I write this piece because I firmly believe in the points I make inside it. I do not expect to be loved for it. I think it will probably gain me as many navy haters as I’ve gained RAF haters by defending the argument for having a naval aviation (fixed wing) and for putting support helicopters inside the Army that uses them. Both are things I continue to support, even while fully recognizing that, at this point, it would be very challenging, at best, to fix years-old anomalies in the british force structure.
I don’t really care. Haters can be annoying, but when I say something is because I believe it is right, not because I’m against any of the services. So, I will continue to use my own brain and speak out accordingly.
Besides, I guess gaining navy haters means I only need to find a good way to piss off army guys next. Who knows, I might, at some point.
I plan to write further about this topic. I want to spend a few words looking at the latest ship designs around the world, to see how different navies are beginning to react to the problems I summarize in this piece. I would like to spend a few words on the US LCS, on the Italian PPA, on the Algerian LHD / Command Vessel, on the Damen Crossover and on the Black Swan sloop proposal and even on converted merchant vessels, because these ships are, I believe, connected by the appreciation of some common problems and trends. In a way or another, all these ships answer (or try to answer) to (some) of the problems and doubts and prospects I list in this article. Spending a few words on them will make it possible to continue exploring the implications of the current trends and, perhaps, provide a few ideas for the british “lighter frigate” for the 2030s.
And so, here we go, exploring the reasons why frigates, destroyers and cruisers as we know them are becoming less and less effective in countering the evolving threats of modern warfare.
We have probably all read, soon or later, some article wondering whether (or flat out stating that) aircraft carriers are “obsolete”. I won’t spend much time sinking this statement, which I consider absurd. I’ll just say that, since the aircraft carrier’s output depends on her air wing, you can have her doing almost any and everything. The carrier, intended as the single ship, is “obsolete” only when she can no longer support the needs of her wing or do so but at the cost of a too low sortie generation rate. The aircraft carriers in general will only be obsolete when their air wings will no longer be required: either because aircraft have finally and truly been replaced entirely by missiles (an infamous british defence white paper envisaged such a scenario back in the 50s and it was just as wrong as the much decried “end of the tank” shriek that periodically surfaces due to the proliferation of ATGWs) or have become independent from floating bases by gaining such endurance and combat load to make it feasible to deliver the same kind of intimate support to a fleet out at sea while taking off from distant land bases. None of the above two scenarios is any closer to becoming reality than it was in the 50s.
Constant, intimate air support is currently required for facing even an unsophisticated opponent like insurgents yet someone is apparently ready to ask battle fleets to face far more sophisticated threats without the unique range of capabilities that intimate air support delivers.
Aircraft carriers will be obsolete when aircraft are. So, not at any time in the near future.
Moving on towards the real topic of this article, we get to the reasons why the aircraft carriers are described as obsolete. The most common accusation is that they are vulnerable to enemy action and, some say, increasingly at risk from the action of sophisticated missiles (cruise, sea skimmers, ballistic anti-ship missiles), submarines and drones, particularly if in a swarm (a future scenario that might become reality in a relatively short time).
An aircraft carrier is most certainly vulnerable to enemy action. Like every ship, no matter how well built, it can sink if hit hard enough. Then again, in a major shooting war against a peer enemy, everything is vulnerable. Air bases ashore rarely get called “obsolete”, yet they are in some ways more exposed than aircraft carriers: no matter how well defended, they are exposed to a whole series of asymmetric as well as symmetric threats. One only has to look at Pakistan’s airports being assaulted with alarming frequency or, if you think it is merely a case of their guard being not good enough, to what the Taliban could do in Camp Leatherneck / Bastion despite B-ISTAR, US Marines, US and British soldiers, RAF Regiment, aerostats and fences. Earlier, british air power took a beating in Kandahar when two Harrier GR7 were put out of action by unsophisticated rockets launched over the base.
You can’t sink an air base on land, but it is in many ways easier to degrade its performance, make it unsafe and endanger the aircraft parked inside its perimeter.
(By the way: the one C-RAM solution the british forces had has been removed, currently without replacement, and ground based air defence remains horribly short-ranged and with little to no anti-ballistic capability. Yet, rockets and ballistic missiles are both very real threats which can be used to negate, or at least seriously degrade, the capabilities of an air base. And no, RAF Regiment patrols alone won’t be enough against an enemy with enough rockets, and won’t do a thing against an enemy with SCUDs or worse. Is complete reliance on allied long-range GBAD and ABM really acceptable?)
