Thales Air Defence Belfast – A Gem in the UK Defence Industrial Base

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 placed 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), 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 products.

History shows 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 automated system capable of rapid response.

Product development is ongoing and there is a strong recognition within the company that, following the high number of IED related casualties seen in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, the levels of force protection needs to be improved.

In June Thales Air Defence was awarded a £48m contract from the UK MOD for the Lightweight Multirole Missile (LMM) requiring both demonstration and manufacture. Ordered by the MOD as the Future Anti Surface Guided Weapon (Light) system (FASGW(L) and designed for precision strike with low collateral damage the missile system been designed to be fired from a variety of land, sea and airborne tactical platforms including planes, helicopters, trucks, boats and even unmanned aerial vehicles. LMM will also be used by the Royal Navy to defeat the threat from small ships and fast inshore attack craft, and will also be operated by the frigate carrying the Lynx Wildcat AW159 Maritime Attack helicopter. LMM has a huge potential in terms of exportability as a system able to be quickly deployed to tackle terrorists, pirates, and insurgent activity plus those considered as those proffering an ‘asymmetric’ threat.

In terms of exports the Belfast operation already has an excellent record of success and I am in no doubt that it has significant potential to do more. Earlier this year in what is after all a highly competitive international industry including competition from countries such as the USA, USSR and China; Thales Air Defence secured a £100m contract to supply Starstreak missiles and radar systems to the Indonesian Ministry of Defence. The contract requires supply of radar, communications equipment, launchers and missiles including the basic Starstreak missile together with the new RAPIDRanger lightweight mobile automated weapon system.

Thales is, as far as I am aware, the only European prime able to offer a full range or air defence capability ranging from what may be termed as sensors through to effectors. As a hugely important European group with a diverse range of interests in defence, aerospace and security, the ground based short-range air defence systems produced at the Belfast facility are but one part of a very large range of other defence capabilities produced by the group. These include full air and missile based defence solutions, tactical data links, weapon coordination and control, air surveillance radar, sonar, mobile integrated weapons systems plus a large range of other sophisticated electronic based technology for land, air, sea and space environments.

In terms of skills retention and design engineering and manufacturing capability, Thales Air Defence is extremely important to the UK economy. The potential to export is very important and the record of success in terms of product design, efficiency of operation and quality holds the company in very good stead. Importantly the attitude to apprenticeships and graduate training is impressive as is the whole approach to research and development and long term investment.


CHW (London) 3rd July 2014

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS

Tel: 07710 779785

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