Weapon File: Fairey Fireflash


It has long been the belief that air-to-air missile technology was developed as a result of the increase in speed afforded to aircraft by jet technology. While this certainly spurred on the development of such weapons their genesis can be traced back to the need to destroy heavily armoured, well defended bombers quickly and out of range of the bomber’s own defensive weapons.

This requirement was dramatically highlighted in the Battle of Britain where it was found that the Royal Air Force’s fighter aircraft which were armed with .303 machine guns lacked the hitting power to bypass the German bomber’s protection such as self-sealing fuel tanks. The RAF’s answer was to install 20mm cannon armament which had a better punch and from then on nearly all RAF and Luftwaffe fighters featured some kind of cannon armament culminating in an all-cannon armament in the RAF’s fighters towards the end of the war typified by the Gloster Meteor jet fighter.

For the Luftwaffe the need to destroy well protected bombers quickly became more and more urgent as the war progressed. Fighting a combined force of RAF bombers at night and American bombers by day the Luftwaffe needed a weapon to allow high speed attacks on the formations. The Germans experimented with yet heavier armament using cannons in the 30mm to 40mm range but this became impractical. They therefore looked at ways of launching an explosive device against the bombers which would decimate them in a single pass. This resulted in the development of the first guided air-to-air missile, the Ruhrstahl X-4. This simple weapon was guided by its launch aircraft via a wire trailed behind it. The weapon was never tested in combat but the potential was obvious to all and this led to a number of experiments in to the concept by the victorious allies (it should be noted that while the X-4’s guidance method was not successful for air-to-air use it did lay the ground work for a number of successful anti-tank missiles that used wires for guidance such as MILAN and TOW).

The story of the RAF’s first air-to-air missile begins in 1947 when the British Air Ministry, anticipating a new generation of jet powered bombers capable of 600mph, issued a requirement for an air-to-air missile to arm Fighter Command’s aircraft in the 1950s. The result was the Red Hawk missile project but the weapon looked set to impose such performance limitations on the launch aircraft that, coupled with its complexity, by 1950 the RAF had deemed it impractical and lost interest.

In 1949 however the Ministry of Supply issued a requirement calling for a de-rated weapon that would not impose such a weight penalty and address some of the complex problems associated with it. Known briefly as Pink Hawk, in reference to its ancestor, the project then became known as Blue Sky and development was undertaken by Fairey Aviation. By that time Fairey Aviation’s weapons division was well established in the fairey fireflashdevelopment of guided weapons having begun research as far back as the closing stages of the war when they worked on developing guided weapons to use against Japanese Kamikaze aircraft. They had also undertaken development of multi-stage weapons culminating in the S.T.V.1 test vehicle that featured four boosters that could be separated in flight.

In mid-1950 the Ministry of Supply were presented with Fairey’s proposal for a beam-riding weapon incorporating two jettisonable rocket boosters to power it to the target. The weapon was small enough to be carried by nearly all jet nightfighters of the period such as the Gloster Meteor. This was necessary as the weapon required a radar equipped launch aircraft to guide it. The Ministry of Supply were sufficiently interested to order a development batch of weapons for firing trials and the weapon was later renamed Fireflash although the blanket term for the trials remained Blue Sky. At the same time the Ministry of Supply also gave the go ahead for De Havilland’s missile project, the infra-red guided Blue Jay, which eventually became the Firestreak.

Fireflash was a two stage missile consisting of the main weapon flanked by two rocket boosters. The weapon itself was essentially an unpowered, fireflash missile meteorguided dart and relied on the boosters to accelerate it to its optimal speed of around Mach 2. This took the boosters approximately 1.5 seconds to achieve after which they were jettisoned allowing the main weapon to continue on to the target. The two rocket boosters were solid fuelled and attached to the dart by a U-shaped separation device that consisted of a tube housing two cylinder mounted pistons. A 0.06lb cordite charge would power the pistons forward when a pressure switch detected that the boosters had extinguished their fuel thus separating the boosters from the main weapon. Stabilising fins on the boosters prevented them from tumbling upon separation which greatly reduced the risk to the aircraft.

The dart itself featured cruciform wings along its centre of gravity and was steered to the target via four steering rudders at the tail positioned at 45 degrees in relation to these wings. The warhead was located near the nose of the dart and was triggered by an early proximity fuse mounted just ahead of it. The guidance systems were located in the rear of the missile ahead of the steering servos that controlled the rudders.

