Brimstone Missile Joins Syria War as U.K. Hits Islamic State

RAF Tornado GR4

An RAF Tornado GR4 carrying a Brimstone missile.

Photographer: Corporal Mike Jones/Crown Copyright
  • Precision weapon can target vehicle moving at 70 miles an hour
  • Critics say deployment raises terror threat for limited gain

Britain’s intervention in the war in Syria, backed by lawmakers late Wednesday, will bolster the fight against Islamic State with a precision weapon that military experts say should broaden the range of enemy assets that can be destroyed at minimal risk to civilians.

The Brimstone missile, deployed on the Royal Air Force Tornado jets that went into action over Syria within hours of the House of Commons vote, uses a combined radar and laser guidance system to hit targets including fast-moving vehicles, while deploying a relatively small warhead to limit the blast zone.

A radar-guided Brimstone Missile fitted to a Tornado GR4.
A radar-guided Brimstone Missile fitted to a Tornado GR4.
Photographer: Sergeant Laura Bibby/MoD/Crown copyright 2008

Brimstone’s ability to deliver so-called surgical strikes against objects just meters across was a key element of Prime Minister David Cameron’s pitch to Parliament as he sought to avoid a repeat of a 2013 defeat in a vote on the Syria conflict. The missile adds a further dimension as coalition nations seek to degrade Islamic State forces without direct involvement in a politically toxic ground war.

“It gives you the confidence that you can engage a target in an area where you would be loath to use a conventional bomb because you’d be much more concerned about collateral effects,” said Douglas Barrie, a military aerospace specialist at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

Libya, Iraq

The U.K.-designed Brimstone’s accuracy and ability to hit a vehicle moving at 70 miles an hour (113 kph) makes it “unique” among current munitions, according to manufacturer MBDA, a joint venture of Britain’s BAE Systems Plc, Toulouse, France-based Airbus Group SE and Finmeccanica SpA of Italy.

The missiles, which cost 175,000 pounds ($263,000) apiece, can be fired from seven miles away and are able to switch to another objective even after launch. Steerable fins guide the supersonic approach, with the impact detonating two warheads, the first of which overcomes so-called reactive armor so that the main charge penetrates the target.

First used in Afghanistan, Brimstone has since seen service in Libya and most recently in attacks on Islamic State in Iraq, where there have been no confirmed civilian deaths in U.K. air strikes spanning 15 months, Cameron said during a 10-hour debate prior to the vote, which he won by 397 to 223 as dozens of opposition Labour lawmakers backed the call for action.

U.K. Strikes Target IS in Syria

Precision Role

Britain’s Ministry of Defence gave members confidential briefings in the run-up to the debate, detailing military capabilities and mapping Islamic State’s area of operations and capture of Syria’s oil resources, according to one lawmaker.

The MoD said Thursday that four RAF Tornado ground-attack aircraft equipped with Paveway laser-guided bombs carried out the first strikes on Syria, hitting six targets in the Omar oilfields that produce about 10 percent of Islamic State’s revenues. Officials declined to say when the first Brimstone missiles would be used.

Cameron rejected claims that the weapon’s deployment in Syria will make Britain a bigger target for terrorists while having little practical impact in the war on Islamic State. Last week, the eight Tornadoes stationed at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus for the Iraq missions numbered among just 26 coalition aircraft in the region able to undertake precise attacks, he said.

Paveway, Hellfire

“Typically, the U.K. actually represents between a quarter and a third of the international coalition’s precision-bombing capability,” Cameron said. “And we also have about a quarter of the unmanned strike capability flying in the region. That’s why this decision is so important.”

Air-launched weapons deployed by U.S.-led forces in Syria to date include Paveway, made by Lockheed Martin Corp. and Raytheon Inc., the biggest missile company, which is designed primarily to destroy fortified buildings, and Hellfire and Maverick laser-guided missiles.

Boeing Co.’s Laser Joint Direct Attack Munition, launched from F/A-18 Hornet warplanes, uses a global positioning system and laser kit to convert free-fall bombs into “near-precision” weapons, the manufacturer says. While the most capable U.S. hardware, it can’t fulfill the same tasks as Brimstone, said Ben Goodlad, principal weapons analyst at IHS Aerospace, Defence and Security.

More Planes

France’s Dassault Aviation SA Rafale aircraft are equipped with both Paveway bombs and AASM Hammer munitions from Safran SA that also combine laser and GPS guidance. Saudi Arabia is the only other nation with Brimstone technology, though it isn’t known to have deployed the missiles in Syria, Goodlad said.

As U.K. air strikes commence, another two Tornadoes will join those already based in Cyprus, together with six Eurofighter Typhoons, bringing the total number of fighter jets to 16, according to the MoD. Targets may include Islamic State’s command center in Raqqah, Defense Secretary Michael Fallon said.

Each Tornado can field 12 Brimstones, with three carried by each of four pods. In coming years, a Brimstone II upgrade will be available for RAF Typhoons -- which in Syria will be limited to dropping Paveway bombs -- and Lockheed Martin F-35s on Royal Navy aircraft carriers.

The MoD declined to say how many missiles are in the U.K.’s current arsenal.

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