MoD in wait and see over Meteor launch

The Royal Air Force’s Advanced Short Range Air-to-Air Missile (ASRAAM) is experiencing a superficial period of calm after the storm that broke over the programme in April. But behind the scenes, it is politics and protocol, not technical progress, that seem to be the main concerns.

Two months ago, ASRAAM came under unprecedented attack from the Ministry of Defence, when the then procurement minister, Baroness Symons, harangued the missile’s producer, European joint-venture company MBDA, for failing to develop the weapon to a standard the MoD considered acceptable.

ASRAAM began development in 1992 and was supposed to have entered RAF service in 1998. When the revised in-service deadline, set for April this year, expired, the MoD took the unusual step of publicly criticising the programme.

‘ASRAAM uses cutting-edge technology which inevitably carries risk, and delivering the high standard of capability we need is a tough challenge [for MBDA],’ Symons declared. ‘We are determined to draw the lessons from this programme when we sign the contract for Meteor,’ she added. Meteor, the new beyond visual range air-to-air missile for Eurofighter will also be built by MBDA.

On 22 May, ASRAAM achieved a direct hit in a key test-shot that had, until then, been the main focus of the RAF’s concern about the weapon – its inability to hit a rapidly manoeuvring aircraft releasing flare countermeasures in dense cloud.

For some months, MBDA and the MoD have been in dispute over a difference in the two sides’ interpretations of the missile’s performance when the contract was signed. The successful test-shot last month, which introduced new software for the missile and took place amid talks on revised delivery schedules, should go a long way to laying the matter to rest.

Curiously, though, almost a month after the test, the MoD still had not acknowledged its success – and, as a result, because of the way the protocol works, MBDA has been constrained as to what it can say publicly.

Given that this week marks the Paris Air Show, the world’s top showcase for aerospace products, that may prove to be a dampener on MBDA’s marketing efforts, the more so as the company hopes to sign a six-nation contract for Meteor at the show. Because of the earlier implied linkage between the two programmes, a go-ahead for Meteor would go some way towards burying the ghost of ASRAAM’s apparent underperformance.

However, the results of the test-shot will be of primary interest to potential customers at the show. Insiders blame the official silence on the search for a form of words that will help smooth ruffled feathers on both sides.

Nick Cook is industry editor of Interavia Business and Technology and aerospace consultant to Jane’s Defence Weekly