Fireflash was guided to the target via a process known as “beam riding” which was a common guidance system for early air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles. The concept works by having the launch aircraft direct a narrow beam of radar energy at the target which in the case of Fireflash was achieved by synchronising the radar beam to the aircraft’s gun sight. The pilot would aim at the target using the gunsight and then launch the Fireflash keeping the target aircraft in the gunsight throughout the entire engagement. Receivers in the rear of the missile determined the strength of the radar beam in the longitudinal and lateral axis and issue corrections to the rudders in the tail of the dart. The stronger the radar signal the weapon detected then the more it was on course. The entire assembly was designed to rotate immediately after launch so as to offset any asymmetrical thrust produced by one of the boosters producing more thrust than the other which also kept the weapon roughly within the guidance beam.

Gloster Meteor Fireflash NF.11

Test launches of the weapon began in the summer of 1951 using a modified Armstrong-Whitworth (Gloster) Meteor NF.11 fitted with a distinguishable “bump” on the nose that housed the radar beam antenna. The guidance radar on the Meteor and subsequently any other aircraft to be armed with the weapon was an X band system using a helical scan dish meaning the scanner rotated at a slight angle rather than transition from side to side as in a search radar for example.

The first firings were carried out by Fairey Aviation employees I. R. Ryall, acting as pilot, and P. H. Clark, acting as observer. The target aircraft were often Fairey Firefly drones and the early missiles lacked the warhead until the guidance system had been properly tested. Once satisfied that the missile wasn’t about to fly off in to some populated area live firings began shortly afterwards. The RAF were sufficiently interested to keep funding the weapon’s development but De Havilland’s Firestreak project was closing the gap on the lead Fairey was enjoying at the time. Testing of the weapon was proving remarkably trouble free and as 1955 dawned the RAF commissioned the No 6 Joint Services Trials Unit at RAF Valley to continue developing the weapon and perhaps more importantly develop operating principles for RAF use of guided weapons.

Talks now centred on a production contract with the RAF and Fairey requested a minimum order of 1,000 rounds to take in to consideration operational usage and to make the weapon financially viable. It was at this point however that the RAF began to rethink the whole project. Fairey must have known that there were clouds gathering over the project as well for most of their test pilots were combat veterans themselves and had already recognised the weapon’s obvious limitations.

Fairey Firefly Gloster Meteor Fireflash missile

Fireflash shooting down a Fairey Firefly drone

Despite its accuracy, Fireflash was a comparatively short ranged weapon. The unpowered dart, the very “business end” of the weapon, had a maximum range in the region of 2.2 miles (3.5km) whereas De Havilland’s Firestreak was promising a range of 4 miles (6.4km). Assembling the weapon was a tricky and time consuming process that, unless it was already assembled, increased an aircraft’s turnaround time during missions.

The biggest criticism however centred on its method of guidance. On the one hand it proved quite reliable and was largely immune to physical countermeasures such as chaff since the pilot could keep the target in his gunsight and therefore re-establish contact quickly after the chaff had dropped away. However the weapon required what is known in military circles as a “cooperative target” meaning a target that offered the most ideal positioning for a shot which in this case was directly head of the launch aircraft flying straight and level. This was not so much of a problem for an attack on a lumbering bomber or transport aircraft but against a tight turning fighter it was useless. Also, the fact that the launch aircraft had to keep aiming at the target also left it very vulnerable to attack from another aircraft. De Havilland’s Firestreak, which was infra-red guided, had none of these problems.

Intensive trials of the Fireflash continued on but no full-scale production order was ever given and by the time No 6 Joint Services Trials Unit was redesignated No 1 Guided Weapons Development Squadron in 1957 flying 10 modified Supermarine Swift F7s to carry the missile the project was effectively dead. Instead the unit was now tasked with using the weapon to continue developing the operating principles for guided air-to-air 11713487_10153537915142845_1383701414_nweapons that would then be implemented on future weapons. There were efforts to save the project by its supporters who wanted it adopted for the high altitude bomber interception role but anything the Fireflash could do Firestreak (right) could do better and the last units were withdrawn in 1958.

