Future Anti-Ship Missile Systems: Joint inquiry with the Assemblée nationale's Standing Committee on National Defence and the Armed Forces Contents

3Future issues to resolve

85.While witnesses in London and Paris told the joint inquiry that the Concept Phase had made good progress to date and was on track to complete its work in 2020,42 there are a number of key issues that will need to be resolved if the programme is to progress after 2020. These include how the UK chooses to fill the anti-ship missile capability gap which will emerge between Harpoon’s exit from service in 2023 and the potential entry into service of FC/ASW anti-ship missile in 2030; the ability of the two countries to agree on whether the FC/ASW programme should prioritise subsonic or supersonic missiles; the procurement process for selecting the developer of the FC/ASW; and the interoperability of FC/ASW with other platforms, including those built by other allies.

The UK’s anti-ship missile capability gap between 2023 and 2030

86.One of the most pressing issues that needs to be resolved, and one with potentially significant implications for the FC/ASW programme, is how the UK should address the capability gap it faces in anti-ship missiles after Harpoon exits service in 2023.

The UK’s current anti-ship missile capabilities


87.In service since 1984, Harpoon is the Royal Navy’s sole heavyweight anti-ship missile system. It has a range of 80 miles and is fitted to Type 23 Frigates and three Type 45 Destroyers. A submarine variant was previously in service on the Trafalgar-class submarines but was withdrawn in 2003. In its analysis of the Harpoon missile, the ThinkDefence website explains:

Guidance for Harpoon is performed initially by information provided by the launch platform. Waypoints and mid-course changes can also be programmed into the initial guidance system. Terminal guidance is carried out using the integral radar seeker. The attack profile is also selectable at launch.

Because of the lack of a data link and the radar terminal guidance feature, Royal Navy Harpoons are often considered to be obsolete in a contemporary operating environment.43

88.Initially expected to exit service in 2018, Harpoon’s life has been extended, according to the MoD witnesses to our inquiry, until 2023.44 They also told us that from 2023 onwards, the Royal Navy’s specialist anti-ship missile capabilities are to come from anti-ship missiles fired from Wildcat maritime helicopters.

Helicopter-launched anti-ship missiles

89.From 1982 until 2017, the Royal Navy’s helicopter-fired anti-ship missile was the Sea Skua. Carried on Lynx helicopters, the Sea Skua had a semi-active homing radar and a range of about 15km. It was the first missile system developed specifically for the Fleet Air Arm and was successfully deployed in both the Falklands conflict and the first Gulf War.45

90.Sea Skua’s replacement, which will likely enter service in 2020, is the Sea Venom/Anti-Navire Léger anti-ship missile. The Sea Venom will weigh around 100kg and will be armed with a 30kg warhead and guided by an imaging infrared seeker. The missile is designed to destroy targets ranging from small, fast attack craft through to full-sized corvettes, while also allowing for a land attack capability if required. It is designed to be ‘fire-and-forget’, but an embarked two-way datalink will “enable capabilities such as in-flight re-targeting, aimpoint correction/refinement, and safe abort; semi-active laser guidance, if enabled, would allow for the engagement of targets outside the line of sight in concert with third-party laser designation”.46

91.In March 2014, the UK and French Governments signed a demonstration and manufacture contract which will cover the development of the Sea Venom/ANL until completion, fund the demonstration phase of the programme, and the manufacturing of the missile. The contract was signed by the UK’s Defence Equipment and Support Organisation, acting on behalf of the two governments. The jointly funded contract is worth £500 million and will be managed as part of MBDA’s Team Complex Weapons portfolio. It is thought that a joint project office in Bristol will be staffed by French defence procurement agency (DGA) and UK Defence Equipment & Support personnel and that the contract will result in 200 UK jobs and 200 posts based in France.47

92.According to MBDA, Sea Venom “will maintain some of the characteristics of Sea Skua [ … ] and retain compatibility with existing logistic footprints, thereby allowing current users of these systems to upgrade easily” and offers the following advantages:

In January 2017 it was revealed that the first successful test firings of the Sea Venom/ANL anti-ship missile project had taken place.48 A second successful test-firing took place in April 2018.

93.Wildcat helicopters will also be equipped with Martlet missiles, otherwise known as the Future Anti-Surface Guided Weapon (FASGW) Light or the Lightweight Multirole Missile (LMM). Developed by Thales, the Martlet will deployed for use against small boats, including Rigid-hulled Inflatable Boats (RIBs). It has a range of up to 8km. According to Thales:

LMM is a low cost, lightweight, precision strike, missile, which has been designed to be fired from tactical platforms including fixed or rotary winged UAVs and surface platforms. The system is designed to provide a rapid reaction to a wide range of the surface threats from wheeled or tracked vehicles, towed artillery or static installations; naval threats from small ships and fast inshore attack craft and an air threat from light aircraft.49

The capability gap

94.Harpoon’s initial exit from service date was 2018 which, together with the gap between Sea Skua’s withdrawal from - and Sea Venom’s entry into - service, would have resulted in a two-year period where the Royal Navy had no specialist anti-ship missile capability at all, as well as an extended gap where there was no heavyweight anti-ship missile capability.

