British Typhoon Fighters Helped Sink A Warship For The First Time

A rare complex live-fire exercise off the Scottish coast saw a range of anti-ship weapons blast a decommissioned U.S. Navy frigate.

byThomas Newdick|
Frigate Typhoon Strike
U.S. Department of Defense/Screencap


As part of a complex exercise earlier this month, U.K. Royal Air Force Typhoon fighter jets struck a decommissioned U.S. Navy warship as they demonstrated an anti-ship capability against larger surface vessels using live weapons for the first time. The sinking exercise, or SINKEX, saw the ex-USS Boone, a decommissioned Oliver Hazard Perry class frigate get sent to the bottom by a combination of weapons, including others that were launched from British and American warships, U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jets, U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon patrol aircraft, and from U.K. Royal Navy Wildcat maritime helicopters.

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Exercise Atlantic Thunder 22 took place from September 1-12, with the main exercise — including the SINKEX — taking place on September 7, in waters off the northwest coast of Scotland.

The danger area, outlined in red, set up for Atlantic Thunder 22 in the North Atlantic.

According to a statement released by the U.K. Royal Navy today, the U.S.-led Atlantic Thunder was the first time in 18 years that the service had taken part in an exercise of this kind. The same release also provided details of the historic involvement of RAF Typhoons in a SINKEX, which is also a notably rare occasion in the Atlantic Ocean, with most such drills taking place in the Pacific.

Three Typhoons from the RAF’s No. 41 Squadron — the test and evaluation unit — at RAF Coningsby, Lincolnshire, took part, although it seems that only one of these delivered weapons onto the former USS Boone. This was the first time an RAF Typhoon had ever dropped live ordnance onto a decommissioned warship used as a maritime target.

A specially painted Typhoon FGR4 from No. 41 Squadron to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2015. Crown Copyright

In another first, the Typhoon’s 500-pound Paveway IV dual-mode bombs (the number of which were dropped was not disclosed) were guided onto the target by a British Wildcat HMA2 helicopter from 815 Naval Air Squadron, using its MX-15HDi electro-optical/infrared sensor turret.

A Paveway IV dropped from a Typhoon assigned to No. 1 Squadron, during an earlier weapons test off the Scottish coast. Crown Copyright

This was after the same Wildcat had already fired its own Martlet air-to-surface missiles. Again, this was the first time that the helicopter had fired this missile against a warship target at sea, rather than against purpose-built targets. You can read more about the Martlet missile and its capabilities here. Still, essentially it’s designed for use against asymmetric targets such as small high-speed naval craft, ‘suicide drone’ boats, or other unmanned surface vessels, including those operating in swarms.

Video showing a previous Martlet missile test from a Wildcat helicopter:

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In fact, the destruction of the former U.S. Navy frigate had begun in advance of this air component. According to the Royal Navy’s account, it had first come under attack from Harpoon anti-ship missiles. Two Harpoons were launched from the Royal Navy’s Type 23 frigate HMS Westminster, along with one from a P-8 Poseidon assigned to the U.S. Navy’s Patrol Squadron 46 (VP-46). The three missiles were fired simultaneously and the result was close to 1,500 pounds of explosive detonating within the hull at about the same time.

Three views show the final demise of the former USS Boone. U.S. Department of Defense/Screencap

Other weapons were utilized, too, although it’s unclear in exactly what sequence they were delivered. A multi-purpose SM-6 missile was fired from the destroyer USS Arleigh Burke (DDG-51), the lead ship in its class, in another demonstration of this weapon’s still-evolving offensive anti-surface warfare capability. This was the first anti-ship SM-6 engagement in the U.S. European Command (EUCOM) area of responsibility. Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy also recently demonstrated a ground-launched SM-6 capability in Europe.

Following the SM-6 strike, “several” Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) rained down on the Boone, after being dropped by F-15Es from the U.S. Air Force’s 494th Fighter Squadron, based at RAF Lakenheath in England. The use of JDAM against surface vessel targets is an area of increasing interest, with it now being optimized for use as an anti-ship weapon as part of program called Quicksink. It’s unclear what type of JDAMs were used in Atlantic Thunder, but F-15Es from the test community have already destroyed a warship target with the Quicksink modification.

U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles assigned to the 494th Fighter Squadron at RAF Lakenheath, England, over the North Sea, during a training mission in 2019. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Benjamin Cooper

SINKEXs provide an important opportunity to employ live weapons against realistic targets at sea and Atlantic Thunder was clearly notable not only for having multiple U.S. and British service branches work together but also for the fact that a fairly wide variety of anti-ship weapons were used, including some being employed for the first time in this kind of scenario.

“Atlantic Thunder has demonstrated that U.K. and U.S. naval and air forces can work together to deliver an end-to-end kill chain against a maritime target at long range,” said Commander Ed Moss-Ward, the Commanding Officer of HMS Westminster. “The integration of high-end weapons, sensors, and communications with our NATO allies is key to the collective warfighting capability of the Alliance demonstrated by the sinking exercise.”

HMS Westminster launches a AGM-84D Harpoon missile during Exercise Atlantic Thunder 22. U.S. Navy

Commander Moss-Ward added: “The firings have supported the development of the Royal Navy’s targeting and weapon capabilities, and afforded [an] opportunity to conduct realistic training to validate tactics and operating procedures.”

For the RAF Typhoon, especially, this was a landmark event, demonstrating an anti-ship capability that had previously been generally dormant.