A cynic might say that Fireflash was something of a failure however this ignores the important contribution it made to the RAF and the British weapons technology effort at large. Fireflash has the distinction of being the first British air-to-air guided missile to be fired, the first guided air-to-air weapon fielded by the RAF (albeit in a trials role) and perhaps most significantly gave the RAF valuable experience in handling such weapons. It therefore paved the way for future weapons from Firestreak and Red Top up to today’s AIM-132 ASRAAM and Meteor.


  • Wingspan : 2.34ft
  • Length : 9.31ft
  • Launch Weight : 330lbs
  • Speed : Mach 2 (2436 mph)
  • Range : 2.2 miles
  • Number Built : 300
  • Life Span : 1951 – 1958

Weapon File: Martel

Blackburn Buccaneer Martel missile

Royal Air Force Blackburn Buccaneer toting one anti-radar Martel and two TV-guided Martels (sistemasdearmas.com.br)

In the 1960s it was becoming increasingly apparent that shipborne defences were becoming so strong that traditional direct attacks by aircraft using unguided bombs were becoming unfeasible. The answer therefore was to develop stand-off weapons; missiles that could be launched at the ship from outside the range of the target’s defences. It was actually the German Luftwaffe during World War II who pioneered the use of guided air-to-surface missiles to attack ships but the technology was immature. Anti-ship missile technology in the 1950s was a gargantuan affair with only the largest bombers being able to carry the missiles many of which were themselves the size of small aircraft. The 1960s saw the miniaturization of weapon technology to the point where fast jets could carry advanced attack weapons.

In 1964 Hawker-Siddeley in the United Kingdom and Matra in France decided to collaborate on a study in to developing a new missile that could be fielded by fast-jets such as the Dassault Mirage F.1 then in development. The development team settled on two types of guidance options for the new weapon that meant that two specific variants would have to be produced.

The first type was to be fitted with a radiation seeker that would use the target ship’s own radar emissions to locate it. This meant that even if the target ship was not sunk by the missile’s impact then at the very least the vessel would be “blinded” and unable to defend itself from a follow-up attack. However, the problem with this system was that if the target vessel turned off its radar then the missile would be unable to zero in on it. Also, if the target was a merchant ship with little or no radar emissions then the weapon would be effectively useless. Therefore this version was used in a supporting role rather than be used for attacking ships with the intention of sinking them.

This resulted in the development of a TV guided version that was steered on to the target by the launch aircraft. The TV guided version of the weapon had a small Marconi camera fitted in a clear and more rounded nose section. The images from the camera would be relayed to the launch aircraft where the pilot/weapons officer could then send corrections via a datalink pod. Carrying the pod did take up a pylon on the launch aircraft thus reducing the amount of weapons, external fuel tanks or Electronic Countermeasures (ECM) equipment that could be carried.

Anti-radar version (top) TV version (bottom) (blackburn-buccaneer.co.uk)

Anti-radar version (top) TV version (bottom) (blackburn-buccaneer.co.uk)

The two different types of guidance lead to the name “Martel” which stands for Missile Anti-Radar TELevision. To distinguish the two variants the anti-radar version was designated AS.37 while the TV guided version was designated AJ.168. In terms of weight the anti-radar version was a mere 34lbs heavier. Hawker-Siddeley took prime responsibility in developing the TV guided version while Matra took the lead in developing the anti-radar version. Despite their naval inception both versions would have secondary land attack roles and indeed for the French especially Martel would become the standard anti-radar missile of the Armée de l’Air through the 1980s.

The Royal Navy soon became interested in the weapon with the intention of fielding the aircraft on the Blackburn Buccaneer S.2. It came as a surprise to some that the Royal Navy was investing in new weapons for their aircraft since by this time it was clear that the Fleet Air Arm’s fast-jet days were numbered. In 1968 a series of weapon trials involving De Havilland Sea Vixen FAW.1 XJ481 were carried out. The Sea Vixen was operated out of Boscombe Down and was modified with a new nose featuring a camera to record the launch and the necessary equipment for guiding the TV version in the observer’s station. Another Sea Vixen, XJ494, also participated in the trials. The tests showed the weapon was capable of a high degree of accuracy with weapons landing around the centre of a 100ft target under ideal conditions. The Matra team were also enjoying success with the anti-radar version and in so in 1970 work began on integrating the weapons on to the Royal Navy’s Buccaneers.