95.The extension of Harpoon’s lifespan until 2023 only partially alleviates this gap as the FC/ASW programme is not due to yield a heavyweight system until 2030. As things stand, from 2023 until 2030, the Royal Navy will be reliant on Helicopter-fired anti-ship missiles, submarine-launched torpedoes, and the guns on its frigates and destroyers.

Filling the gap: bridging measures or a longer term option?

96.There are a number of options available to the UK MoD for filling the anti-ship missile capability gap after 2023: these range from short-term, bridging ‘fixes’ that would be consistent with the FC/ASW programme to a longer-term replacement that could call into question the FC/ASW programme.

Further extensions to the lifespan of Harpoon

97.The MoD has mentioned the possibility of a “longer extension in service” for Harpoon beyond 2023. However, during their appearances before the joint inquiry on 11 July, both the then Minister for Defence Procurement, Guto Bebb MP, and Sir Simon Bollom conceded that such an extension “looks very challenging”, particularly due to the issues that Harpoon’s advanced age poses for its energetics, the propulsion system and the warhead.50 This is not to mention the concerns that already exist about Harpoon being an obsolete anti-ship missile platform in the contemporary operational environment.51

An off-the-shelf replacement for Harpoon

98.In light of the above considerations, it may be reasonable for the MoD to procure an off-the-shelf anti-ship missile capability to bridge the gap after 2023. The MoD was clear, in its evidence to the joint inquiry, that there were a number of options available to the UK which were being actively examined. According to Guto Bebb, exploring these options, in addition to the concept phase work, was an important part of making sure that the MoD had a “coherent overview of all the options open to us”.52

99.According to Naval Technology, 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 on-board 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”.54 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”.55

In addition to the above systems, MBDA Italia’s Otomat MK2 Block IV was also listed, among the available options to the UK, by Lt General Sir Mark Poffley during his appearance before the joint inquiry.56

100.During the London session, Poffley 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.57

101.If the MoD chooses, and secure funding for, an off-the-shelf purchase, this could have significant implications for the FC/ASW programme. In Paris, we heard that the DGA and MBDA acknowledged that the UK would want to close the capability gap, but witnesses urged caution over how this should be done.58

102.Joël Barre, the Chief Executive of DGA, for example, warned that while he “fully understood that the capability gap must be closed [ … ] the decision you [the UK] make in that regard should not jeopardise our co-operation on the FC/ASW”.59 In particular, M. Barre urged the UK MoD to opt for a “relatively short-term” bridging solution, rather than trying to replace the Harpoon with a missile that would still be available by 2030. If the UK MoD were to choose the latter, M. Barre considered that it would have to acquire a missile whose performance was lower than the FC/ASW, arguing that there were currently no missiles on the market that met the operational need the FC/ASW programme was aiming to cover by 2030.60 In short, M. Barre’s concern was that in choosing a replacement for Harpoon, the UK should not choose an alternative to FC/ASW or make a choice which “will postpone our objectives for the FC/ASW”.61

103.Chris Allam, MBDA UK’s Managing Director, similarly told us that he considered any decision to fill the capability gap after 2023 as a potential risk to the FC/ASW programme.62 Mr Allam suggested that “an interim gap-filler [ … ] would be the best way forward - in other words, something that continues the capability they have”.63

104.While a further extension to Harpoon’s lifespan was deemed possible by some of the witnesses heard by the joint inquiry, another option put forward during our session in Paris was the procurement of Exocet. Joël Barre, for example, said that he would be “more than happy” to offer Exocet to the MoD as a way of bridging the capability gap after 2023, while Admiral Prazuck indicated that he was aware that Exocet was “one of the options that the Royal Navy was looking into”.64

105.For the Royal Navy to be an effective force its surface fleet must be properly equipped with a suite of offensive and defensive weapons. To date, this has included a specialist, heavyweight anti-ship missile capability, in the form of the Harpoon missile system. 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. This gap will not be adequately filled by the smaller and more lightweight anti-ship missiles that will be available from 2020 onwards on the Navy’s Wildcat helicopters.

