Royal Navy warship HMS Montrose has flexing her warfighting muscle with the successful firing of a Harpoon missile

Lima Charlie: What is the future of the Royal Navy's anti-ship capabilities?

Royal Navy warship HMS Montrose has flexing her warfighting muscle with the successful firing of a Harpoon missile

Throughout the history of naval warfare, one of the most critical roles that navies must be able to carry out is the ability to destroy hostile warships.

Being able to find an enemy vessel, and bring enough firepower to bear to sink it is vital to achieving maritime supremacy.

It is a task which has been carried out using many different forms of technology, from the massed galleys at the Battle of Lepanto through to the cannons used at Trafalgar to fire broadsides into their foes.

After developing improved naval firepower and introducing the first 'ironclads' in the 1860s, the Royal Navy (and other nations) spent the best part of a century relying on heavy guns mounted in turrets as the primary means of sinking other ships.

This led to the creation of ships like HMS Dreadnought in 1905, a modern battleship mounting 10 x 12" guns, which could overwhelm any foreign rival.

The emergence of the dreadnoughts led to a global naval arms race, particularly between Britain and Germany, and helped cause the rise in tensions that led to the outbreak of the First World War.

For both the British and German navies, possession of a fleet was arguably as important as the destruction of their opponents.

The risk of losing a fleet in combat was such that they were reluctant to risk major surface combat during this war.

The only major naval clash of the war was at Jutland, one of the largest naval battles of all time, but which ended inconclusively.

In the Second World War, the emergence of new technology such as reliable aircraft capable of dropping bombs and torpedoes that could sink or cripple major warships saw the end of large fleets of warships seeking to engage in gunnery duels.

Instead, aircraft, submarines and coastal forces vessels could all deliver a knockout blow to major warships, putting them at much greater risk – for example, Italian Navy frogmen were able to do huge damage to British battleships in Alexandria harbour in December 1941.

After the wars ended, the maritime threat changed with the arrival of the nuclear age.

The naval threat posed by the Soviet Union to the West was significant but different to previous generations.

With the Cold War Soviet Navy built around hundreds of diesel (and later nuclear submarines) and some surface ships - including the Sverdlov class cruiser, armed with multiple 6" guns which could wreak havoc on merchant ships resupplying Europe - NATO navies focused on countering the threat from this type of surface vessel.

For the Royal Navy, the response was to, from the early 1950s into the 1960s, develop 'Sverdlov killers' – ways of tackling the threat. At first older WW2 era battleships and cruisers were seen as the best means of doing this, but as technology quickly changed, so did the response.

Over time, the Royal Navy's response evolved to trying to destroy these ships by the aerial delivery of nuclear weapons through carrier-based aircraft like the Buccaneer.

Two key events occurred in the late 1960s which changed this plan.

The first was the scrapping of plans to replace the Royal Navy aircraft carrier force (the CVA01 design) which, in turn, meant plans were made to scrap all British aircraft carrier-based aviation by the mid-1970s.

The second was the loss of the Israeli warship Eilat, a former Royal Navy WW2 era destroyer during the Six-Day War by Egyptian Styx missiles.

In this case, the ship, hit by three anti-ship missiles, sank with the loss of dozens of her crew, marking the first time a major warship had been sunk by an anti-ship missile since WW2.  

In response to this new threat and in recognition of the looming gap in anti-ship capabilities, the Royal Navy bought the Exocet missile - a French-designed product able to inflict significant damage out to about 40 miles on enemy shipping.

Fitted to multiple British warships, it was a bitter irony that the Exocet was used against the UK, to deadly effect, by the Argentines during the Falklands War in 1982.

During this conflict, three British vessels were hit and two (HMS Sheffield and SS Atlantic Conveyor) were lost due to the damage inflicted.

However, the UK also inflicted significant damage on the Argentines, sinking the cruiser General Belgrano by torpedo and using the Sea Skua anti-ship missile to damage Argentine patrol ships, as well as 4.5" gunfire to sink an Argentine auxiliary.

Somewhat ironically, the one missile the British did not use in the conflict was their own Exocets.

After the war, the UK introduced the Sea Eagle, an air-launched anti-ship missile fired from the Harrier, Buccaneer and Tornado aircraft, filling the main anti-shipping role and buying the Harpoon missile for submarines and some surface ships.

