In February, after several months of dithering, the United Kingdom and France relaunched their Future anti-ship missile/Future cruise missile program (FMAN/FMC), which, led by the French and British subsidiaries of the MBDA, aims to develop the successors to the SCALP/Storm Shadow cruise and Exocet/Harpoon anti-ship missiles.
However, FMAN/FMC will not be operational by 2030, while the Royal Navy’s RGM-84 Harpoon missiles are reaching the end of their life, and it will be faced with a temporary break in capacity at a time when the international context is getting tougher due to the Russian military action on Ukraine.
The GWS 60 (Harpoon Block 1C) anti-ship missile systems were purchased from the United States in 1984 to equip four Series 3 Type 22 frigates and 16 Type 23 frigates built later. The Type 22 Series 3 frigates were decommissioned, the Harpoon launchers were stripped and relocated to all 13 remaining Type 23 frigates and three of the six new Type 45 Destroyers – HMS Daring, HMS Diamond and HMS Duncan.
The RGM-84 is an American anti-ship missile developed back in 1968. Since then, they have been modernized several times. The modification, which is in service with the Royal Navy, has a range of more than 150 kilometres. This is a little compared to other versions. But keep in mind that the RGM-84 is a universal missile. It can be placed on ships, aircraft, and submarines. The weight of the warhead is over 200 kilograms.
The situation could have been avoided insofar as, in 2016, some were already worried about the absence of an interim solution to replace the RGM-84 Harpoons, whose withdrawal was planned for 2018. “It’s as if [Admiral] Nelson had decided to get rid of his guns to return to the musket”, lamented a Royal Navy official in the columns of the daily “The Telegraph”.
The Royal Navy has also retired its Sea Skua anti-ship missile launched from helicopters with no replacement yet.
Better old than nothing
However, the British Ministry of Defense (MoD) decided to extend the RGM-84 Harpoons until 2023, and to launch, while launching the I-SSGW [Interim Surface-to-Surface Guided Weapon] program, which should make it possible to avoid a break in capacity and to wait for the commissioning of the first FMAN/FMC missiles.
In November 2021, the Royal Navy Chief of Staff, then Admiral Tony Radakin, told MPs in the House of Commons that the I-SSGW program had been “paused”. He said that the British Navy was “more interested in longer-range hypersonic missiles” and that the funding of 200 to 250 million pounds sterling then allocated to the acquisition of “provisional” anti-ship missiles for a few type frigates 23 could be used for other purposes. By February, the I-SSGW program cancellation was officially confirmed.
When Russia was suspected of invading Ukraine, the House of Commons Defense Select Committee warned, in a report published a few weeks earlier, that the Royal Navy’s “offensive capabilities” would be “further reduced when the Harpoon anti-ship missile was withdrawn without replacement”; And it added that the “More money must be invested to improve the lethality of the navy and to allow (the) ship to lead the fight against the enemy”.
The MoD has again changed its mind on the matter. During a parliamentary hearing on July 5, when he was questioned on this subject, Ben Wallace, the British Minister of Defence, indicated that the I-SSGW program would finally be relaunched.
“To replace the Harpoon, there is a plan for an interim solution. I can’t provide details yet as I don’t know when it will go out to tender, but there is a plan to do so,” Mr Wallace said.
In any case, several solutions are already available, including the LRASM [Long Range Anti-Ship Missile] from Lockheed-Martin, associated with the Mk41 VLS vertical launch system, the Naval Strike Missile from Kongsberg/Raytheon, the Gungnir RBS 15 Mk4 from Saab, the Sea Serpent from Israel Aerospace Industries or the Exocet MM40 Block IIIc from MBDA.
Harpoons consistent with the state of the Royal Navy
British military capabilities, in general, have been significantly reduced in recent years due to budget constrains. The situation with the Harpoon anti-ship missiles is a completely normal phenomenon that fits into the pan-European trend of general and irreversible disarmament.
The capabilities of the fleet – both surface and underwater – have sharply decreased, then why does it need missiles? Even the Type 45 destroyers are built exclusively for air defense tasks, and they don’t even have any serious strike weapons, except for a 114-mm gun.
At the same time, the removal of Harpoon missiles will not greatly limit the U.K.’s capabilities. The key potential enemy of the Royal Navy and the British in general are Russian submarines. As for China, the U.K. faces no threat at all, and the U.S. Navy contains it. And in this sense, the presence/absence of Harpoons is not critical.