The Buccaneer S.2 had to be heavily modified to allow it to carry the weapon with the most notable alteration being the relocation of the inner and outer pylons as a result of the weapon’s wingspan. This was necessary to prevent the weapon from obstructing the undercarriage doors and provide clearance for additional weapons or fuel. Even then the pylons themselves had to be modified to carry the weapon. The weight of the missiles meant that initially the wing folding system simply couldn’t cope with them still attached but they were uprated later with more powerful hydraulic rams to compensate. The landing gear of the aircraft was also beefed up to allow it to land on a carrier with the weapons still attached; the British tax-payer wouldn’t allow the crew to ditch the weapons if they weren’t fired.

RAF Buccaneers armed with Martel (spyflight.co.uk)

RAF Buccaneers armed with Martel (spyflight.co.uk)

The observer’s station in the cockpit of the Buccaneer had to be modified to accommodate the equipment necessary to guide the TV Martel on to the target. The television display itself was mounted on the floor between the observer’s legs because of the lack of space for it anywhere else. The small control stick was mounted on the right-hand console of the rear cockpit for guiding the missile. Tests of the Buccaneer and TV Martel were carried out over the Aberporth firing range between 1970 and 1973. Trials with the anti-radar version began in September 1974 with Buccaneers travelling to France.

With the recycling of the Fleet Air Arm’s fast jets to the Royal Air Force in the late 1960s it was actually an RAF unit that became the first Martel operator in 1974 namely No.12 Squadron at RAF Honington. Royal Navy squadrons began fielding the weapon a year later. The RAF Martel-capable aircraft were designated Buccaneer S.2B while the Royal Navy’s aircraft were S.2Ds. When the Royal Navy finally relinquished their Buccaneers to the RAF in 1978 the S.2Ds were modified to S.2B standard.

Throughout the 1980s Martel was the weapon of choice for anti-ship attack and a number of attack profiles were developed to best utilise the weapon;

  • A “classic” TV Martel attack would see the Buccaneer racing along the ocean at around 200ft. The aircraft’s Blue Parrot radar would start to slave the weapon on to the target at a range of between 30-38nm allowing the weapon time to configure itself for its flight profile. During the launch phase the Buccaneer would “pop-up” into a climb to allow the datalink pod a clearer signal. The Martel would then cruise at an altitude of around 2000ft (this could be altered depending on the cloud base) before the Buccaneer observer took control during the terminal (attack) phase. Ideally he would aim for the target vessel’s own weapons in an effort to trigger secondary explosions that would sink the ship but more often than not the aim point was the main superstructure as this often presented the clearest image on the small screen in the rear cockpit. The missile’s motor continued to burn throughout the whole flight range which helped with its ability to penetrate the hull of a target ship.
  • The anti-radar Martel could be used in conjunction with TV Martel during an attack whereby the anti-radar version would suppress the target’s defences allowing the TV guided version to carry out its attack. It was not ideal, however, for the Buccaneer to carry both types of weapon at the same time because of the sheer workload that could overwhelm the observer. Also, the Buccaneer was only capable of carrying out one missile attack not the two types simultaneously. Therefore, ideally a second Buccaneer would suppress the ships defences while the first Buccaneer made its attack with the TV guided version.
  • The anti-radar version could be used in support of a conventional bomb attack on a target vessel. In this instance the Martel remains primed and ready for launch should the target vessel activate its radar to detect the incoming strike force. The anti-radar Martel would (hopefully) strike the target vessel destroying its exposed radar towers and inflicting significant enough damage on the vessel to limit the crew’s ability to respond to the following attack run by the Buccaneers.

The weapon was not perfect however and had its drawbacks. The TV Martel could only be used in daylight operations and in greater than 50% visibility. Some experimental Buccaneer crews reported that they could still detect a silhouette of a ship under a clear night sky with a bright full moon but training for night attacks was not standard practice. The anti-radar Martel was able to operate in day or night.

The radiation seeker that guided the anti-radar version could be tailored to suit a specific target radar which was a big advantage over some earlier anti-radar missiles but this had to be done on the ground before take-off which required military intelligence to determine just what kind of defensive radar the strike package would likely encounter. This was dramatically highlighted in 1987 when a flight of four French Jaguars launched to attack a Libyan surface-to-air missile battery. Not knowing which radar the Libyans were using each Jaguar’s Martel was tailored differently meaning only one was able to attack the target (which it did successfully). The anti-radar version was also susceptible to atmospheric conditions which reduced the seeker’s effectiveness.

