The UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) today announced it had signed a seven-year £550m demonstration and manufacture contract for new MBDA surface-attack missiles that will equip the F-35B fighter.

The missile, the MBDA SPEAR 3, will be the primary air-to-ground weapon for the UK’s fleet of Lockheed Marin F-35B fighter jets. SPEAR 3 measures 1.8 metres long and can fly more than 140km over air, land and sea propelled by a turbojet engine.

The MOD said that the new missile would ‘enhance’ the UK’s future combat air capability and provide ‘immense lethal capability’ to the UK’s Carrier Strike Group. It added that the seven-year demonstration and manufacture contract would support 700 jobs in the UK and a further 200 jobs in the weapons supply chain.

Defence Minister Jeremy Quin said: “The development of this next-generation missile will allow us to protect our personnel and assets on the ground, from thousands of metres in the sky above.”

“Our commitment to this system will secure hundreds of highly skilled jobs across the UK and showcase British technology and weapon expertise on the world stage.”

MBDA describes the SPEAR 3 as a ‘first-of-class network-enabled miniature cruise missile’.

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Guided firings of the SPEAR3 will begin in the next 18 months with the missile being test-fired from the Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft. Missile and launcher production is expected to begin in 2023.

MBDA CEO Éric Béranger said: “MBDA is delighted to receive this contract, it is the result of many years of hard work by our dedicated and highly skilled engineering team.

“Stand-off, network-enabled and swarming weapons are a key part of MBDA’s vision – SPEAR is leading the way with these technologies and is the most technically-advanced weapon of its type.”

MBDA initially awarded a weapon development phase contract for the system in 2016.

Defence Equipment & Support (DE&S) Lightweight and Medium Attack Systems (LMAS) team leader Colonel Martin French said: “The placement of this contract marks the next major stage of the SPEAR3 weapon system’s development and is a result of months of detailed negotiations between MBDA and the LMAS project team.

“Building on the successes and technology achievements of the previous four years’ work with MBDA, we now enter the exciting and challenging demonstration phase where we start to prove the system against the UK’s requirements and ramp-up activities to integrate this highly-capable weapon system onto the F-35B aircraft.”