Will the Type 26 frigate deliver a punch commensurate with its price tag?

The quality of a warship should never be judged purely on its armament. There are many other factors to consider such as its sensors, electronics, propulsion, construction quality and above all the standard of its crew. But in this article we will focus primarily on the weapons fit of the Type 26.

Under mounting pressure to just get on with it, the MoD finally announced on the 4th November that construction work on the Type 26 frigate will begin in the Summer of 2017 (Subject to further contract negotiations of course). Protracted design and development of this ship has been underway for more than 18 years and it will still be at least another 5 years before the RN receives the first ship. A project that began with the aim of developing an affordable and exportable frigate has gradually spiralled in size and complexity into an expensive ‘high-end’ vessel with export potential that will, at best, probably be limited to licensing of the design to foreign builders.

The Type 26 is a conservative design and the majority of its systems will have been proven on other platforms before it ever goes to sea. Some of the equipment fitted to the Type 23 frigates will even be transferred directly from them as they decommission, to the new ships. The colossally expensive Type 45 project included 80% new systems and experience dictated a low-risk solution for the new frigate. This approach seems sensible but appears to be at odds with a large approximate price tag of around £750 Million for the each of the first three ships. Defining the actual price of a warship is a complex task but what is certain is the MoD expects to spend around £8 Billion in the next decade to buy 8 Type 26 and “at least” 5 Type 31 frigates.

The Type 26 has almost 40% greater displacement than the Type 23 but despite being separated by 30 years of technological development, the ships are broadly similar in general arrangement. Equipment fit is roughly equivalent, apart from two very significant additions to the Type 26; the ‘mission bay’ and the space allotted for the Mk 41 vertical launch system. Together with the Chinook-capable flight deck, these elements have resulted in a large ship.

The mighty Mk 41

The Type 26 design made public in 2012 showed that traditional canister-launched anti-ship or land-attack missiles seen on early design concepts had been abandoned. In its place were 24 Mk 41 Vertical Launch System (VLS) cells to be fitted just forward of the bridge. The US-made Mk 41 VLS is in use by 13 navies with over 12,000 cells fitted to ships worldwide. At sea since the 1980s, the Mk 41 has been continually developed and is the primary weapons system for the majority of the US navy’s surface fleet. The largest ‘strike-length’ cells allow warships to carry a diverse range of missiles and its addition to the Type 26 appears to open up many exciting options for the armament of the new frigate.

Unfortunately there is currently not a single missile type in the UK inventory that is compatible with the Mk 41. Without a commitment to purchase new munitions, the first operational Type 26 may find much of its armament is fresh air. The RN is no stranger to its warships being fitted “for but not with” items of equipment. Unfortunately endless rounds of cuts and austerity have often seen the failure to ever fit that equipment. It is an unhealthy peacetime mentality that allows warships to be put to sea not fully equipped. An MoD Type 26 infographic published on the day of the steel-cutting announcement omitted the Mk 41 entirely but the RN has since confirmed the cells will definitely be fitted.

When selecting vertical launch systems, The RN is in a complicated position. The Type 45 carries the French Sylver A50 VLS silo for its Sea Viper missiles. It has the space available to retro-fit either larger Sylver 70 cells and/or add an additional 16 Mk 41 cells. Commonality of equipment is always desirable and more economical so this creates a dilemma about whether to invest further in the Sylver system and its more limited munitions options or invest in the ubiquitous American Mk 41.

The Future Cruise & Anti-Ship Weapon (FCASW) is an Anglo-French project in the early stages of developing a possible single solution to replace Harpoon and SCALP/Tomahawk. A ‘technology demonstrator’ is due in 2019 but it will be sometime after 2030 and well after the first Type 26s are at sea before an operational anti-ship missile might be a reality. Even if the project survives the stresses of international co-operation it cannot deliver in time to avoid further dangerous capability gaps. Political enthusiasm for defence co-operation with France, the weakness of the pound against the dollar and now the election of Donald Trump has created a climate that further favours FCASW over US-made munitions such as LRASM. It must be hoped that the FCASW missile will be compatible with Mk 41.