Trials with the anti-radar Martel aboard an Avro Vulcan (examiner.com)

Trials with the anti-radar Martel aboard an Avro Vulcan (examiner.com)

Both missiles had a very big disadvantage in that their transit flight profile was quite high (up to 2,000ft) which made them easy to detect and engage with defensive fire. This was one of the many reasons why the TV Martel’s replacement, the Sea Eagle anti-ship missile, was designed as a sea skimmer to limit the target’s ability to detect and engage it during the terminal flight phase. Sea Eagle owed a lot to the Martel in terms of aerodynamic shape and configuration and entered service in 1988 replacing the TV Martel. The anti-radar Martel remained in service until the Buccaneer was retired in 1994.

Theoretically, Martel could have been fielded by a number of other RAF platforms. The RAF’s Nimrod fleet were capable of operating the weapon and crews did train predominantly with the anti-radar version but the Nimrod was primarily used for sub-hunting and organizing attacks on enemy ships by the Buccaneers.

During the 1982 Falklands War, Avro Vulcan bombers began to be modifed to carry the anti-radar version for defence suppression missions over the islands. While trials were carried out with Avro Vulcan B.2 XM597 firing a missile over Aberporth on May 6th 1982, in the end the smaller American AGM-45 Shrike was carried instead because the Vulcan could carry four of them instead of just two larger Martels. There were also plans for Handley Page Victors to field the weapon.

  • Wingspan : 3 feet 11 inches
  • Length : 13 feet 9 inches (anti-radar) / 12 feet 9 inches (TV)
  • Body Diameter : 1 foot 4 inches
  • Weight : 1,180lbs (anti-radar) / 1,146lbs (TV)
  • Warhead : 330lb delayed proximity fused fragmentation (anti-radar) / 330lb radar fused semi-armour piercing
  • Speed : Mach 0.84 (636 mph)
  • Maximum Range : 74 miles (when launched from altitude. Low level launches significantly reduced range)

Weapon File: Red Top

Final Red TopThe De Havilland Red Top was an infra-red guided air-to-air missile and was the successor to the earlier Firestreak. Often viewed as merely an upgraded Firestreak the Red Top is in fact a far more potent and mature weapon.

Development of Red Top began under the codename Blue Jay Mk.4 before being re-designated Firestreak IV for operational use. However, De Havilland argued that the changes to the weapon were so dramatic that a new name should be selected and therefore it was named Red Top to distinguish it from its forebear. Whereas the Firestreak looked like something out of a 1930s Flash Gordon serial the new missile was more modern yet menacing to look at. It was certainly larger being a noticeable 13cm longer and weighing an extra 40lbs and having redesigned wings of greater span but it was inside the weapon that made the greatest difference.

red topIn developing Red Top the De Havilland team completely reassessed the layout of the Firestreak. One of the more unusual decisions taken in building the original weapon was to place the warhead in the tail of the missile around the motor. Not only did this limit the size of the warhead but it also limited its effectiveness upon impact. In Red Top the warhead was placed behind the seeker assembly in the nose and consisted of 68lbs (compared to Firestreak’s 50lbs) of explosive triggered by a proximity detonator. Like Firestreak the new weapon was controlled by four guidance fins at the rear that gave it excellent agility.

Guidance for the weapon was provided by the Violet Banner infra-red seeker. For the early 1960s this was a very sophisticated scanner and was one of the first infra-red missiles to introduce a cooling system in the seeker head to improve the infra-red image of the target. In all infra-red guided missiles (and even infra-red cameras) background heat from inside the sensor such as that generated by the hot electronic equipment or the heat built up on the seeker’s window as a result of friction as the missile flies though the air can overpower the comparatively weak signal of the target. Cooling the seeker head therefore clears up the infra-red image of the target and dramatically increases sensitivity.