106.We appreciate that the MoD will want to fill this capability gap, and there are a number of ‘bridging’ options available, varying in age, cost and capabilities. However, the MoD will need to weigh carefully the implications of any choice for both the FC/ASW programme and the broader state of UK-French defence relations, as well as for the UK industrial base.

107.It is clear from the evidence gathered by our joint inquiry that any decision to procure a ‘bridging’ system with long post-2030 life expectancy would not be viewed favourably in Paris and could pose a serious threat to the strong bilateral relationship that has developed since 2010.

108.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.

109.In making these assessments, the MoD should carefully balance the savings that could be made in procuring an existing system against the potential costs to the UK industrial base - in terms of jobs and skills and the UK’s sovereign capabilities - and to the UK-French defence relationship.

Reaching convergence on key requirements

110.If the Concept Phase is successfully to result in both partners agreeing to further progress the FC/ASW programme, then convergence will need to be reached on key operational and capability requirements.65 At present, it seems that there is considerable agreement on the threat picture both countries face, e.g. the challenges of penetration and survivability of missiles and anti-access/area denial, and on what they need, in the broadest capability sense, from the programme.66 Nonetheless, there remain important areas where convergence between both Governments is still to be reached.

Stealth versus velocity?

111.The challenge of reaching convergence on remaining issues is particularly acute in the case of whether priority should be given to the development of supersonic and manoeuvrable or subsonic and stealthier missile systems. Historically, French military and industrial actors have prioritised speed over stealth, considering that speed made it possible to increase the survivability of the missile by depriving the adversary of time to react. This is in contrast to the general approach taken by the UK which has favoured stealthier missile systems. This cross-channel divergence was outlined by Antoine Bouvier in his evidence to the joint inquiry:

In France and Britain we have different operational cultures and ways of doing things. We have different operational and technological cultures. To keep it simple, in France the technological and operational culture is based more on speed and hyper-velocity, whereas in Britain stealth and manoeuvrability are more in favour.67

112.Both options have been explored so far by the Concept Phase.68 In our evidence session in Paris, the question of whether both countries can converge on a shared solution was raised as a key issue by Joël Barre, Admiral Prazuck and Antoine Bouvier.69

113.Admiral Prazuck suggested that his preference would be for both approaches to be compared side by side “to see which is more effective”.70 Antoine Bouvier suggested a similar process, telling us that “France and Britain should come together and put on the table all the pros and cons of both techniques [ … ] each country should present the merits and limitations of both technical solutions, so as to arrive at the best solution”.71

114.Convergence on key operational and capability requirements will be essential to any successful move from the Concept Phase to a fully-fledged FC/ASW programme. One of the most important areas where convergence needs to be met is in the question of whether the programme should give precedence to supersonic or subsonic, but stealthy, missiles.

115.Reaching convergence on this matter may not necessarily require a zero-sum decision between stealth or velocity. One possible solution, that should be explored during the Concept Phase, should be a supersonic anti-ship missile accompanied by a stealthier deep-strike missile, both missiles sharing, nevertheless, a high degree of similarity on certain components. Such an approach would build on the respective strengths of both countries in missile development and, as a result, could lead to a more efficient distribution of development and production work.

The Procurement Process

116.For the FC/ASW to progress after 2020 both Governments will need to agree on the procurement process for selecting the programme’s prime contractor. In essence, this is a choice between an open competition and the award of the main contract to MBDA without a competition.

117.When the joint inquiry took evidence in London, we put this question to the MoD. In response, the then Minister for Defence Procurement, Guto Bebb told us that this was a “fair question” and that the “United Kingdom’s default position is always to look at competition as the best option in ensuring value for money”.72

118.In Paris, however, Joël Barre indicated strongly to us that he did not see merit in putting MBDA “in competition with anyone else at the end of the concept phase”. M. Barre repeatedly stressed that, in his opinion, MBDA was “the single missile manufacturer in Europe.”73 According to M. Barre, MBDA is an “important strategic asset” for both the UK and France, which meant that “it must manufacture the missiles”. In pointing to the potential problems of an open tendering process, M. Barre highlighted the risk that such a move might open the process up to the US. He also emphasized the sensitive data and information that had already been exchanged with MBDA and between Governments as part of the concept phase. According to M. Barre, “we cannot jeopardise our initial choice after we have gone through all these steps”. However, he conceded that he had not yet discussed the potential procurement process with his London counterparts.74

119.While we did not discuss the procurement process with MBDA, Chris Allam emphasized the importance of FC/ASW to the company. According to Mr Allam, FC/ASW is “the type of programme that keeps MBDA at the leading edge of missile design” and, therefore, preserves, the skills that we have developed in the missile sector in Europe.

