified missile. One of the features that MBDA draws attention to is the GPS-independent navigation system of the missile with proven accuracy.

However, the missile that has caught the IAF’s attention is Brimstone, with dual mode seeker. While the recent operations in Libya and Afghanistan gave an enviable opportunity to MBDA to showcase its range, it was Brimstone used by the Royal Air Force that turned out to be the winner, so much so that recently, MBDA received RFIs from the French and US governments for the dual mode missile. Following this, a senior RAF officer who used the missile in Libya briefed IAF Chief, Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne on his experience with Brimstone, which is touted as hugely accurate with pin-point attack capabilities thereby avoiding collateral damage.

Brimstone employs two guidance systems: Milli Metric Wave and Semi Active Laser. The dual guidance system accords enormous flexibility to the missile. Hence, apart from engaging both fast and slow moving targets, it can also have multiple engagements in the battlefield with missiles or tanks. Apart from the MMRCA (the missile is going to be integrated with RAF’s Eurofighter) Brimstone can also be integrated on IAF’s Jaguar and Su-30MKI fighters. MBDA is currently working on developing the naval capabilities of the missile and hope to demonstrate them against Fast In Shore Attack Craft (FIAC) by the end of 2011.

The third missile which could be on IAF’s wish-list, if MBDA has its way is the Meteor. While MBDA has made several presentations to the IAF on the missile, according to a senior MBDA official working on the Meteor programme, UK has also shared classified information on the missile with the Indian government through diplomatic channels. Not only that, impressed with the prospects of Meteor, the US government is keen to engage MBDA on this programme.

Though a medium range missile, MBDA claims that Meteor’s range is three times greater than all the existing medium range air to air missiles (MRAAM) in service. A joint development between UK, Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Sweden, Meteor uses Ramjet propulsion system developed by MBDA Germany and seeker developed by MBDA Italy. The missile is propelled throughout its flight path. As it approaches its target, the seeker gets activated and the operator remains in the loop. According to MBDA, Meteor can perform in the din of the battle despite electronic-counter measures (ECM) and clutter. In addition to the MMRCA, Meteor, which is based on the Advanced Short Range Air to Air Missile (ASRAAM) body, can be integrated on Su-30MKIs as well. Incidentally, MBDA’s ASRAAM is competing with Israeli Python 5 for IAF’s Jaguars and is currently at the field evaluation trial (FET) level.

The IAF missiles apart, MBDA is currently pitching PARS 3LR anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) for Indian Army’s rotor-wing platforms. While on Mi-28s it is competing with Lockheed Martin’s Hellfire missile (which is also fitted on Boeing’s Apache helicopter in the running for the IAF); on ALH Dhruv the competition is with Israeli Spike ER missile. MBDA is at the FET stage on the Dhruv programme which is likely to be completed by next year. PARS 3LR ATGM is a highly accurate, all-weather missile with the range of seven kilometre and salvo-firing capability of up to four missiles in less than 10 seconds. A lock-on before launch missile PARS 3LR ATGM can mount both direct and top attack. MBDA is also offering PARS 3LR ATGM for the newly-developed Light Combat Helicopter (LCH).

Even though the Indian Army has not seen the missile firing yet, despite being invited to witness Eurocopter’s Tiger helicopter firing the missile in Sweden, MBDA has forwarded the test results to the army. Adding to MBDA’s confidence on the ALH programme is the fact that it is already been shortlisted to supply Mistral and its ATAM launcher for the helicopter. Hopeful of sealing this contract, MBDA is already talking partnership with a Bangalore-based Indian company to develop twin launchers for the missile which can be fitted on the helicopter. While the preliminary design review of the launcher took place in June 2011, the critical design review is scheduled to take place in December 2011.

This apart, MBDA’s loitering munition Fire Shadow which has been developed essentially for the Royal Artillery is still in the reckoning despite stiff competition from Israeli Harop. With Harop apparently having failed the trials in the UK, MBDA believes that the Indians will view Fire Shadow more favourably than its Israeli competitor. With the range of 100km, Fire Shadow has the speed of 150 to 300kmh, can operate without ISTAR (intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance) and gives complete operational flexibility to the operator who remains in the loop throughout its flight path. After being fired, the munition has the endurance to loiter for six hours during which it can be retargetted. However, in case the target remains unavailable beyond six hours, Fire Shadow cannot be recovered. But as an official working on the programme says, “Since it is affordable, it is expendable.”

MBDA is also participating in a number of RFPs and RFIs issued by the Indian Navy. Its biggest offering is the Marte family of missiles, including Marte Mk 2/s and Extended Range (ER) which can be configured for various naval applications including coastal defence. MBDA is also part of the Sea King Mk 42B upgrade programme. Since AgustaWestland is likely to be the prime for the upgrade, MBDA is hopeful of its missile being selected. “For AgustaWestland Marte ER is the weapon of choice,” said one official. According to MBDA officials, the biggest strength of the Marte missiles is that belonging to a family they offer a great amount of flexibility and growth potential to the user. They can be fitted on helicopters (for instance, Indian Navy’s Maritime Reconnaissance Helicopter), fixed wing aircraft (MRMR) as well as surface ships.

However, despite several ongoing programmes and upcoming opportunities, Bouvier was careful about emphasising on co-development and production instead of mere selling. In support of his point, he summoned the example of Indian Army’s Milan ATGM missile which is being produced under transfer of technology (ToT) by the Bharat Dynamics Limited (BDL) for the last 40 years. Holding it as an example of cooperation he said, “Gradually, the Indian content in the missile has reached 80 per cent. This shows India’s capacity to absorb technology and our willingness to transfer technology.” Bouvier chose to ignore the fact that it took 40 years to reach this level.

Despite the optimism, the technological gap between the two potential partners is simply too vast to be bridged. For instance, according to Bouvier, MBDA invest three per cent of its turnover in research and technology and 30 per cent in research and development. While part of this is funded by the customer, the bulk comes from MBDA, which is now also developing technology demonstrators. “In the past, we used to wait for our customers to express their requirements. From this, we evolved an interactive process where products were developed through our regular interaction with the customers,” said Bouvier. “But now we anticipate our customer’s requirements. We have a team which visualises the battlefield of tomorrow. Two years ago, we launched a concept study 2020 to give greater freedom to our engineers.”

Even if Bouvier had not said this, the thrust on innovation and big ideas was evident. At all the MBDA facilities visited by the media team, the focus was on innovation and technology development, whether it were the seekers and ceramic radomes for supersonic missiles in Italy or simulation and testing in the UK. Clearly, for a globally competitive company looking at enhancing its share in the 12 billion missile market (barring Russia and China) from the current 20-25 per cent, the way forward is only through superior technology and performance.

 MBDA prepares for opportunities beyond MMRCA


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