Red Top missileThis led to a general belief that Red Top was the world’s first all-aspect infra-red air-to-air missile however this is not entirely true. Red Top could only engage targets from the front that were travelling at supersonic speeds thanks to the target developing a rather large heat plume from its engines and the friction-heating of the fuselage at high speeds. For targets travelling at subsonic speed then a more traditional rear-hemisphere attack was required. An often cited problem with the seeker however was that cloud inhibited its effectiveness in tracking a target but it is important to note that this was a common problem with all infra-red weapons of the day. While this would potentially be a drawback fighting tactical aircraft at low to medium altitude it remained a very effective weapon intercepting high altitude bombers where there was little cloud. The seeker was aided by the launch aircraft’s own radar which can transmit the location of the target to the missile while its on the rail so that the seeker is looking directly at the target upon launch.

hawker_seavixenRed Top was cleared for service in 1964 and armed the RAF’s English Electric Lightning F.3/6 and the Royal Navy’s De Havilland Sea Vixen FAW.2 (right). While the Gloster Javelin was armed with the earlier Firestreak plans to equip it with Red Top were shelved due to the aircraft’s impending retirement. Of the two aircraft that carried Red Top operationally the Sea Vixen was arguably the better platform for the weapon having a second crewman who could plot and prosecute the target more efficiently without having to fly the aircraft as well. The Sea Vixen could carry up to four weapons whereas the Lightning could only carry two (theoretically the Lightning could carry four weapons but plans for additional weapons to be carried under the wing pylons for export aircraft never materialised).

Lightning Red TopHowever the Lightning’s own performance actually increased the performance envelope of the missile. When flying at speeds in excess of Mach.1 at the Lightning’s service ceiling of 54,000ft the Red Top could generate enough energy to reach an altitude in excess of 70,000ft. The Lightning’s supersonic speed also increased range and reports from testing claim the weapon flying out to a head-on target range of 7-8 miles (when in the chase position this range will decrease as the target is moving away and so the weapon has to overtake it). Carrying the quite heavy weapon did impose restrictions on the light and aerodynamically pure Lightning and pilot notes for the Lightning F.6 model dictated that whilst armed the aircraft should not fly passed Mach 1.75 so as to not overstress the airframe.

Any infra-red air-to-air missile developed in the 1960s will ultimately be compared to the US AIM-9 Sidewinder family. Compared to the AIM-9B Sidewinder, Red Top was a far superior weapon with a more sophisticated seeker, longer range, greater agility and a substantially more powerful warhead. The AIM-9B also had a very limiting launch load factor of just 2.6G whereas Red Top could be fired at up to 4G making Red Top the better weapon in a dogfight. The only real advantage the AIM-9B had was that it was much lighter weighing just 180lbs compared to Red Top which weighed in at nearly 340lbs and could be more easily integrated on to a wider array of aircraft. This latter fact was the key to its export success compared to most other air-to-air weapons of the era including Firestreak and Red Top. When you consider that the primary Soviet close-in air-to-air missile for the 1960s and 70s was the AA-2 “Atoll”, a reverse engineered AIM-9B, then it can be claimed that Red Top was better than this weapon also.

Red Top & AIM-9B SidewinderThe AIM-9B’s extremely poor showing over Vietnam forced rapid development of an improved model, the AIM-9D Sidewinder and this had advantages and disadvantages when compared to Red Top. The AIM-9D had a marginally longer head-on range compared to Red Top again dependant on the conditions at launch. Red Top still had the more sensitive seeker and its larger window gave it a better view of the world outside. Also Red Top’s larger warhead meant that it was more likely to destroy whatever it hit or inflict fatal damage with a proximity hit. It’s interesting to note however that when the Royal Navy selected McDonnell Douglas’ F-4 Phantom II in its Anglicized F-4K Phantom FG.1 form both Red Top and AIM-9D were tested against each other. The Admiralty decided to keep the AIM-9D as the aircraft’s primary close-in weapon despite Red Top already being supported in service with the Sea Vixen. The main reason cited for this was to simplify the introduction of the already overly complex British Phantom to squadron service.

Consequently, Red Top was withdrawn from Royal Navy service in 1972 when the Sea Vixens were retired leaving the Sidewinder armed Phantoms as the Fleet Air Arm’s primary fighter. Red Top continued to arm the RAF’s Lightnings until 1988 and in July of that year the very last live round was fired over Cardigan Bay, South Wales (see top image).

