Warplanes: Keeping Up With Brimstone

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September 22, 2011: The British Ministry of Defense has ordered more Brimstone missiles. The last order, in December 2010, resulted in 95 missiles a month being produced. But with the new order, production will have to be increased 50 percent. An order from Saudi Arabia for 60 missiles also has to be filled, and the U.S. and France are also seeking to obtain Brimstones. All this demand is the result of the success of Brimstone during the last six months of operations in Libya.

Originally developed as an upgraded version of the American Hellfire, Brimstone ended up as a Hellfire in general shape only. Weighing the same as the Hellfire (48.5 kg/107 pounds), Brimstone was designed to be fired by fighter-bombers, not just (as with Hellfire) from helicopters and UAVs. Aircraft can carry a lot of these lightweight missiles. These are perfect for small targets, including vehicles, which need to be hit, without causing injuries to nearby civilians or friendly troops. Brimstone entered service in 2005, and only a few thousand were produced. Use was low in Afghanistan, but was much higher in Libya. And that caused problems.

Three years ago, Britain added a dual-mode (radar and laser) seeker to its Brimstone missiles. These cost $265,000 each, while the single mode (radar) version cost $170,000 each. Originally, Brimstone was to be just an American Hellfire with a British seeker (a miniature, millimeter wave, radar) and configured to be launched from jets. Brimstone did that, but never got a chance to show how effective it was until Afghanistan and Libya. The performance of Brimstone was particularly impressive, and that got the Americans and French interested in using it as a highly effective anti-vehicle weapon for their fast-movers (jet fighter-bombers).

The Brimstone radar seeker makes it easier to use the missile in "fire and forget" mode. The laser seeker is more accurate (to within a meter or two of the aim point.) When used on jet fighters, like the Tornado, there is a special launcher that holds three Brimstone missiles (instead of one larger missile). The launcher hangs from one of the Tornado hard points. This launcher will also be used on the new Eurofighter. The nine kilogram (20 pound) warhead is sufficient to destroy vehicles, without causing a lot of casualties to nearby civilians. British fighter pilots have become quite good at coming in low and taking out individual vehicles with Brimstone missiles. Carrying a dozen or more Brimstones, a fighter-bomber can easily use all of them in one sortie, all the while staying out of range of ground fire.

Hellfire was first developed three decades ago as a helicopter launched anti-tank weapon, but has proved to be very useful against enemy infantry hiding out in buildings or caves. Hellfire later proved to be an ideal weapon for use by larger UAVs. The current version has a range of eight kilometers, while Brimstone has a range of 12 kilometers.

So successful has Brimstone been in Libya, that the Royal Air Force ran low on them and pilots had to be careful what they used them on. The Libya operation went on for six months, and now production has been increased and extended. This is needed not just for Libyan operations, and export customers, but to maintain British war reserve stocks (large quantities needed to support intense action at the start of a war.)

 


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