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HMS Defender destroys drone in exercise which paves the way for future of air defence at sea

2 June 2023
A Royal Navy warship destroyed a jet drone during the world’s largest test of naval and missile defences.

HMS Defender deployed to Scotland’s Outer Hebrides for Formidable Shield 2023 to test missiles, systems, sensors and software against ballistic, subsonic and supersonic targets, alongside 13 NATO and partner nations.

The Type 45 led the Royal Navy’s participation as a dedicated air defence destroyer designed to shield a task group, culminating in a firing of her Sea Viper missile system – the £1bn warship’s primary weapon – during a mission to locate, and destroy a drone designed to be difficult to track and intercept.

Petty Officer Cameron McDonnell controlled the Sea Viper missile fired from Defender against the highly-manoeuvrable drone – designated Bruiser 9384 – which travels at hundreds of miles an hour. ‘Bruiser’ is the NATO codeword for an anti-ship missile.

“It’s my role to provide missile and air defence,” he explained. “We’ve been using experimental hardware and software to push our sensors to the limit, ready for the fight of tomorrow.

“We’ve tracked ballistic, subsonic and supersonic targets while working with our allies and partners.

“The final stage saw HMS Defender conduct a live missile engagement against an uncrewed aerial vehicle.”

HMS Defender provided an umbrella of protection, calculating that a threat was approaching using her distinctive radar systems: the Sampson (the spiked ball atop the distinctive main mast) and the Long Range (large black rectangle) which, combined, make the Type 45s world-leading air defence ships, giving them the ability to track hundreds of targets as far as 250 miles away.

All of this cutting-edge technology makes up the Sea Viper system, which gives Defender the ability to accurately find and track a target before firing the missile itself, known as an Aster 30.

As they tracked Bruiser 9384, PO McDonnell sprang into action, launching a Sea Viper missile against the target.

With the order to launch given, the missile burst from its silo in a flash of fire, thunder and smoke, accelerating in a matter of seconds to more than three times the speed of sound as it arced into the Atlantic sky.

“Five seconds to impact,” PO McDonnell relayed over the radio. “Viper assessed kill. Bruiser 9384 splashed. Destroyed. Destroyed. Destroyed.”

Each Type 45 destroyer carries up to 48 missiles, each held in a vertical-launch silo on the forecastle at the front of the ship and capable of taking out aerial threats at ranges up to 75 miles away, manoeuvring for the kill at G forces no human can withstand.

Defender also helped push the boundaries of missile and air defence – and her Sea Viper system, ensuring its abilities against a variety of difficult-to-intercept incoming targets.

Every year we try something new, something harder; to challenge ourselves and our equipment.

Lt Cdr Marin-Ortega

The ship used a special ‘link’ network to provide target details to an RAF Typhoon and shared a target ‘track’ with frigate HMS Kent, via satellite.

Lieutenant Commander Carl Marin-Ortega, HMS Defender’s Weapon Engineer Officer, said the successful firing was crucial not just for today, but for the future of the Fleet’s air defence.

The missile system is undergoing a £300m upgrade to ensure the Navy is protected from the latest threats, including anti-ship ballistic missiles. Known as Sea Viper Evolution, the enhancements to both the radar and missile will support 54 jobs in the UK at sites from the Isle of Wight to Hertfordshire, Bristol and Bolton.

“Every year we try something new, something harder; to challenge ourselves and our equipment,” Lt Cdr Marin-Ortega explained.

“Not only do we work and train with our national allies and partners but we have furthered the development of our own sovereign capabilities – I was fortunate enough to work previously on the Sea Viper Evolution project which was announced last year and now, being the weapon engineer officer at sea, experimenting and gathering data for it is very satisfying.

“It not only ticks the box as an engineer, but as a war-fighter we get to work with our allies and rehearse the reduced timescales we would see with supersonic and ballistic targets.

“The exercise culminated in the firing, which has been the highlight of my time on board so far.”

Reflecting on a visit to Formidable Shield last month, Minister for Defence Procurement, James Cartlidge MP, said:

“Formidable Shield is a hugely important exercise and I was honoured to see first-hand the cooperation between our Allied nations.

“Hosted in the Outer Hebrides, and bringing together aircraft, naval ships and more than 4,000 military personnel from 13 NATO nations, Formidable Shield truly demonstrates our effective collaboration in defending and deterring against emerging threats.”

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