minesweeper Royal Navy  HMS Pembroke (M107)
© U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Lynn FriantFILE: The Royal Navy mine sweeper HMS Pembroke (M107). Former defence chief brands Royal Navy missile limitations 'a scandal and completely unsatisfactory'
Britain's warships cannot attack Houthi targets on land because they lack the firepower, in a situation described by former defence chiefs as a "scandal".

None of the Royal Navy's destroyers or frigates have the ability to fire missiles at targets on land, leaving the US to carry out the majority of strikes on Houthi targets with support from RAF planes 1,500 miles away.

A British defence source said HMS Diamond, the destroyer stationed in the Red Sea, had not joined retaliatory strikes on Houthi targets because it did not have "the capability to fire to land targets". The Ministry of Defence (MoD) said it had instead been "directly involved in successfully destroying Houthi drones targeting shipping in the Red Sea".

This weekend, a British-linked container ship caught fire after becoming the latest vessel targeted by Houthi rebels.

One former rear admiral suggested that Britain's inability to strike the Iran-backed Houthi movement's from warships highlighted how the Navy would be unable to "go toe to toe" with Chinese and Russian warships.

Currently, the only weapons on destroyers that can fire at other ships or land are artillery guns at the front of each vessel. While US destroyers can fire Tomahawk guided missiles at land targets, the UK's only options for such strikes are deploying planes or submarines, five of which were reported to be unavailable at one point in the autumn.

Tobias Ellwood, the former chairman of the Commons defence committee, warned that the situation was unsustainable and urged Grant Shapps, the Defence Secretary, to conduct an urgent review. "We can't continue to do this with a surface fleet that's too small and cannot fire on land at range," Mr Ellwood said.

Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, now the head of the Armed Forces, was among navy chiefs warning of a need to "speed up our acquisition processes" for weapons including "land attack missile systems" five years ago, when he was First Sea Lord.

During the first few months of Boris Johnson's premiership, Sir Tony publicly advocated replacing Harpoon anti-ship missiles with a weapon that could be used to attack land targets.

However, the Harpoon was retired from the Navy last year and its temporary replacement, the Norwegian-made Naval Strike Missile, which can hit land targets, has only been installed on one vessel so far as part of a trial and has yet to be fired.

Comment: So they don't know whether it works.

Eventually, it will be rolled out to 11 frigates and destroyers before a new cruise missile system is expected to be introduced in 2028.

A former senior defence chief said that it was scandalous that Navy ships were not currently equipped with surface-to-surface missiles.

The ex-chief said: "It's clearly a scandal and completely unsatisfactory. This is what happens when the Royal Navy is forced to make crucial decisions which can affect capability. The UK is now having to fly RAF jets thousands of miles to do the job of what a surface-to-surface missile can do."

The disclosures come after Carlos Del Toro, the US navy secretary, warned that "given the near-term threats to the UK and US", investments in the Royal Navy were "significantly important".

MPs said the absence of land attack missiles left UK warships akin to "porcupines" - well-defended vessels with insufficient offensive capabilities.

Rear Admiral Chris Parry, a former senior naval officer, said that the lack of a proper surface-to-surface missile had left the Navy exposed. He said: "The Naval Strike Missile is a fudge. It's a sticking plaster to show we have some capability.

"The real worry is that we are not going to be able to go toe to toe with our Chinese and Russian opposite numbers in encounter actions and we are going to see more and more of these issues. We, the UK, haven't thought about the scenarios within which those weapons might be used.

"You need to look at the effect you want to have and that effect should be that when a British frigate or destroyer turns up, the Chinese and the Russians say oh f — , it's the Brits. That's what a deterrence is all about.

"Instead they are going to say, it's got a pop gun on the front, no surface-to-surface missiles and a helicopter which I can shoot down with a drone so why are we worried?

"The point is you don't bring a knife to a gun fight, and at the moment we have the knives and they have the guns."

Mark Francois, the former armed forces minister, said: "The lack of a land attack missile from the Royal Navy's surface fleet was specifically highlighted in a defence committee report some two years ago. It is encouraging that this missile is now on order but also disappointing that it is still not yet in operational service."

Mr Francois added that it was "embarrassing" that one of the Navy's three minesweeper vessels was taken out of action earlier this month when it collided with another British mine hunter in Bahrain. "The most important naval capability that we provide for our American allies are the three mine countermeasures vessels brd in Bahrain," he said.

On Saturday, Mr Shapps said: "It is our duty to protect freedom of navigation in the Red Sea and we remain as committed to that cause as ever."

A MoD spokesman said: "As with all coalition operations, commanders select the best equipment for the job. HMS Diamond is an air defence destroyer, which has been directly involved in successfully destroying Houthi drones targeting shipping in the Red Sea. Equally, the Royal Air Force has the capability to strike land targets with high precision, which is why Typhoon aircraft strikes have reduced the Houthis ability to conduct these attacks."

Comment: There's no reason to believe that the Houthis ability has been in any way effected, moreover analysts question whether the strikes even hit relevent targets.

An MoD source added: "We have already shown with our Typhoon capability that we are a leading force among our allies in defending the Red Sea. We are proud of our brave service men and women for all they are doing ... it's nonsense to suggest anything except that we are playing a key role."