From Frigate to Mothership Pt 2
The Overworked, Stretched Thin Frigates
Here are some examples just from current events that suggests the large multimission frigate might be in over its head in the modern sea environment:
- Iranians seize British sailors and Marines in RHIBs from the frigate HMS Cornwall.
- The RFA Wave Knight (used in the patrol role as a frigate) with Marines on board was present during a pirate hostage grab of a British yacht couple.
- American auxiliary vessel (surveillance ship) is swarmed by Chinese “fishing trawlers” in the China Sea.
- Despite having the world’s most impressive warships, modern frigates and destroyers deployed regularly in the Gulf, the Somali Pirates have not only survived but expanded their operations into the surrounding ocean.
None of the above incidents are individual proof the frigate is obsolete in its current form. Taken collectively they are signs the large multimission ship needs help in its essential function of sea control. Cost is not the only problem but also a confusion of the proper role of Blue Water versus littoral warfare. Using such ships in shallow waters, where most of these incident took place place means they are in the wrong environment where the best counter to small threats is a small warship.
There is always the “tyranny of numbers” to contend with as Brian J Dunn explains:
Our Navy is surely superior to any conceivable combination of potential foes, alarmism notwithstanding. Yet as a global power, our sea power cannot be narrowly defined by our superb warships able to win conventional sea-control campaigns. We have many objectives at sea… The tyranny of numbers matters to the United States Navy…
Our cruiser and destroyer surface combatants provide the bulk of our fleet and are outstanding multi-mission warships. But they can’t be everywhere. Nor are they needed everywhere. When a multi-mission ship is sent on a mission that does not need such a capable warship, we remove that ship from our pool of assets available to carry out another mission that requires a cruiser or destroyer.
The answer then is to no longer view the frigate as a stand-alone vessel but as a mothership of systems. The expensive ship with its advanced spaces, air-sea radar, sonar, large helos, and occasionally with amphib capability should be used in conjunction with patrol ships, fast attack craft, and corvettes to form a networked, single whole. Such vessels can cost in $100 million or much less (as seen in the next section), affording several to very many more than the cost of a highly capable but cost-prohibitive frigate.
Getting Help from Small Friends
The new frigate/mothership need not be of traditional warship design, probably shouldn’t be, but of mercantile specifications. Examples may be the RFA vessels or the above mentioned Absalon. How much greater would be the patrol area, and how much a deterrent they would be against small boats navies as in the Gulf, working in conjunction with patrol vessels? Each would enhance the abilities of the other. As a true mothership, the older frigate would maintain its role of a multimission vessel, but instead of lone cruising, it would share its enhanced abilities with a network of small craft. For $1 billion, you could build the first of many squadrons that can cover a great swathe of territory. For instance, for that price you can buy:
- 1 British C2 design Future Surface Combatant ($644 million US?) and 5 River class OPVs ($60 million)or
- 1 Absalon ($400 million?) and 3 Visby Corvettes ($184 million) or
- 1 RFA Wave class ($175 million) and 10 Skjold fast attack craft ($75 Million?) or
- 3 JHSV ($200 million) and 40 Stiletto boats ($12 million).
You cannot maintain control of the sealanes with an all-battleship navy, as proved with continued frustration of Navy commanders in the Gulf, unable to get a handle on the most minor of nautical threats of hijacking or piracy. The business there is apparently booming, even under the guns, missiles, and aircraft of the world’s most powerful navies. Obviously the large multimission ships with so many wonderful capabilities are alone inadequate for today’s threats, neither can you afford enough them.
Waiting for the Transformation
After world war 2, there came a dramatic transformation of warships classes, taking into account the lessons of war. For instance, the role of capital ship was taken by the aircraft carrier, while the battleship quickly disappeared in most navies. Taking somewhat longer to die out was the large gun cruiser, variously of heavy, light and anti-aircraft ships, of which we wrote a while back in Evolutions of the Cruiser:
We also saw how the globe-spanning 10,000 ton cruiser of the 1930’s transformed strictly into a fleet escort by 1945, soon thereafter disappearing as a class or morphing into different classes, such as aviation ships. With the destroyers and frigate type ships increasingly becoming high-end escorts in most modern navies, along with attack submarines rising in cost and capabilities, the cruiser role has become all but extinct.
After the world war, we saw the tiny destroyer, or small boys taking over the mantle of cruiser for fleet screen and commerce protection duties. Now that these vessels, along with new frigates have become so expensive and essential to battle fleet duties, we seem long overdue for a “new cruiser” which can perform screen, escort, and patrol missions in place of the shrinking number of large warships. We see at least two types emerging out of the frigate–the Mothership and the Corvette, each of various shapes and sizes, but more affordable and available in large numbers.