When talking about warships, the image that comes to most people minds are the battleships of the past with their huge 12 inch guns but today there’s far more to it.

Indeed, watching old black and white footage of these ships as they fire a full broadside at an unseen enemy can give you a feeling of awe and wonder, imagining who would be foolish enough to stand up to such destructive power. HMS Dreadnought for example had five twin BL 12 inch Mark X guns and 27 single 12 PDR 18 CWT Mark 1 guns as well as 5 18 inch torpedo tubes.

Taking this image people then compare modern day Royal Navy surface combatants and some quickly come to the conclusion that they are under armed. Take the type 45 Daring Class Destroyer for example, with its 4.5 inch mark 8 naval gun, two Oerlikon 30mm guns and two Phalanx CIWS plus the Sea Viper Missile System and on the surface there is no comparison. When people make these basic comparisons however, they are missing at least two major chunks of a modern warship armoury.

The first more obvious one is a ships radar and sensor suite. Information and intelligence gathering is so essential in modern effect based warfare that being able to detect and outmaneuver your opponent before he can do the same to you normally means you have already won an engagement before any shots or missiles have been fired.

This is regardless of how many actual weapons systems a ship has and is one of the reasons (the other being offensive naval air power) why the huge and impressive battleships of the Dreadnought era are hopelessly out matched by a relatively small Type 23 Frigate who can detect, outmaneuver and engage such a large and ponderous target before it could ever hope to respond.

The other part of a modern warships armoury is its passive defence or soft kill systems. The Royal Navy deploys on its ships a number of passive defence systems.

  • The Airbone SYS IDS300 decoy which is a ship-deployed, passive radio frequency (RF) anti-missile countermeasure, designed to defeat even the most up-to-date developments in anti-ship RF missile seekers.
  • The radar-band electronic support measures (RESM) system supplied by Thales sensors which allows the ship to detect, intercept, identify, locate, record, and/or analyze sources of radiated electromagnetic energy for the purposes of immediate threat recognition (an example of this would be detecting an active radar lock of an anti-ship missile).
  • The Outfit DLH active Naval off board decoy system supplied by BAE Systems, which includes the Siren decoy, this decoy system is an expendable radiating decoy against radar guided missiles.
  • The Seagnat Control System which is a six launcher decoy system that can be loaded with different rounds, depending on the threat.
  • And the Hammerhead CESM (communications electronic support measures) system which replaced the obsolete lighthouse CESM system on all Royal Navy ships.

These systems are normally completely ignored by people when comparing the paper statistics of surface combatants and I have been in many a discussion where they have been dismissed with a wave of a hand.

It is my personal belief that these systems are in fact more important than CWIS which is a last line defence system. They fit perfectly within the effect based warfare doctrine and help disrupt the other essential component of Naval warfare which is information gathering by the weapon systems of you opponent.

All modern long/medium range offensive Naval weapons systems are “smart”, in that they use some form of radar/ heat seeker or the parent ships radar to lock on and engage their target. Now soft kill systems prevent these from finding their target by confusing these weapon systems, thereby rendering the vessel difficult to target and engage. The effect gives the vessel a distinct advantage in a Naval engagement and this advantage can then be exploited and gives you the upper hand in information and intelligence battle.

This ability to disrupt an opponent’s ability to actively engage you is a hugely important capability in which the Royal Navy puts a heavy emphasis on. The reason these and a ships sensor suite are not taken into consideration by the casual observer is because of a failure of that person to realise that not all weapons systems actually fire anything, and that modern warfare is in some ways a lot more complex than it used to be, when a ship on ship engagement was decided purely on the size and number of its guns and the competence and bravery of its crew. Those days are gone for ever.

So in conclusion when looking at a modern Royal Navy warship and its capabilities,  though it’s easy to dismiss certain aspects of its armoury, in doing so it’s easy to miscalculate the vessel’s full spectrum of capabilities when concentrating on the more “sexy” aspects of the ship, like the number of guns and missiles it has.


