Dragonfire: UK to build six warships with laser weapon after 'learning Red Sea lessons'

New vessels fitted with DragonFire energy weapons will draw on lessons from current conflicts, including Houthi attacks on commercial shipping

View of the DragonFire laser-directed energy weapon (LDEW) system, during a trial at the Ministry of Defence's Hebrides Range, Scotland.
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The UK will order up to six drone-carrying warships for its Royal Navy as the government puts it on a war footing amid rising global tensions.

On Tuesday, Defence Minister Grant Shapps said the design for the new vessels will incorporate lessons from current conflicts, including the Houthi attacks on merchant shipping in the Red Sea.

The new vessels, known as Multi Role Support Ships, will be designed to strengthen the Royal Marines, he said.

They will be designed to carry a “broad range” of drones along with vehicles, aircraft and stealth combat craft. They will also serve as primary receiving ships for casualties.

The vessels – which would be built in Britain – will be fitted with the DragonFire laser, a directed energy weapon that will be installed on Royal Navy warships from 2027.

The technology, which it is claimed has the accuracy to hit a coin from a kilometre away, is designed to shoot down drones and missiles at the cost of £10 ($12.50) a shot.

DragonFire laser weapon system – in pictures

Sea Viper anti-aircraft missiles, which were used by the Royal Navy to shoot down drones and missiles in the Red Sea, cost more than £1 million each.

The weapon's range is classified but the Ministry of Defence said it is capable of engaging with any visible object.

Mr Shapps said “we will definitely build the first three” vessels for the Royal Marines and will plan to construct the next three.

“What we're trying to do is create a multi-role ship,” he told BBC Radio 4's Today.

“Actually, interestingly, we're learning from what's happened in the Black Sea in Ukraine and learning what's happening in the Red Sea currently to make much more flexible ships capable of carrying out a lot of different types of tasks.”

Mr Shapps claimed the UK was experiencing a “golden age” of military shipbuilding, with up to 28 Royal Navy vessels either being constructed or planned.

First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Ben Key, said: “I am delighted that the Secretary of State has cemented the future of our Royal Marines by committing to this new class of up to six amphibious vessels.

“These will be the most capable amphibious warships the nation has ever owned, designed to be fully interchangeable with our closest allies in Europe, and in Nato.”

The announcement came just weeks after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced defence spending would be increased by 2.5 per cent of GDP by 2030.

“It's something we're now able to do because the money's been pledged to defence,” Mr Shapps told the BBC.

He is scheduled to speak at the Sea Power Conference in London on Tuesday, where he will also say that two current Royal Marine assault ships, HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, will not be scrapped or mothballed before their out-of-service dates in 2033-2034.

BAE Systems, Britain's biggest military contractor, and another UK defence company, Babcock, are among the companies involved in building those 28 ships.

Meanwhile, Type 23 frigates HMS Argyll and HMS Westminster, built in the late 1980s and early 1990s, will be retired.

“While always sad to pay off such fine warships, their decommissioning marks the next stage of our reinvestment in new, more modern frigates,” Adm Key said.

Updated: May 14, 2024, 7:11 PM