Britain could see years without one if it retires the Harpoon in the 2020s.
Right now, the Royal Navy’s main surface-to-surface anti-ship weapon is the over-the-horizon Harpoon missile, which is also the primary equivalent weapon in service with the U.S. Navy since 1977. Back then, the missile soon became a workhorse that provided considerable range compared to other anti-ship weapons at the time.
With the advent of new Chinese and Russian anti-ship missiles proliferating around the world, however, that is no longer the case. And unlike the U.S. Navy, the Royal Navy will be without Harpoons or a replacement for them within a few years, turning its ships into sitting ducks.
In 2010, Britain’s sailing branch opted not to replace the Harpoon, and one year ago it was revealed the missiles were set to retire at the end of 2018. In September 2017, IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly announced that the U.K. Ministry of Defense has delayed the retirement until 2020.
That buys the Royal Navy some time — but not much. Fundamentally, the situation hasn’t changed. The Harpoon is already obsolete and terribly outranged, which is why the United States is preparing the new 200-mile-range LRASM to replace it. But no new missile is expected for the Royal Navy until possibly 2030 when the Perseus missile by European developer MBDA is complete.
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It’s all highly troubling for the cash-strapped Royal Navy, as it will leave a multi-year gap when British warships will have to rely on their guns, and Wildcat helicopters armed with Sea Venom and Martlet missiles — only good for taking on lighter targets up to corvette size. The Royal Navy’s Lynx helicopters with their light Sea Skua missiles retired in March 2017. The United Kingdom’s 13 Type 23 frigates and three of its Type 45 Daring-class destroyers currently have the Harpoon.