Should HMS Queen Elizabeth be fitted with her own missile defences?

In an earlier article, we considered how the RN would use layered defence to protect the Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers. There has been particular concern about the lack of defensive missiles fitted to the ship themselves and here we focus on the advantages and disadvantages of fitting the CAMM(M) Sea Ceptor system.

Should the QEC be fitted with Sea Ceptor? The short answer is yes but the long answer is that it would be more complex than it may first appear. A very crude estimate would be £25 million per ship to fit and integrate the system. (Not including the purchase of additional missile stocks). With so many other competing priorities for the RN’s constrained resources, it must be recognised that any upgrade to the carriers is likely to remain a long-term ambition.

The case against

Adding complex weapon systems to an aircraft carrier is unattractive for a number of reasons. From and engineering and operations point of view it is preferable to outsource the task to escorts specifically designated to protect other vessels.

The QEC were designed to maximise the flight deck and hangar space available for aircraft and there is no internal space earmarked for missile silos. Fitting Sea Ceptor would probably involve adding the silos, one each side on the edge of the flight deck. Additional fire and blast risk to the ship made by adding munitions would have to be evaluated. The silos would need some form of external ballistic protection if placed on the side of the ship, otherwise, they could add vulnerability even to small arms fire or RPGs. Methods for safely embarking and removing missiles when alongside also need consideration.

When surface to air missiles (SAM) are launched, they leave behind smoke and a debris trail. This is an impediment to safe aircraft operations due to the risk of foreign object damage (FOD) caused by ingesting debris into jet engines. Before flying operations could restart, a time-consuming FOD inspection of the deck would be needed which could present tactical difficulties if there is an urgent requirement to generate aircraft stories quickly.

Installation of missiles would require integration with the ship’s radars and operations room. The missile guidance system must be set up so as not to interfere with both the ship’s and its aircraft’s radars and communications. There is another greater challenge to deconflict the system with friendly aircraft. Missiles designed to react in seconds to defend against supersonic threats have to be largely automated so the system must have a robust IFF system (Identification Friend or Foe) to ensure the carriers own aircraft are not engaged. Flight paths around the carrier also need to be designed to ensure they avoid the missile arcs. Additional warfare personnel would also be required in the operations room to control the system and weapons engineers needed to maintain it.

All of these challenges can, and have been, surmounted on other carriers but it is easy to see why it may appear attractive to place the missiles on escort ships.

Despite not having a point defence missile, the QEC does have some hard-kill defences – 3 x 20mm Block 1B Phalanx guns and 4 x 30mm Automated Small Caliber Guns (ASCG). These guns systems provide a measure of last-ditch protection from missiles. Phalanx is effective and may be able to break up missiles but at close range may not do enough to dissipate its kinetic energy and debris could still damage the ship.

Some historical context

HMS Invincible fires a Sea Dart. Despite the large blast deflector behind the launcher, the flight deck is covered in smoke and flying operations were adversely affected.

The Invincible class carriers that preceded the QEC in service were originally fitted with the GWS-30 Sea Dart designed to defend against high and medium altitude air attack. These ships were conceived as anti-submarine ’through deck cruisers’ to operate in the Norwegian Sea where they might expect intense Soviet air and missile attacks. During the Falklands conflict, HMS invincible fired 6 missiles in anger, although the targets were later assessed as spurious. Based on 1960s technology, Sea Dart comprised a large magazine, deck launcher, blast shield, two fire-control radars and miscellaneous below deck equipment. Once fitted with their Phallax CIWS, in such a small carrier, additional space for aircraft was ultimately considered more important and the cumbersome Sea Dart was removed from all three carriers in the mid-1990s. The older carrier HMS Hermes was also fitted with the Sea Cat GWS-22 point defence missile system. Originally developed in the 1950s it could be radar, CCTV or manually aimed but was dangerously obsolete by the 1980s while still fitted widely across the RN fleet. Historically, fitting guided missiles to aircraft carriers was clearly considered worthwhile by the RN.

Early in the development phase of the CVF programme (that ultimately delivered the design for the QEC), BAE Systems was tasked with investigating the cost and feasibility of fitting the PAAMS air defence missile system. Some initial CVF concepts showed the Sampson radar and silos for Aster-15 missiles. Other BAE concepts showed the CFV fitted with the simpler Raytheon Sea RAM.

In 2002 the first round of cost-cutting measures was applied to the design concepts and the requirement for the Aster missile system was predictably deleted. In late 2003 another cost-cutting design review saw the deletion of all hard-kill weapons systems (including Phalanx) and a reliance on soft-kill defences alone. Fortunately, this folly was later reversed.

French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle fires an Aster-15 missile. The ship carries 32 missiles in two double 8-cell A-43 Sylver launch silos, one on each side of the ship at flight deck level. (Photo: MBDA)

The case in favour

The nations’ flagship may have upwards of 1,600 souls on board, cost at least £3 billion to construct and carry an air group potentially worth another £2 billion. Shortcuts in the protection of these expensive assets for modest savings do not seem to make sense. As discussed in an earlier article there is a proliferation of ever-faster anti-ship missiles that put surface fleets at risk.

