SPEAR Mini-Cruise Missile Getting An Electronic Warfare Variant To Swarm With Is A Huge Deal
The advent of a swarm of networked SPEAR strike and electronic warfare missiles is very bad news for enemy air defenses and the targets they protect.
It's becoming increasingly clear that the age of highly networked air-launched munitions that can swarm together and work as a team is rapidly approaching. This is not just about big cruise missiles. Even the most diminutive of smart weapons could be adapted to become part of an undulating, rapid-reacting, network of disparate munitions that work cooperatively to accomplish a set of goals and directives. MBDA's Select Precision Effects At Range Capability Three (SPEAR-3) mini-cruise missile, a weapon that itself was adapted from the Brimstone short-range air-to-ground missile, is now getting an electronic warfare variant that will work alongside its traditional brethren to shatter enemy air defenses and to protect launching aircraft, and even other missiles, from their deadly reach.
MBDA's SPEAR-3 is a standoff precision-guided munition that uses some of the same components found in the company's successful Brimstone short-range air-to-ground missile. Adding a pair of pop-out wings and a small turbojet engine, SPEAR-3 is able to fly an estimated 85 miles to prosecute smaller targets, including those on the move, in any weather, day or night. It does this via leveraging a tri-mode seeker capable of radar, infrared, and laser homing. The missile is capable of autonomously picking out targets once it flies to the target area, or the target can be data-linked to the missile via the launch platform's sensors or from third party sensor information the aircraft receives from its own data links. The missile can also strike a target via laser guidance, whether that be from a party of the ground nearby or an aircraft overhead the target area.
The American GBU-53/B Small Diameter Bomb II, better known as Stormbreaker, uses a very similar tri-mode terminal guidance package and also includes GPS, inertial navigation, and a data-link system for midcourse guidance, just like SPEAR-3. So, overall the two weapons are similar in many respects, but SPEAR-3 has nearly double the range and can reach its targets faster than the unpowered Stormbreaker glide bomb.
Weight and dimensions wise, they are similar, as well. It isn't clear if Stormbreaker's 105lb warhead is substantially larger than SPEAR-3's. One would assume this would be the case as SPEAR-3 has to accommodate an engine and fuel, while Stormbreaker does not. If the warhead from Brimstone is carried over, it is substantially smaller than the one found on Stormbreaker, but it's still very capable of blasting through heavy armor and taking down small fortified structures, as well as softer targets.
Just with its standard capability set, SPEAR-3 is one potent missile that will benefit 4th generation and 5th generation fighters alike. The F-35 is slated to be able to carry four in each of its bays while still retaining room for a Meteor air-to-air missile in each bay, as well. 4th generation tactical fighters like the Eurofighter Typhoon will be able to carry three to a rack externally.
The recent announcement from MBDA that they will be developing an electronic warfare variant of their mini cruise-missile of sorts alongside their partner's Leonardo is not only highly logical, it also has the potential to drastically increase the tactics set, survivability, and capabilities of the baseline SPEAR-3 itself. Named SPEAR-EW, this adaptation will work as a jammer and decoy missile to distract, blind, and spoof enemy air defense systems in a similar manner as America's Miniature Air-Launched Decoy-J/X (MALD-J/X), but with more of a tactical focus due to its far shorter range, and with a more distinct goal of working with its kinetic (high-explosive-armed) cousins directly.
SPEAR-EW could be used to help protect friendly fighters moving through a threat corridor by executing electronic attacks on threaten emitters or to assist fighters acting in the Wild Weasel role to get close enough to destroy air defenses directly with shorter-ranged munitions. But where they could really shine, is when they are used in concert with conventional SPEAR-3 missiles in the cooperative destruction of enemy air defenses (DEAD) role.
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 data-link 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.
Maybe most importantly, because SPEAR-EW is powered by a small Pratt & Whitney TJ-130 turbojet engine, it can throttle back and loiter over an area for an extended period of time while using its electronic bag of tricks to disrupt nearby air defenses. In fact, it could even be launched preemptively into an area where road-mobile SAM systems are feared to be lurking, hopping into action the moment one of them rears its ugly head—or in this case its radio frequency emissions, to be exact.
It's also quite possible that SPEAR-EW could be used kinetically even in just a hit-to-kill manner. Punching a hole in a threatening radar dish equals a mission kill. No explosive warhead is needed if it can home in directly on the radar emissions source or if it has GPS coordinates of that source data-linked to it by a third-party aircraft, such as the fighter that launched it. In other words, once its jamming job is done, it may be able to make a kill run at the emitter it was targeting. That is if a standard SPEAR-3 isn't retargeted in real-time via the data-link network to kill the emitter first. In fact, SPEAR-EW could possibly be programmed to request the retargeting of the SPEAR-3 autonomously depending on the nature of the threat and the commands it has to work off of from the launching aircraft. It's also possible that SPEAR-EW may retain SPEAR-3's warhead. If that is the case, it could be used as a suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) weapon, prosecuting kinetic strikes on threat emitters as requested in lieu or in addition to jamming them.
For highly defended targets, where advanced short-range air defenses (SHORADs) are present, such as the Russian-made Pantsir S1 point defense system, SPEAR-EW could be an absolutely critical component of any standoff attack. Advanced SHORADs have the capability to not only take down aircraft, but also the weapons they fire and even the bombs they drop. This is in addition to larger cruise missiles and drones. Spear-EW could provide essential electronic warfare support to an approaching wave of SPEAR-3s or even larger cruise missiles, such as Stormshadows, jamming those SHORAD systems so that they don't shred the attacking munitions during their terminal phases of flight. At the very least, they could make it possible for SPEAR-3s to destroy the SHORADs before the heavier munitions or aircraft arrive over the target area.