  1. Surely if a pair of combatants are similarly capable and equipped with similarly intelligent systems – able to thwart and counterattack each other’s most sophisticated missiles…

    … then surely the winner will be the one who can deliver sufficient dumb artillery on to the opposing vessel?

    The concept described in the article is surely only applicable to conflicts between non-peer combatants?

    NATO may still be technologically superior and better trained but this gap is surely closing and it would be blindingly arrogant, if not hubristic, to develop one’s strategies on the assumption that NATO, the UK, is technologically and strategically superior to our competitors: simply because we always were. This is how people get killed and ships get sunk.

    • Slightly correct, more like spamming your enemy with an overwhelming amount of smart missiles to deplete or overwhelm their defenses and countermeasures. This is why the US is putting anti-air and anti-ship missiles on anything that floats as well as trying very hard to keep their cruisers well past there sell by date. You just cant beat a ship that can sling 122 missiles.

  2. The author writes that the modern person forgets a couple of things when comparing modem day ships with Dreadnoughts of old these being Radar and Soft kill systems. But the fact remains for the Dreadnought era, Radar did not exist, rather Admirals relied on crows nests and forward deployed assets in which to get a lay of the land (in this case sea)

    As for soft kill systems, the ships of old used tiger stripes, smoke, torpedo nets , In fact the Destroyer first came into service as the Torpedo boat destroyer in which to ward off the cruise missile carrier of its day the torpedo boat

  3. the reality is that if the old ship was able to get a broadside off, it would be game over. No counter measures have yet to be designed that can deal with a canon shell.

    The main advantage modern ships have is the ability to target and attack the older ship accurately and beyond visual range.

    I wonder if there is an argument to reintroduce the big guns into modern ships, to get through the counter missile systems.

    Modern radar and targeting systems mixed with a range of 12 inch guns would be very effective even now.

    • Modern day 12 inch guns are rail guns. Once they come in to play, the game completely changes. Good luck trying to intercept a solid metal projectile been fired from 160KMs at mach 7, with the possibility of firing multiple, if not dozens of rounds a minute.

      • “the reality is that if the old ship was able to get a broadside off, it would be game over” This statement is not true. 12 inch guns were incredible inaccurate when fired at range. The only time it was game over was if you were within a couple miles of the ship. If destroyers back then could out maneuver battleship fire at range, imagine what a modern day frigate could do.

        • Fair point, but ultimately my point remains, a 12 inch gun fired with modern shells and fire control / radar would be lethal, no amount of counter measures could stop it.

          We are reaching a point where missiles are redundant, because the counter missiles / soft kills systems are so effective, so the only way to kill a ship is either torpedo or shells (ok rail gun one day, but not any time soon).

          I have never understood why so little effort has been put into long range torpedos, these seem the perfect solution right now.

          • 12 inch guns were required in those days because ships were made to take a beating, they were covered in crazy amounts of armor and thick metal. Nowadays a 5inch gun does just a much damage as a 12inch in those days due to how modern ships are made, light and maneuverable.

        • While the big guns had limitations in their accuracy at long range, the inaccuracy was more related to the range finders and plotting tables used to predict where the guns needed to be aimed, rather than the guns themselves. If fitted with modern radar and plotting computers, a C20th battleship should be able to straddle the target every time, even at long range.

  4. Talking of Rail Guns whatever happened to the one DERA were testing at Eskmeals, or was it Pendine?
    Swept under the carpet and forgotten about probably.

  5. Certainly an interesting article and I agree that soft kill does have its place. However there is no escaping the fact that the modern RN surface fleet is woefully underarmed when compared to our peers. It’s called ‘fitted for but not with’ for a reason…. no money!

    • Mod have money. It’s used up supporting the UK arms industry charging ruinous prices and also replacing the Vanguard subs. Mod waste and sheer incompetence no doubt account for another vast chunk.

