Type 26: Frigate or Mothership?
Former RN sailor Lewis Page is much harder on Britain’s future frigate plans, the so-called Type 26 than yours truly was the other day. Here is is post at the National titled “Royal Navy starts work on new, pointless frigates”
The Royal Navy has decided to spend £127m to answer the question: “What should the next generation of frigates be like?” This is disappointing, as the real question is “do we actually need any more frigates?” and the answer is very likely “No, or not in their present form, anyway.”
Officially the navy, commissioning BAE Systems to start looking into the new ships’ design, says it isn’t looking for frigates but for a “Type 26 Combat Ship”. But the Type 26 will replace Type 22 and 23 frigates, and indeed nobody is really pretending it is anything else.
Remember when the American LCS wasn’t a frigate but now it is? Same thing. Modern naval strategists can’t think beyond their Cold War platforms and fighting the German Soviet Navy in the North Atlantic. So they keep trying to fit the new wine of the missile age and the sensor revolution into the old frigate bottles.
A frigate carries only close-quarter air defences, intended to offer some minimal hope of survival should enemy air strikes get through the fleet’s fighter screen and destroyer-mounted missile shield. It cannot, then, offer useful protection to other ships against air attack.
Which is my argument against the LCS, and why I think the traditional general purpose frigate is obsolete. Because you have a vessel almost as expensive as modern guided missile warships, which are high end battleforce ships, except they are armed no better than foreign corvettes or offshore patrol vessels. Which sounds more logical, to build a few very expensive and potentially vulnerable vessels, arm them like small patrol vessels, then use them like coast guard cutters, or buy a great many patrol vessels at less cost? But the all-battleship navy can’t think in these sensible terms.
The argument may be that you don’t have the range and staying power with corvettes and patrol craft, which is true since they are not base vessels but “fighters”. For extended deployment then you need motherships as Lewis points out. Here are examples of what a cheaper but heavier mothership can do versus the exquisite frigate:
- A frigate’s principle job is hunting submarines with helicopters, which can also be done by fleet auxiliary (RFA) vessels.
- 8 Harpoon missiles on a 6000 ton frigate isn’t much more than the armament of a corvette or patrol boat, but a mothership can carry numerous helicopters that is a significant capability against submarines and surface craft.
- A frigate/sloop can load only a small amount of troops, but the RFA vessels load many troops, vehicles, and equipment.
- The frigate beats the mothership in shore bombardment, but do you really want a large warship so close to shore and inshore threats from missiles, aircraft, subs, mines, etc. for only 10 minutes of sustained firing?
As noted in the above link, the Navy already uses its auxiliary ships in this role, since the number of frigates which can be bought is so few. The RFA will likely continue in this role, since the number of frigates will soon decline by 2021. So how does buying fewer ships annually maintain capability?
He goes on to make the point that the 127-400 million pound Type 26 is a very expensive solution to modern naval threats, especially since they come when the Navy is desperately attempting to modernize its naval airpower, replace submarines, and arm the Type 45 destroyer properly. Even if they could be afforded, they simply are not needed when there are better vessels available. From what we have seen above, the modern frigate is not so cargo capable as a mothership, neither is it better armed than the shallow water corvette, more suitable for operating in the littorals.
But I suppose new frigates would keep the industry and politicians happy, as ironically revealed by this headline recently in the Greenbay Gazette “Littoral Combat Ship program example of how to generate jobs“. So it will be with the Type 26, and perhaps other ship programs whose usefulness in modern warfare are increasingly questioned:
Or in other words we need to have some frigates so as to avoid closing our frigate yards, so that we will be able to have even more frigates in future. Tail wags dog: ice-cream licks itself.