When the T45 was created it was intended to have the ability to launch land attack cruise missiles. Space for 16 strike length vertical launchers was placed in-between the 48 Sylver A50 cells. With the over runs in the T45 project the strike cells were not initially fitted however they were to be part of the ongoing T45 upgrade and sustainment program. With SDSR 2010 and the subsequent cuts to the MOD budget the concept of fitting these cells seems to have gone away all together and there has been little if any mention of them for several years.
Since SDSR 2010 (the review which clearly stated we would not get into another war until after 2015) and with one war in Libya fought and possibly some form of intervention in Syria to come, I would like to ask the question, should we now look to fit these cells as part of an Urgent Operational Requirement?
Every conceivable operation that requires some form of Suppression of an Enemy’s Air Defence (SEAD) will inevitably involve firing sum 100 – 200 cruise missiles in relatively quick succession. For the past 15 years or so the UK has relied on SSN’s to deliver this capability. However an SSN is an expensive piece of kit to do such a relatively simple job. With only 7 SSN’s in the fleet there are arguably not enough to perform this vital role. Indeed one Royal Navy SSN is permanently held in the Indian Ocean at all times specifically to give the UK a forward deployed ability to launch TLAM’s. This generally leaves only one other SSN to cover all other tasking. An SSN using only torpedo tubes is also arguably not the ideal way to launch a large number of cruise missiles in quick succession.
From Kosovo to Libya, Royal Navy contributions in delivering TLAM’s could be at best described as token support to the US Navy with no more than a handful being launched at any one time. If the UK was ever required to conduct a SEAD operation without the USA then it would struggle to launch even a quarter of the required number of weapons even with most of our SSN fleet and the rest of Europe’s navy’s combined.
There are two possible options for fitting strike length launchers to the T45. The Sylver A70 is essentially a longer version of the A50 launchers we currently use. The advantage of using this launcher is that the additional 16 cells could also be used for holding extra Aster missiles and possibly in future an Aster 45 ABM. The big disadvantage is that the TLAM we currently use is not rated for launch from the A70 and it may be difficult, expensive or impossible to qualify it to do so.
That would mean that we would have to rely on the Storm shadow derived SCALP (n) missiles made by MBDA. The missile is slated to come into service by 2014/15 and testing appears to be going well. It may even be far more capable than TLAM with some reports quoting a 1400 KM range, better targeting, better ability to hit hard and buried targets and a low radar cross section. However the French are reported to have paid some EUR 950 million for 250 of them which means it will be on the region of 4-5 times the cost of TLAM. We would also have to go to the expense of operating an entirely new missile and we would not be able to quickly resupply from the abundant stocks of the US Navy in times of war, instead having to rely on much smaller French stocks or new build missiles. With the likelihood that T45 will eventually carry quad packed Sea Ceptor in its A50 launchers the additional magazine space will also likely never be needed for Surface to Air Missiles either.
The other option is to fit the Lockheed Martin Mark 41 Strike Length Launcher used by the US Navy. LM are on record as saying they believe these launchers could be fitted to the T45 relatively easily however as far as I am aware there has been no detailed design study carried out.
The main advantage of opting for the Mk 41 is that it would allow us to use the same TLAM we currently use for our SSN’s. It would also give the T45 access to the full family of USN missiles from SM 3 to LRASM as well as any future missiles developed by the US navy. It will also provide commonality with the Type 26 frigate which is expected to carry the Mk41 as well. In addition to this LM recently signed an MOU with MBDA to integrate Sea Ceptor onto the Mk 41, a move that could well see the entire MBDA family of missiles from Aster and Mica to Scalp (n) available for launch from the mk 41.
The cost of these vertical launchers is rumored to be in the region of $500,000 each so equipping the entire fleet could possibly be done for around $50 million.
With tensions rising in the middle east I do not foresee it as being a major issue to get the government to stump up such a small amount of money from the treasury contingency budget. This would radically alter the capabilities of the T45 destroyer and would save us having to have an SSN East of Suez where we also have a T45 based as well. The mk 41 would seem to offer by far the best solution presuming it could be fitted with relatively little difficulty and no need for a major refit. If mk 41 can’t be fitted then we should see if we can get a decent deal from the French for the SCALP (N). It might even be possible to buy sum of their 200 for a knock down price.
We might then consider swapping out the entire VLS system for mk 41’s when Daring comes in for her first major refit, assuming all MBDA missiles are integrated into the mk 41 by then.
The only possible flaw in my plan I believe is the treasury itself. Indeed I believe it is the treasury who has kept strike launchers off of the T45 thus far. They may be happy enough for an SSN to fire off two or three missiles alongside 90 or 100 from a US taskforce. This is sufficient to grab a headline or two of “British and American warships firing TLAM at the nasty dictator”. But the thought of an RN taskforce launching $50 – $100 million worth of missiles in a few minutes all paid for from the contingency fund is likely too much for them to bare. However I doubt they would ever say as much and using an Urgent Operational Requirement may just be the way to get it past them. Surely even David Cameron could see the logic in such a small additional investment for such a large capability.