Fox News reported on December 13 that the new Meteor ramjet powered missile system is now in full production, with US and NATO allied fighter planes expecting to carry the missile as standard munitions.
While the Fox piece does not mention the Russian hypersonic program, it does mention that the Meteor system is solid-fueled and employs an air-breathing ramjet for a fast boost to speeds between Mach 3 and Mach 6. Mach 5 and above is considered “hypersonic”, due to the unique changes in airflow that occur when an object flies through the atmosphere at such speeds.
The Fox piece goes on to say the following (emphasis added):
To ensure maximum destruction, the Meteor’s fragmentation warhead detonates on impact or at the optimum point of intercept.
Powered by air-breathing ramjets, these new missiles can reach ultra-fast speeds exceeding the speed of sound. Further boosting the destructive power, the ramjets provide the missile with thrust all the way through to the strike.
The goal is for Meteors to provide the largest “No Escape Zone” of any air-to-air missile – and for this zone to be on a scale of several times larger than current MRAAMs (Medium Range Air to Air Missiles).
In order to be effective in today’s combat, the missiles need to withstand electronic warfare threats from the enemy. The Meteors are engineered to remain effective in the face of dense electronic warfare attempts to stop them.
The fighter jets of six key allies will be armed with Meteor weapons. The US-born, breakthrough fifth-generation F-35 Lightning IIs Joint Strike Fighters are set to become armed with the powerful Meteors as well.
Developed by a six-nation European team with MBDA and the U.K. Ministry of Defence taking the lead, the new missiles are now in full production.
And these powerful missiles just made their debut with the United States key ally, the United Kingdom. Carried by British Typhoon fighter jets, the new missiles sent a clear signal of military might when ‘eyeballing’ Russian bomber aircraft this week.
Armed for the first time with the Meteor, they escorted the Russian aircraft that many believe to be the Russian long-range Tupolev Tu-160 “Blackjack” strategic bombers…
The Tu-160s flew on to Venezuela where they joined other Russian military aircraft in a high-profile show military force (see our companion piece here). Russian officials announced the bombers were participating in combined operational flights with the Venezuelan Air Force and that they were preparing to defend Venezuela when it is needed.
What is a ramjet?
Rather than the typical rocket motor, Meteors rely on ramjets for propulsion. A ramjet engine provides a simple, light propulsion system for high-speed flight.
The Meteor uses a solid fuel, variable flow, ducted rocket approach giving it a significant boost in power, increase in range and supporting precision at long ranges.
Ramjets are air-breathing engines that are known for delivering remarkable speeds exceeding Mach 3 and even beyond Mach 6 in some cases.
Rockets burn onboard fuel whereas ramjets breathe air. This makes ramjet missiles suitable for firing in the atmosphere, but near or through space like rockets.Ramjets need to hit high speeds, say at about three times the speed of sound, to harness “ram pressure.” They use the air compression and shock waves yielded by the missile’s high speed.
Each Meteor packs enormously destructive power into 418 pounds. The missiles are over 12 feet long and about 7 inches in diameter.
Meteors are Beyond Visual Range Air-to-Air Missiles or BVRAAMs.
The target does not need to be within the pilot’s visual range to be within range of a precise strike because Meteors are smart enough to locate their targets and conduct the attack on their own.
A highly advanced active radar seeker guides each missile against a range of targets. They do not need the pilot and advanced aircraft to guide them.
However, pilots can communicate with the Meteor weapons. The pilot can intervene and re-direct the missile mid-flight or stop the mission if need be.
With the Meteor’s two-way data link capability, the pilot can receive data from the missile throughout its flight. This helps the pilot verify that the missile is correctly on course. It is also useful for the pilot to decide whether firing another missile is necessary.
The Fox piece goes on to explain that the Meteor program began in the 1990s. However, this news is rather significant now because of the recent announcement of the Russian Federation’s Kinzhal and Avangard systems, which are still far faster (Mach 10 for Kinzhal and Mach 20 for Avangard) than anything the Western allies yet possess.
The Russian hypersonic research program left the West in their wake, so this announcement is no doubt a sign that the West has developed something that is also very swift and dangerous.
Since only one fighter plane – the Russian MiG-31, is officially known to be capable of exceeding Mach 3, the Meteor is a very significant entry in air combat, since its ramjet configuration theoretically allows it to outfly any aircraft in the skies, with only the Mig-31 giving it a run for its money.
These weapons are in use now by forces in Sweden, the US and Britain, with Germany, Italy and Spain also expected to have their fighters upgraded with this missile.