It has recently become clear that the RN has no plan or funding available to replace the obsolete Harpoon Block 1C anti-ship missiles in its inventory when it goes out of service in 2018. As discussed in a previous article, this will put the RN in the absurd and laughable position of having a surface fleet with no guided weapons capable of sinking warships larger than corvettes. Either an interim cansiter-launched missile must be purchased for the Type 23s and 45s or the RN could be without ASuW capability for more than 15 years until FCASW is available. Alternatively the Mk 41 launched Long Range Anti-ship Missile (LRASM) could be purchased for the Type 26, reducing the gap slightly. The Mk 41 on the Type 26 assumes great significance, as this is its only option for embarking a heavyweight anti-ship missile.

  • type-26-foredeck

    CGI showing the general arrangement of equipment sited on the Type 26 foredeck.

  • type-26-frigate-mission-bay

    The mission bay can carry an interchangeable selection of equipment tailored to suit the ship’s particular mission. This could include additional RHIBs, assault boats, shipping containers and unmanned vehicles.

  • ASROC

    Anti-submarine torpedo attached to a rocket. A RUM-139 ASROC launched from Mk 41 VLS aboard a US Navy destroyer. The RN had a similar system in service during the 1970-80s called Ikara.

  • LRASM

    Mock up showing the LRASM being fired from Mk 41 VLS. The missile is currently under development and will probably become the ‘gold standard’ amongst Western anti-ship missiles. It will be available long before the FCASW project bears fruit.

The adaptable mission bay

The relatively simple concept of a ‘mission bay’ has already been adopted by several navies but this will be a first for the RN. More than just an empty space, it includes an overhead gantry crane for moving equipment on and off the ship while alongside or at sea. Shock-resistant mountings for ISO shipping containers that could house sensitive electronics are also included. Unmanned vehicles carried in the mission bay offer the most potential to expand Type 26 capability. Provided the RN is given the funds to invest properly in unmanned systems, off-board, networked systems for surveillance, mine-warfare and anti-submarine warfare will dramatically extend the reach of the ship.

Can find submarines, but can it kill them?

The primary role of the Type 26 is submarine hunting. With an acoustically-quietened hull and machinery matched with sophisticated towed array sonar will likely make for one of the worlds best submarine hunters. Having detected the submarine, the Type 26 the helicopter is the only option for attacking the contact. The Merlin Mk2 helicopter is an excellent anti-submarine platform with good endurance, speed and its own sonar to localise the submarine contact. If the Wildcat helicopter is embarked instead, it can carry light anti-shipping missiles (that the Merlin cannot) and torpedoes but has no dipping sonar. Wildcat lacks any means of locating a submarine other than visually or with bearings provided by the frigate.

Unfortunately any helicopter takes time to get airborne and may sometimes be unserviceable or cannot be launched in severe weather. The Type 23 is fitted with the Magazine Launched Torpedo System (MLTS) which allows the ship to fire Stingray anti-submarine torpedoes from an internal magazine. The Type 26 will not have this capability. This is something of a weapon of last resort as the ship would likely have already been attacked by the submarine if it was within range of this system. A very desirable alternative would be to acquire the American RUM-139 ASROC. This is a rocket that can accurately deliver a torpedo from the Mk 41 VLS out to a range of up to 22km from the ship in a matter of seconds. This gives a very reliable 24 hour ASW capability and can prosecute fleeting sonar contacts. The RUM-139 would need to be adapted to carry the Stingray instead of the US Mk 46 equivalent but this would probably not be too problematic. Obtaining funding for this weapon seems like an outside possibility but highly desirable for a warship who’s primary role is escorting highly valuable targets such as QE class aircraft carriers.

Gunnery upgrade

The Type 26 will finally see the replacement of the 4.5inch / 114mm Mark 8 Mod 1 Gun fitted to most RN surface escorts since the early 1970s. The 5 inch / 127mm Mark 45 Mod 4 Gun will provide longer range, better rate of fire and a wider selection of modern ammunition types. The option of extended-range and precision-guided shells could considerably enhance the Type 26 in the Naval Gunfire Support role.

In summary

When the Type 26 finally emerges in the mid 2020s it will undoubtedly be a big gain in capability over the Type 23. The mission bay offers flexibility and the ability to host unmanned systems that will be critical to future developments in naval warfare. Directed Energy weapons are likely to feature on many of the worlds warships by the 2030s. The size of the ship provides a good margin for future upgrades and space to add additional electrical generation to support DE weapons. Its credibility as a submarine hunter is not in doubt but it is the funding and selection of munitions for the Mk 41 VLS that will really define how powerful these ships can be and if their hefty price tag has fully been justified.

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