The puzzling absence of UK fixed-wing maritime strike capability

To compound the lack of a modern anti-ship missile for the RN surface fleet, there is also a worrying absence of airborne anti-ship capability both in the RN and the RAF. John Dunbar argues that such an important strategic asset represents good value for money, especially given the heavy investment in aircraft carriers and aircraft capable of delivering a modern generation of missiles.

After the Second World War it was clear that the aircraft had become a deadly threat to surface ships. Even simple bombs and cannons were able to inflict serious damage to the RN during the Falklands War. The air-launched Exocet anti-shipping also exerted a profound influence on the conduct of operations, even though Argentina possessed just 5 missiles. Perhaps the most important lesson was that the anti-shipping missiles can have both strategic as well as a tactical effect. During the Cold War the RAF and RN trained hard and were equipped for in maritime strike role. Its demise began with the premature retirement of the Sea Eagle missile carried by the Sea Harrier in 2000 and the axing of the Harpoon-equipped Nimrod in 2010.

Future anti-shipping platforms

There are no firm plans to address the airborne maritime strike gap, although there are plenty of viable and affordable options becoming available. The Poseidon P-8 Maritime patrol Aircraft is capable of carrying a wide range of internal and external armament, and will provide both reach and persistence in maritime environments. Three will be in RAF service from 2020, with nine in service by the mid to late 2020’s. In US service Poseidon carries the Harpoon Block II, which could be easily substituted with the longer range Harpoon Block II ER in UK service.

RAF and Royal Navy F35’s could offer both shore-based and carrier based fixed wing anti-shipping capabilities. The F35A and C will be capable of internal carry of the Norwegian Naval Strike Missile which has been in service since 2012 but this is too large for the shortened internal weapon bays of the UK’s F35B, suggesting that a weapon will either need to be carried externally – impacting on the F35’s stealth but permitting a wider range of armament choice – or an alternative missile will need to be found for internal carriage.

The RAF’s Typhoon is theoretically capable of carrying most currently available and future anti-shipping missiles but there are no firm plans for integration at this time. MBDA are rumoured to be offering the Marte ER anti-shipping missile as part of the Typhoon’s P4E upgrade package in the medium term but there are no plans for a UK purchase. P-8 and F-35 will not always be available to deploy alongside Typhoon due to constraints on overall numbers, suggesting that there would be clear benefits to Typhoon also having anti-shipping capability, not least as a deterrent to warships getting too close to the UK

Introducing and maintaining a mixed inventory of Naval Strike missile, Harpoon and Marte ER seems likely to be uneconomic, particularly given longer term development plans for the Anglo-French Future Cruise/ Anti-Ship Weapon (FC/ASM). Provisionally to be known as Perseus, FC/ASM is intended to be the Royal Navy long term replacement for Harpoon on UK warships, and for Storm Shadow on RAF aircraft, but will not enter service until 2030. Other available options include the RBS15 Mk3 – a comparison of key characteristics of in-service and future missiles is set out below.

Year in service Weight Range Speed Warhead Land Attack capable Unit Cost
Exocet Block 3 2008 670Kg 180km Mach 0.92 165K Y
Harpoon Block II ER 2018? 248Kg 248km 537mph 140kg Y $1.2m
Naval Strike Missile/
Joint Strike Missile
2012 400kg upto 500km Mach 0.9 125kg Y less than $0.8m
Marte ER 2018 300kg 100km + Mach 0.9 70-90kg? N Unknown
RBS15 MK3 2016 800kg 250km Subsonic 200Kg Y $2.8m?
Long Range Anti Ship Missile 2018/19 700-800kg 560km Mach 0.9 450kg Possibly $0.7-1m
FCASM / Perseus 2030? 800KG approx 300km Mach 3 200kg +2x40kg Y Unknown

The key challenge is to choose the right missile to maximise the performance of platforms that are available, and in doing so there are a range of other issues to consider. Poseidon will often operate at high altitude, so it would come within range of advanced long-range surface to air missiles such as the S-300 or S-400. If equipped with the NSM (externally carried) which has a 125km range, the F35B might also be exposed to these threats. Typhoon is not stealthy, does not have long legs without air to air refuelling, and the Marte ER missile range of 100km+ exposes aircraft to the same challenge from S-300 and S-400 likely to be experienced by F35 and P-8.