  6. The latest generation of hypersonic ASMs may be a different kettle of fish. They have their own anti counter measures abilities. But modern kit doesn’t always work as planned or expected. The USS Starks systems didn’t register the threat of an approaching exocet misslie. SAM/anti missile missiles can shoot down ASMs or incoming shells but there’s not a huge number in the magazine to defeat a sustained attack & all are expensive. Then there’s battle damage-the equipment or weaponry may not function. Anything that can defeat a threat is valuable. Leaving kit uninstalled is reckless endangerment of the Crew & vessel. Pre-emptive & surprise attacks may get ships sunk before we have the time to fully equip our critically few ships.

    Of course the old battleships & cruisers could shoot off hundreds+ of shells but only 2-3% would hit the enemy on a good day unless at very close range. They’d be sitting ducks for ASMs, but that’s a theoretical scenario.

  7. Lots of points to discuss to please bare with me,

    In the RN a modern naval gun such as 4.5 Mk8 Mod 1, primary role is Naval Gunfire Support (NGS) for forces ashore. Its secondary role is Anti Surface Warfare (ASuW). (don’t even bother with anti air …that capability was removed and was no longer supported many decades ago.)
    Modern rates of fire at around 20 rnds/min are far higher than the old big 12 inch guns of possibly 2 rounds per min.
    Modern digital gunnery control systems are better than the old mechanical computers of the past but the laws of physics and general randomness are still applicable now as they where then and work against you for hitting a surface target that is maneuvering.

    Radars can only see to the radar horizon. If shooting at surface targets at the 70 km + ranges under discussion above are practical then the requirement for off ship target spotting and target illumination for a homing course correction shell would massively complicate matters. Why even both trying to stop a shell…shoot down the drone or helo doing the targeting its far easier. If they cannot see you…they cannot hit you.

    It is encouraging to see that the author discusses systems for fighting a ship. Its something I have tried to impart on many occasions. Everything and everyone on board a ship must act and work together to fight. Its not just the weapons that go bang or the radars and sonars its everything else. People fail to consider
    Electrical power for the Systems. Not just your standard on/off switch power( 440v 60Hz 3 phase or 115v 60Hz) but all those weird and wonderful voltages and frequencies manufactures love to add to systems. 115v 400 Hz for syncro control circuits from Static Frequency Changers, 12 v Dc for things like the lamps that tell you a system is available, 115v 3 phase.
    Nav inputs such as gyro inputs for stabilization, GPS for not only position but time sync provision for crypto enabled radios (for talking to your spotter or helo), Wind Speed and direction which is needed for soft kill and ballistics, weather data for ballistics, course and speed of your own ship. Even the temperature of the propellant in the shell whilst stored in the magazine and its manufacture date and chemical composition are required .
    All of the above are needed even before anything goes BANG!! or WHOOSH!

    Soft Kill along with low RCS is very very effective. Add to the mix LPI radars, low radiating noise hulls ,active torpedo decoys and It makes the job of the people who are shooting at you very difficult.

    Very High speed missiles have big disadvantages. They are essentially big very heavy bullets . Their speed means that the ability to turn tightly is greatly reduced. If a target can get out of the seeker head basket ( The angle of look on a radar homing head of say 60 degs either side of the line of flight) then you are in the clear.
    Other help comes from a low RCS making it difficult to see a target,
    ESM ( that gives you a heads up that the shooter is out there…radars can be picked up at far greater ranges than the shooter can see a target)
    CESM so you intercept radio chat from a shooter to off board targeting ( helo or aircraft) ,
    Soft kill confusion and jamming
    all the above help to make a missile not be able to find you…even if it does you can still use hard kill to bring it down.

  8. Interesting debate about the importance of Soft Weapons and ESM. But why drag the Old Battleships into it ? There is absolutely no comparison possible. We have all seen the effects of modern SSM or ASM on old warships used as Targets, but not against the old fashioned heavily armoured ships.
    Be it Harpoon, Exocet or even a Tomahawk I doubt they would do much damage to 12” of armour. Likewise I doubt that an old Battleship would ever manage to close on a modern Warship.
    So not a good comparison.

