How vulnerable is the Royal Navy’s surface fleet to a new generation of weapons?
In an earlier article we considered how the RN needs more weaponry to sink enemy warships. At the same time, the development of an increasingly dangerous new generation of weapons for use against surface ships is evolving. The RN is currently completing the design of the Type 26 and beginning the design of the Type 31 Frigates. It is vital that these 2 platforms are equipped to successfully resist these new threats. There are six emerging weapon categories that are of particular concern; hypersonic missiles, ballistic missiles, cavitating torpedoes, rail guns, lasers and UAVs. In this article we will focus on the missile threat.
The Royal Navy unfortunately has plenty of first-hand experience of what anti-ship missiles can do, 3 ships were hit by Exocet missiles during the Falklands war. Although an Israeli Destroyer was sunk by Russian-made missiles launched by Egyptian fast attack craft as far back as 1967, it was the Falklands conflict that really alerted navies to the power of the sea-skimmer. The first generation Exocet was relatively simple and slow compared with the sophisticated missiles widely available now. If they were hard to counter in 1982, the challenge is even greater today.
Victims of first generation missiles
Potential adversaries – weapons at the bleeding edge
Chinese and Russian industry has remained rather more proactive that its Western counterparts when it comes to developing anti-ship weaponry. Broadly speaking, Western designers are attempting to develop more stealthy and sophisticated missiles while Russian and Indian designers have gone for speed. Although the United States is developing hypersonic technology (loosely defined as greater than Mach 5), so far no anti-ship weapons have been publicly announced. Russia is collaborating with India on the development of the fastest cruise missile in the world the BrahMos-II (K) with a speed of around Mach 7 and range of around 300km. Due for testing in 2017, if this technology can be perfected it would be almost unstoppable. Russia plans to equip its two refurbished Kirov class battle cruisers with vertical launch cells for up to 80 of these weapons (called Zircon in Russian service) that can be fired in numbers to saturate defences.
Defence against Hypersonic missiles presents a huge challenge to surface ships. There is so little time to react that even if detected, existing defences may be entirely inadequate. Even if the missile is broken up or detonated by close-in weapons, the debris has so much kinetic energy that the ship may still be badly damaged.
China has developed the infamous DF21-D ‘carrier killer’ which is a ballistic missile, primarily designed to kill aircraft carriers by descending from the outer atmosphere at around Mach 10. Although this system is as-yet unproven, according to some excitable analysts its existence is already calling into question the entire viability of aircraft carriers and forcing a rethink of the concept of operations (CONOPS) for the US Navy.
Even before the development of ballistic or hypersonic weapons, modern anti-ship missiles offer a major threat; agile, resistant to countermeasures and typically capable of speeds between Mach 0.9 – 2.0. Many countries posses them and they can be carried by small vessels, launched from mobile platforms on land or even containerised and placed on apparently innocent merchant ships. These are truly asymmetric weapons, where a small or cheap craft carries a punch that can disable large and sophisticated warships. Iran is actively developing a range of anti-ship missiles which pose a particularly serious threat in the confined waters of the Persian Gulf where the RN needs to operate.
On paper at least, the RN’s potential adversaries appear to have the more formidable anti-ship weaponry either in development or already operational but none of these systems are combat-proven. In Russia there are signs that the fiscal reality of plunging oil prices and Western sanctions is starting to slow the huge expansion and modernisation of their forces. The Chinese economy is also slowing which may start to halt their ballooning military buildup. The development of sophisticated weapons at the frontiers of technology and their manufacture in large numbers may prove to be unaffordable, even if all the technical hurdles are overcome.
It is still remarkably difficult to locate and persistently track ships at sea, particularly in the large oceans. The achilles heel of all long-range anti-ship missiles is the need for accurate target data to be pre-programmed or fed in real-time to the weapon. In the vast areas of the Pacific or the Atlantic Oceans targets maybe hard to locate. Conflict in more enclosed seas such as the Persian Gulf, the Mediterranean, Baltic or Norwegian Sea leaves less place to hide.
Assuming you cannot destroy the launch platform, there are five main ways that ships can potentially defend against missiles.
1. Hard kill
The first line of defence against sea skimmers for the RN lies with the Sea Viper missile carried by the Type 45 destroyers. Directed by one of the best sensor suites ever put to sea, the Principal Anti Air Missile System (PAAMS) can detect, track and engage multiple supersonic targets unto 70 miles away. Although not combat proven or tested in more than single salvos, there is great confidence in the system including by the US Navy. The QE aircraft carriers will not be allowed into harms way without at least one Type 45 in attendance.
