In a Parliamentary answer, it was revealed this week that the RN’s Wildcat helicopter will not be certified to launch the Sea Venom missile until 2026.
FASGW(H) Sea Venom has been in development since the late 1990s as the replacement for Sea Skua light anti-ship missile which was retired in 2017. Sea Venom was supposed to go into service this year but it instead it appears this capability gap will now last almost a decade. The 2020 Defence Equipment Plan said that Sea Venom’s initial operating capability would be delayed until 2022 but the RN announced a pre-IOC version would be deployed with the Carrier Strike Group in 2021 and an ‘interim variant’ would achieve IOC in 2022, ahead of FOC in 2023. It was also admitted that “ongoing integration challenges continue to present time and cost challenges”. No images of a Wildcat helicopter carrying the weapon during the 2021 deployment were published and if a live test firing has been conducted by the RN it has not been made public.
The RN says it has “a number of aircrew trained in the operation of the current capability” but it will take another 3 years to train more aircrew, modify aircraft and ship magazines to achieve FOC.
Wildcats have been pictured regularly carrying dummy Sea Venom for flight testing and in the Summer of 2022 RFA Argus embarked an aircraft fitted with sensors to define the Shipboard Helicopter Operating Limits (SHOL) when fitted with the new weapon wings. This addition considerably affects the aerodynamic profile of the helicopter and the way it handles. Testing also included carrying a mix of Martlet and Sea Venom in various configurations. During exercise Tamber Shield in April 2023 Wildcat helicopters deployed in Norway to develop tactics for the use of Martlet and Sea Venom against fast attack craft but no weapons were fired.
Manufacturer MBDA has conducted a series of apparently successful developmental tests of the missile which began in 2017. These included testing the missile launch and release envelope and engagement modes, such as its low-altitude sea-skimming flight, lock-on after launch (LOAL), lock-on before launch (LOBL), operator-in-the-loop, and aim point refinement. MBDA announced they had concluded the test programme in November 2020 with the final qualification firings trials at the Ile du Levant test site in France. The programme’s costs have been shared between nations and by September 2020 the UK’s share of the lifetime cost was estimated at £945.3 million.
Sea Venom is a high-subsonic, light anti-ship missile with a range of more than 20 km and designed to counter small combatants up to the size of corvettes or small frigates. It carries a 30 kg semi-armour piercing fragmentation warhead optimised for attacking ships but can be used to attack small land targets. It was specifically designed for use in complex littoral environments and can be very precisely targeted with a variety of flight profiles and terminal manoeuvres. There is a two-way data link for in-flight monitoring and mid-course guidance updates and provides real-time video imagery back to the cockpit. The Infra-Red seeker head has advanced image processing to distinguish between targets and avoid decoys. The weapon is drop-launched and the booster motor does not fire until fully separated from the aircraft. The Wildcat can quickly turn away from the target after launch keeping it away from SAM engagement envelopes.
At a time when the RN is attempting to enhance lethality, delays in bringing Sea Venom to the frontline is an unwelcome development. A handful of heavyweight semi-obsolete Harpoon Block-1C anti-ship missiles remain in service with the RN (currently fitted to HMS Duncan, Lancaster and Kent). At least the Naval Strike Missile procurement is underway and will eventually be fitted to 11 escorts. HMS Somerset is currently in Devonport undergoing another unplanned docking but is having the mounting racks for NSM fitted. When she emerges it is understood she will embark the first batch of weapons directly from the manufacturers Kongsberg in Norway and will also likely carry out the Fleet weapons certification and the first RN test-firing of the system.
Arguably the heavyweight AShM has assumed greater importance as the likelihood of peer conflict has increased considerably since the development of Sea Venom started. However, Sea Skua demonstrated the utility and effectiveness of helicopter-launched missiles in the Falklands and Gulf conflicts and its longer-ranged successor should still be seen as an essential part of a mixed maritime strike capability.