The Royal Navy’s sole heavyweight anti-ship missile, Harpoon (Block 1C) is semi obselete and at present there is no plan or funding for a replacement.
*Subsequent to publishing this article Harpoon Out of Service Date was extended until 2023 as an interim measure.
Recently HMS Duncan, Richmond and Sutherland escorted Russian warships close to the UK. In photos showing these warships at work, the 8 Harpoon missile canisters were plainly visible. Although nearly obsolete, the missiles purpose is clear and their availability reassuring. When the RN is called on to meet Russian vessels, their hitting power will be nothing but a single 4.5” gun. This state of affairs is unacceptable, dangerous and risks making the navy a laughing-stock.
Since navies have been in existence, a prime purpose of a warship is to fight and sink other warships. Surface to surface warfare is core business for the RN and indeed, pretty much any navy. Reliant on nothing but old-fashioned guns or light helicopter-mounted missiles, the RN’s frigates and destroyers will be at a huge disadvantage. Many third world navies will have more anti-ship capability than the RN. Highly effective modern missiles can be bolted onto even quite small or elderly vessels and pose a serious threat.
As the RN has never actually fired a heavyweight anti-ship missile in anger, this could be offered as an excuse. It may then seem unlikely they would be needed in the near future, especially when more immediate low-level maritime security tasks are the focus. This mentality is foolhardy in the extreme. A credible navy needs to be prepared for all eventuality. If you want peace, prepare for war. We cannot argue we need the deterrent provided by Trident (which we have never used) while saying we don’t need anti-ship missiles because we have never used them.
The small Sea Venom and Martlet (FASGW) missiles that can be fired from the Wildcat helicopter are for use against nothing larger than a corvette. Even this capability will be briefly ‘gapped’ as the Lynx helicopter (armed with Sea Skua) goes out of service in March 2017 and FASGW will only be available for the Wildcat in late 2020. The only other option for sinking major warships resides with our under-sized attack submarine fleet – on a good day we might manage to have three of them at sea simultaneously.
There have been plenty of damaging media myths about the RN doing the rounds in the past year or so. ‘The aircraft carriers won’t have any aircraft’ and ‘Type 45 destroyers always break down’ are examples where we have been more than happy to tell the other side of the story. Unfortunately without urgent action, failure to replace Harpoon will simply be a glaring embarrassment without any mitigating factors.
This gap in RN capability is especially poor timing. The US Navy has recognised its anti-ship weaponry has declined since the end of the Cold War and is taking urgent steps to address the problem. Russia and China have both invested heavily in anti-ship missiles and in many respects, possess weapons in advance of the West. International perceptions matter, sometimes as much a cold military facts. There have been a spate of recent stories in the US media proclaiming ‘the end of the Royal Navy’ and this will only make matters worse. We face further loss of credibility in the eyes of our critical US ally, just as Trump takes power and is angry about Europe’s failure to spend enough on defence.
An ongoing embarrassment for navy and government
This issue has the potential to be the source of an endless public relations nightmare for the navy. It could even overshadow much of positive coverage that the arrival of HMS Queen Elizabeth will bring in 2017. There have already been unpleasant personal criticisms in the media which even suggest the First Sea Lord should consider resigning. This would be grossly unfair on a man doing a very good job in trying circumstances, but typical of the kind of unwanted press that can be expected. Whoever must carry responsibility, it is quite difficult to refute their allegation that sending warships unable to sink other warships to sea is equivalent to send sending soldiers into battle without rifles. Within the RN itself there is considerable alarm and despondency about the issue, another good reason to find a speedy resolution at a time when upholding morale and personnel retention is a top priority. Who wants to be aboard an RN warship in combat when not properly equipped to fight back?
This has already gone beyond just a naval concern with no less than 4 separate questions on the issue raised in Parliament until now. On 23rd November Theresa May was directly questioned on the mater during Prime Minister’s question time but her response was evasive and vague, “we continue to invest in our armed forces” etc. Ministers can expect to face further pressure about the issue, and so they should.
The root of the problem, as ever is simply lack of funds. The decision not to replace Harpoon was not taken in NCHQ, but by the MoD as far back as 2010. Doubtless those involved knew they would no longer be in that particular job by 2018 and having to live with the consequences. Sources suggest that within the office of the Second Sea Lord, responsible for maritime capability, every option is being considered and there is a determination to do something. However there is little room for manoeuvre, operating within such tight budgets and unless politicians recognise the danger and allocate specific additional funds, the RN will be unable to do anything or be forced to make cuts elsewhere.
The RN is confident the Type 26 frigate will put to sea with a vertically launched anti-ship missile in the late 2020s, possibly the Perseus missile derived from the Anglo-French Future Cruise & Anti-Ship Weapon (FCASW) project. This is a promising and highly capable hypersonic missile but a long way off in development. We cannot endure such as serious gap in capability for 10 years or more and an interim solution must be found. As we discussed in a previous post, there are several canister-launched anti-ship missiles available that could be purchased off the shelf, although sadly none of British origin. Complex weapons like this do not come cheap but we would not have to bear the cost of development and the canisters are relatively simple to bolt onto the deck in place of Harpoon. When the Type 23 Frigates decommission the interim missiles could be migrated to the Type 31 frigates.
There is precious little time to act. Harpoon 1C is already virtually obsolete and beyond economic life extension. An interim missile needs to be selected and ordered soon. We call on Ministers to quickly provide the resources needed before it does serious damage to the reputation of the Royal Navy and further undermines the credibility of UK defence.