The idea that you could do all this while not expending higher-end, heavier, standoff decoy-jammers, and do so en masse from tactical fighters—even stealthy ones with tight weapons bays—is a big plus. There is also a naval component to discuss. SPEAR-3s could be incredibly effective anti-ship missiles, especially for taking on swarms of smaller vessels operating in the littorals.
Even against larger ships, a dozen SPEAR-3s blasting holes in a vessel's sensors and superstructure would likely result in a mission kill, or at least leave that vessel vulnerable to attack from heavier weaponry, such as anti-ship cruise missiles. Having escort jammers in the form of SPEAR-EWs flying with SPEAR-3s in a cooperative swarm would be a very nasty and hard to defend against threat for an enemy flotilla to content with.
Leonardo has been a real mover in expendable, active, electronic-warfare enabled countermeasures space. The company's Britecloud expendable active decoy is cutting-edge in its abilities and concept of deployment and operation. Some of that same technology will likely be ported over to SPEAR-EW.
MBDA's press release is blatantly clear that they see the mix of EW and traditional strike SPEAR-3s working together will have intensely synergistic impacts on the battlefield, with the two capabilities combined being far greater than the sum of their parts. They also make indirect note that SPEAR-3, with its longer-range, faster flight time, and loitering ability, is superior to its glide-bomb competitors:
Defence Minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan said: “These state-of-the-art electronic jammers will confuse our adversaries and keep our pilots safer than ever in the air. Paired with the devastating power of precision Brimstone and Meteor missiles, our world-class F-35 and Typhoon jets will continue to rule the skies in the years to come.”
Mike Mew, MBDA UK Director of Sales and Business Development, said: “SPEAR-EW is a revolutionary new capability that, alongside the existing SPEAR3 weapon, marks a fundamental change in the ability of friendly air forces to conduct their missions despite the presence of enemy air defences. Our vision for SPEAR is to create a swarm of networked weapons able to saturate and neutralise the most sophisticated air defences. Adding SPEAR-EW to the family alongside our existing SPEAR strike missile demonstrates the principle of introducing complementary variants to the SPEAR family that will add significant capability and force multiplication without the need to repeat the platform integration. We have an exciting roadmap of variants, spirals and technology insertions in the pipeline to further enhance the family as we move forward.”
The core of SPEAR-EW’s payload is Leonardo’s advanced, miniaturised Digital Radio Frequency Memory (DRFM) technology, which offers the most advanced and future-proof electronic jamming and deception available on the market today.
The new SPEAR-EW will complement the SPEAR network enabled miniature cruise missile, which is designed to precisely engage long range, mobile, fleeting and re-locatable targets in all weathers, day or night, in the presence of countermeasures, obscurants and camouflage, while ensuring a safe stand-off range between the aircraft and enemy air defences. Powered by a turbojet engine the SPEAR missile offers over double the range, and a far more flexible operating envelope, when compared to a conventional glide weapon. SPEAR-EW utilises this long endurance through its capacity to be launched at enhanced stand-off ranges and loiter while carrying out its jamming mission.
Networking between swarms of munitions, not just the manned aircraft or drones that launch them, is emerging as a focus of future air combat. The USAF has very high hopes for their ambitious Golden Horde initiative and other branches, such as the U.S. Army, are also pushing hard to eventual provide enhanced networking across smart munitions and various platforms in the battlespace.
SPEAR and SPEAR-EW represent a truly exciting combined capability that can change the way tactical aircraft prosecute their missions over the battlefield. Although some will underline how they give fourth generation fighters a much-needed boost in survivability, the payoffs are also potentially very big for the F-35, which will receive SPEAR-3 capability as part of its upcoming Block IV upgrade.
Although it is hard to spot by some radars, the F-35 has retained key countermeasure systems found on 4th generation fighters, such as fiber-optic towed decoys and soon it will also have the ability to launch chaff countermeasures. Being able to fire off a standoff jamming missile, whether to help its launch platform survive or to help other munitions get to their targets, is a huge edge that could really make the Joint Strike Fighter much more lethal and wile. Even firing one off as the F-35 exfiltrates from enemy territory, where its less stealthy rear would be exposed to enemy radars, could be a tactic that means the difference between life and death. The SPEAR-EW could loiter and draw threat radars and even enemy missiles away from the F-35 as it accelerates to safety.
The combo could also be remarkably devastating if adapted for American heavy bombers. One can imagine B-2 or B-21 carrying hundreds of these weapons at a time, raining them down on entire enemy formations and air defense nodes from a relatively safe distance. And like the F-35, having a few SPEAR-EWs onboard to use defensively when needed to solve a tactical problem or plug an intermittent vulnerability gap could be incredibly useful for American bomber crews.
There are other critical applications as well. Equipping increasingly vulnerable attack helicopters with SPEAR-EW—a missile that could be carried on their stub-wing pylons—would be highly advantageous as it can help protect the helicopters from the same roving SHORAD systems mentioned earlier.
Regardless, MBDA is really onto something here. If they can execute the networking development successfully and offer these missiles at a price that is somewhat relevant, the SPEAR family could be the ideal tactical swarming standoff weapon concept that blazes a trail into the realm of swarming munitions.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com