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Battleships versus Speedboats Pt 2

September 8, 2009

In the Royal Navy the distinction between anti-submarine frigates (Type 22 and 23) and area air defense destroyers (Type 42) is somewhat clearer, but it is striking they are all about the same size, speed, and range.

Norman Friedman writing in Navies in the Nuclear Age

Duke class Type 23 frigate HMS Somerset (F82)

Duke class Type 23 frigate HMS Somerset (F82)

You may have been following our ongoing coverage of the exploits of the Royal Navy frigate HMS Iron Duke and its headline making anti-narcotics operations along with US Coast Guard elements. Affectionately we dubbed the Duke the Most Important Ship in the Royal Navy, with good reason. While the admirals are lobbying desperately for giant new supercarriers (CVF Queen Elizabeth class) and space age missile battleships (Type 45 destroyers) which will enter service minus their aircraft and  missiles, these elderly but effective frigates are doing all you would expect from a warship.

We also mentioned how even the Duke class with their Sea Wolf anti-missile systems, Harpoon anti-ship missiles, Stingray ASW torpedoes plus a 4.5 inch main cannon were themselves so much overkill combating drug smugglers or even pirates in speed boats. With the Royal Navy like the USN effectively geared toward Blue Water warfare, little changed from its Cold War stance and suffering from the cost of maintaining a handful of giant ships in a new era of many threats, not surprisingly they are stretched thin and suffering from deficiencies in equipment, as we mentioned with the Type 45 and new carriers above.

We can’t help but think for these low threat operations the type of warship more cost-effective and ideal, instead the Navy’s most sophisticated warships, would be the original design of the Type 23 class, described here in Wikipedia:

The ships were to carry a towed array sonar to detect Soviet submarines in the North Atlantic and carry a Westland Lynx or EHI Merlin helicopter to attack them. It was initially proposed that the frigates would not mount defensive armament. Instead the Sea Wolf missile system was to be carried by the Fort Victoria class replenishment oiler, one of which was to support typically four Type 23s. The Forts would also provide servicing facilities for the force’s helicopters; the Type 23 would have facilities only for rearming and refueling them.

Here we see an early attempt to deploy a spartan corvette backed by mothership support. It was originally planned to build a focused mission ship, doing a single important function of anti-submarine warfare, carrying what was then and now the most potent sub-killing weapon carried by surface ships, the torpedo armed helicopter. Clearly this was a radical solution to halt the rise in cost and decline in numbers which was affecting all modern navies, and continues to do so today. About a decade later, and writing in The Future British Surface Fleet, DK Brown proposed a strikingly similar concept for a like reason:

The baseline corvette is a development of the Castle class and it will have the same excellent seakeeping qualities and small superstructure. It’s primary role will be to deploy a towed array and to provide a landing for a big helicopter. For this role it will have to be quiet, and therefore it will be fitted with diesel-electric propulsion. A speed of about 25 knots seems desirable to keep up with container ships…These corvettes will have a peacetime role of offshore protection, for which they will need a gun capable of destroying a terrorist or pirate launch…In a major war the corvette would operate as a towed array ship, up to 100 miles from a destroyer or carrier, and its helicopter would use the bigger ship for a major maintenance and to avoid the worst consequences of being left in the open.

Not surprisingly this renewed proposal for a inexpensive and non-exquisite ship wasn’t taken up. Today the irreplaceable Duke’s soldier on as they are too costly to replace, yet still so much over-kill for the very low risk duties it performs, which would have been an ideal function its original guise. Such a proposal inspired yours truly recently when writing about a Future Surface Combatant Alternative, and the Castle’s replacement the River class OPV:

We think her seakeeping abilities make this class stand out. Their spacious landing deck would also give it room to launch either a UAV or increase its weapon’s load for use in threat areas. While an OPV isn’t something you could send to a major war zone without protection, the numbers you could build for the price of a heavy frigate would enhance its survivability and usefulness. Each vessel costs £60m, making it very cost effective for the type of low intensity operations against pirates and smugglers which the High Tech Navy has little time for. Very many of these vessels could halt the downward slope of the Royal Navy, while enhancing its presence worldwide. New weapons, such as unmanned vehicles, small missiles, even “rockets in a box“,  plus a larger 57mm or 76mm gun, could make this ship more of a threat to the enemies of freedom than its size reveals.

