Navy warships in danger as Sea King and other cuts repeat ‘blunders’ of Falklands War
Britain is repeating mistakes made before the Falklands War as defence cuts leave warships vulnerable to being destroyed by sea-skimming missiles, it was claimed this weekend.
The Royal Navy last week retired the last of its 13 Sea King Mk7 helicopters, which have powerful radar designed to give ships early warning of an attack.
A replacement radar system called Crowsnest, to be fitted to up to 10 of the navy’s Merlin helicopters, will not be operational for another 18 months.
Former commanders and military experts warned this weekend that the lack of an airborne early warning system is among “capability gaps” that leave the navy exposed to a resurgent Russia and China.
They drew a parallel with 1978, four years before the Falklands conflict, when the Fairey Gannet, an early warning aircraft, was taken out of service.
That error was compounded by a 1981 review in which John Nott, the defence secretary, described plans to withdraw HMS Endurance, Britain’s only naval asset in the South Atlantic.
Navy chiefs warned that this made the UK appear unwilling to defend its territories. Argentina invaded the Falklands a year later.
HMS Sheffield, a destroyer, was hit and sunk by an Exocet missile on May 4, 1982. The attack caught the crew by surprise and the ship did not go to action stations. Twenty died and 26 were injured.
The Wildcat, the navy’s main attack helicopter, will not be provided with anti-ship missiles for two years, while the Harpoon missiles arming the navy’s warships are expected to be axed in 2023 with no decision yet madeon a replacement.
“I sit in despair —as do many of my colleagues —about the state of the Royal Navy,” said Nigel “Sharkey” Ward, a former Sea Harrier pilot who led 801 Naval Air Squadron during the Falklands. “We are not prepared for what’s facing us atsea and it’s a tragedy.”
Iain Ballantyne, editor of Warships International Fleet Review magazine, said: “They are creating a navy that in any high threat environment will have lots of vulnerabilities and gaps.”
The navy also has a personnel crisis, with ashortfall of 1,330 people. The shortages are aggravated by the need to supply sailors for Britain’s two huge new aircraft carriers.
HMS Daring, a destroyer, and HMS Iron Duke, a frigate, are berthed in Portsmouth with no crews because of the shortage, sources claim.
The navy is also braced for another round of defence cuts. The Sunday Times understands that HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, two amphibious assault ships, have been saved after a campaign by MPs. Defence sources, however, believe that at least two Type 23 frigates will have to be axed to save cash.
The retirement of the Sea Kings before the introduction of Crowsnest alarms experts because it coincides with Russia and China developing formidable arsenals of high-speed anti-ship missiles. The Kremlin is believed to be working on a hypersonic missile capable of speeds of between 3,800mph and 4,600mph.
While warships can use radar to detect incoming threats, they require aircraft-borne radar to identify missiles or jets that are flying over the horizon—a distance of about 25 miles —and at low level.
Ward, 75, who flew more than 60 missions and made three air-to-air kills, said the lack of dedicated early-warning aircraft had left the navy at a “great disadvantage” in the 1980s. “We have not learnt the lessons from the Falklands War,” he said.
“Without the airborne helicopter capability we’re quite heavily snookered. When high speed sea-skimming missiles come in, launched from below the radar horizon, there’s very little time to react. You’ve lost the game.”
Chris Parry, a retired rear admiral who was a helicopter flight observer during the Falklands, estimated that Crowsnest could give a warship a five-minute warning of an incoming Russian missile fired from 200 miles away, but relying on the ship’s radar alone could cut the warning time to just 40 seconds.
“Russia has a range of sophisticated mach 2 [1,534mph] anti-ship missiles that can be fired from extended range. They would fire them in salvos as well.”
Commenting on the decision to allow an 18-month gap before the introduction of Crowsnest, he added: “As always, it’s risk being taken by managers who never get exposed to the risk.”
The Ministry of Defence said Crowsnest would be operational from2020, ahead of the HMS Queen Elizabeth becoming fully operational. Until then, other helicopters and aircraft and the navy’s Type 45 destroyers will provide early warning “where required”.