Sea Eagle was an anti-ship missile fielded initially by Royal Air Force (RAF) Blackburn Buccaneer S.2Bs and Royal Navy Sea Harrier FRS.1s. It was later carried by the Panavia Tornado GR.1B when the Buccaneer was withdrawn from service and was exported to India who carried it on their own Sea Harrier FRS.51s, Sea King helicopters and Il-38 ‘May’ maritime patrol planes.
Sea Eagle was developed from the earlier Martel missile which was developed jointly by a consortium of UK and French companies in both TV-guided and Anti-Radar Missile (ARM) versions. The TV-guided version was utilized by the RAF for the anti-ship role but it was soon realized a more dedicated weapon was needed. Using Martel as a basis, the “P3T” was to be turbojet powered as opposed to a solid fuel rocket as in the Martel to increase range. Guidance was to come from an onboard inertial navigation system with information provided by the launch aircraft and an active radar seeker for the terminal phase.
The “P3T” became Sea Eagle and after a series of successful test firings in 1984 the weapon entered service with the RAF and Royal Navy the following year. A ship launched version was developed for use by surface warships using two strap on boosters for the launch to get the weapon up to a speed where it’s turbojet engine could kick in. Although it never entered service the system became the basis for the helicopter version which needed the boosters to achieve it’s launch speed. A land attack version was also proposed but was not followed through.
The Sea Eagle was intended to operate against the Soviet Navy’s surface force operating in the North Atlantic and the Greenland-Iceland-UK (GRIUK) gap. It’s 510lb warhead was sufficient to mortally damage some of the smaller Soviet ships such as the widely exported Grisha-class and force some of the larger vessels out of the fight. It also had sufficient range to keep the launch aircraft out range of all but the longest ranged Soviet naval defences.
Both Tornado and Buccaneer could carry four missiles comfortably but two with external fuel tanks for extended range was the normal loadout. The Sea Harrier on the other hand could only carry two maximum along with two AIM-9L Sidewinders for defence against enemy aircraft. This seriously reduced the aircraft’s operational range from the aircraft carrier limiting its use as an offensive weapon but it was still a potent aircraft/weapon combination in any major surface engagement between an RN task group and an opposing surface force.
Sea Eagle remained in the British arsenal until the late 1990s when it was withdrawn following the decision to take the maritime strike role away from the Tornado (hence no Tornado GR.1Bs became GR.4Bs during the mid-life update). Initially it was believed the weapon had become obsolete but it was later admitted that the weapon was withdrawn purely as a cost-cutting measure because in the eyes of the MoD there was no longer a substantial naval surface threat to the UK. The weapon remains in service with the Indian Air Force and Navy who use it on a variety of platforms including, ironically some would say, their force of mighty Tu-142 “Bear” maritime patrol bombers.
- Wingspan : 1.2 metres (3 feet 11 inches)
- Length : 4.14 metres (13 feet 7 inches)
- Body Diameter : 0.4 metres (1 foot 4 inches)
- Weight : 580 kilograms (1,279 pounds)
- Warhead : 230 kilograms (510 pounds) of PBX (semi armour-piercing)
- Speed : Mach 0.85 (645 mph)
- Range : 110 kilometres (68 miles / 60 nautical miles) plus
- Flight time : 400 seconds (6 min 40 seconds)