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Goodbye to the Fighting Frigates

June 3, 2008

The day of the venerable antisub frigate, heir to the valiant destroyer escorts and corvettes that outfought Hitler’s U-boat arm during the Battle of the Atlantic, is now over. The idea that a single shaft warship able to make 30 knots in brief spurts versus modern nuclear powered attack submarines which can sustain such speeds indefinitely is wholly unthinkable, especially with the advent of cruise missiles and wake-homing torpedoes.

The US Navy might be excused for discarding such craft, beginning in the early 1990s with the 46 Knox class and ongoing today with the last of the 51 Perry frigates entering their final days in commission. These ships were constructed starting in the last 1960’s to replace the hundreds of long-serving war era destroyers, which were worn out by this time. Because of the new ship’ mediocre building standards in order to reduce cost, they could hardly be expected to contend with high performance Soviet nuclear boats then entering service. Yet, for the sake of keeping fleet numbers high, they were purchased anyway.

No surprise that following the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, the frigates were swiftly discarded enmasse. As their replacement, oddly enough, the USN continued building the huge 9000 ton Arleigh Burke destroyers, so far numbering 60 vessels on order. While the well armed and very fast Burkes are formidable warships, they seem something of a white elephant in the post Cold war littoral warfare we find ourselves currently fighting against Third World pirates, where low tech frigates like the Perry and Knox would been of greater use.

During this same time period of the demise of the frigate in US service, the British Royal Navy has done somewhat better. First there was the excellent Leander class, the first such escorts designed with an ASW helicopter in mind. About 46 of these well-liked warships were built, 26 for the Royal Navy alone (slightly more than the current RN destroyer/frigate force). Then came the  powerful Broadsword class in the 1970s, with their potent Sea Wolf anti-missile system and 2 helicopters.

Though smaller than their US counterparts, the British escorts came equipped with 2 shafts. They were consistently updated throughout their lifespans into “broad-beamed” versions, with the addition of antiship cruise missiles and surface to air weapons. Soon, the distinction between frigate and guided missile destroyer became blurred, even in the Royal Navy. Current plans are for a new class of so called frigates, the Darings with the PAAMs missile system, similar to the American Aegis, geared toward escorting the Navy’s newest supercarriers.

With the ocean escort mission now overtaken by these giant missile ships, what role is there left for the traditional frigate? The closest we see are the new American littoral combat ships. Two different designs planned by Lockheed and General Dynamics are similar in size to the escorts of the Cold War era. As their name implies, these unique and fast craft are planned for use in shallow seas, rather than a blue water environment.

We find then that the days when the Navy could mass produce a potent sub chaser in an emergency is past. While we may fondly recall the exploits of the fighting frigates and corvettes that won the Battle of the Atlantic, it now appears the capabilities of their underwater adversaries have outpaced these once plentiful and essential warships.


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