In less than one year's time, MBDA UK will deliver the first of a new-generation weapon it claims will give the programme's six European partner nations a vital advantage during air-to-air combat.
The UK Ministry of Defence signed a development and production phase contract for the Meteor beyond visual-range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM) in December 2002, acting as lead customer on a project also involving France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Sweden.
Between them, the countries will field the ramjet-powered weapon with their Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon and Saab Gripen fighters as a European replacement for the US-manufactured Raytheon AIM-120 AMRAAM. The new design is scheduled to enter frontline use with the nations from 2015, while several potential export buyers are already showing significant interest.
Firm details about Meteor's recent development and test campaigns are hard to come by, as the MoD has restricted its prime contractor from talking about the project, citing customer confidentiality.
© Kristofer Sjöström/FMV Vidsel Test Range
The UK's Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S) organisation provided the last update about the programme in July. "Over the past year a wide range of ground and air trials have been carried out, making significant contributions towards verifying that the missile is meeting all of its design parameters," it said.
An undisclosed number of test firings have been made since early 2009 using Saab Gripen (above) and Panavia Tornado F2 (below) trials aircraft over the Vidsel test range in Sweden and the Aberporth test area off the West Wales coast. Responding to a parliamentary question in March 2011, minister for defence equipment and support Peter Luff referred to six such firings, but declined to comment further, as doing so "would be likely to prejudice the capability, effectiveness or security of the UK and partner nations' armed forces."
In a statement issued to Flightglobal on 29 November, DE&S said "The Meteor trials programme is continuing; nothing more can be added to the answer given to parliament in March for the reasons given then."
BAE Systems earlier this year announced the completion of a programme of Meteor carriage and release trials involving Typhoon instrumented production aircraft IPA 1. The work proved "the safe separation of the missile across the flight envelope", it said.
© BAE Systems
Given its importance to Eurofighter users - Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK - getting the Meteor onboard the type has proved frustratingly difficult to achieve. Securing an airframe to support extended test work has proved impractical because of the industry's limited fleet of development and instrumented test aircraft.
"The programme of early integration work on Typhoon, which began in July 2009, is progressing on schedule, and has been expanded to mitigate delays in getting the main integration activity on contract," the UK National Audit Office (NAO) said in its Major Projects Review 2011 publication. The Eurofighter consortium late last year revised its schedule for full integration of the weapon. "These latter delays represent a threat to the achievement of in-service date 2," the NAO continued, referring to an already revised target of July 2015. "Further mitigation actions are under review."
Sweden's Defence Materiel Administration also expects Meteor to become operational with the nation's Gripens in 2015, while France plans to take first deliveries in 2018. The first separation trials involving a Rafale will be performed in 2012 under an initial 200-missile deal announced in December 2010. Spain has also ordered its first units, and while Germany and Italy have yet to do so, industry sources say their planned acquisitions are not in doubt.
Under the UK's original plans, Meteor was to have achieved initial operational capability status in September 2011, although this was later adjusted to August 2012. But in 2008, it opted to delay this by roughly three more years, citing "changes to the perceived threat, and the desire to achieve a more cost-effective integration on the Typhoon".
While the emergence of Russia's Sukhoi PAK-FA/T-50 and China's Chengdu J-20 demonstrators have highlighted the possible future shape of airborne adversaries for Western air forces, combat experience over Libya this year saw another campaign pass without a coalition aircraft firing an air-to-air missile in anger. The deterrent posed by types such as the UK Royal Air Force's Eurofighters via AMRAAM and MBDA ASRAAM short-range weapons was enough to keep forces loyal to Col Muammar Gaddafi on the ground. The future availability of Meteor, combined with the Captor-E active electronically scanned array radar from 2015, will provide "an even better package", says Wg Cdr Dicky Patounas, officer commanding its Typhoon-equipped 3 Sqn.
This advance will be needed, says the MBDA, as the "increasing proliferation of state-of-the-art air-to-air threats is a critical challenge for modern air forces".
Meanwhile, the NAO says a fresh three-month programme slippage occurred in 2011, following "a unilateral decision by one sub-contractor to change a component design for ease of production. This has delayed the start of the full qualification programme".MBDA declines to identify the supplier in question, and says "the programme remains on schedule to deliver the first production missiles during 2012".
Bringing the new-generation weapon into service will be a key factor in encouraging additional customers to sign production orders. But a near-term boost could come in India, where Meteor is included in weapons packages linked to both types contesting the air force's medium multi-role combat aircraft requirement. New Delhi is potentially only weeks away from selecting either the Eurofighter consortium or Dassault (Rafale with Meteor pictured below) for the at least 126-unit deal.
"India has shown significant interest in Meteor, not only on Typhoon and Rafale, but on other platforms as well," DE&S said earlier this year. "There is also widespread international export interest in procuring the missile," it added. Saudi Arabia, which has received its first 24 Typhoons under a 72-aircraft deal, is also keen, with BAE having revealed last February that Riyadh could seek "Tranche 3 capability" for its remaining aircraft.
MBDA is continuing its campaign to have Meteor included in the future arsenal of Lockheed Martin's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, with up to four adapted weapons to be carried internally by the stealthy type. Italy and the UK are partner nations on the F-35 programme.
"Meteor is currently attracting considerable interest from a large number of potential export customers who recognise the game changing nature of the weapon to their air forces," MBDA said earlier this year. With the US Air Force still deciding on its replacement strategy for AMRAAM, the European system could hit the market at an ideal moment.