The increasing vulnerability of the aircraft carrier is not the carrier’s fault. The carrier is not tasked with direct action: she is not supposed to stand against submarines and missiles and air attacks on her own. Her air wing is tasked to do that, and it remains probably the best weapon against all of those threats: want to really complicate the life of submarines? A large number of ASW helicopters sustaining a constant presence in the air from the deck of the aircraft carrier is still the best answer. Drones and missiles? Cutting them down to size at range with embarked fighters is key: good luck stopping them with just ship-launched SAMs.
For all her vulnerability, the carrier remains the best tool in the box and it is actually fundamental for the survival of the rest of the surface fleet. Think the carrier is vulnerable? Put a surface force against the same threats without the presence of a carrier air wing in support, and it’ll be at least 10 times worse.
And here comes the real question, which surprisingly I never see formulated: what if not the carriers, but her escort ships, were growing hopelessly obsolete?
The “traditional” escort ship: what is it actually good for?
If we feel that the aircraft carrier and, by obvious consequence, transports and amphibs and all other shipping are increasingly vulnerable to enemy action, we are actually putting the blame on escort ships, not on the carrier. Escorts are the ones supposed to keep submarines and air attacks at bay: if both begin to look unstoppable, something is wrong about frigates, destroyers and cruisers.
The question becomes: what are escorts actually good for?
We might not like the answer.
It is a fact that the ancient distinction between cruiser, destroyer and frigate is losing its reason to exist, first of all. The definitions are applied more and more loosely and do not really serve any practical purpose at this point: back in 2012, the Royal Navy said that in the future there will be just “combat ships”, and just days ago, interviewed about the future surface combatants of the US Navy, the director of surface warfare rear admiral Pete Fanta refused to be drawn into a “destroyer or cruiser” war of definitions, preferring to talk about a “Large” and a smaller surface combatants, shaped merely by considerations about space and number of missiles carried.
“There will be no more destroyers or frigates. There will be combat ships.”Cmdr. Ken Houlberg, Royal Navy; Capability Manager for Above Water Surface Combatants at the MOD in 2012
“Being able to call something a cruiser is very comforting but what happens when one of them just carriers missiles that shoot down incoming air things and another one carries just anti-submarine warfare (ASW) weapons – or one of them carries every thing? I don’t know.”Rear adm. Pete Fanta ; US Navy director of surface warfare
Above the waves, we already have Type 45 destroyers which might rank as cruisers for size, but which have their French almost-sisters called “frigates”. Other European warships with the same AAW mission and just as well armed are also called frigates.
The definitions have pretty much already lost any real value: they are no reliable indication of mission, capability or size.
One particularly vaguely defined species is the “General Purpose Frigate”. What is a general purpose frigate? In the Royal Navy of today, a Type 23 that did not get the 2087 sonar because there was no money. Being GP, in practice, means it is less flexible than the “ASW” one. The Italian navy FREMM GP is a lot different from the ASW variant, as it is armed with a 127mm gun for NGS (and a 76mm CIWS secondary artillery. The ASW variant has 2x 76mm, which with their far higher rate of fire and CIWS capability thanks to guided ammunition are seen as a better fit for a pure escort meant specifically to provide protection for capital ships), replaces the towed sonar with a ramp for a large RHIB and does not carry MILAS anti-submarine missiles.
Wasn’t for the 127mm, the end result would be the same as with the Type 23: a less capable warship, all around.
It certainly is one less suited to escorting capital ships.
Going beyond the definitions, we have the actual capability. The tremendous menace coming from the air and from the depths is nothing new: it is worth reminding that admiral Lord Fisher, mostly remembered for the Dreadnoughts and for his determined modernization effort prior to the first world war, ended his life writing letters upon letters to the Times in which he urged the Royal Navy to “sack the lot” of the surface battlefleet, in favor of naval aviation and submarines, that had proved during the conflict to be the systems of the future. He went as far as writing that aircraft would one day preclude the use of any “vessel of war” incapable of going underwater. He saw the end of the battleship and of the old type of cruisers, before 1920. Battleships of dubious usefulness were built for well over another 20 years.
