Sea Gnat on board a Royal Navy vessel
Sea Gnat on board a Royal Navy vessel

When talking about warships, in general the image that comes to most people minds are the 20th century battleships of the past with their huge 12 inch gun turrets and numerous smaller guns bristling out from their deck and superstructure. 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.

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7 years ago

Interesting and informative but what happens to other ships not so equipped in the vicinity of the warship?
The Atlantic Conveyor comes to mind, the warships satisfactorily defended themselves but deflected the missile to unprotected merchant ship.

colin dix
colin dix
6 years ago

It is a good job they have SoftKill . Harpoon is 30 years old and possibly withdrawn from service in 2018. Tomahawk will cease production in 2016 by the US . Sea Viper shipborne anti-aircraft & anti-missile system designed to provide ‘area defence’ for a group of ships that would mean two type 45 riding Shot Gun on the New carriers as they done in the Falklands with Broadsword class. That really doesn’t leave the RN with many so called Destroyers and unless the Type 45 can get “Long Range Anti Ship Missile” from the US and also more than… Read more »