Fortunately, there is a solution available which offers to address many of these issues in the medium term. Lockheed Martin’s Long Range Anti-Shipping Missile (LRASM) is a stop gap solution developed by DARPA to address a shortfall in US Navy capabilities. Stealthy, capable of ‘wilful penetration’ of layered defence and Electronic Counter Measures (according to Lockheed Martin) the LRASM has a devastating 450Kg warhead. More importantly, the LRASM range of 580Km would allow any UK aircraft to launch from a stand of range exceeding that of S300 or S400 systems, as well as addressing shortfalls in the combat range of F35B and typhoon (an F35B with LRASM would be able to strike at ranges comparable to F35A or F35 C carrying NSM) and allowing the limited number of P-8 to exercise influence over much larger areas of ocean.

LRASM is already being tested in the Mk41 Vertical Launch System that will equip type 26 frigates (and which could be retrofitted to Type 45 destroyers) and a canister based launch system is being developed for the US Navy’s Littoral Combat Ships. Development costs for the RN, looking for a replacement for their current Harpoon Block C missiles, would therefore be limited to ship integration trials. LRASM may also be developed to have land attack capability and the published unit costs are equivalent or lower than most of the available alternatives.

There have been commercial challenges to the US Navy’s decision to award a contract without competition (which will be undertaken for a longer term US replacement paralleling the FC/ASM programme) – but there are no good reasons why the UK should not take advantage of US investment in LRASM. If the UK were to take the lead in adopting LRASM, integration and testing costs might be shared by the USMC and Italian air force (on F35B), and other partners also flying Typhoon.

The numbers problem

Both P-8 and F35 will be available in very low numbers in the short to medium term, and will continue to be high value but scarce assets once fully in service. F35 in particular will need to be prioritised for carrier based deployment, meaning that the Eurofighter Typhoon will be the primary shore based fixed wing platform available for other overseas deployment. But Typhoon availability will also be stretched – once the Tornado GR4 retires, 80 Typhoon will be expected to meet UK QRA duties (40 aircraft) as well as Falklands, Baltic and Iraq / Syria deployments (currently totalling 26 aircraft).

Current RAF focus on the maritime strike is non-existent, the page on their website about anti-shipping shows nothing but a photo of a Stingray anti-submarine torpedo. A wildcard option would be for the Navy to support the RAF case for extending the in-service life of a few Tornado GR4s until 2025-28 to provide continued availability of the highly valued RAPTOR surveillance capability, and reduce overstretch on Typhoon. Tornado is also optimised for high performance and long range at low-level, making it an ideal maritime strike platform. Dedicating a Tornado squadron to be focused on the anti-shipping role by adding LRASM could be undertaken immediately and without interrupting introduction in service of P-8 or planned development of the Typhoon, as well as allowing P-8 to focus on its anti-submarine role. This would also reduce RAF / Navy tensions over prioritising F-35B for carrier deployment, particularly given that the RAF will be reliant on F-35B sensor capability to replace RAPTOR.


As usual, inadequate funding is at the root of the current capability gap and limits future options. The purchase of 80 LRASM might cost around £60m (plus integration costs per aircraft type around £100m). These costs could be shared by other interested nations or services, and would be offset in any case by purchase cost of an interim Harpoon replacement (for the RN surface ships and P-8) and development of either external carriage of NSM, or an alternative internally carried anti-shipping missile for F35-B. These are, however, relatively modest costs considering the billions spent on P-8, F-35 and CVF, and would significantly enhance the capability of all these platforms in service.


The current lack of both air and ship launched anti-shipping missiles in the UK inventory is cause for both embarrassment and concern, and priority must be given to ensuring that Royal Navy carrier strike capability is restored, alongside equipping Maritime Patrol Aircraft to protect UK waters. LRASM offers a solution which would not only reinstate a high-value capability, but which would give the RN and RAF significant advantage over even peer opposition until introduction of Perseus around 2030. Given the UK Government’s stated objective to continue to influence events on the global stage, together with growing Russian warship activity near to the UK mainland, investing in fixed wing maritime strike is not just a necessity, but also looks like exceptional value for money.


Main image: USN P-8A Poseidon conducts release testing of Harpoon shapes. (Photo: US Naval Air Systems Command, 2013)