The latter version entered service in the late 1980s onboard the Type 22 Batch 3 and Type 23 frigates and remains in service to this day, some 35 years later.

Royal Navy Lynx HMA8 Helicopter
Royal Navy Lynx HMA8 Helicopter (Picture: Alamy)

The end of the Cold War did not mark the end of British anti-shipping operations and the Lynx helicopter was used to deadly effect in 1991 with the Sea Skua missile, attacking and sinking Iraqi navy patrol craft. This missile was only taken out of service in 2017.

One of the real challenges for British naval planners has been trying to work out the right balance of weapons to buy for British warships and how to spend money wisely.

Despite the age of the Harpoon missile, the Royal Navy has not to date ordered a replacement weapon system, choosing instead to fund a variety of other projects instead.

This has caused a lot of uncomfortable media and parliamentary interest, with commentators concerned about the seeming inability of the Royal Navy to sink or critically damage a hostile warship if it needed to in wartime.

On the face of it, it does seem odd that a navy with a long history of taking the fight to the enemy now seems incapable of doing so.

Events in Ukraine have helped increase this level of concern.

The loss of the Russian cruiser Moskva in the Black Sea in mid-April 2022, reportedly after the ship was hit by land-based 'Neptune' anti-ship missiles, highlights the power of anti-ship missiles to do significant damage against major targets.

This, coupled with other engagements in the war where Russian warships have found themselves under attack by Ukrainian coastal defences, continues to show the importance of possessing an anti-ship capability.

For the Royal Navy, the challenge is how to get this balance right.

The Harpoon is now an extremely elderly missile with highly limited capabilities and of little practical use in many of the likely scenarios where a British warship would need anti-ship capability.

Intended to be fired in the open ocean against large numbers of Soviet targets in the event of WW3, it is perhaps less suitable in a complex littoral environment where ships from many nations may be found.

Were one to be fired and inadvertently strike a neutral or friendly vessel, the potential impact could be incredibly damaging. Being able to track and positively identify the target is key in scenarios like this.

This is a key reason why significant British funding has gone on replacing the Sea Skua missile with the Sea Venom and Martlet anti-ship missiles.

The Martlet is a lightweight missile, mounted on the Lynx helicopter as a way of countering swarm attacks (for example multiple coastal patrol craft) before they get close to a UK warship.

Deployed for the first time as part of the 2021 OP FORTIS Carrier Strike Group deployment, the Martlet provides an invaluable means of filling the gap beyond the visual range of a ship.

It enables a helicopter to patrol an area some distance away, providing a rapid response and if needed, identifying and firing on hostile targets at relatively close range.

With an accurate range of about five miles, the missile provides a potent and lethal punch when required to help protect Royal Navy ships as needed.

The Martlet was also tested as a ship-launched missile, during trials in 2019 where it replaced a 30mm gun on HMS Sutherland, although it is unclear if it will be rolled out more widely.

The other missile, Sea Venom is a larger missile, again air-launched and intended to pose a threat to bigger ships.

The missile has a range of some 11 miles or more and can be used to sink enemy patrol craft or do damage to a Corvette sized vessel.

As has been seen in the loss of the Mosvka, missile damage, particularly to a ship with a poorly trained crew, can be a major factor in causing them to abandon ship or have the ship written off as a loss for the duration of a conflict until repairs are completed.

Sea Venom is a joint Anglo-French weapon and will be carried by the Lynx helicopter fleet.

It has more advanced modes of operation than Martel and is able to be fired outside the range of many air defence systems and utilize attack options like surface to surface skimming to help ensure it hits its target.

The missile is highly advanced and ensures that, in any conflict, it will almost certainly outmatch the potential opposition it will face. It also possesses a limited land attack capability too, which Sea Skua did not have.

Both missiles provide a really potent capability for vessels capable of embarking and operating the Lynx helicopter – which in the Royal Navy is likely to be the Type 23 and 45 force and later on the Type 31 frigates.

Although the globally deployed River-class Batch 2 have a flight deck capable of embarking the Lynx, they lack the handling and ammunition facilities to embark these missiles. 

It is not yet clear whether the UK will choose to invest in ship-based Sea Venom launchers for ships like the River class.

