Rapier is a British surface-to-air missile developed for the British Army and Royal Air Force. Entering service in 1971, it eventually replaced all other anti-aircraft weapons in Army service; guns for low-altitude targets, and the English Electric Thunderbird , used against longer-range and higher-altitude targets. As the expected air threat moved from medium-altitude strategic missions to low-altitude strikes, the fast reaction time and high maneuverability of the Rapier made it more formidable than either of these weapons, replacing most of them by 1977. It remains the UK's primary air-defence weapon after almost 35 years of service, and is expected to serve until 2020.
Rapier began development in 1961 as the a private venture at British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) known as "Sightline". The project was to combat supersonic, low level, high manoeuvrability craft, eschewing any attempt at automated guidance in favor of a purely optical system. The optical system ensured high accuracy, so it was developed with the intent of directly hitting its target, reducing the size of the warhead required to guarantee a kill, and eliminating the need for a proximity fuse. BAC joked that the system was a "hit-ile", as opposed to a "miss-ile".
At the time the British Army was planning on purchasing the advanced American MIM-46 Mauler system for its air-defence needs. When Mauler ran into problems in 1963, the Ministry of Defence issued requirement ET.316 and started funding Sightline as a backup in case Mauler did not deliver. That eventuality came to pass, and ET.316 was completely developed as "Rapier", with the first test firings of the missile taking place in 1966. Complete systems were tested in 1968, which led to a production contract issued in 1969. The system entered service in 1971 with the British Army, and 1974 with the Royal Air Force Regiment.
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