Red Top (missile)

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Red Top
Red Top missile.png
Red Top missile
TypeAir-to-air missile
Place of originUnited Kingdom
Service history
In service1964 - 1988
Used byUnited Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait
Production history
ManufacturerHawker Siddeley Dynamics
Mass154 kg
Length3.32 m
Diameter0.23 m
Warhead31 kg (68.3 lb) annular blast fragmentation
Green Garland infrared proximity; secondary contact fuze

EngineLinnet solid fuel motor
Wingspan0.91 m
7.5 miles (12 km)
Maximum speed Mach 3.2
infrared homing, limited all-aspect
control surfaces

The Hawker Siddeley (later British Aerospace) Red Top was the third indigenous British air-to-air missile to enter service, following the de Havilland Firestreak and limited-service Fireflash. Originally a modified version of the Firestreak, Red Top emerged as a much more capable weapon, with roughly double the range, a more sensitive seeker giving limited all-aspect capability, and an even larger warhead than the already-large one in Firestreak.

Red Top was originally intended to replace Firestreak outright, but carrying the missiles on the English Electric Lightning required additional area to be added to the Lightning's vertical stabilizer. For this reason, Firestreak continued to be used on older models of the Lightning. Both missiles passed out of service in 1988 when the last of the Lightnings retired.


Improved Blue Jay[edit]

Even before the original Firestreak entered service, improvements were being studied to increase its performance. Still known by its rainbow code "Blue Jay", Blue Jay Mk. II introduced an improved seeker and more powerful motor, Magpie II. Mk. III derated the motor to limit acceleration when launched at high speed in order to avoid overheating due to aerodynamic friction. Neither project was proceeded with.[1]

Blue Vesta[edit]

Looking for a further improved weapon for the Operational Requirement F.155 interceptors, in 1955 the Air Ministry issued OR.1131 for an all-aspect design capability against enemy aircraft travelling at Mach 2. De Havilland responded with Blue Jay Mk. IV, which was later given its own rainbow code, "Blue Vesta".[2]

Blue Vesta adopted the PbTe seeker of Mk. II, further upgrading the motor to the new Magpie III. To handle the aerodynamic heating issues, the fins were made of steel rather than aluminium, and featured cut-away sections to keep the rear portions of the surfaces out of the Mach cones, a feature they referred to as "mach tips".[2][a]

Work on Blue Vesta was curtailed after 1956 as the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) concluded that the closing speeds of two Mach 2+ aircraft would be so rapid that the missile would have no chance to be launched while it was still within the range of its seeker. They suggested moving to the much larger radar-guided Red Hebe, although some low-level work on Blue Vesta's underlying technologies continued.[2]

Red Top[edit]

F.155 was canceled in the aftermath of the release of the 1957 Defence White Paper. It was decided to proceed with the development of the English Electric Lightning largely because it was already close to being complete. Blue Vesta was reactivated in July 1957 to arm this aircraft. For security reasons, yet another rainbow code was assigned in November 1957 and it became "Red Top".[3]

In contrast to Blue Vesta, Red Top significantly rationalised the original Blue Jay design. The fuselage was straightened, removing the boat-tail design of the Firestreak and allowing the new "Linnet" rocket motor to more completely fill the increased volume. With the engine isolated at the rear of the missile, the warhead was moved forward from its former location wrapped around the engine at the rear. The former location required the control fin actuators to be placed in the nose, operating the fins using long pushrods running the length of the fuselage. These were removed, giving it a much more logical layout and further increasing internal volume.[3]

The all-aspect lead telluride (PbTe) seeker developed for Blue Vesta was replaced by a much less expensive indium antimonide (InSb) system known as "Violet Banner". This seeker lacked the sensitivity of the PbTe model and did not offer general all-aspect capability; while it worked against supersonic targets warmed by skin friction, it would not work against subsonic targets and required a tail-aspect in these cases.[4] This loss in performance was offset to some degree through a greatly increased the field of view to 60 degrees. Firestreak's tube-powered electronics were replaced by transistorized versions, which were smaller, greatly improved reliability, and eliminated the need for continual cooling.[5]

