Royal Navy explodes warship as it fires new missiles for first time in massive joint exercise with US

Dubbed Atlantic Thunder, the exercise showed the countries can together deliver ‘an end-to-end kill chain’ against a ship at long range

Royal Navy helicopters have fired new missiles for the first time as UK and US forces target a warship in the biggest such exercise for two decades.

HMS Westminster, a Wildcat helicopter and three RAF Typhoon jets put on a formidable display of firepower alongside US allies, exploding a specially prepared ex-US Navy warship in the North Atlantic.

The decommissioned frigate, USS Boone, was hit with an array of high-powered weaponry, including the Royal Navy’s new laser-guided Martlet missile.

The exercise, named Atlantic Thunder, was the first of its type for the Royal Navy in 18 years and took place alongside US Navy and US Air Force counterparts.

Commander Ed Moss-Ward, commanding officer of HMS Westminster, said the exercise demonstrated that UK and US naval and air forces can work together to deliver “an end-to-end kill chain” against a ship at long range.

“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.

“The firings have supported the development of the Royal Navy’s targeting and weapon capabilities, and afforded the opportunity to conduct realistic training to validate tactics and operating procedures.”

Britain’s Type 23 frigate HMS Westminster fired two Harpoon anti-ship missiles at USS Boone at the same time as a US P-8 Poseidon patrol aircraft launched one of its own. 

Combined, 660kg of high explosives hit the ship simultaneously.

HMS Westminster took part in the exercise, the first of its type for the Royal Navy in 18 years
Two Harpoon anti-ship missiles were fired from HMS Westminster at the USS Boone

The frigate’s Wildcat helicopter quickly followed, striking the Boone’s hull with Martlet air-to-surface missiles. 

This was the first firing of the Fleet Air Arm’s new anti-ship weapon against a realistic target at sea – to this point Martlet had only been used against purpose-built targets.

The Wildcat helicopter then used its onboard laser-targeting pod to guide in a Typhoon fighter from 41 Squadron RAF to launch precision-guided bombs against the target. 

Never before had a Royal Navy helicopter directed a Paveway IV laser-guided bomb onto a target.

The Americans used their own multi-role SM-6 missile launched by destroyer USS Arleigh Burke, before US Air Force F-15E Eagles, assigned to 494th Fighter Squadron, guided several air-to-ground bombs against the Boone.

A Wildcat helicopter struck the Boone’s hull with Martlet air-to-surface missiles Credit: Simon Arnold
USS Boone, a decommissioned frigate, was hit with an array of high-powered weaponry

Soon after Atlantic Thunder, the target came to rest on the bottom of the ocean, where it will remain under the ownership of the US government in perpetuity. 

Extensive preparations took place over many months to ensure the exercise was conducted in an environmentally compliant manner, including the removal of toxic materials and pollutants from the ship before it could be used as a target in this way.

Martlet missiles carry a 3kg warhead and can accelerate rapidly up to one-and-a-half times the speed of sound. 

They are guided to their target by following a laser beam fired from the ship or other assets nearby.

They are used to extend the reach of the Royal Navy’s existing ship defence systems. 

The current defence against fast inshore attack craft, the 30mm gun, is highly effective for closer-range engagements. Martlet is able to hit targets 5km from the ship.

Britain is thought to have donated Martlet missiles to Ukraine to help repel the Russian invasion. 

Although the MoD has never publicly acknowledged sending the missiles, social media footage from April showed Ukrainian troops shooting down Russian drones using a shoulder-launched version of the weapon. 

The frigate USS Boone served in the US Navy between 1982 and 2012. 

It is named after Vice Admiral Joel Thompson Boone, a Medal of Honour recipient and the most highly decorated medical officer of the First World War.