Battleships versus Speedboats Pt 2
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
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.
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.