With the warhead moved forward and the guidance electronics now taking up less room, the warhead was enlarged to 31 kg (68.3 lb) from Firestreak's already prodigious 22.7 kg (50 lb). It also used an expanding-rod warhead in place of the earlier blast fragmentation type. This move also left room at the rear of the fuselage for one of the two rows of the IR proximity fuse, improving its view of targets. The new "Green Garland" fuse required smaller rectangular "windows", compared to the Firestreak's triangular windows, further simplifying the layout.[3]

The Red Top was faster[6] and had greater range and maneuvrability than the Firestreak, and its infrared seeker enabled a wider range of engagement angles. "Unlike modern [1990s] missiles, Red Top and Firestreak could only be fired outside cloud, and in winter, skies were rarely clear over the UK."[7]

Almost cancelled[edit]

Although Red Top was a relatively straightforward upgrade to Firestreak, Duncan Sandys almost cancelled it as well. He felt that Firestreak would be acceptable during the short period before the Bloodhound Mk. II SAM entered service in the early 1960s and eliminated the need for interceptor aircraft altogether. The Air Staff argued this point, ultimately convincing him that Red Top's head-on attack profile against new Soviet supersonic bombers known to be in development was an urgent requirement.[5]

At a February 1958 meeting of the Controller of Guided Weapons and Electronics, the group earmarked Red Top for both Lightning and the Fleet Air Arm's de Havilland Sea Vixen. It was expected that Red Top would offer a dramatic leap in performance for Sea Vixen, as its enlarged motor significantly improved its performance when launched subsonically, the relative improvement is less when launched from Lightning. There was also some discussion of mounting four Red Top on Blackburn Buccaneer, likely the B.112 version that had been proposed to replace Sea Vixen for long-duration combat air patrol.[5]

Independently, in 1959 Jon Fozard of Hawker Aircraft also considered using Red Top on the Hawker Siddeley P.1127. The concept fit the aircraft with a more powerful engine, added the AIRPASS radar from the Lightning, and carried a pair of Red Top missiles.[8]

Testing and service[edit]

Red Top on display at the RAF Museum Cosford.
Hawker Siddeley Red Top missile mounted on an English Electric Lightning at the RAF Museum at Hendon, London.

Red Top testing began using the new fuselage layout with the original Firestreak faceted nosecone and leftover Magpie III motors from the Blue Vesta program. Ten such lash-ups had been fired by June 1959. Guidance tests with the new motor and seeker were carried out from an English Electric Canberra beginning in early 1960 and firing from the Lightning in September 1961.[8]

The Red Top entered service on both the Lightning and Sea Vixen in 1964. It remained in service until the final retirement of the Lightning in 1988.[9] Unusually, the missile that the Red Top was intended to replace – Firestreak – also remained in service on the Lightning until 1988. This was because Red Top's larger wing area required the Lightning to have a larger fin to maintain stability, leaving Firestreak on the other models that were already in service.[8]

Further upgrades[edit]

While development of Red Top was being carried out, another adaptation of the original Firestreak was being considered to produce a semi-active radar homing version that would allow a single airframe to be converted from IR to radar by changing the nose section. Initially known as Blue Jay Mk. V, this became "Blue Dolphin", but this was cancelled in 1958.[5]

A longer-ranged Red Top Mk. 2 was also proposed, replacing the Linnet rocket with a liquid fuel rocket running on MADI/RFNA, likely the de Havilland Spartan.[8]

Former operators[edit]

Map with Red Top operators in blue
 Saudi Arabia
 United Kingdom


  1. ^ More widely known today as a cropped delta.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Gibson & Buttler 2007, p. 35.
  2. ^ a b c Gibson & Buttler 2007, p. 36.
  3. ^ a b c Gibson & Buttler 2007, p. 40.
  4. ^ The English Electric (BAC) Lightning
  5. ^ a b c d Gibson & Buttler 2007, p. 41.
  6. ^ Boyne, Walter J, Air Warfare: an International Encyclopedia, Volume 1, pub ABC-CLIO Inc, 2002, ISBN 1-57607-345-9 p267.
  7. ^ Black, Ian, The Last of the Lightnings, pub PSL, 1996, ISBN 1-85260-541-3, p141.
  8. ^ a b c d Gibson & Buttler 2007, p. 42.
  9. ^ Gibson 2007, p. 41, 42


  • Gibson, Chris; Buttler, Tony (2007). British Secret Projects: Hypersonics, Ramjets and Missiles. Midland Publishing. pp. 47–53. ISBN 978-1-85780-258-0.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)