Working for MBDA – Defence at Sea

Written by: Georgina Bloomfield
Published on: 17 May 2017

As far as a defence engineering company goes, MBDA is as technical and exciting as it gets. MBDA are the only European group capable of designing and producing missiles and missile systems to meet the whole range of current and future needs of the three armed forces. With roughly 10,000 employees over six countries supplying to over 90 customers, working for MBDA is something certainly worth considering. MBDA is jointly held by 3 prestigious shareholders: AIRBUS Group (37.5%), BAE Systems (37.5%) and Leonardo Finmeccanica (25%).


I’m exploring the work MBDA does with all aspects of defence: air, land and sea. This article will explore the challenges and career prospects of working as an engineer for MBDA, focusing on defence at sea.

James Merrell, 29, a Principal Systems Certification Engineer at MBDA, told me about the opportunities and challenges of his role, working on the Sea Ceptor project which is entering service with the Royal Navy in 2017.

The ship-launched missile of the Sea Ceptor system targets air threats and this presents unusual challenges compared with land based systems. James said: “The differences involved range from the environment at sea, the launch platform itself and safety implications to the nature of the engagements.”

James outlined the environments that present a challenge during a maritime deployment “The missile, especially the sensitive electronic components, needs to be protected from the saline and humid environment which is obviously present at sea. Furthermore, at sea the platform will be moving while the missile is launched, unlike a land platform, and the missile design has to take into account the fact that heavy spray and waves could have an impact during a firing. The Sea Ceptor system is soon to be deployed on the UK Navy Type 23 and Type 26 frigates, these launch platforms include powerful radar systems which provide a high radio frequency environment which the missile must operate within.”

Not only are there the obvious environmental problems of operating such sensitive equipment at sea – there are also deployment challenges to think of too. James continued: “One aspect is ensuring that the missile will safely launch and clear the ship and its equipment, for example the mast and radar equipment. For maritime deployment there are likely to be different types of targets, of different size, velocity and agility in comparison to a land deployment.  If the engagement requires multiple missiles to be fired in a salvo then there are risks and challenges associated with the launch management. Furthermore, if the target is close to the water this also poses challenges which the system must address. Despite being deployed on a ship (such as the Type 23 and 26 frigates) the Sea Ceptor system will not only be defending the launch platform itself, but possibly a convoy, designated as a defended asset. On land, the launch system will still be high value, however you’re likely not to be defending yourself but possibly an asset such as an airfield or a building. The target scenario is different.”

The technical aspects of Sea Ceptor itself are extraordinary. A key feature is the ‘soft vertical launch’ of the missile, whereby it is ejected from its launch canister using a gas-powered piston. Once the missile is in the air, it turns itself over to the required attitude and then the motor ignites to project the missile in the required direction. This unique launch design gives the Sea Ceptor system and therefore the UK Navy a major advantage in the defence of its assets.

When discussing the length of service required by the Sea Ceptor system, James said: “At sea the deployment time can be much longer compared to land. Furthermore, access can be much easier to the land platform which makes maintenance and re-supply more feasible.”

Of course before the missiles are used in their intended environment they’re tested and proven first. James’ previous role within MBDA was working on the firing trials, testing the missiles. He’s now moved on to liaising with customers such as the MOD. He’s involved in addressing their requirements, certifying the product using evidence from the qualification testing and eventually getting it accepted by the customer. Initially it sounds like a lot of travel, however this isn’t the case. He travels perhaps once a month within the UK to meet with a customer. However, James explained: “In my previous job doing the firing trials I’d spend up to a month or two away at a time. If you’re interested in travelling (predominantly within Europe) the opportunities are available within MBDA if you want it. On the other hand, if you want a UK focus on your job then that would be no problem.”

Having been in his new role for nearly a year, James does very different things now compared to when his role revolved around the firing trials. He’s a lot more customer-facing compared to being behind the scenes in a test environment. However, James adds that the more hands-on element to his role was vital in his knowledge of what he does now. He said: “Doing the trials gave me a huge understanding of how the system works which helps when interfacing with the customer. Having that understanding is essential.”

What does James like about his role? He said: “I like the challenge of being required to manage multiple tasks at once, the responsibility of working with the customer and also the  people I with.”

MBDA is indeed a big company and to some candidates this can be potentially off-putting. However, a candidate won’t be put into an overwhelming job within a large team. No matter what stage of your career you’re at, MBDA offers a range of opportunities and will accommodate your skillset as much as is needed. MBDA also funds up to £150 each year in support of your personal development, such as learning a new language (which is great if you choose to work abroad in the future). As for where James wants to progress within the company, he has a lot of choice. Moving jobs within MBDA is a very transparent process. James said: “I’ll first discuss [moving on] with my manager and get their support and advice as to what they recommend, before then talking to other projects, departments and of course my mentor.” It’s quite possible that James’ next opportunity won’t even exist yet. He continued: “It’s quite exciting knowing you haven’t got a set path that you must follow. It can depend upon what’s happening with the company and what their short term and long term objectives are.”

As for how James got into his initial employment at MBDA, he went to the University of Durham where he did a Master’s Engineering degree, before completing a summer placement at a diesel engine company and then he applied for the graduate scheme at MBDA.

If you’re interested in future opportunities with MBDA, visit