: HMS Severn (P282) and HMS Mersey (P283), two River class offshore patrol vessels. Author Torsten Bätge via Wikimedia Commons.

: HMS Severn (P282) and HMS Mersey (P283), two River class offshore patrol vessels. Author Torsten Bätge via Wikimedia Commons.

Interestingly, £60 million was the original price of the Type 23, before it transformed into a traditional and gold-plated frigate design. We see apparently less capable warships becoming capital vessels in and near coastal areas, because of the need for motherships in these long-neglected regions. Auxiliary warships are most required in numbers for ferrying new weapons and boarding teams, and less about any peculiar abilities of their hull, other than good sea-keeping qualities.

21 Comments leave one →
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  5. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 10, 2009 6:21 am

    Thanks for the update Scott!

  6. Scott B. permalink
    September 10, 2009 4:56 am

    Milan Vego’s latest article on LCS is now available to non-subscriber at the USNI website :

    No Need for High Speed

    Enjoy… ;)

  7. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 9, 2009 3:29 pm

    And when you mention alternatives, which would get shipbuilding back to where it was, reasonable numbers, reasonable building cycles, reasonable costs, you are told “it won’t work”. A death spiral in fleet size won’t work for long either!

  8. Anonymous permalink
    September 9, 2009 3:24 pm

    I should have type,

    “I think the Royal Corps of Naval Constructors would dispute the claim that is no shipbuilding knowledge in the MoD…..”

    Whoops! :)

  9. Anonymous permalink
    September 9, 2009 3:23 pm

    Further to the comments above. The MoD likes tanks, APC, and plane’s because prototype after prototype after prototype can be built. The likes of BAE system and QinetiQ can waste millions in development costs; the profit is at this stage of the project when there are low personnel and equipment costs.

    But ship prototypes are rarely built; we have had 1 in the last decade. There is no money in it.

    I don’t think the Royal Corps of Naval Constructors would dispute the claim that is no shipbuilding knowledge in the MoD………..:)

  10. navark permalink
    September 9, 2009 5:24 am

    Quote: “Mike, As I understand it the FSC project is a continuation of an earlier RN study, the total of which have been ongoing for 25+ years. In which time NOTHING has been built.

    The FSC requirement has been kicked into the long grass by successive goverments, because commissioning a study costs very little (and is therefore more attractive to goverment), but building ships costs money.”

    And this is the basis of UK government, coupled to the fact that there isn’t any ship design experience in the MoD. Therefore the result is report after report of a rehashing of the same old stuff, or at best a preliminary design that is just another bog standard frigate.

    The C1 will probably come before the more interesting options of the C3, but they would be much better off just buying some F100s as their C1 won’t provide any further capability. But there’s a good chance it will provide less and cost a whole lot more, because at the end of the day in the UK it’s the blind leading the blind.

  11. Anonymous permalink
    September 8, 2009 3:30 pm

    As I said in the comment thread for part one of this article the RN can’t afford to choose the lesser the ship because there is a danger that would become the fleet standard. Once Iron Duke has finished backing up the USCG she will return to front line duties/training. You have to see this drug busting cruises as an ongoing training exercise that is also productive.

    Their Lordships cocked up when ordering the River Class by not opting for a flight deck option..

    {BTW I do like the River Class!!!}

  12. William permalink
    September 8, 2009 8:36 am

    Scott, I wasn’t specifically refering to D.K Brown corvette, but thanks for the info, I didn’t realise his design was so much smaller than the 3000 ton C3 designs.

  13. Scott B. permalink
    September 8, 2009 8:29 am

    William said : “This is the basis for the RN Future Surface Combattant C3 OPV/Corvette £100 million (ish) requirement, with MCM capability added.”