  9. You can’t really compare a modern warship vs a battleship, they were designed to survive in different worlds. The vast majority of modern western frigates and destroyers don’t actually have the firepower on board to mission kill a battleship (especially a WW2 example) . Remember these thing were designed to be resistant to significant numbers of hits from 2000-2500pound AP/HE shells. Western Heavy weight anti ship missile design focus was on facing armour up to the level of a light cruiser, battle ships were not in the mix. But a ww2 battleship won’t live in a space occupied by attack subs and modern air power ( unless protected by a whole fleet)……apples and pears.

  10. The greatest range at which one ship hit another was 26,000 yards; this is negligible in missile terms. The number of hits at normal ranges was in the low single-figure percentages. A battleship turret system weighed a couple of thousand tons and took scores of men to operate it, while a missile system probably comes in at fifty tons and a handful of men. A missile warhead has a high likelihood of hitting, and with an effect at least as great as at twelve-inch shell.
    The greatest battleship, the Yamato, weighed in at fifteen times the displacement of a modern frigate, had fifteen times the complement, and killed more Japanese than it did Americans. A modern Type 23 would be able to sink it easily with a nuclear tomohawk.

    • This is getting worse ! A nuclear armed anything will sink any ship everbuilt. Or at least leave it an irradiated hulk.
      The UK doesn’t have any sub strategic weapons these days, so where would this nuclear Tomahawk appear from ? And for that matter where would any Tomahawk come from, no UK surface ships have ever carried one.
      In fact even theHarpoon missiles are due out of service soon unless we buy some more.
      About the only conventional Naval missiles that would damage a Battleship are the larger Russian ones designed to take out US Carriers.

  11. The limit on visual/radar range applies to both missiles and shells, if you don’t know where a target is you can’t just shoot a missile and hope it finds it, you need to give a certain amount of targeting information prior to launch.

    Hyper sonic missiles are interesting, but all they do is reduce the reaction timing, as long as you can spot it in time to fire, then the defensive missile can track it no matter how fast the offensive one is going, since all the speed is doing is making the missile get into range of the defensive missile faster.

    Rail guns seem to be the long term solution, should they ever manage to get it working properly and work on a naval ship with decent levels of reliability and accuracy.

    It will be interesting to see which way naval tech goes next, since big naval guns could be the solution against current ships, but then the opposition will do what they did historically which was stack armour to mitigate the shells, which is what led to missiles.

    Subs seem to be the only real viable solution for anti surface warfare currently.

    • Interesting there does seem to be an over estimation on the destructive power of modern against something that was simply designed to take whatever kinetic and explosive energy you could throw at it and keep going.

      I’m sure a a Battleship would have no chance of escaping weapons fire from a type 23. But the battleship would very likely still be mission capable after a type 23 had expended every munition it had on board.

      The most heavily armoured ship harpoon was designed to kill was a light cruise with around 3inchs of belt and 1-2 inch decks (remember the Russians used these in the Cold War).

      If you take the above mentioned musashi and Yamato they had 16 inch armoured belts a Modern medium cal navel gun is effectively useless against that level of armour protection.

      Both the Mussashi and Yamato were finally sunk by air power, but each was assaulted by many hundreds of bombers taking a combined total hits from 24 bombs and 29 torpedoes before sinking.

      The reason we no longer build ships with such levels of armour protection is not that modern warship weapon systems make it irrelevant, it’s that we can’t pay for the size of hull needed to cart around that level of protection, just to see it overwhelmed by heavy weight torpedoes from an attack sub (which do tend to make it irrelevant).

      The RN sank the The Belgrano with heavy weight torpedoes because of the worry of an armoured ship ( light cruiser) with six inch guns, even one without modern sensors.


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