Royal Navy fires new Martlet missiles at sea to demo carrier defenses
Filling a gap in the UK Carrier Strike Group screen protecting the supercarrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, a Royal Navy Wildcat helicopter successfully fired Martlet lightweight missiles for the first time during frontline operations. Deployed from HMS Defender in the Pacific Ocean, helicopters attacked an inflatable target in the first operational demonstration of the group's capability to counter swarms of small boats and similar vessels.
Though there hasn't been an aircraft carrier sunk in combat since 1945, they are often looked upon as intrinsically vulnerable. As a result, navies that operate proper strike carrier groups put a lot of effort into protecting these assets.
In many ways, a carrier looks naked to attack. It doesn't carry guns, there aren't any obvious missile batteries, and it can seem like one big floating target. In fact, carriers are built to be not only very difficult to sink, but to move with surprising speed while spending as much time as possible in the open sea, making it very difficult to even find, much less target them.
In addition, each carrier is surrounded by a protective screen provided by its escorting task force of ships, submarines, and shore-based aircraft, as well as its own fighter wing and helicopters, that extends for hundreds of miles around it. As a result, any attacking force would have to penetrate many layers of defense designed to detect and take out everything from torpedoes to cruise missiles.
However, carriers don't spend all their time in open water and as technology progresses, so do the range of potential threats. One of these is being in a vulnerable situation like approaching a harbor, where it may be possible for a hostile force to mount an attack with swarms of small boats, jet skis, and similar small craft.
How these threats are countered isn't always clear. Though the US Navy has used 70-mm rockets equipped with BAE’s Advanced Precision Kill Weapons System (APKWS) for the past decade to deal with small craft, the service is notoriously close mouthed about what exactly its strategy is, so the recent Royal Navy test provides an important insight into the defenses used to protect modern carriers.
In this case, an inflatable target, known in navy circles as the big red, or killer, tomato, was engaged by Wildcat HMA Mk2 helicopters of the 815 Naval Air Squadron of the Fleet Air Arm. A Martlet missile was dropped from the Wildcat and in 0.3 seconds accelerated to Mach 1.5. Each Wildcat can carry 20 of the laser-sensor missiles, making them suitable for handling multiple stationary and moving targets.
The 76-mm Martlet is a two-stage, solid-propellant light missile designed for maritime, surface-to-surface, surface-to-air, air-to-air missions. It weighs in at 13 kg (29 lb), has an operational range of over 6 km (4 miles), and can be fired from ground and naval platforms as well as the Wildcat multi-role combat helicopter, before using a multi-role laser guidance system to home in on its target.
“Martlet is a new air to surface lightweight multi-role missile recently introduced into service for the Wildcat helicopter and provides offensive and defensive capability against small boats and maritime targets that may pose a threat to the Carrier Strike Group," says Captain James Blackmore, Carrier Strike Group’s Air Wing Commander. "The Wildcat is a phenomenally versatile aircraft and the inclusion of up to 20 missiles on each of the four embarked aircraft adds yet another potent capability to the Air Wing and the Carrier Strike Group.
"This first firing during an operational deployment not only gives confidence in the end to end weapon kill chain but also offers an overt demonstration of one of the many strike capabilities provided by the Air Wing from within the Task Group."
Source: Royal Navy