The Sea Ceptor system is currently replacing the combat-proven Sea Wolf point defence missile on the Type 23 frigates and will be fitted to the Type 26. Sea Ceptor will be a big improvement on Sea Wolf. Most significantly, its longer range allows it to engage supersonic missiles further out and provide better coverage for groups of ships.
As a last ditch-defence, most RN warships and some auxiliaries carry the ubiquitous Phalanx Block-1B CWIS which can fire 4,500 20mm shells per minute at an incoming missile. Crudely effective, it should be able to break up an incoming missile although the debris may still damage at the ship. (The more powerful 30mm Goalkeeper CIWS is going out of RN service shortly.)
2. Soft kill – decoys
RN warships all have launchers for a variety of decoys including basic chaff (metal strips to confuse radar) and flares to decoy infra-red sensors. The Type 45 and 23/26 also have launchers for floating decoys designed to simulate a ship’s radar signature. With seconds to react it takes considerable skill to select which type of decoy to use and where to position it. The decoys maybe effective but once the missile has been seduced, it is hard to predict what it will do next. It may either home in on another ship or reset and come round at attack again.
3. Electronic countermeasures
The complex and mostly classified world of electronic warfare is often overlooked and underestimated when making judgements about the relative merits of warships. In broad terms Western navies are acknowledged as having the edge in this area and the RN is no exception. Jamming, spoofing and even cyber warfare techniques provide a measure of defence against missiles that is very hard to quantify using open sources.
4. Manoeuvering, tactical positioning
With sufficient warning it maybe possible to turn the ship to present a more difficult target to the missile’s sensors. With the increasing speed of missiles this warning time is reducing and turning a ship may take minutes when only seconds are available. In rare instances when operating close to land in may be possible to confuse sensors by keeping close to the coast or by hiding amongst other vessels.
5. Sacrificial lambs
A naval task group will typically form up with the “high value units” such as the aircraft carrier in the centre with the more expendable escorts or merchant ships ‘up threat’. Any missile that makes it through the outer defensive screen is therefore more likely to hit a less important vessel. This was the case with the MV Atlantic Conveyor which absorbed 2 Exocets as she presented a large attractive target. Her loss was serious but nowhere near as disastrous as the loss of the aircraft carrier would have been. Some modern missiles can defeat this with sophisticated sensor and search algorithms that help them distinguish the primary target.
There are no cheap and easy solutions to defend against proliferating anti-shipping threats. The days of bolting a Phalanx CIWS onto a ship and being fairly content that the ship can consider itself protected from air and missile threats are probably over.
The RN has no anti-ballistic missile capability yet but the ‘gold standard’ Type 45 and Type 23/26 escorts appear to be just about able to defend against anti-ship missiles, provided equipment and personnel are all operating at peak performance when put to the ultimate test. These ships must be capable of protecting other ships, besides themselves and this adds yet another layer of complexity.
This issue is of particular pertinence to the Type 31 design which will supposedly produce a cheap escort ship that must still be credible in the face of these complex threats.
As ever, the biggest worry would be the saturation attack by multiple missiles arriving simultaneously or sustained attacks which would quickly deplete ammunition. The Type 45 can load a maximum of 48 Sea Viper missiles and a Type 26 has similar numbers of Sea Ceptors, hardly a generous allowance, especially when there are so few escort ships anyway. Retro-fitting of Sea Ceptor to the QE class carriers at the earliest opportunity would seem sensible.
Hypersonic and ballistic missiles may become standard naval weapons in the next decade. It may transpire that yet-to-be-developed directed energy weapons (Lasers) are the only real defence against them. DE weapons need powerful electrical supplies. The Type 45 and 26 designs appear to have some margin of space to add additional generating capacity but this will be another expensive challenge for the future.
(Main image: Sea Ceptor missile, MBDA)
- Is the Royal Navy surface fleet losing the ability to sink other warships? (Save the Royal Navy)
- Zircon Hypersonic Missile in Development Testing for Russian Navy Kirov-class Cruiser (Navy Recognition)
- Sunburn v CIWS – Are US carrier groups outmatched? (Station 6)
- How vulnerable are US Navy vessels to advanced anti-ship cruise missiles? (Military & Aerospace Electronics)
- Is China’s DF-21D really a threat to the US Navy? (National Interest)