The U.K. Ministry of Defense has confirmed that its F-35B stealth fighters will be armed with Meteor air-to-air missiles and SPEAR 3 precision-guided standoff munitions by the “end of the decade.” The new weapons promise to bring a major leap in capability for the F-35B, especially when combined with the enhancements that the Block 4 upgrade will provide, especially for the aircraft’s radar, which will make the Meteor even more formidable.
In response to a written question in the U.K. parliament, James Cartlidge, a Minister of State in the Ministry of Defense, confirmed the timeline to integrate the two weapons.
“The U.K. Lightning Force currently operates the Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM), the Advanced Short-Range Air-to-Air Missile (ASRAAM), and the Paveway IV precision-guided bomb. By the end of the decade, both Meteor and SPEAR 3 will also be integrated to U.K. F-35s.”
Previously, the government had said that the U.K. F-35B would be armed with Meteor by the “middle of this decade,” while a date of 2027 at the earliest had also been given in a government report dated February 2022. The latest statement doesn’t necessarily contradict that since it also includes the integration of SPEAR 3, which may take longer.
The introduction of the two new missiles on the F-35 has been in the works for some time now.
In 2019, Lockheed Martin received initial funding to start integration, although preliminary work was already underway by that point.
In 2021, European missile house MBDA and BAE Systems announced they had secured additional funding from the British and Italian governments to complete the integration. The funding was thought to be worth around $400 million and covered both the short takeoff and vertical landing F-35B (as operated by the United Kingdom and Italy) and the conventional takeoff and landing F-35A (acquired by Italy, and many others, but not the United Kingdom).
Meteor, which is already in service on British Eurofighter Typhoons, and which completed operational testing and evaluation (OT&E) on Italian Eurofighters late last year, is a weapon that The War Zone has discussed in depth in the past.
The beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile, or BVRAAM, is often named as the most capable weapon in its class. While that’s debatable, there’s no doubt that Meteor offers powerful capabilities, some of which are unique.
From the outset, Meteor was intended to better the range and overall kinematic performance of the AMRAAM. This is achieved primarily through its novel propulsion system, with a solid-fuel, variable-flow, ducted rocket (or ramjet). This means the missile can throttle its engine during different phases of flight, ensuring that it still has plenty of energy during its terminal attack — when traditional air-to-air missile motors are normally losing energy.
In this way, the missile’s ‘no-escape zone’ is dramatically increased, reducing the chance of the target being able to defeat the Meteor through high-energy maneuvering at the endgame of the engagement. This endgame could be played out at up to 130 miles away from its launching platform — range claims for Meteor differ widely and the actual figure is a closely guarded secret. An air-to-air missile's range is also highly dependent on a wide number of factors, including track of the target and the height and speed of the launch platform.
The ‘smart’ powerplant in the Meteor is combined with a two-way datalink, which supplements the missile’s active X-band radar seeker, providing the Meteor with inflight updates as it flies out to the target. However, the advantage of being able to throttle the motor means that the autopilot can provide the most efficient flight profile to the target for very long-range shots.
At the same time, the datalink can feed the missile with mid-course guidance updates from ‘third party’ sources, as well as the aircraft that launched it. These might include other fighters, airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft, or even sensors on land and at sea.
With its unrivaled suite of sensors, the F-35 is equipped as good, if not better, than perhaps any other fighter to provide targeting data to the Meteor, but the ability for the missile to receive mid-course updates from other sources means the launch aircraft might not even need to use its radar at all to engage the target. For a stealth aircraft like the F-35, this is especially important, allowing for an entirely passive engagement that maximizes the aircraft's stealth attributes.
Furthermore, the two-way nature of the datalink means that the pilot that launched the Meteor will receive information on the missile’s fuel, energy, and tracking state, helping them decide on whether to fire another, disengage or even assign another target altogether.
While the AIM-120D AMRAAM that can arm the F-35 also offers a two-way datalink with third-party targeting capabilities, and many other advantages over older ‘Slammers,’ including significantly extended range, but it doesn’t have a ramjet motor and all the benefits that brings.
Clearly, Meteor can offer a fourth-generation fighter like the Typhoon a significant edge in air combat, but this will be magnified when it starts to be carried by a stealth fighter.
Essentially, the F-35’s combination of low radar cross-section, powerful integrated sensors, and advanced information systems will ensure that it can ‘see and not be seen,’ while Meteor will allow it to engage aerial targets at long range, taking out hostile aircraft long before they even know an enemy fighter is present. This will be of particular relevance in the kinds of highly contested airspace that will be expected in a potential future conflict with China, for example. That extra range is also important as advanced infrared search and track systems improve and proliferate.
At the same time, the future Block 4 version of the F-35 will be even better able to maximize the capabilities inherent in Meteor. Block 4 is a massive upgrade initiative and something that we have examined in the past. We know it will include a new multifunction active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar designated as AN/APG-85 as well as advanced electronic warfare capabilities. As for the radar, this is expected to be a Gallium Nitride (GaN)-based system, that should significantly boost radar range and resolution. Combined with Meteor, this will make the F-35 even more lethal, especially in long-range engagements of the type in which the missile excels.
It's worth noting that Meteor will be carried internally by the F-35, ensuring that it preserves its stealth characteristics. The downside is that the aircraft will only carry four Meteors internally in an air-to-air role, reduced to two when carrying offensive ordnance internally (e.g., two Meteors and eight SPEARs).