There is no doubt that it would significantly increase the lethality of the ships and increase their operational 'punch', taking a small patrol ship and giving it a highly credible anti-ship and limited land attack capability, but it would be costly and potentially require lengthy refit and integration work.

Whether this is the best use of scarce Royal Navy resources is not yet clear.

The resource problem is the main reason too why the UK has yet to formally commit to replacing the Harpoon missile.

On current plans, it will be removed from service in the next year or two, at present without replacement.

The Royal Navy did look at investing in a very limited purchase of some anti-ship missiles and in 2021 had gone as far as launching a competition for an 'Interim Surface to Surface Guided Weapon' (SSGW), but this appears to have been cancelled without going further in early 2022.

Although not officially stated why, informally it seems that the reasons for the UK not pursuing the SSGW competition were practical.

The costs were going to be significant (potentially over £100m) for a very time-limited capability that could only be fitted to a small number of ships (five Type 23s). The risk would be that the 'interim' solution would be extremely expensive and potentially only realistically work about the time that the actual replacement entered service.

In other words, a lot of money would be spent to fit a weapon to a small number of ships that may or may not work as planned.

At the same time, there are a lot of highly advanced new weapon systems on the cusp of entering service over the next seven to 10 years, which may prove more suitable as a long-term replacement.

The development of hypersonic missiles could revolutionize how anti-ship missiles could be used.

Is it better to invest time and money into spending on new technology, helping shape and define the missiles that emerge and then ensure they are fit for British use (as well as being potentially highly exportable), or to have less money and rely on interims that may become permanent solutions?

The Royal Navy seems to think that the best outcome is to risk a gap and has accepted the retirement of the Harpoon missile in 2023 (this is the point it seems when the lifespan of the missile will be reached and it will be no longer safe to use) and instead take a several year gap in heavy anti-ship capability. This is a significant move and at odds with many other navies out there.

The big risk is that if the Royal Navy finds itself in a conflict, it will either need to rely on shorter-range weaponry, such as Sea Venom, or a torpedo from a submarine to be able to sink larger ships.

Alternatively, it could rely on allies to fire the missiles on its behalf – this is not a particularly good situation to be in.

But is the risk actually that big?

Historically the Royal Navy has been operating heavy anti-ship missiles for around 50 years and has never once fired one in anger against a hostile vessel.

It remains the one class of weapon (other than nuclear weapons) that the Royal Navy has never used in anger.

Add to this some of the budgetary challenges facing the MOD, which still needs to make cuts to its budgets over the next few years and the case for investing in an interim anti-ship missile seems weak at best.

The current arsenal of anti-shipping missiles seems ideal to meet the most likely threats that will be faced by British warships on operations – smaller patrol craft, fast attack boats and maybe a small corvette.

The likelihood of the UK unilaterally going to war with a nation that possesses major surface ships that pose a credible threat, at least in the next few years, seems slim at best.

What may change this will be whether the Ukraine conflict highlights additional lessons on the importance and value of anti-ship missiles that may alter British thinking.

At present, it seems unlikely because the circumstances involving the loss of the Moskva seem highly unlikely to repeat themselves for British forces in any realistic scenario in the next few years.

The loss of the Moskva will almost certainly remain the most significant naval combat loss for many years to come, but it is unlikely to significantly alter how the UK equips its ships for naval combat.

They will remain able to carry out a wide range of operations and engage in high-intensity combat when needed and using the most advanced weaponry on the planet to do so.

The most likely outcome is that because of the Ukraine conflict, the UK will invest in additional missiles like Sea Venom rather than heavier major anti-ship missiles.

There is almost certain to be a missile gap for the next seven to 10 years, but the practical impact on day-to-day Royal Navy operations is likely to be negligible.

In the medium term, the next generation of missiles entering service will have a potentially huge impact on the ability of the Royal Navy to conduct anti-ship or land-attack missions – potentially via hypersonic missiles or other highly advanced technology.

This article is the latest contribution in our Lima Charlie columnist section.

This is part of a series featuring unattributed contributions from experts and insiders providing opinion, insight and analysis on today’s Armed Forces, the wider politics of the military and observations on military life.

Under the pseudonym Lima Charlie, our contributors aim to explore the issues facing today’s military and their comment remains unattributed to allow our writers to present their analysis candidly and under one editorial voice.

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