Destiny of the Frigate Pt 1
The Vanishing Escorts
The days when the modern naval frigate might be seen as a low cost, numbers building alternative to large and pricey missile battleships is long past. Nothing is such stark evidence of this than the 3000 ton gun, helicopter, and missile armed littoral combat ships–LCS Freedom and Independence. On these ships rest all the Navy hopes in rebuilding its drastically shrinking force structure, and defeat low tech enemies such as pirates and smugglers on the High Seas. Except at up to $700 million each they can never be bought in the numbers desired.
Blame this in part on the helicopter. First introduced on Navy frigates in the 1960s, as on the excellent British Leander class, the USN Knox, also on Canadian subs hunters, the helos offered a substantial increase in anti-sub capabilities, especially against the exquisite nuclear boats then entering service. Suddenly the range such vessels could be detected and destroyed increased dramatically for the hunter-killer surface combatants, since the aircraft loaded its own sonar-buoys and ASW torpedoes.
The price paid to carry and support aircraft on small ships was substantial, however. A noticeable increase in the size of frigates became apparent in the 1960s, to allow for a stable launching platform. Later high price and high performance helos like the USN Sea King, Seahawk, up to today’s Merlin on European ships, contributed to the call for high end ships to launch from. Some like the superb Canadian Iroquois was so capable as to receive the moniker of destroyer, though it was then still just a low end general purpose escort, as was the 5000 ton American Spruance.
Note the rise in size from the 1950s to the 1970s of both non-helicopter and helicopter ships:
- Soviet Kola class frigate-1900 tons non-helo
- US Claud Jones class destroyer escort-2000 tons non-helo
- UK Whitby class frigate-2560 tons non-helo
- Canada St. Laurent class escort destroyer-2800 tons non-helo (initially)
- UK Leander class frigate Batch 1-2960 tons helo capable
- US Brooke class frigate-3426 tons drone or helo
- Dutch Kortenaer class frigate-3900 tons helo capable
New Weapons and New Roles
A further contributer to the decline of frigate numbers occurred in European navies. There, the idea was to fit long-range area anti-aircraft, later anti-missile missiles on low end frigate hulls to to avoid the great expense of new USN guided missile cruisers and destroyers. This was a logical response to the growing cost of deploying new weapons at sea, yet, there still was a need for a low end escort that has yet to be adequately met.
- Soviet Krivak class frigate-3575 tons Gecko SAM
- US Perry Class frigate-4100 tons Standard SAMs
- Dutch Tromp class frigate-4308 tons Standard SAMs
- UK Type 22 Batch 3-5300 tons Sea Wolf SAM
It is completely sensible for the West to deploy such vessels, hoping to keep the costs of shipbuilding down while still deploying an extremely important weapons system to the fleet. The problem is, this is mostly all they are building and planning, while the bulk of operations at sea of late have been of the low tech variety. The general purpose escort remains elusive, as does replacements for Cold War era platforms like the American Perry’s and the British type 23 frigates.
As we see with the LCS, the British have proposed a new “Future Surface Combatant“, perhaps in recognition that the frigate role has changed dramatically, initial plans for the C-2” design is for a 6000 ton ships, which some estimate costing at least $1 billion each. We see then, the frigate no longer meeting the need for cheap and plentiful escorts, always a requirement for keeping ship numbers up and not using your most expensive space age warships in sundry duties such as anti-piracy or anti-smuggling missions, plus keeping watch over small but dangerous fleets like North Korea or Iran, while still managing the few but important peer enemies such as China or Russia.
Tomorrow-Rebirth of the Frigate.