Weapons have evolved, yet surface warships still find themselves in a disadvantaged position. A modern escort can expect to face, now and over the “visible future”:
- Air threats. Sea-skimming missiles, both sub and supersonic; hypersonic missiles probably in a relatively near future; direct air attack from aircraft; drone swarming; ballistic anti-ship missiles.
Underwater threats, including heavyweight torpedoes with ever increasing range and speed and submarine-launched missiles combining the stealth of submarines with the swarming effect of long range sea-skimmers.
Asymmetric threats, in port and out at sea, from swimmers to suicide boats.
What is a current escort actually good at taking down?
Surface-launched missiles struggle to provide an adequate defence against sea-skimmers, simply because there are physical limits to the detection and tracking range, which compress reaction times. The number of SAMs that a ship can control in the air at once is increasing, but the fact remains that it is “easier” to launch more missiles against a ship than it is to build a ship that can take them all down.
To this day, only one anti-ship missile has been certainly defeated by a ship-launched SAM: the old Silkworm that HMS Gloucester shot down in the Gulf. And that is against 241 anti-ship missiles employed around the world since 1967. 127 of those missiles have been defeated using decoys, the real life savers, according to a 1994 research by Lieutenant John C. Schulte, USN.
While ship-based defences have improved a lot and are continuing to improve, the missiles meant to sink ships are steadily getting deadlier. We (fortunately) haven’t had a chance to measure the chances of Aegis against hordes of supersonic Russian anti-ship missiles fired from long-range aircraft, but we can’t exclude the possibility of seeing a major confrontation sometime in the future.
And we can unfortunately assume, on the basis of what a handful of Exocets could achieve in 1982, that Sea Dart and Sea Wolf wouldn't have been able to save the Royal Navy from the kind of assaults that had to be expected had the Cold War turned hot.
The 1994 study quoted tracked a post 1982 trend increasingly in favor of the anti-ship missile. And in general, the ship is always at a disadvantage against the missile, because it can detect it only when it is within a radar horizon dictated by cruel physics. The faster the missile, the less time there is to deploy decoys, maneuver into the best position to exploit their effect and/or fire SAMs to attempt an hard kill.
The ships reply with Airborne Early Warning (provided by helicopters or fixed wing aircraft, the latter more effective but requiring a large aircraft carrier with catapults and arresting wires); networking of sensors and engagement and with more modern decoys, deployed by trainable launchers that can aim the decoy at a specific spot to maximize effect without needing to maneuver the whole ship.
The US Navy’s latest answer is called the NIFC-CA, Naval Integrated Fire Control – Counter Air, enabled by the SM-6 missile, which mates the imposing range and performances of the anti-ballistic capable SM-2 Block IV with an active radar seeker derived from AMRAAM technology. NIF-CA uses networking of ship and air based sensors (AEGIS, Hawkeye, USMC radars ashore and even F-35 in the future) to enable a ship to fire against a target located well outside of the normal detection radius. The ship is effectively firing against targets it does not see, and hitting things at a huge distance, thanks to the SM-6’s range, which also enables it to serve as a terminal high-altitude defense against ballistic threats coming down from above. The active seeker on the SM-6 makes the missile independent in the terminal phase of the engagement, removing the one weakness AEGIS had when compared to PAAMS / Sea Viper.
The british CAMM is in theory fully able to prosecute targets the launching ship can’t see, but the Royal Navy has been unable to fund the purchase of Cooperative Engagement Technology and, in any case, CAMM has a 25 km engagement range, which means it still only hits within a realistic radar horizon. Sea Viper, with the Aster 30, could hit further away, but without CEC it might not be actually possible to generate cooperative tracks of sufficient quality to enable targeting of distant enemies, greatly reducing its effective capabilities. The missile can hit targets over 100 km away, but the launching ship will not be actually able to track any target at that distance unless it flies at decent altitude.
The modest range constrains what an escort ship with CAMM can do: it is good for self-defence and for protecting ships in the immediate vicinities, but probably not enough to offer true protection to a convoy of transports or a task group in wide formation.