120.MBDA is a unique, UK-French enterprise with a substantial set of expertise and skills in the missile manufacturing process. That MBDA was chosen to conduct the concept phase is itself a vote of confidence in its abilities and we note the significance of the potential FC/ASW contract to the maintenance, and development, of MBDA’s footprint in both the UK and France. If the final decision is indeed taken to award the main contract to MBDA without a competition, safeguards will need to be in place to ensure value for money for both countries.

121.We recognise that UK and French Governments have traditionally adopted different approaches to defence procurement and that reaching agreement might take some time. However, it is surprising that the two Governments appear not yet to have discussed the potential procurement process for the FC/ASW programme. While the concept phase was only launched in 2017, the swift turnaround envisaged following its conclusion in 2020 requires both Governments to be aligned on the procurement process. We recommend that both Governments begin discussions on the potential procurement process for the FC/ASW programme and reach a tentative agreement on such a process by the time the phase concludes in 2020.


122.Both the UK and France are likely to conduct major operations only as part of a broader coalition such as NATO, and interoperability is therefore a central requirement for military platforms. This is true also within armed forces, particularly where different assets have been the subject of separate procurement processes. In London, Lt General Sir Mark Poffley told us that, from the UK perspective, with weapons systems such as the FC/ASW, “we would want to be interoperable with many nations that are close and dear to us”, not least because of the benefits such interoperability may bring in terms of exports.75

123.During the session in London, Sir Simon Bollom also indicated that the UK would want to integrate the FC/ASW onto the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in the future.76 Such an integration would raise questions about the interoperability of FC/ASW with the Autonomics Logistics Information System (ALIS) software, developed by Lockheed Martin, which plays a key role in the management and day-to-day operation of the F-35.

124.When the joint inquiry met in Paris, M. Barre indicated that he too wished to see a system “that can be interoperable and open [ … ] and able to connect with different kinds of systems” and compatible with “the systems that our allies could have, especially our American allies”.77 M. Barre also stressed that, despite the imperative to be open and interoperable, “we must none the less keep our sovereignty” and that technologies involved must be “under our [European] control [..] so that we have no restrictions when it comes to using or exporting them”.78

125.It is essential that the FC/ASW is interoperable with a broad range of platforms deployed by the UK and France’s allies. This is both for commercial and, more importantly, operational reasons. The FC/ASW will therefore need to be capable of being integrated with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and interoperable with the ALIS system and the MADL data link that enables F-35s to exchange sensitive information.

126.Preserving our sovereign control on the future missiles is not incompatible with the priority given to the interoperability with the platforms used by our allies. Therefore, we urge both Governments and MBDA to explore, during the next half of the concept phase, how interoperability with allies such as the United States and with platforms that are primarily built by US companies, and or which rely on US software, can be provided. This can be done without prejudice to the UK’s and France’s sovereign control of the FC/ASW programme.


127.This chapter has identified a number of important issues that need to be resolved for the FC/ASW programme to progress successfully after the concept phase concludes in 2020. Resolving these issues will require a spirit of pragmatism and compromise from both countries. However, while these issues are significant, they are not insuperable and, in light of the UK and France’s long and strong relationship, we are fully confident in the capacity of our two countries to reach agreement.

42 Qq7, 56, 99–100

44 Q26

46 R. Scott (28 March 2014), UK, France place long-awaited anti-ship missile contract, Jane’s Navy International

47 N. de Larrinaga (8 April 2014), France, UK sign GBP500 million anti-ship missile deal, Jane’s Defence Industry; R. Scott (28 March 2014), UK, France place long-awaited anti-ship missile contract, Jane’s Navy International

48 HM Government (18 January 2018), UK-France Summit 2018: Security and Defence ; A second successful test-firing took place in April 2018

50 Qq 26–28

52 Qq26–27

54 G. Evans (7 May 2017), Securing the Royal Navy’s future firepower, Naval Technology

55 R, Scott (2 October 2018), French Navy to receive MM40 Block 3C Exocet, Jane’s Missiles and Rockets

56 Q41; in July 2017 the UK Government announced that a National Security Capability Review (NSCR) was being initiated to ‘refresh’ the findings of the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review. In 2018 it was announced that the defence component of the NSCR would be separated and would operate, under MoD supervision, as the Modernising Defence Programme (MDP). It is expected the MDP will report before the end of 2018.

57 Qq33–39, 40

58 Qq62, 110

59 Q62

60 Q62

61 Q63

62 Q110

63 Q110

64 Qq62, 92

65 Q102

66 Qq10, 56, 99

67 Q115

68 Q64

69 Qq64, 77

70 Q77

71 Q115

72 Q24

73 Q69

74 Q69

75 Q23

76 Q45

77 Q61

78 Q61

Published: 12 December 2018