THALES AIR DEFENCE BELFAST – A GEM IN THE UK INDUSTRIAL BASE
By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.
03 Jul 14. Headquartered in Belfast and with two separate operations at Castlereagh and Crossgar, Thales Air Defence is not only the UK’s prime contractor for production of very short range air defence systems but centre of excellence for UK ground based air defence systems, missile design, development and manufacturing.
Having recently visited the Belfast facility and seen at first hand the range of sophisticated technology and engineering excellence required to produce precision weapons of this category I have been hugely impressed not only at the level of investment and retained skills within the facility but also the potential for future exports. The strength of management, the approach and the determination to succeed on the back of a very well-defined strategy were all very evident to me and well received.
Employing over 500 highly skilled personnel at the two separate locations Thales Air Defence is primarily engaged in the design, manufacture, assembly and test of precision based integrated weapon systems, missiles plus a range of other sophisticated engineered components. Formally a joint venture with Shorts Missile Systems it was fully acquired by Thales in 2001.
The Belfast based operation of Thales Air Defence is today best known as the manufacturer of the highly successful Starstreak High Velocity Missile (HVM) system currently in use with the British Army plus an increasing number of international military forces. The weapon has now been further developed into the Starstreak 11 system offering a further advance in capability and reach. Previously the Belfast operation had produced the highly successful Starburst surface-to-air missile, itself a development of the earlier Javelin missile, and a weapon that can be fired from shoulder or launcher. Starburst remains in service today with the British, Canadian and Malaysian Armies today.
Operating at the absolute cutting edge of engineering and sophisticated precision based military air defence technology Thales has invested considerable sums in the Belfast facility in order to maintain the ability to develop and extend missile design capabilities, to enhance manufacturing skills and to meet the potential needs of the MOD and international customers. Management and strategy are as indicated above extremely impressive and those that know me well will recognise that I do not use such terms lightly.
Suffice to say that while it is always a pleasure to see successful UK based engineering and manufacturing operations and particularly those that place long term investment strategy ahead of short term gain I regard the Thales activities in Belfast as being very well place to enjoy further growth particularly through exports.
While the Starstreak missile as a weapon and with its devastating ground-to-air and air-to-air capability continues to push the boundaries of missile design (I understand that the latest Starstreak 11 incarnation improves range beyond 7 km, increases coverage and altitude and provides better guidance precision against small targets) and seems likely to remain at the forefront of air defence capability and demand for many years to come the company is very well aware that changes in the nature of threats to land forces require that it continues to invest in new product.
History shows in fact that it has been doing this ever since the company was originally set up as a joint venture between Short Brothers then owner, Bombardier and Thomson-CSF (now Thales) back in 1993 and, as mentioned previously, that had in 2001 become a wholly owned subsidiary of what is today, Thales. As a complete missile system Starstreak also has a diversity of support equipment around it including Lightweight Multiple Launchers and the Multi-Mission System (MMS), the latter being a unique, lightweight, vehicle based aut