While satellite and television companies are looking forward to the mini-windfall in revenues that the Olympic games will bring (satellite transponder leasing rates, advertising revenues etc) others have more pressing issues on their minds. Currently the British Army is concerned about rogue aircraft disrupting or even attacking the Olympic games starting in London at the end of July. As such it is currently in the process of deploying surface-to-air missiles around the games. In parkland the Rapier missile batteries are being installed. More controversially, lightweight Thales Starstreak missiles are being positioned on some tower blocks. But can they do the job if needed?
While weapon systems’ success is often measured by the number of units sold, in reality, it is really the test of war that finds out whether a weapon system is any good or not. Shorts Missile Systems (the Belfast-based forerunner of Thales) came under scrutiny about how its weapons had performed in the Falklands War some thirty years ago.
While its Royal Navy Sea Cat and British Army Blowpipe MANPAD (man portable air defence system) missiles had some limited success and managed to shoot down some aircraft, many targets were missed and it became clear that improvements were needed. Apart from being fiddly to fly using a thumb joystick controller, both missiles had other shortcomings.
While they could cope with an incident target providing it was not within minimum range, they either lacked the speed or or did not have enough maximum range to reach a crossing or retreating target. Tales came back from the Falklands of missiles being launched at aircraft, only to be seen falling away just as they were about to intercept.
Thales has learned from these mistakes and the Blowpipe has now evolved into a Mach 3.5 killing machine called Starstreak II whose range has been doubled to 7km. Fired from either a single hand held missile, or from a Lightweight Multiple Launcher (LML) stand carrying three rounds, the Starstreak has a three-dart impact delayed detonation fuse warhead designed to strike directly at any target in its way.
Control of the three sub-munition darts is ingenious. Roy Gordon, Exhibitions and Export Services Manager at Thales, explained in his Northern Irish accent, that the system uses the rotating front end to fly straight and would vary this rotation to make turns while under laser control. He explained that the missile is no longer controlled by a thumb controller, nor does it use the interim CCD system as used by Javelin, Starstreak’s immediate predecessor. Instead, an operator simply has to illuminate the target on the monocular sight and, once fired, the system will fly the missile to the target using a special laser control matrix system akin to a type of “barcode” system.
Roy Gordon was keen to note the advantages of having such a laser guidance. “Unlike other missile systems, It cannot be deflected by infrared flares or become affected by radio or radar jamming” he said.
But will it be able to cope with a crossing target? He noted that it would have a limited ability. “It is important to realise that this is not an area defence weapon. It is a point defence system”, Gordon said.
Gordon was reluctant to be drawn into the controversy about these missiles being based on the rooftop of blocks of flats in East London in order to protect the Olympic Games.
“That is the army’s business.” Gordon said. “We just supply them”.
The rooftop positioning of these weapons by the Royal Artillery on the orders of the British Government has caused protests and legal action from residents and peace campaigners, variously concerned about the risks of fire, trigger happy soldiers (London City Airport lies close by), or becoming terrorist targets themselves.
Either way, one thing is clear, when it comes to potential air attack, the said flats, with their Starstreak missiles on top, are probably the best “point defended” buildings in London.
One other thing. Sir Richard Branson might now not be wise to carry out his jested plan to overfly the Olympic games with Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo/SpaceShipTwo combination in order to rub British Airways’, (the official airline of London 2012) nose in it. Official sponsors of the Olympic games are apparently taking a tough line at commercial interlopers, and British Airways just might demand that the Royal Artillery’s Starstreak missileers take a shot at it.