The F-35’s ability to carry only four internal AMRAAMs, at least in its current form, is something that is now being addressed under the U.S. Sidekick program, separate from Block 4, and which will allow the F-35A and F-35C to add another two of these missiles in its weapons bays. After all, whatever the capabilities of the air-to-air missile, pilots are likely going to want more of those weapons. It isn't clear if Sidekick will be able to accommodate Meteor, but it doesn't look like it will be available for the F-35B's smaller bays, regardless. External carriage could be a good option for some missions though, especially ones where the long reach of Meteor will provide enough capability to counter known threats without the need for maximum stealth.
While Meteor should help the F-35 achieve dominance in the air-to-air arena, the SPEAR 3 will bring significant advantages in air-to-ground/surface missions.
The United Kingdom already invested almost $700 million in SPEAR 3, with a contract announced in 2021, to arm its F-35Bs. The country has very high hopes for the weapon, with the Royal Air Force stating that it will “become the Lightning’s primary air-to-ground weapon … over the next decade.”
The SPEAR 3 (Selective Precision Effects At Range Capability 3) is a further development of the short-range Brimstone missile, with a turbojet engine and pop-out wings to ensure a range of more than 87 miles and a high subsonic speed.
SPEAR 3 is another weapon that we’ve examined in depth in the past. Suffice it to say, it’s intended to engage static and moving targets on land and at sea in all weather, day and night. This ability is conferred by its tri-mode seeker which offers radar, infrared, and laser homing. After reaching the target area under GPS and inertial navigation, SPEAR 3 can autonomously identify and prosecute targets, or target coordinates can be sent to the missile via datalink, exploiting the launch platform’s sensors or those of third parties. Once again, the advantages conferred by the F-35’s combination of sensors and stealth will provide a powerful adjunct to SPEAR 3.
Alternatively, SPEAR 3 can strike its target via laser guidance, which can be provided by an aircraft overhead the target area or by a suitably equipped team of soldiers on the ground nearby can designate it with a laser.
In many ways, SPEAR 3 has similarities with the U.S. GBU-53/B Small Diameter Bomb II, better known as StormBreaker, although the British weapon offers almost double the range and will reach its targets faster than the unpowered StormBreaker glide bomb.
As well as its basic form, as a ‘mini cruise missile’ with an explosive payload, SPEAR 3 is also being developed with an electronic warfare payload with jammer and decoy functions. SPEAR-EW will be expected to work alongside the baseline weapon to help smash through enemy air defenses as well as to protect launching aircraft, and even other missiles, during especially hazardous missions like this.
The War Zone previously outlined one scenario in which the SPEAR-EW could be used:
“By pairing SPEAR 3s with SPEAR-EWs in a fully networked fashion, the mini-cruise missiles can work as a swarm to shatter critical parts of the enemy’s air defense network. For instance, SPEAR-EW could spoof or jam an enemy threat emitter while SPEAR 3s search for and destroy not just the emitter, but all the components of the SAM site arranged nearby.”
“SPEAR-EW could also provide electronic warfare screening on the fly for SPEAR 3s that are trying to make their way to a set of targets between the launch aircraft and the surface threat or threats. By detecting a pop-up threat on its own or via datalink from the launch aircraft, SPEAR-EW could act in real-time to suppress the threat so that the rest of the horde of missiles can make it to their target areas safely.”
Thanks to their turbojet engines, SPEAR 3 and SPEAR-EW can also throttle back and loiter over an area for extended periods. In this way, they could be launched preemptively into an area where mobile air defense systems might be expected, engaging them once they start producing their telltale radio-frequency emissions.
As mentioned previously, the F-35B will be able to carry up to eight SPEARs, using a quadruple launcher in each of its two weapons bays, together with a pair of Meteors.
Harnessing the capabilities offered by Meteor and SPEAR 3 will require the F-35’s Block 4 upgrade, which the United Kingdom plans to retrofit across its entire Lightning fleet, as well as incorporate in examples of the aircraft acquired in the future.
While new weapons like these, and others, plus the new radar, are a fundamental part of Block 4, the upgrade will bring a lot more on top of these.
Not all Block 4 upgrades have been revealed in the public domain, but the enhancements will also address the Distributed Aperture System (DAS) and Electro-Optical Targeting System (EOTS).
It’s also worth recalling that Block 4 relies upon a new suite of hardware and software, known as Technology Refresh-3 (TR-3), which modernizes the F-35’s core processor, memory unit, panoramic cockpit display system, and related avionics. TR-3 is being described as the F-35’s new ‘computer backbone,’ since it promises to provide 25 times more computing power than the existing TR-2 computing system, although its development path has not been entirely straightforward.
The War Zone has previously looked at delays with TR-3 and how that has left new F-35s being parked and not delivered after they are constructed, waiting for these features to be added.
For the United Kingdom in particular, there remain questions, too, about the number of F-35Bs it will buy.
As of May 1, this year, the United Kingdom had received 31 F-35Bs, one of which was lost in a takeoff mishap in the Mediterranean Sea in 2021 and which will be replaced in a future order. These 31 jets are part of an initial order for 48 aircraft, known as Tranche 1. The last of these are due to be handed over by the end of 2025.
The U.K. Ministry of Defense had long harbored an aspiration to field a fleet of 138 F-35Bs, although consistent budgetary concerns have led to an apparent rethink.
To date, the U.K. Ministry of Defense has confirmed plans to place a Tranche 2 order for 27 F-35Bs, which will provide a total fleet size of 74 aircraft. As a recent Defense Committee report prepared for the House of Commons Committee states: “There remains ambiguity about plans for the F-35 fleet in terms of its eventual size, operational deployment, and attribution; and there are ongoing concerns about program costs and force growth rate.”
The U.K. Ministry of Defense has said that it remains open to the possibility of purchasing further F-35s beyond the 74 now specified, although a decision is not likely until around the middle of this decade.
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