  • Wingspan : 0.91 metres (2.95ft)
  • Length : 3.32 metres (10.89ft)
  • Body Diameter : 0.23 metres (0.75ft)
  • Weight : 154 kilograms (340lbs)
  • Warhead : 31 kg (68.3 lb)
  • Speed : Mach 3.2 (2436 mph)
  • Range : 7.5 miles
  • Service Ceiling : 70,000+
  • Launch Load Factor : 4G

Weapon File: Blue Steel

blue steel

The Blue Steel missile was developed by Avro during the late 1950s after the British Air Ministry rightly predicted that Soviet air defences would become so strong after 1960 that traditional high altitude delivery of gravity nuclear weapons would become impossible. Blue Steel was intended to be launched by the RAF’s V-Bomber force – Valiant, Victor and Vulcan – outside of the range of Soviet defences protecting the intended target. Ultimately the Valiant was relegated to the tanking role before the weapon was made available to it but both Victor and Vulcan carried the weapon throughout the 1960s.10_Victor

Blue Steel was a large weapon by any standard. It had a weight of some 17,000lbs and was over 10m long making it longer than the Folland Gnat training aircraft. At first the weapon was intended to have a range of 50 miles but this was deemed inadequate by the late 1950s and was extended to 100 miles with guidance provided by an inertial navigation system which was claimed to be able to get the weapon within 100 meters of the aim point. Power came from a liquid fuelled rocket motor that could accelerate the weapon to Mach 1.5 for the flight phase to the target and then as it neared the target the motor would accelerate it to Mach 3 in order to penetrate the target’s defences.

The missile was originally intended to be armed with one of Britain’s nuclear warheads already in service namely Orange Herald and Green Bamboo. Orange Herald was a test weapon to prove that Britain could develop a Megaton sized nuclear warhead. Green Bamboo was one of the first thermonuclear devices developed by the United Kingdom. While Blue Steel was developed around the rather large diameter of the Green Bamboo warhead, ultimately neither of these devices were installed on the missile. Instead the Red Snow warhead was used which was a device based on the more advanced US W-28 thermonuclear weapon.570571bs

Development of Blue Steel was wrought with difficulty mainly concerning the guidance system. Also, while Avro claimed a Mach 3 terminal speed the weapon was often recorded at a speed of around Mach 2.5 during the attack which increased its vulnerability. An even bigger problem was that as the weapon was about to get operational the V-Force went through a dramatic shift in operational doctrine. The destruction of Gary Power’s U-2 spyplane at almost 70,000 feet by Soviet Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs) in 1960 proved once and for all that altitude was no longer an ally to the V-Force. Consequently out went the anti-flash white scheme that had become so synonymous with the V-bombers, replaced by camouflage as aircrews resorted to a low level penetration role to fly under the Soviet radar to avoid detection. Blue Steel was always intended to be launched at high altitude to gain maximum speed and range and so the weapon was hurriedly modified to be able to launch at 1,000 feet but this had an adverse effect on it’s performance.

Blue Steel served on the two remaining V-bombers between 1963 and 1970. Throughout its service life its limitations were obvious. It’s liquid fuel required a considerable amount of time to fill the tanks in the missile, several hours in fact. The fuel could not be simply left in the missile continuously because it was highly unstable and there was a risk of explosion. A fuelled Blue Steel had to be guarded at all times from both Soviet spies and careless RAF armourers who might collide a truck with it while it sat under a Vulcan on alert. Soviet defences also improved dramatically in the 1960s thanks in no small part to the experiences over the skies of Vietnam where Soviet advisers could test their systems against the latest western countermeasures employed by the US. It got to such a point that Blue Steel’s vulnerability actually made the Vulcan and Victor (with their onboard ECM equipment) using traditional gravity nuclear bombs the more effective nuclear deterrent therefore completely negating Blue Steel.

Damage to London with Blue Steel warhead (SOURCE: Nukemap)

Damage to London with Blue Steel warhead (SOURCE: Nukemap)

It is important to note that Blue Steel was always intended to be replaced by the Anglo-US Skybolt missile in the early 1960s until the US pulled the plug on the weapon. Blue Steel Mk.2 would have largely alleviated the problems with the original Blue Steel but this was cancelled when the UK government elected to pass the nuclear detterent to the Royal Navy and their Polaris submarines.

  • Length: 10.7 m (35 ft)
  • Wingspan: 4 m (13 ft)
  • Diameter: 1.22 m (48 in) minimum
  • Launch Weight: 7,270 lb (3,300 kg)
  • Speed: Mach 2.3
  • Ceiling: 21,500 m (70,500 ft)
  • Maximum Range: 240 km (150 mi)
  • Guidance: Inertial
  • CEP: ~100 metres
  • Warhead: Red Snow thermonuclear (1.1 Mt)

Weapon File: Sea Eagle


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.
SeaHarrierandSeaEagleThe 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)