A £550m contract for new surface-attack missiles has been signed for the UK’s F-35B Lightning jets.
The next-generation missile known as SPEAR3, which stands for Selective Precision Effects at Range Capability 3, can travel long distances at high-subsonic speed and will become the F-35’s primary air-to-ground weapon over the next decade.
At 1.8m long, the missile system has a range of more than 140km and is powered by a turbojet engine.
It can operate across land and sea, at day or night, while the pilot and aircraft remain a safe distance away.
The new seven-year demonstration and manufacture contract with MBDA will support more than 700 UK jobs.
Defence Minister Jeremy Quin said the development of the missile will protect the UK’s "personnel and assets on the ground from thousands of metres in the sky above".
Armed with the SPEAR3, the F-35Bs will help protect the Royal Navy's Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers from enemy ships, submarines, aircraft and missiles.
The UK currently has 21 of the fifth-generation aircraft, having received three new jets in November last year.
The aircraft will sail with HMS Queen Elizabeth on her maiden Global Carrier Strike Group ‘21 deployment later this year.
It comes after the announcement earlier this week that the UK's Carrier Strike Group has achieved Initial Operating Capability.
The new missile's ability to attack moving targets will enhance the UK's future combat air capability and provide lethal capability to the Carrier Strike Group, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) said.
Colonel Martin French, Defence Equipment and Support's Lightweight and Medium Attack Systems team leader, said the contract sees the weapon system "enter the exciting and challenging demonstration phase".
The initial demonstration phase will assess the weapon system against the UK military’s requirement through testing, simulation and trials.
It will also include controlled firings from a Typhoon aircraft.
The £550m contract forms part of the Complex Weapons portfolio with weapons developer and manufacturer MBDA, which is on track to save UK defence £1.2bn, according to the MOD.
Cover image: A computer-generated image of an F-35 launching SPEAR3 missiles (Picture: MOD).