Thunderbird (missile)

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English electric thunderbird in 1960 arp.jpg
Thunderbird I parked at Filton, UK, following a tow vehicle breakdown (1960)
TypeSurface-to-air missile
Place of originUK
Service history
Used byBritish Army
Production history
ManufacturerEnglish Electric
Length20 ft 10 in (6.35 m)
Diameter1 ft 8.7 in (0.527 m)
WarheadContinuous-rod HE warhead

Wingspan5 ft 4 in (1.63 m)
Speedmach 2.7
semi-active radar homing
Single rail, ground mounted (not mobile)

The English Electric Thunderbird was a British surface-to-air missile produced for the British Army. Thunderbird was primarily intended to attack higher altitude targets at ranges up to approximately 30 miles (48 km), providing wide-area air defence for the Army in the field. AA guns were still used for lower altitude threats. Thunderbird entered service in 1959 and underwent a major mid-life upgrade to Thunderbird 2 in 1966, before being slowly phased out by 1977. Ex-Army Thunderbirds were also operated by the Royal Saudi Air Force after 1967.

Thunderbird had performance similar to other semi-portable missiles like the US MIM-23 Hawk and fully mobile Soviet 2K11 Krug, although it pre-dates both of these systems. After its mid-life upgrades, which shared several components with the RAF's Bristol Bloodhound, Thunderbird featured a continuous-wave radar semi-active homing system that was highly resistant to radar jamming and deception, and was able to track targets even at very low altitudes.

Thunderbird was the Army's only heavy anti-aircraft missile. As missile systems like Thunderbird made flight at medium and higher altitudes practically suicidal, nap-of-the-earth flying became the norm and even shorter-range, faster acting systems were needed. Thunderbird's role was taken over by the much smaller BAC Rapier as it became available.


A Thunderbird I missile minus finned-boosters, a museum exhibit at the Midland Air Museum, England.
Thunderbird missile (front)

Red Heathen[edit]

Thunderbird traces its history to the 1947 reorganization of British missile projects. At the time there were a wide variety of concepts under study among various groups in the British Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force. All of these were handed to the Ministry of Supply (MoS) with the Royal Aircraft Establishment (REA) providing technical direction.[1]

During this same period, a panel known as the GAP Committee was formed within the MoS formed to consider the possibility of surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). The group was reformed, growing each time, as the topic grew more important. They eventually developed a requirement for a medium-range SAM with a maximum range of 100,000 yards (57 mi) based on concepts being developed under the LOPGAP experimental program. This became the Red Heathen project in 1947, and English Electric won the development contract.[2]

The MoS was also working on a second SAM project, the somewhat shorter-ranged Sea Slug with performance on the order of 30,000–60,000 yards (17–34 mi). Two companies were working on competing Sea Slug designs, Armstrong Whitworth's used a liquid-fueled rocket, while Bristol selected a ramjet powered concept, largely at the urging of the RAE who was interested in seeing this form of propulsion being developed.[2]

Due to the way radar signals spread out in space with increasing range, beam riding is only useful at shorter ranges. A paper produced by the RAE suggested that there was no way Red Heathen's range and accuracy requirements could be met by beam riding systems. This meant new Gun Laying radars would have to be developed for this role, and that in turn led to a re-evaluation of the Red Heathen concept. It re-emerged in 1949 with the same required range as Sea Slug, and Bristol's ramjet design was redirected to this new requirement. In 1952 the projects were once again split, with Bristol's effort becoming Red Duster while English Electric's became Red Shoes.[2]

The Stage Plan[edit]

The Thunderbird was intended to provide ground-based air defence to the British Army in the field. As such, it was intended to replace the 3.7-inch heavy anti-aircraft gun that fulfilled this role during World War II. Like the 3.7, the new missile would be operated by the Royal Artillery. English Electric created a Guided Weapons Division to work on the project.

While the project was starting, the Ministry of Supply (MoS) began work on what would become known as the "Stage Plan", which envisioned a multi-stage program to provide an integrated air-defence network including new radars, interceptor aircraft, and missiles. As the missiles were the least understood technology, the MoS decided to implement their deployment in two stages. "Stage 1" called for missiles with a range of only 20 miles with capabilities against subsonic or low-supersonic attacking aircraft, which were assumed to be at medium or high altitudes. The Stage 1 missile would be used to protect the V bomber bases in the UK, as well as the British Army in the field.[3] The Stage 1 missile would be later replaced with a much higher-performance and longer-range "Stage 2" system in the 1960s, based on the "Green Sparkler" missile.[3] The Stage 2 missile was to have greatly increased range, speed and altitude capabilities, ultimately becoming the Blue Envoy project.

Two entries were accepted for the original Stage 1 proposal, English Electric's existing project under the name "Red Shoes",[4] and Bristol's "Red Duster".[5] The two systems were very similar in design and performance, with the Bristol model differing primarily by offering somewhat longer range at the cost of being less mobile. Given the similarities, a single set of radars was developed that could be used with either design. This consisted of a Ferranti developed search radar and the target illuminating radar was the RRDE's "Yellow River" fire control radar built by British Thomson-Houston.[6]


Colourful display of Thunderbird II airframe in Anti-Aircraft Museum, Tuusula, Finland. Note the changes to the main fins.
Missile rear end connector details. The Artillery Museum of Finland, Hämeenlinna.

