When Harpoon exits service in 2023, there will be a serious capability gap, until the potential entry into service of FC/ASW programme in 2030, warns a report published by the Defence Committee.
During a committee session Lt General Sir Mark Poffley, Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff, made clear that the MoD wanted a surface to surface anti-ship missile to fill the capability gap. However, he conceded that there was not a funded line in the equipment plan for such a purchase and that it was therefore one of the MoD’s “aspirations” for the Modernising Defence Programme.
The report advised:
“Alongside the work being undertaken by the FC/ASW concept phase, the MoD should conduct a careful analysis of the various options for filling the capability gap.
This analysis should include a technical assessment of: the potential for Harpoon’s lifespan to be extended; whether other existing capabilities could be augmented to provide a stronger anti-ship function; the various off-the-shelf options that exist, including the procurement of Harpoon Block II for the P8 Maritime Patrol Aircraft; and the potential procurement of Exocet as a surface-to-surface capability for the Royal Navy.”
According to the report, which can be found here, the possible off-the-shelf alternatives that could be considered by the MoD include the following:
i) Lockheed Martin’s Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM): the LRASM comes with both air and vertical canister launch capabilities, relies on onboard systems for target acquisition without the need for GPS navigation or external data-feeds and is able to defeat jamming and detection measures. It offers interoperability with the F-35. The LRASM will enter service for the US Air Force this year and the US Navy next year. Australia, the UK and Canada are reported to have expressed interest in the missile. Cost per unit is in the realm of $700,000–1,000,000.
ii) Naval Strike Missile (NSM): the multi-role variant of this missile, jointly developed by Kongsberg and Raytheon, would be compatible with the F-35 and would offer lower costs than the LRASM or the latest Harpoon variant. According to Raytheon, the NSM is “proven, affordable—and available today. The Naval Strike Missile is a long-range, precision strike weapon that can find and destroy enemy ships at distances up to 100 nautical miles away”. The NSM’s lifespan extends until 2040.53
iii) RBS15 Mk3: produced by Saab, the RBS15 Mk3 is, according to Naval Technology, “packed with a range of high-end features, including sophisticated electronic counter-measures (ECM) and an advanced graphical user interface [ … ] it carries a heavy, high-explosive blast and pre-fragmented warhead over a range of around 134 nautical miles and at a speed of 0.9 mach”.
iv) The MoD could seek to procure the Block II+ variant of Harpoon. The US Navy is due to introduce the Block II+ this year and it “offers greater reliability and survivability” than previous variants, including new GPS guidance and a new data link that offers “in-flight updates”, as well as improved target selectivity and “enhanced resistance to electronic countermeasures”.
v) Another alternative could be deploying the latest version of the Exocet MM40 Block 3 system. The Royal Navy operated Exocets until 2002 and according to Naval Technology, the Block 3 offers an increased range of 97 nautical miles and “a number of other enhancements and upgrades, including changes to its navigational system which now accepts GPS waypoints to enable it to use different angles of attack against naval targets and to provide a limited land-attack capability”. An upgraded Exocet model, the Block 3 C will soon be available to the French Navy and, according to Janes, offers “a new coherent active radio frequency (RF) seeker as the centrepiece of a ‘digitised’ guidance and navigation package” that should bring “significant improvements in target selectivity and electronic countermeasures performance”.