Britain’s Royal Navy Losing Its Missiles

The US Navy has just quietly released the fact that the Zumwalt-class destroyers won’t, after all, have the gun capability needed to support amphibious operations. The extended-range guided ammunition they were supposed to fire turned out to cost nearly as much per shell as a Tomahawk cruise missile, at a fraction of the capability. That raises questions about what the horrifically expensive ships are actually for – they have limited anti-submarine capability, their anti-aircraft armament is only adequate for self-defense, and they don’t carry anti-ship missiles. Still, at least in that respect, they’re not alone.

Britain’s Royal Navy is also in the process of disarming itself because weapons cost too much. For the last couple of decades, the Royal Navy’s standard anti-ship weapon has been the US-made Harpoon missile. That replaced the French-built Exocet fitted to earlier ships, but the number of platforms was always limited. The Type 23 Duke-class frigates that have been the backbone of the escort fleet since the early 1990s each carry two quad Harpoon launchers, but most of the Type 45 destroyers are “fitted for but not with” and the Type 42s they replaced never carried anti-ship missiles at all.

royal-navy-flagNow the Ministry of Defense has admitted that the aging Harpoons will be retired in 2018 and, so far, no work has been done on finding a replacement. That means two years from now, no Royal Navy warship will have any onboard anti-ship weapon heavier than a single 4.5-inch gun. The 4.5” Mark 8 is a fairly fearsome weapon, with a rate of fire of 25rpm and high enough accuracy to provide point defense against missiles, but for surface warfare use, it has its limits. The most serious of these is a range of just 15 nautical miles; it’s seriously outranged by almost any missile system.

Losing Harpoon without a replacement was always going to be bad, but normally ships would at least still have their helicopters, which can launch Sea Skua missiles from 14 nautical miles. Not so fast – the Sea Skua is being retired next year. At least it’s being replaced, by the Sea Venom system, but that won’t be entering service until 2020 (assuming it isn’t delayed). In the meantime, if Royal Navy warships find themselves facing any serious opposition, they’re going to be in some considerable trouble.

A Russian Sovremenyy-class destroyer – also operated by the Chinese – carries eight SS-N-22 SUNBURN missiles, with 710-pound warheads and a 150-mile range. The SUNBURN is not small or stealthy, but it’s a sea skimmer that weaves evasively as it blazes in at Mach 3. You’ll know it’s coming, but it’s pretty hard to stop. A ship like the Sovremenyy is best dealt with before it comes into missile range, and that’s quite a challenge if all you have is a medium caliber gun.

The US Navy is in a much better place than the Royal Navy right now; the Zumwalt might be a white elephant, but the large fleet of Arleigh Burke destroyers have a very impressive anti-air capability, and most of them also carry Harpoon. Still, it looks like a couple of decades of counter-insurgency operations have led planners to focus on hull numbers while forgetting that those hulls need to be properly armed. As proper warfighting becomes a realistic possibility again, that needs to change.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Fergus Mason

Fergus Mason

Fergus Mason grew up in the west of Scotland. After attending university he spent 14 years in the British Army and served in Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Iraq. Afterwards, he went to Afghanistan as a contractor, where he worked in Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and Camp Leatherneck. He now writes on a variety of topics including current affairs and military matters.
Fergus Mason

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1 thought on “Britain’s Royal Navy Losing Its Missiles

  1. Another informative and incisive piece Fergus. Thanks. One would have thought that the lessons learned from the Exocets hits of the Falklands would still in the memory of those who run the Senior Service. But maybe I’m showing my age.

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