Royal Navy combatants – fitted for, but not with anti-ship missiles

After some optimism last year that the RN would be able to at least partially replace its ageing Harpoon anti-ship missile system, recent statements in Parliament have cast doubt over whether this can be achieved.

The national Audit report into the MoD’s Equipment Plan 2019-29 was published on 27 February and makes for mostly grim reading. Amongst various ‘high priority projects’, replacement for the Harpoon missile system is “not yet fully funded, and the Plan does not include the costs of developing them further.” Against a shortfall of between £2.9 – 13 Billion in the Equipment Plan as a whole, finding the money for even a modest stock of new missiles looks increasingly unlikely.

An MoD contract notice was issued in August 2019 seeking an Interim Surface to Surface Guided Weapon (I-SSGW) able to provide “a ship-launched, over-the-horizon precision anti-ship capability and a terrain-following precision maritime land attack capability.” The budget was supposed to be £200 million to provide missile systems for at least 5 ships. The “Interim” indicates that this purchase was intended to cover the gap in capability until the Anglo-French developed Future Cruise and Anti-Ship Weapon (FCASW) becomes available sometime in the early 2030s.

As the RN has never actually fired a heavyweight anti-ship missile in anger, this could be used as a reason for the lower priority given to SSGW. It may seem unlikely they would be needed in the immediate future while low-medium intensity maritime security tasks remain the focus but concern about state-on-state conflict is on the rise. 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 SSGW issue neatly sums up the UK’s predicament over whether it can remain credible in deterring or fighting a peer enemy, alone or in coalition. Has the desire to retain a full spectrum of capability left it spread so thin is becoming ineffective in any single domain?


This week Jeremy Quin, Defence Minister was asked if the Type 31 would carry SSGW. He confirmed that the design was “adaptable” and “may include an anti-ship missile system”. In the specification for the Type 31 issued by the RN in 2017, it was never a ‘core’ requirement. One might argue that Type 31 is intended to be employed primarily in the maritime security role, typically in the Arabian Gulf for which anti-ship missiles are supposedly less critical. However, events have a habit of overtaking such assumptions and ships may need to be rapidly redeployed to respond to events in higher threat environments. Nick Childs, Senior Fellow for Naval Forces and Maritime Security at ISS considers this a risky approach: “The glaring apparent omission is an anti-ship-missile capability, just at a time when such weapons are proliferating in regions where Type-31s could be forward-based. Indeed, the first of the US Navy’s Littoral Combat Ships to be fitted with Naval Strike Missiles has just deployed.” A survey of the world’s navies shows it is rare for first and second-tier navies to field even small combats without some kind of SSGW.

Attractive contenders for the RN’s I-SSGW requirement: the Saab RBS15 Mk 4 Gungnir and the Kongsberg Naval Strike Missile (NSM). Both are possible options but unfortunately there looks like there is no money to buy them (DSEI, September 2019).

Small and close

The RN will not lack effective anti-ship weapons in the 2020s for use against small-medium sized vessels at close and intermediate-range. At the top end is the Sea Venom missile which Leonardo says is on track to enter service with the Wildcat helicopter in 2021. This weapon is ideal for attacking small frigates, corvettes and fast attack craft and can be launched by the helicopter outside the range of most air defence systems. Alternatively, the Wildcat could carry up to 20 LMM Martlet missiles for use against small boat swarms or light combatants. It seems likely Marlet launchers will also be mounted on 30mm ASGC mounts in future. With the arrival of the first Type 31 and Type 26 friagtes in 2027 there will also be 3 new gun systems in service that have useful medium-short range. The 127mm carried by Type 26 has a maximum range of about 24km and the 57mm carried by Type 31 can reach to around 14km. Sea Ceptor also has some potential anti-ship capability. However, none of these weapons can match the range, destructive kenetic energy and weight of explosive delivered by standard or hypersonic SSGWs carried by the majority of adversary combatants.

The F-35B equipped with the SPEAR-3 standoff attack weapon does offer another potential anti-shipping capability but it is unclear when this integration will be ready.

Leave it to the submarines?

A historic perspective in helpful in understanding how the RN has arrived at this situation. In 1967 the Admiralty had rightly recognised the potential of the nuclear attack submarine and was arguing hard for the funds to construct a hunter-killer every year. The First Sea Lord at the time, Admiral Varyl Begg, submitted a paper to the Defence Minister Denis Healy, making the case for the SSN and revealing a new doctrine that relied primarily on submarines to sink warships. He wrote: “In considering how best to provide the fleet with an independent strike capability against missile-firing surface ships, the Admiralty Board has decided to rely on the Fleet Submarines. They therefore put forward only modest proposals for the arming of the fleet against the surface threat. No SSGW is to be introduced – at least during the 1970s and the only capability with the fleet itself will be armed helicopters, the 4.5” gun and such capability as surface-to-air weapons such as Sea Dart offer against surface targets… without its own nuclear submarines, the fleet will have only a small offensive deterrent capability against an enemy on the surface.”

This policy was moderated slightly in 1969 when the RN decided to purchase the French Exocet MM38 anti-ship missile, (HMS Norfolk was the first ship to be fitted with a SSGW in 1972) but the reliance on submarines was sound in principle as the torpedo was, and is still, the most reliable way to destroy surface ships.

In 1967 the RN was committed to building at least 12 SSNs, complimented by the Oberon class SSKs which eventually matured into a fearsome underwater force by the late 1970s and 80s. With its submarines now firmly established as the capital ships of the day, the surface fleet could afford to be less focussed on countering other warships. The was vindicated in 1982 by the ease which SSN, HMS Conqueror, sunk the cruiser ARA Belgrano, neutralising the Argentine Navy surface threat at a stroke. Exocet was replaced by Harpoon in the 1990s but the institutional mindset continues to see the submarine as the primary ship killer.

Unfortunately, the decision to abandon conventional submarines in the early 1990s and the scandalous mismanagement of SSN procurement has badly eroded the RN’s prime means to sink surface ships. As the submarine force has declined there has been only modest efforts to mitigate the loss of hitting power by up-arming the surface fleet. In the 2020s the Astute & surviving Trafalgar class SSNs, armed with their recently upgraded Spearfish torpedo are still a lethal threat to shipping. But the RN’s entire attack submarine force numbers just 6 or 7, which on a good day will see just 2 or 3 boats at sea. Boxed in by the cost and industrial limitations of submarine construction, if the RN is serious about being able to sink medium-large size combatants at range, then fitting effective SSGW to surface ships is the only remotely affordable, timely and viable solution.

The already semi-obsolete Harpoon Block 1C will go out of service in 2023. With a significant uplift in its budget as unlikely as ever, the RN is again left having to make impossible choices. A risk on ‘gapping’ anti-ship missile capability may have to be taken until the 2030s in order to avoid deleting other programmes which are considered to be of higher priority.