The Type 26 Frigate – Key to the RN’s future surface fleet

The latest design for the Type 26 Frigate, key to the future of the RN’s surface fleet was revealed by the MoD yesterday.
Although this design was shown off by BAE back in March, this now looks likely to be the basic arrangement for the ship. In general terms it is: 148 metres long, 5,400 tonnes, is armed with a new medium calibre gun, has vertical launch missile silos, carrys the Sea Ceptor self defence missile, mounts 2 Phalanx CIWS and 2 x 30 or 40mm guns. It will have a large flight deck and hangar and a ‘mission bay’ to carry unmanned vehicles. It is primarily an anti-submarine ship but with a diverse range of other capabilities. It will have diesel / gas turbine /electric propulsion (similar to the Type 23) with a top speed of over 28 knots and an exceptionally good range of up to 11,000 nm.

Officially it’s called the “Global Combat Ship” – an indication perhaps of the controversies around the concept of a frigate. In laying down the specification for this ship the Naval Staff have been navigating through very choppy seas. In a climate of cuts and austerity, somehow the RN has to balance cost and capability with competing arguments about future needs. There are several ‘schools of thought’ on modern frigates; some say they should be simpler, cheaper maritime security-orientated ships built in large numbers for the low-intensity operations that is the RN’s main occupation today. Or there is the ‘gold plated’ school that demands a warship survivable in the most high-intensity naval conflicts with the most modern (and therefore expensive) weapons and sensors possible. Then there are the radical fringe who argue the concept of the surface escort is fundamentally obsolete and because submarine hunting is mostly done by helicopter, the RN should just convert cheap merchant ships to carry lots of helicopters. Against this background the latest design appears to offer something of a ‘middle way’ – ship that is ‘relatively affordable’ while offering some high-end capabilities.

Positives

  • At approx 5,000 tonnes it is smaller than the previous 7,000 tonne ugly duckling initially proposed. This offers a little hope it should be affordable in decent numbers.
  • The ‘middle way’ design has real export potential which could help keep costs down.
  • The design includes MK41 silos for vertically launched Tomahawk Land attack missile (TLAM) tubes, amongst the most useful and relevant weapons possessed by the UK. This also provides an option to carry a variety of missile types in future.
  • Increase in accommodation to allow for 190 offers more flexible manning in future. ‘Lean manning’ keeps running costs down but Falklands war veterans will tell you exhaustion is a becomes a big factor for crews on prolonged operations. Numbers of sailors are needed for damage control and automation is not a substitute.
  • Has adaptable mission bay and large hangar providing flexibility and allowing for operation of Unmanned aircraft and submersibles in the future.
  • Use of proven technology that may have already been to sea on the Type 23 will help reduce costs and technical problems.
  • Aesthetically pleasing!  Possibly the best looking RN warship or auxiliary design to emerge for sometime.

Negatives

  • Although maybe a choice dictated by circumstance, it is not a very radical design, the mission bay is really the only major innovation for an RN vessel and foreign warships with these features are already at sea.
  • Slow pace of design and building means design could it be partially obsolete soon after it enters service. As the power of anti-ship missiles continues to increase, directed energy weapons (Lasers) maybe the only credible defence and this design does not have provision for this.
  • It’s still quite large design for a frigate and although an attempt to keep costs under control, it’s difficult to be optimistic, given the dismal history of cost inflation and export failure. Whether costs can be controlled and export orders or international collaboration can be achieved remains to be seen.

We want 13, preferably more but certainly nothing less

Slick computer animations and designs on a computer are one thing but now the RN has to get the ships built and funded. Phil “the spreadsheet” Hammond says the MoD has £11Billion earmarked for purchase of new warships (but that is not just for the Type 26s). The Type 26 must be steered through the 2015 defence review after which we will probably see an order for a first batch of 3 or 4 ships. The RN expects the first order in 2015 and then delivery of approximately one ship per year from 2020. Beyond that it becomes difficult to predict when funding for the next batches more will arrive. A bold move would be to simply order 13 together, providing much-needed security to industry and reducing costs by economy of scale, but of course this is probably wishful thinking.

Like many of the UK’s major defence programmes, the Type 26 is really running around 5-10 years behind when it will be needed. This is the result of a combination of factors, lack of funding, prevarication and delays by successive governments and the aircraft carrier effort. The result of this is that some of the 13 Type 23 frigates currently in service may have to be kept patched-up and running for around 30 years until the last Type 26 is delivered around 2033. The Type 23s have proven to be excellent ships and have adapted well beyond their origins as ASW specialists, however their original hull design was supposed to last 18 years although thoroughly refitted and upgraded they will be very tired an obsolete by the 2030s.

In the last decade the RN has effectively been forced to trade its frigate force against the promise of the new aircraft carriers. With just 13 frigates left this is already far to few but there is a now determination across the navy not to let numbers fall below this ‘rock bottom’. Indeed more than 13 frigates would be highly desirable. A repeat of the Type 45 program which was initially for 12 ships, then cut to 8 and finally only 6 delivered, must not be repeated. Junior Defence Minster, Peter Luff has rightly stated the “The Type 26 will be the backbone of the Royal Navy for decades to come.” We will hold his government and its successors to that and the campaign to “draw a line in the sand” & make it politically unacceptable for RN to receive less than 13 starts here!