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.
- 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.
- 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!
- More images of the Type 26 development (SRN Pinterest board)
- MoD reveals design of new warship (BBC)
- MoD unveils vision for the ‘flagships’ of the future (Daily Mail)
- The Type 26 Takes shape (UK Armed Forces Commentary)
- What is the cost to the nation every time a frigate or destroyer is axed? (SRN)
Photo: Defence Images via flickr
In 1982 foolish cuts to the Royal Navy by a Conservative government were seen as a green light by the Argentines to invade the Falklands. 2012 is the 30th anniversary of a short but bloody war that had a big impact on British history. Fundamentally it was a triumph for the Royal Navy and the lessons from the conflict profoundly influenced the shape of the RN for the following 20 years.
In the last 10 years many defence pundits and journalists have written endless articles asking “Is the UK capable of re-fighting another Falklands War?” This is a rather tired debate but in light of recent Argentine belligerence and the 2010 defence cuts it is an issue worthy of re-consideration and which raises 2 fundamental questions. (1) Are the Falklands properly defended and (2) could they be recovered if invaded?
Defence is possible,
Recovery is not
The RN has maintained at least 1 warship and 1 RFA in the South Atlantic (in addition to a permanent Falklands patrol ship HMS Clyde and Antarctic patrol ship HMS Protector) ever since 1982 and they usually rotate every 6 months. This single warship is supposed to cover this vast area that includes not just the Falklands, but South Georgia and West Africa. The main permanent defence for the islands supposedly rests with just 4 Typhoon fighters based at RAF Mount Pleasant. Their main strength would be intercepting invading aircraft but 4 aircraft is a tiny number to defend an area the size of Wales. Essentially there is a bare minimum of defensive assets around the islands but defending Mount Pleasant and the rapid arrival of reinforcements would be the key to defence of the Islands, in the unlikely event of attempted invasion.
Should Argentina manage to invade and take Mount Pleasant, there is no hope the UK could mount a recovery operation. In reality the UK gave up any hope of being able to mount an independent Falklands ’82-type operation when Tony Blair’s government decommissioned the Sea Harrier FRS2. The Sea Harrier was a fighter aircraft, critical to the air defence of the fleet and it was the handful of Sea Harriers made the 1982 victory just possible. The axing of HMS Ark Royal and her GR9 Harriers in 2010 was just the final nail in the coffin. The GR9s were essentially ground attack aircraft with only limited air defence capability. The shrunken Royal Navy, lack of RFAs and merchant ships and an Army and Royal Marines committed in Afghanistan mean the cupboard is bare. The long-term decline in the RN can be illustrated in simple numbers – in 1982 the RN possessed about 90 major warships, currently there are around 35 and crucially no fixed wing aircraft carrier (until 2020 at least!).
Are we ‘militarising’ the Falklands?
Even if it were true that the UK is ‘militarising’ the Falklands as Argentina recently claimed in the UN, there would be every justification given President Kirchner’s recent threats. The Argentines have also made much of HRH Prince William’s arrival in the Falklands saying it’s “provocative” even labelling him a “Conquistador”! He could hardly be less belligerent, flying a bright yellow helicopter and rescuing people. On closer inspection it’s clear the defences of the islands have changed little in the last decade. In fact Britain is busy ‘de-militarising’ itself and although the defensive forces around the Falklands remain much the same, the naval forces required to reinforce them in the event of a conflict are much-diminished.
The deployment of HMS Dauntless to the South Atlantic in April was leaked to the press prematurely on January 31st (Although long-planned and the ship’s company knew before Christmas, the RN had not planned to make the announcement until much closer to sailing) The Argentines seem to think HMS Dauntless’ deployment is some kind of deliberate escalation. In fact her programme is quite routine and she is simply replacing HMS Montrose on the Atlantic Patrol Task South (APTS). HMS Dauntless is a more powerful ship than the ship she replaces on station but the new Type 45s were always destined to become part of the regular cycle of RN warships deployed (HMS Daring left for the Gulf in January relieving a Type 23 frigate). The media coverage of this diplomatic row is set to make HMS Dauntless Britain’s most famous warship, before she has even sailed from the UK on her maiden deployment. The arrival of Dauntless will strengthen the radar surveillance, anti-aircraft and anti-missile defences around the islands but it could also be argued that the departure of HMS Montrose weakens anti-submarine defences. Argentine claims that naval power around the islands has been “quadrupled” are as ridiculous as the over-blown claims that Dauntless could “shoot down the entire Argentine airforce” and putting too much reliance on a single new and untested warship is very unwise as history has shown.
In an a break from the usual policy of not commenting on RN submarine operations, it has been confirmed that a submarine has been despatched to the South Atlantic. (Either HMS Tireless or HMS Turbulent). Again this is fairly routine as there have been RN submarines in the South Atlantic since 1982 although the shocking decline in RN submarine numbers in the last 5 years mean that a continuous presence has not been possible. Robbing Peter to pay Paul, the permanent presence of a submarine could only be maintained in future by abandoning the commitment to have one on station in the Indian Ocean. Back in 1977, the RN’s first nuclear submarine HMS Dreadnought was dispatched to the Falklands (operation Journeyman) in response to Argentine threats and her presence prevented any further aggression at the time. Argentine suggestions that an RN Trident submarine is in the South Atlantic with nuclear weapons targeted at South America is utter hysteria. The whereabouts of the ballistic missile subs are a closely guarded secret but even if there was one in the South Atlantic, the UK will NEVER use a nuclear weapons first. They are a deterrent aginst other nations with nuclear weapons and are of absolutely no relevance or concern to Argentina, whatever happens in the Falklands.
A second Falklands war?
The reality is that Argentina is not (yet) equipped to attack the Falklands even if it has the political will. However with a planned increase in defence spending of 50%, development of cruise missiles and even wildly optimistic talk of developing its own nuclear submarines, its military may start to present a very credible threat in the next 5-10 years. While the 1982 Falklands conflict was described as “2 bald men fighting over a comb” the situation has changed with the discovery of oil and the “bald men” could be fighting not just over a moral principle, but enough money to make a dent in their respective large national debts. History has shown that the most effective response to the diplomatic crisis is to maintain the peace through strong deterrence.
- Argentine foreign minister complains of ’4-fold increase’ in UK military presence in South Atlantic (bbc.co.uk)
- Royal Navy to send HMS Dauntless to Falkland Islands (Telegraph)
- HMS Dauntless to deploy to the South Atlantic (Daly History Blog)
- Argentinians label Prince William ‘The Conqueror’ over his posting to the … – Daily Mail (dailymail.co.uk)
- Argentina has no more claim to the Falklands than Canada does to Alaska (Merco Press)
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