The PAAMS fitted to the Type 45 destroyers is arguably the best air defence system at sea today and the RN rightly has great confidence in the system to protect the fleet. The T45 may embark a maximum of 48 Aster 15 and Aster 30 missiles (Whether the MoD actually has sufficient stocks to provide a full outfit for all deploying ships is doubtful). The Aster is a very effective missile but as fail safe back up, plans to add an additional close range PDMS to the T45 in the shape of the Raytheon Sea RAM were shelved as a cost-saving measure early in their development.

Salvoes and leakers

Assuming an adversary is able to accurately locate the carrier battle group, the most likely form of above-water attack will be a salvo of missiles intended to arrive simultaneously and overwhelm defences. The Type 45 is designed to handle multiple engagements but if enough missiles are fired, some may still get through. It is these ‘leakers’ that are the compelling reason to fit a PDMS to the carrier itself. The Type 45 needs to be in the right place, at the right time, every time to protect the carrier. This does not allow for the possibility of PAAMS becoming serviceable or the attack coming from a blind arc or any number of human or technical failures occurring at the wrong moment. Sea Ceptor on the QEC reduces the gamble that the T45 or other escorts will always perform perfectly, while it is clearly desirable to have as many layers of protection as possible in the face of potential mass attacks.

The Type 23 and future Type 26 frigates are armed with Sea Ceptor and can potentially provide air defence for the carrier. When assigned as close escort, this may restrict them in their critical anti-submarine role where they may need to operate some distance away from the self-generated noise of the carrier group. During the Falklands war, the two modern ASW frigates fitted with the only effective PDMS, Sea Wolf we required to spend much of their time on arduous goalkeeping duties, conforming exactly to the movements of the carriers.

At the time the QEC design was conceived, the RN expected to commission 12 Type 45s and have an escort fleet totalling around 30 vessels. As everyone is now painfully aware, there RN got just 6 Type 45s and its escort fleet is down to 19, with insufficient personnel even to man this modest number. The assumption that QEC will have plenty of escorts to protect her is in tatters. Either pretty much the entire available escort fleet must be dedicated to her protection or we are reliant on foreign escorts with the political limitations and operational challenges that brings.

American carrier USS Theodore Rosevelt fires a RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM). It lacks the range or guidance sophistication of Sea Ceptor or Aster but can destroy incoming missiles further from the ship than Phalanx. Note the launcher sited below flight deck level avoiding blast and debris limiting flight operations. (Photo: US Navy)

Everyone else is doing it, so why can’t we?

A quick survey of large aircraft carriers in service across the globe reveals that every other navy has opted to fit defensive missile systems. The US Nimitz class and the newer USS Gerald R Ford class have 4 mounts for RIM-7 / RIM-162 Sea Sparrow or RIM-116 RAM in addition to their Phalanx mounts. The ancient Russian carrier Admiral Kuznetsov is armed with 195 3K95 Khinzal SAMs. Even the Chinese navy, a newcomer to the carrier game has fitted 3 x HQ-10 PDMS to the Liaoning which is essentially a trials and training platform and of course, the French navy has fitted Aster-15 to the Charles De Gaulle. Does the RN possess some unique tactical insight that qualifies the Queen Elizabeth class to sail the seas as the only large aircraft carriers in the world not fitted with their own defensive missile system?

Yes we CAMM

When the QEC were being designed the only proven option for a PDMS would have been the ageing GWS-26 Sea Wolf. Still an effective system, it requires dedicated fire-control radars and would be much more complex to install than Sea Ceptor. The Common Anti-Air Modular Missile (CAMM) project that delivered Sea Ceptor has now given the RN a great opportunity to retrofit a very capable new system to older vessels as it has a much smaller equipment footprint than its predecessor. It does not require dedicated fire-control radar and can be cued using the Artisan radar already installed on the QEC. The missiles are initially cold-launched by a compressed air-driven piston before the rocket motor ignites about 30 meters above the ship. This innovation allows the launch cells to be smaller and lighter without the need for ducting arrangements for blast and efflux. The ship also avoids being temporarily enveloped in smoke and toxic fumes, particularly important for personnel working on the flight deck. The Type 23 frigates carry their missiles in a sealed protective canister. On launch, it breaks out of the top of the canister, expelling some debris. Using silo doors instead, similar to the Sylver launchers, could overcome this issue. Sea Ceptor benefits from a range of around 25km, offering an area defence capability comparable with Aster-15 and well beyond the point defence range of RIM-116 or Sea Wolf.

At the heart of this dilemma is a deeper question about whether UK forces are properly equipped to take on peer or even near-peer opponents (whether in coalition or not). Our potential adversaries may conclude the QEC are semi-showpiece vessels, only really safe to operate in fairly benign conditions against unequal opponents (which in the main, has been the convenient experience for western navies in the past few decades). The failure to properly replace the RN’s obsolete Harpoon anti-ship missiles is another case in point. Alternatively, for a relatively modest investment, we could avoid risky compromises and fit much more powerful defensive and offensive armament to our warships which are otherwise excellent platforms.