As the backbone of the RAF’s combat fleet, the Typhoon is already responsible for a range of missions including air defense, with quick reaction alert (QRA) facilities protecting U.K. and Falkland Islands airspace. Offensive missions include close air support and long-range conventional strike using Storm Shadow cruise missiles: both of these have been called upon in the Middle East, during the campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

An RAF Typhoon FGR4, deployed on Operation Shader, the U.K. military mission against ISIS, returning to RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus, following a mission over the Middle East. Crown Copyright

On the other hand, the priority assigned by the RAF to anti-surface warfare has declined significantly since the end of the Cold War and the diminishing of the Soviet/Russian naval threat. In the 1990s, the RAF’s Tornado fleet included two squadrons of the strike aircraft equipped with Sea Eagle anti-ship missiles, based in the north of Scotland to cover the U.K.’s maritime approaches. However, the Sea Eagle missile was retired by 2000, with the government stating that “we needed less capability in the field of open-ocean anti-surface ship warfare” and that, as a result, it had introduced “a coherent program of reduced investment in this area of our maritime capability.”

An RAF Tornado GR1B of No. 12 Squadron based at RAF Lossiemouth, Scotland, armed with a pair of Sea Eagle anti-ship missiles. Crown Copyright

Since then, the Tornado has been retired and the Typhoon has found itself flying maritime missions, at least in a littoral environment. When the Typhoon used the Brimstone precision-guided munition for the first time, over Syria in 2019, among its targets was a boat used by ISIS on the River Euphrates.

But using the Typhoon to strike a guided-missile frigate with Paveway IV guided bombs is a very different mission, again geared more toward anti-surface warfare in an open-sea, or blue-water environment.

However, while the threat posed by surface vessels of the Russian Navy, in particular, has steadily increased, the U.K. Royal Navy’s anti-shipping capabilities have actually been reduced.

The primary anti-ship weapon of the Royal Navy is the Harpoon missile, which was also intended to fill in after the retirement of the Sea Eagle. However, the submarine-launched Harpoon has been withdrawn entirely, while the number of these missiles fitted to surface combatants has been cut back. Meanwhile, the decision was made not to upgrade the existing RGM-84D Harpoon Block 1C missile before it’s removed from service entirely, planned for 2023.

The Royal Navy Type 23 frigate HMS Montrose fires a Harpoon missile against a target barge in the Scottish exercise areas, during Exercise Joint Warrior in 2015. Crown Copyright

Next, a plan to field an interim weapon to bridge the gap between the retirement of Harpoon and the introduction of the new Future Cruise Anti-Ship Weapon (FC/ASW) around 2028 was scrapped. The new FC/ASW weapon is initially intended to arm the new Type 26 City class frigates.

In July this year, the U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace confirmed that an interim weapon would, after all, be acquired to supersede Harpoon, with reports that the Naval Strike Missile (NSM), offered by Kongsberg and Raytheon, had already been selected for the requirement.

Further reinforcement of the U.K.’s ability to target larger warships is also coming in the shape of the Sea Venom missile, a high-subsonic sea-skimming missile that is also able to target shore-based installations such as missile batteries and radar stations. The Sea Venom will be carried by the Wildcat helicopter, with the option to carry a mix of Sea Venoms and Martlets to cater to different target sets.

Amid all this upheaval, the option to call upon RAF Typhoons to offer an additional anti-ship capability, including against larger warships, is a useful one. However, the applications for this method of attack in an actual war remain somewhat limited. A direct attack using laser guidance could be ideal for finishing off damaged warships, or otherwise attacking poorly or undefended vessels. But with no standoff ability, it would be unsuitable for an attack on a surface combatant with any meaningful anti-air capability. While the dual-mode Paveway IV does have GPS guidance, this is only for use against static targets. For the time being, the Typhoon still lacks any kind of dedicated anti-ship missile, although a variant of the FC/ASW is planned.

A Typhoon FGR4 from RAF Coningsby flies over a pair of Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force warships accompanied by the Type 23 frigate HMS Northumberland in the North Sea in 2018. Crown Copyright

In recent years, this requirement has become more important for the United Kingdom and its allies, with Russian naval activity on the increase around Europe, especially in the strategically important Baltic Sea and Mediterranean regions. In the Black Sea, meanwhile, escalating tensions between East and West have seen NATO warships, among them British ones, involved in a series of standoffs with Russian naval forces. These have pitted Russian strike aircraft and patrol boats against Royal Navy ships.

An RAF Typhoon, together with the frigate HMS St Albans seen here in the foreground, shadow the Russian Navy Kirov class battlecruiser Petr Velikiy (center) and the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov (background) as they transit the English Channel in 2017. Crown Copyright

Now, with Russia having invaded Ukraine, the Black Sea has become a war zone, with Russian warships and other vessels coming under repeated Ukrainian attacks by anti-ship missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles, and potentially also explosive-laden ‘suicide drone’ boats.

Clearly, after years of relative inactivity in the field of anti-surface warfare capabilities, the U.K. Armed Forces are once again investing more heavily in what’s become a much more critical area, not only in light of Russian activities in Europe but also in the Asia-Pacific region, where China is becoming ever more assertive in the maritime environment. Overall, the United Kingdom is seeking to become a bigger military player in this region, as well as increasing cooperation with Australia and the United States via the AUKUS initiative.

This comparatively rare live test of different weapons against a realistic maritime target provides a good example of how tactics are changing, including the use of ‘non-traditional’ naval weapons like the Paveway IV and JDAM to target warships. It will equally be interesting to see how the RAF continues to develop anti-shipping tactics for the Typhoon, potentially reinstating a fast-jet anti-shipping strike capability absent from the service since the 1990s.

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