EE's design quickly developed into a fairly simple cylindrical fuselage with an ogive nose cone, four cropped-delta wings just behind the middle point of the fuselage, and four smaller control surfaces at the rear, in-line with the mid-mounted wings. The fuselage had a slight boat-tail narrowing at the extreme rear under the control surfaces. The sustainer was to be a liquid fuel rocket developed for the missile, and was launched by four large "Gosling" solid fuel rocket boosters lying between the control surfaces and wings. The boosters featured a single oversized fin of their own, and are particularly easy to spot due to a small flat surface at the end of every fin. This surface provided an outward drag component that help pull the booster away from the main body when released, helped by the booster's asymmetrical nose cone. Guidance was via semi-active radar homing, the Ferranti Type 83 "Yellow River" pulsed radar serving both as an acquisition and illumination system. The same radar was used with the competing Red Duster.

The test programme used development vehicles D1 to D4. D1 and D2 established some of the basic configuration issues, whilst D3 and D4 were used to test the aerodynamics of the design. The Army rejected the idea of using a liquid fuel rocket because of the difficulty in handling the highly reactive fuel in the field, so a solid rocket sustainer had to be chosen instead. Several different models of sustainer were tried, most of them known as the "Luton Test Vehicle", or LTV.

While testing of the Red Shoes was underway, the "competition" in the form of Red Duster was also entering testing. Red Duster demonstrated several serious problems, and the Army ended any interest in it. In the end the Red Duster problems were sorted out fairly quickly, and it entered service slightly before Red Shoes, as the Bristol Bloodhound Mk. I.

The production Red Shoes missile was officially named Thunderbird. It entered service in 1959 and equipped 36 and 37 Heavy Air Defence Regiments, Royal Artillery. It was the first British-designed and produced missile to go into service with the British Army.

Further development[edit]

While development of the Stage 1 missiles was still ongoing, work on the Stage 2 systems was proving to be too far in advance of the state of the art to realistically enter service while the Red Duster and Red Shoes were still useful. In the meantime, advances in radar technology were proceeding rapidly, so it was decided to produce interim designs using new continuous wave radars which would dramatically improve the performance of the existing missiles.

In the case of the Thunderbird, the "Stage 1½" design utilized the new Type 86 "Indigo Corkscrew" radar. As this was developed it changed names several times, becoming "Green Flax", and after some paperwork with that name on it was lost and assumed compromised, "Yellow Temple". In service it was known as Radar, AD, No 10 (fire control). The new radar greatly improved performance against low-level targets, as well as providing considerably better performance against electronic countermeasures.

To support Thunderbird operations in the field the regiments were equipped with the new Radar, AD, No 11 (tactical control, usually called 'Big Ears') and Radar, AD, No 12 (height finder, usually called 'Noddy') radar, giving them a longer range surveillance system. These radars were also known to Marconi as the S303 and S404, or to the RAF as Type 88 and Type 89. After leaving Army service in 1977 they were turned over to the RAF who used them for tactical control.

Several changes to the basic missile were undertaken as well. Although the size remained the same, the new version featured much larger boosters, mid-mounted wings with sweep on the front and back, and a new nose cone with a much higher fineness ratio. The boosters lost their asymmetrical nose cones, but the surfaces on the end of their fins grew much larger. Overall the missile still looked much like the Mk. I version, as opposed to the Bloodhound which became much larger as it was upgraded.

The improved missile was known in service as Thunderbird 2. They entered service in 1966 and were removed in 1977.[7]



 United Kingdom
British Army
Finnish Army - planned purchase of either Thunderbird or Bloodhound was eventually cancelled, but only after deactivated training missiles had been delivered in the late 1960s. These were used in the training role until 1979.
 Saudi Arabia
Royal Saudi Air Force - 37 second-hand Thunderbird I missiles purchased in 1967


Negotiations were also held with Libya and Zambia.


Thunderbird remains a popular museum item in the UK. One of the missiles is now displayed outside the Midland Air Museum, Warwickshire, England. Another example on a launcher is displayed in The Royal Artillery Museum, Woolwich, England. A Thunderbird Mk1 is also on display at the National Museum of Flight located at East Fortune, just outside Edinburgh, Scotland. ( ) A Thunderbird is also stationed outside the Combined Services Military Museum at Maldon in Essex.

Two of the Finnish missiles survive, one missile is located in Museo Militaria, Hämeenlinna, another in the Anti-aircraft Museum, Tuusula.

A Thunderbird is displayed in Woomera township of the Woomera Rocket Range, South Australia.


  • Length: 6.35 m
  • Body Diameter: 0.527 m
  • Fin Span: 1.63 m
  • Warheads: Continuous HE rod
  • Speed: Mach 2.7
  • Range: 75 km

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Twigge 1993, p. 100.
  2. ^ a b c Twigge 1993, p. 163.
  3. ^ a b "The Stage Plan" Archived 6 February 2013 at WebCite
  4. ^ "Red Shoes" Archived 9 November 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  5. ^ "Bloodhound" Archived 9 November 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  6. ^ Cold War, Hot Science: Applied Research in Britain's Defence Laboratories, 1945-1990 Bud, Gummett NMSI Trading Ltd, (2002) p228
  7. ^ Thunderbird Surface to Air Missile System Archived 5 September 2008 at the Wayback Machine


  • "Thunderbird" Flight 25 September 1959 pages 295-299 and 302-303
  • Twigge, Stephen (1993). The Early Development of Guided Weapons in the United Kingdom, 1940-1960. Taylor & Francis.

External links[edit]

Media related to English Electric Thunderbird at Wikimedia Commons