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Royal Navy participates in SINKEX – destroying a decommissioned US frigate in the North Atlantic.

HMS Westminster, a Wildcat helicopter and three RAF Typhoon jets launched a variety of weapons, sinking the former USS Boone during exercise Atlantic Thunder held on 7th September.

The exercise was a very rare live test of complex weapons against a warship target. HMS Westminster fired two Harpoon anti-ship missiles at the same time as a US P-8A Poseidon aircraft launched one of its own, a total of 660kg of high explosive striking ex-USS Boone simultaneously. The main value of the Harpoon firing was to support the development of the RN’s long-range targeting, believed to include satellite communications as well as the opportunity to conduct training to validate tactics and operating procedures.

The 815 NAS Wildcat helicopter embarked on HMS Westminster quickly followed firing Martlet air-to-surface missiles into the Boone’s hull. This was the first test of the lightweight multi-role missile against a warship target. Until then, Martlet had only been used against purpose-built targets. With just a 3kg warhead, Marltet is not really intended to go up against warships and is best suited to countering small craft.

The Wildcat’s crew stayed airborne and a Forward Air Controller (Airborne) provided terminal guidance using the laser-targeting pod to guide in a Typhoon of 41 Squadron RAF to launch a 500lb Paveway IV guided bomb against the target. This is the first time an RAF Typhoon has dropped live ordnance onto a warship used as a maritime target, and the first time a Royal Navy helicopter has been used to provide guidance for a Paveway IV.

USAF F-15E Eagles, assigned to 494th Fighter Squadron based at RAF Lakenheath dropped maritime strike joint direct attack munitions (JDAM) on the ship. Finally, destroyer USS Arleigh Burke also hit the target vessel with a Standard Missile 6 (SM-6), the first anti-ship SM-6 engagement in the US European Command area of responsibility.

The former USS Boone arrived at Campbeltown in western Scotland on 18th August after being towed across the Atlantic from Philadelphia. The wreck of the Boone, now on the sea bed will remain under the ownership of the US Government in perpetuity. Extensive preparations took place over many months beforehand to ensure the exercise was conducted in a safe and environmentally compliant manner, including the removal of toxic materials and pollutants before she could be used as a target in this way.
Empty Harpoon canisters on HMS Westminster seen on her return to Portsmouth (Photo: S. Wenham).

The remaining UK stocks of certified Harpoon Block IC are low and the increasingly obsolete missile is due to go out of RN service next year. It looks likely to be replaced by the Naval Strike Missile. This kind of exercise is very useful but it should be borne in mind that a ‘dead ship’ that is making no attempt to manoeuvre or deploy hard / soft kill countermeasures is not a full test of a missile’s capabilities.

The last time the Royal Navy conducted a SINKEX was in July 2004 when ex-HMS Brave and HMS Boxer were sunk in the Western Approaches after serving in the RN the for just 13 and 16 years respectively. The tightening of maritime environmental regulations has made the cost of such exercises increasingly expensive while the sale of ships for recycling generates a small income.

HMS Westminster was later involved in tracking Russian warships and then returned to Portsmouth. She sailed again on 18 September, her last time as a Portsmouth-based ship. She was the first Type 23 frigate have a Life Extension refit, completed in January 2017 and is long overdue a major refit. She is currently in Gibraltar but will return to Devonport and follow HMS Argyll as the next frigate to undergo a post-LIFEX upkeep period in the covered docks at the Frigate Support Centre. As part of the plan to move all the towed array sonar-equipped frigates to Plymouth, following her refit she will emerge in 2024 and become a Devonport-based ship for the remainder of her career.

HMS Westminster arrives in Gibraltar on 22nd September.

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