Navy warships in danger as Sea King and other cuts repeat ‘blunders’ of Falklands War

Navy warships in danger as Sea King and other cuts repeat ‘blunders’ of Falklands War

Experts say the phasing out of a key radar system risks leaving the navy with little warning of attack from missiles

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”.

 

 

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