04 May 22. Recent confirmation from Armed Forces Minister, James Heappey, that the UK intends to supply Brimstone precision guided weapons to assist Ukrainian armed forces in the defence of their nation against Russian aggression has been broadly welcomed and in what follows, I take nothing away from that.
But given concerns expressed by a former VCDS, General Sir Gordon Messenger four years ago that UK stockpiles of certain missiles “are too low for comfort” whether four years on, the MOD has yet made progress in bringing UK stockpiles of precision air to ground weapons to a level that allows us to supply Ukraine without impacting on the specific needs for UK defence?
Numbers of Dual Seeker Mode Brimstone missiles to be sent to Ukraine have not so far been disclosed and whether these weapons will be utilised in an air to surface, surface to surface or as Secretary of State for Defence had earlier hinted, in the form of the Sea Spear naval variant is also as yet unknown. But Mr. Wallace is I believe on record as saying that the House of Commons will be provided with more details of what missiles are to be sent to Ukraine in due course. I would like to think that he would at that time reassure the House of current UK weapons stockpiles.
The subject of weapon stockpiles is not one that surfaces that often and for the most part, for reasons of national security, number of weapons stockpiled in the UK is not disclosed. But given the very high usage of precision guided weapons in Op Shader since 2014, it would be remiss that I ignore concerns over UK current stockpiles of precision weapons such as Brimstone and Paveway1V.
Since Op Shader began back in September 2014 and up until the last figures published in 2017 show that the Royal Air Force had conducted well over one thousand airstrikes over Iraq and Syria using more than 4,300 weapons – these being launched from Typhoon, Reaper and before the superb capability was prematurely withdrawn in 2019, Tornado GR4 aircraft.
But has the UK been replenishing precision weapon stocks at a sufficient rate? The answer is probably not.
In 2012 the MOD awarded Raytheon UK a £60 million contract for the supply of an unspecified number of Paveway 1V precision bombs.
One year later, in 2013, the MOD awarded a five-year contract to MBDA for the supply of an unspecified number of Brimstone precision guided weapons. In 2018 the MOD awarded a £400m contract to MBDA to support Brimstone 2 installation on Typhoon and through life capability sustainment and upgrade in order to extend the service life beyond 2030 and in 2021 MBDA was awarded a contract covering Brimstone 3B advanced software upgrade.
I accept that additional MOD contract awards for replenishing precision weapon stocks may well have been made in the subsequent period.
Paveway 1V and the Dual Seeker Mode Brimstone weapons are superb UK sovereign base manufacturing capability success stories and both Raytheon UK and MBDA are to be praised for what they have achieved.
In writing this commentary today I am expressing genuine concern and I very much hope that such concerns that I have in relation to current UK stockpiles of precision weapons such as Paveway 1V and Brimstone is unfounded. The trouble is that since I last looked at the subject back in 2017, I have seen very little that might allay such fears.
The other oft ignored issue is that precision weapons such as these and others have life expiry times – these often being based on the number of times each weapon is transported and ultimately loaded onto an aircraft (and assuming in this scenario that the weapons carried are not launched on the specific mission) and subsequently unloaded off the aircraft when it returns to base.
In the case of Brimstone (Paveway carriage history is covered by MOD 706C and D), each missile has a specific log book (MOD Form 714) which details current expiry date and life extension date, transportation, storage and operational log, standby life log, detailed specific aircraft carriage and mission log details including time flown and cumulative totals, over temperature and humidity exposure, modification, maintenance, firing record and disposal.
Back in 2019 the then Vice Chief of Defence Staff General Sir Gordon Messenger said in an interview with Defense News that “he believes the missiles and bombs currently in stockpile might have a longer shelf life than current standards dictate, and that the Ministry of Defence is working on new ways to use that information”.
Messenger went on to say that “one of the things that we’re seeking to improve is our ability to understand what the life of a missile looks and feels like in terms of capturing the data of the environmental conditions and the usage of those missiles because that allows you to make risk-based judgments on how long they can safely operate and that I think getting more data from, you know, in some cases almost missile by missile, to understand what the sort of ‘life journey’ of that missile is. It is that sort of data that gives you the ability to make proper judgments as to the continued safe usage of that missile system”.
Since then, I have heard nothing specific in relation to the notion put forward by General Messenger and who very sadly, having been passed over for the top job back in 2018, is no longer a member of the UK military.
That means that one is left to assume that the UK MOD bases the life of its weapons on standards developed by government along with, as already explained, built in safety assumptions about how many times a weapon can be loaded on and off an aircraft such as Typhoon, how long it can remain in a stockpile of weapons and at what point the internal components of the weapon may or may not start to break down.
Regular followers of UK defence matters may recall that when the MOD published its ‘Modernising Defence Programmes’ paper in December 2018 this highlighted the need for the UK to strengthen weapons stockpiles and a promise to do just that.
Of course, it isn’t quite as simple as it sounds to strengthen weapon stockpiles as the process of manufacturing of precision weapons takes time.
But as Gordon Messenger highlighted at the time, “There are some missile stockpiles that are in relatively good health. There are some that are too low for comfort and that we are looking to either eek out the life of those missile systems or procure more”.
Given that huge numbers of Brimstone precision missiles along with those of Paveway1V and Storm Shadow missiles have been used in Op Shader since 2014 and taking full account of necessary time expiry of weapons within the current UK precision weapons stockpile, the manufacturing time and highly invested capacity required in order to build sophisticated weapons such as these, the hope will be that in sending Brimstone to Ukraine the UK is not leaving its own weapons stockpile at dangerously low levels.
CHW (London – 4th May 2022)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785