UK-French future ship-based missile: standing the Brexit test

The UK and France are collaborating on the Future Cruise/Anti-Ship Weapon (FC/ASW) programme with the aim of replacing the British Harpoon and French Exocet with a new shipborne missile by 2030. Alex Love takes a look at the project.

Britain and France have a history of defence and security cooperation, yet their Future Cruise/Anti-Ship Weapon (FC/ASW) programme comes at a time when Brexit has seriously strained relations between the nations.

The intention behind the FC/ASW programme is to deliver a long-distance, hypersonic anti-ship missile capable of penetrating and nullifying air defences of targets both at sea and on land. FC/ASW will replace anti-ship missiles such as Britain’s Harpoon and France’s Exocet by 2030, as well as the Storm Shadow/SCALP air-launched cruise missile that is used by both nations.

While Britain and France are co-funding the FC/ASW programme, the scope is being overseen by MBDA Missile Systems, a venture between France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK.

The programme is the most recent addition to a long line of collaborations between Britain and France in missile technology development. In addition to the Storm Shadow/SCALP, other missiles developed through this partnership include the Meteor and Sea Venom/ANL.

However, the fallout from Brexit continues to be felt across both sides of the Channel and there is a possibility that the UK’s changing relationship with the EU could have wider repercussions for future international collaborations.

FC/ASW concept specifications

Measuring 5m in length and weighing 800kg, the FC/ASW concept designed by MDBA consists of a central 200kg warhead with two additional 50kg warheads that can be deployed together to increase the firepower on a larger target, or separately to hit additional targets nearby.

The FC/ASW will have a range of 300km and be powered by a ramjet engine capable of reaching speeds of Mach 5.

It is intended to have two main modes of deployment. The first is from high altitudes for hitting targets on land, with the British expressing the need for FC/ASW integration with the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter or Typhoon jet. Any integration with the F-35B would likely require involvement from US prime contractor Lockheed Martin and subcontractor BAE Systems UK.

The second mode of deployment is vertically launched onboard a naval frigate or submarine, skimming the water surface for strikes in marine environments. In sea-skimming mode, the weapon’s designers estimate that enemy warships would only have around three seconds to react after the missile performs a ‘pop up’ manoeuvre before impact.

The missile’s onboard guidance suite is planned to feature laser radar and guidance systems alongside active radar homing, with increased accuracy provided by a synthetic-aperture radar system capable of generating images of 2D and 3D objects to aid targeting.

EVADER has been designed to accurately imitate the sea-skimming trajectory and flight path of an anti-ship missile at supersonic speeds.

// The GQM-163 Coyote is a sea-skimming training missile used by the US Navy to simulate the threat from hypersonic missiles. Credit: US Navy.

Key dates in the FC/ASW programme

Due to their geographical proximity, Britain and France have a mutual interest in cooperating to combat threats, while sharing technology development also has the potential to keep costs down.

The FC/ASW programme falls under the Lancaster House Treaties that cover close collaboration in defence and security between Britain and France. The treaties were signed in November 2010, with the FC/ASW concept study first revealed in 2011.

The intention behind the agreement was to further the established bilateral cooperation on missiles, which has developed continuously over the last three decades following the SCALP/Storm Shadow programme.

It was agreed that MBDA would lead a concept phase from 2017-20 to assess the potential improvements in missile performance areas such as speed, stealth and connectivity. A preliminary study would follow, conducted by the British and French governments in collaboration with MBDA. The FC/ASW concept phase has an estimated value of €100m.

In 2019, the project progressed into its key review stage, carried out by respective national armament procurement agencies Defence Equipment and Support and the Direction Générale de l’Armement. This allowed for the selection of missile concepts with the most potential to meet the requirements set out by both nations after in-depth studies to determine a framework for developing identified technologies, followed by assessments where necessary.

Originally, the concept phase was scheduled to end in 2020 with the programme moving into its next phase covering design and development. The production phase is scheduled for 2024-30. Under the established timeline, 2023 will be the year France phases out its Exocet missiles and the Royal Navy retires the ageing Harpoons.

Until recently, there was some doubt around how Britain would fill this seven-year gap before the FC/ASW enters service. However, Jeremy Quin, UK Minister of State for Ministry of Defence, confirmed in Parliament on 7 December 2020 that a competition was taking place for procurement of an interim surface-to-surface guided weapon. Bids are expected around mid-2021, subject to funding.

The Brexit effect

In recent months, relations between Britain and France have turned increasingly sour amid Brexit trade negotiations and disputes surrounding fishing rights.

Four and a half years since the Brexit referendum result, the UK’s exact future relationship with the EU is still unclear, as is the extent of Britain’s involvement in future international projects.

While the UK dropped out of the EU’s Galileo satellite programme as a direct result of Brexit, defence and security projects are different matter. The UK is still a key player in NATO and is continuing the development of the Tempest fighter jet in collaboration with EU member states Sweden and Italy. Conversely, France is carrying out a rival advanced jet project with Germany.

According to the UK’s Defence Equipment & Support (DE&S), the FC/ASW programme is continuing as planned in spite of Brexit.

“We have worked alongside industry to monitor the potential effects of the UK’s exit from the EU and are satisfied it will not pose any risks to the programme,” says a DE&S spokesperson. “The UK and France have worked successfully on the concept phase of the Future Cruise/Anti-Ship Weapon programme for a number of years. We are now preparing for a potential assessment phase starting next year.”

In addition, the Lancaster House Treaties provide a level of protection for the FC/ASW programme. And RUSI Defence Systems editor Justin Bronk does not believe that Brexit will cause any significant disruption to the programme.

“Unless relations across the board severely deteriorate beyond even what we've seen, I suspect there'll be enough impetus diplomatically on both the UK and the French side to keep that cooperation going,” Bronk says. “I don't see an appetite on either side of the Channel to let that wither.

There's recognition on both sides of the Channel that despite the UK's exit, France and the UK remain natural military partners by means of both capability mix, and also geographic proximity.”

// Main image: CVS401 Perseus is a FC/ASW concept study developed by MBDA in consultation with the Royal Navy and French Navy. Credit: MDBA