    Designs currently proposed for the C3 (e.g. BMT Venator) displace more than twice as much as DK Brown’s baseline corvette (3,039 tons for Venator vs 1,350 tons for the baseline corvette).

  14. William permalink
    September 8, 2009 8:23 am

    Mike, As I understand it the FSC project is a continuation of an earlier RN study, the total of which have been ongoing for 25+ years. In which time NOTHING has been built.

    The FSC requirement has been kicked into the long grass by successive goverments, because commissioning a study costs very little (and is therefore more attractive to goverment), but building ships costs money.

    If in the interim (until the FSC requirements had been finalised) MORE (relatively cheap) River Class OPV’s had been built, there wouldn’t ave been such a black hole in the RN fleet numbers. And they could have been performing many of the roles that the Type 23’s are now.

  15. Scott B. permalink
    September 8, 2009 8:20 am

    Mike Burleson said : ” if the vessel had mothership support,

    *Mothership* support (whatever a *mothership* might be) don’t come for free !

    Once you factor various support costs into the equation, the *expensive but not expendable* design you seem to advocate becomes even more unstable.

  16. Scott B. permalink
    September 8, 2009 8:16 am

    Mike Burleson said : “I think this opinion is dated considering the advancement in technology”

    What *advancement in technology* are you talking about ?

  17. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 8, 2009 8:05 am

    ScottB quoted “The ship envisaged was too expensive to be expensive to be expendable, and yet was unable to defend itself.”

    I think this opinion is dated considering the advancement in technology, if the vessel had mothership support, or if used in benign threat areas such as the Gulf of Aden or the Caribbean where we wastefully use our most expensive capital vessels.

    William said “They’ve just been taking a very long time to decide exactly what they want”

    Hopefully we can coax them into action with a few affordable and capable alternatives!

  18. William permalink
    September 8, 2009 7:43 am

    This is the basis for the RN Future Surface Combattant C3 OPV/Corvette £100 million (ish) requirement, with MCM capability added. They’ve just been taking a very long time to decide exactly what they want (i.e. not building anything).

  19. Scott B. permalink
    September 8, 2009 7:25 am

    Mike Burleson said : “About a decade later, and writing in The Future British Surface Fleet, DK Brown proposed a strikingly similar concept for a like reason:”

    DK Brown also add towards the end of the paragraph on the baseline corvette you just quoted (page 142) : (bold emphasis added)

    “The corvette would have simple defensive armament, two engine-rooms and at least two zones, but nevertheless would not be operational after sustaining major damage

    Might be acceptable in a context where “The Purpose of the Navy is Not to Fight”, but it won’t do the trick otherwise !

  20. Defiant permalink
    September 8, 2009 7:07 am

    ALways be careful with prices, the 60 Million from that time were worth much more than the pund of today, also ship prices do not always include all the cost needed to have the ship ready to set sail.

    http://www.defence.pk/forums/weapons-club/15663-shipborne-versatility-offshore-patrol-vessels.html , first post only
    i think the thing you are looking for are opv, the points by Jonathan Kamerman in the link are pretty good.

  21. Scott B. permalink
    September 8, 2009 6:23 am

    Mike Burleson said : “Interestingly, £60 million was the original price of the Type 23, before it transformed into a traditional and gold-plated frigate design.”

    Allow me to quote a brief passage from DK Brown’s Future British Surface Fleet that you may have missed

    It’s the second paragraph in the section appropriately entitled ‘Unstable Designs’, page 69 (bold emphasis is mine) :

    “The original concept for the Duke class (Type 23 frigate) was for a small ship which could tow a sonar array and provide a landing deck for a helicopter, but with no hangar and virtually no armament, cost some £65 million.

    The ship envisaged was too expensive to be expensive to be expendable, and yet was unable to defend itself. The whole concept was therefore philosophically ‘unstable’, and had to shrink to a cost level at which its loss could be accepted, or grow to a cost of over £100 million in order to allow for some defensive armament.”

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