MBDA announced today that the Type 45 destroyers will be enhanced with 24 Sea Ceptor missile cells. Here we consider the implications of this significant upgrade to the Royal Navy’s primary air defence platform.
The Integrated Review published in March 2021 promised enhancements to the Sea Viper missile system, but the news that Type 45s will receive additional missiles is a big step forward and a welcome surprise. A new 24-missile Sea Ceptor silo will be added in front of the current 48-missile Sylver VLS silo (See speculative mockup above), increasing the overall missile capacity from 48 to 72. Not only does this raise overall missile numbers by 50%, but also offers the potential to increase the range and reach of the existing Sea Viper system.
There has been considerable speculation that US-made Mk41 VLS might be fitted to the Type 45s, potentially to carry Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAM) or even SM-3 missiles for anti-ballistic missile defence. Despite the adoption of Mk41 on the Type 26 frigate, Mk41 will not now be fitted to the Type 45s.
Sea Ceptor provides short-medium range air defence for the ship and those in close company out to a range of at least 25km. Sea Ceptor is also able to engage small surface targets, such as fast attack craft and is a relatively light and agile missile with a small shipboard footprint. Currently, Type 45s carry a mix of Aster-15 and Aster-30 weapons. The 15 is used for the shorter range defence and has an effective range of around 30km. It is likely then that the RN will dispense with the Aster 15 entirely and fill all 48 of the existing Sylver VLS cells with the long-range, fast and accurate 30s which can provide effective area air defence. Quickly attaining Mach 4.5, it can destroy targets up to 120km away from the launch point and at an altitude of 20 km.
Sea Ceptor will not require additional fire control radars and can be guided by the existing Sampson radar. The Artisan radar used to provide Sea Ceptor guidance on the Type 23 frigates is based on technology derived from Sampson so integration into the Sea Viper/PAAMS system should not be too challenging. Sampson will provide initial target data to Sea Ceptor and updates are sent to the missile in flight via a two-way Platform Data Link Terminal (PDLT). Other than the modifications to the missile silo, two small PDLT aerials are likely to be the only external change to the ships. The Sea Ceptor missile itself has an advanced active radar seeker head for use in the terminal phase which removes the need for dedicated fire control radars.
The RN says the Eurosam (MBDA/Thales) consortium will “refresh” the Aster 30 missile in a joint British-French-Italian effort, supporting more than 100 highly-skilled jobs in Bristol, Stevenage, Gosport and Bolton. It is unclear exactly what the refresh involves, although missile stocks are 10-15 years old and obviously need refurbishment. There will also be an investment in the supporting facility at Defence Munitions in Gosport that handles the weapons before they are loaded onto the ships at the UHAF in Portsmouth.
There has been no official comment from the MoD about whether the UK is interested in the Aster-30 Block 1NT which is a French-Italian project to give Aster anti-ballistic missile capability. Block 1NT will be able to counter short and medium-range Ballistic Missiles at up to 1,500 km range. By freeing up additional VLS cells (and not going down the Mk41 route) the B1NT option looks increasingly attractive, especially as the RN must currently rely on US Navy escorts to counter the increasing ballistic missile threat to its carrier strike group.
The programme to enhance the Type 45 must fit around the Power Improvement Project (PIP) to resolve the propulsion issues while allowing the RN to retain sufficient active destroyers to support its existing carrier strike deployments. This means the project must be paced relatively slowly, the first Sea Ceptor-enhanced Type 45 should be delivered by the summer of 2026, with all 6 ships completed by winter 2032. The addition of Sea Ceptor is a relatively affordable option that offers a decent increase in the capability of Type 45 that is disproportionate to the cost. Upgrades to Sampson and a purchase of B1NT really would be the icing on the cake.