In an encouraging statement to Parliament this week, it was revealed that the Type 26 frigates will be equipped with the Future Cruise/Anti-Ship Weapon (FCASW) from 2028. This confirms there has been positive progress with the FCASW project and the RN will be able to field a ship-based land-attack and much-improved anti-shipping capability sooner than expected.
The MoD says the Anglo-French FCASW programme is due to complete the Concept Phase this month. This work includes operational analysis, technical studies and initial design to refine user requirements and better understand the options available. A ‘business case’ will be presented to ministers for consideration before entering the Assessment phase. So far the MoD has spent £95M on the project, with the French contributing a similar amount.
It is a positive step to see a firm commitment to target dates, the Planning Assumption for Service Entry (PASE) on the Type 26 frigate 2028 and 2030 for the RAF Typhoon (as the replacement for Storm Shadow). There is no mention of a plan to integrate the weapon on the F-35 which would have to be carried externally, although this needs to be added to a long wish list for the future.
Until now, the in-service date for FCASW had always been described vaguely as “sometime in the early 2030s” but with a commitment to 2028, this would suggest that substantial progress has been made in the Concept phase. This also helps allay concerns that the first RN Type 26 frigates would become operational and have nothing but fresh air in their Mk41 silo. Further good news on the Type 26 frigate project was contained in the June 201 NAO report, the first ship HMS Glasgow, will be in service a year ahead of the 2027 date originally announced.
Coming hot on the heels of the news that the Type 45 destroyers will receive Sea Ceptor, the ‘move to the left’ of the FCASW programme suggests that hopes for more firepower for the Royal Navy are at last being realised. The winner of the Interim Surface to Surface Guided weapon (ISSGW) competition to replace the obsolete Harpoon Block 1C should be announced shortly. The contract calls for delivery of the shipboard equipment by December 2022 and the first delivery of missiles by December 2023. The manufacturer must support the weapon in service for at least 4 years but there is an option to continue support for another 9 years. I-SSGW is likely to be fitted to a few Type 23 frigates and hopefully migrated to the Type 31 frigates. There is a good chance that I-SSGW and FCASW will overlap in service, providing the RN with two modern anti-ship missile options in the early 2030s.
Even if the outline specification for FCASW has been decided, it is not yet public. In 2011 MBDA developed the Perseus concept and it is possible that FCASW will be similar. Perseus was an 800kg weapon with a central 200kg warhead and two auxiliary 50kg warheads deployed together to increase the impact on larger targets, or separately to hit additional targets nearby. Propelled by an air-breathing ramjet engine and capable of reaching speeds of Mach 5 (it could be classed as a hypersonic weapon) but had a modest range for its class of 300km. (TLAM range is around 1,000km, Storm Shadow 560km and Harpoon B1C 148km)
Apart from the obvious air-launch capability, the MoD’s announcement implies that FCASW will also be compatible with the Mk41 VLS cells of the Type 26 (as well as the Sylver 70 cells of the French Navy). It is unclear if the potential for submarine launch will be part of the specification.
A design that meets the demands of two customers and two tasks will be challenging. The weapon will ideally need to be hypersonic, compact enough for air-launch and fit existing VLS cell dimensions while having sufficient reach to penetrate advanced A2AD bubbles from a safe distance. It must also be agile and intelligent enough to resist sophisticated decoys, as well as hard kill measures employed by warships deployed by adversaries in the mid 21st century. It must also have a warhead of sufficient power to destroy hardened targets on land. For the designers of FCSAW, it is vital to get it right. It will comprise a critical strategic asset for the two largest militaries in Europe with power projection aspirations.