It is also extremely disappointing to see that even the new Type 26 design does not seem to include a trainable decoy launcher. Saving pennies by sticking with old, fixed-tubes decoy launchers seems short sighted in the extreme, and it is one area where I hope for change. There is still time before the first ship gets her decoys fitted, one can hope.
ABM capability is but a study into adding SM-3 on the Type 45s, for now. It is not yet a must have, but it might become one in a non distant future, and it is good that some work is going into preparations for such a future.
Even with NIFC-CA and SM-6, a surface escort depends on obtaining early warning and early tracking thanks to other platforms, ideally flying ones.Which means that the carrier is escorting the escorts, as much as the escorts are protecting her.
One solution not to depend on being near to the aircraft carrier is using helicopters fitted with appropriate AEW radars and networking. Maybe in the future UAVs will be able to cover this role.
An interesting solution being pursued by both US and France is the tethered UAV, a small platform carrying sensors and communications relay equipment, flying above the warship and connected to it by an umbilical cord allowing passage of power and data. DARPA has experimented last year with the TALOS, an automated parafoil which can lift a 150 lbs sensor payload at up to 1500 feet.
None of the small tethered solutions being explored carries a radar, and altitude, while much higher than that of the ship’s mast, is still very low, but if a suitable radar could be integrated, it might still considerably expand the ship’s detection range.
The most immediate applications of tethered UAVs, however, will probably be defence against asymmetric threats (put an EO/IR ball on the UAV, and the ship’s situational awareness of her surroundings is massively enhanced) and communications relay. In this role, the tethered UAV can be an enabler for all other off-board systems: think about the MHC unmanned surface vehicles. The tethered UAV would guarantee data link connection at far greater distances without having to employ invaluable satellite bandwidth.
|The TALOS or similar systems can provide surveillance and communications relay from high above the ship. One problem to overcome is probably the risk posed by the cable to other aviation operations on the ship's deck.|
What is pretty clear is that the chances of the escort ship only improve in presence of third-party sensors which can extend the useful targeting distance. As anti-ship missiles become faster and faster, the hopes of survival of a ship depending only on its own radar, no matter how good it might be, drop lower and lower. You simply can’t detect sea skimmers beyond a certain distance without having your radar really high up into the air. The few meters that might be gained by using the lighter ARTISAN 3D radar instead of an heavier fixed, multiple-faces radar are not going to make a significant difference.
ASW is normally the main design driver in a frigate. The Type 26 GP, if built, would have still been an expensive ASW-optimized hull, just not fitted with the towed array / variable depth sonar to make good use of silent running.
The submarine remains a formidable threat, possibly the worst one that surface groups have to face: it is said that the alliance naval headquarters during the operations against Libya had a tough 12 hours when the whereabouts of one of the ancient Foxtrot diesel subs of Gaddafi became a mystery. A more realistic submarine threat can have an immense impact on the conduct of warfare at sea. Chinese submarines intruding well into the safety perimeter of US carrier battlegroups and other more or less well reported successes of submarines in peacetime exercises and probing of “rival” forces at sea are there to remind us of how countering submarines continues to be a tough job.
That all ships are called “targets” by submariners is not a case, and many sailors have bad memories of exercises all too often ending in colored smoke emerging from the water to signal a simulated torpedo launch.
Surface ships continue to have trouble in fighting back submarines, and the current best weapons against subs, the long towed arrays and the variable depth sonar, are particularly complex to use in the littoral, where small diesel electric submarines are more dangerous than ever.
It is also surprising to see how western ASW ships are short of offensive options against submarine contacts. 324mm Light Torpedoes are the most common weapon onboard, but it is commonly believed that these weapons effectively are desperation weapons: if the ship is in range to fire her light torpedoes, the submarine’s how torpedoes are most likely already in the water.
The waning confidence in this ASW solution is possibly going to be confirmed by the Type 26 frigate herself: amazingly, the letter of the Secretary of State for defence that detailed the weapons fitted to the new ship made absolutely no mention of torpedo tubes. As of today, while it is not 100% sure that they will not feature on the Type 26, it is certain that there is no mention of them anywhere and that the design images and videos and models seen so far did not show their presence.
The UK currently does not have any other ship-mounted weapon able to hit submarines. US, Italy, Japan, South Korea and a number of other countries have missiles able to deliver a lightweight torpedo at 20 to 35 km of distance from the warship: the US have the ASROC missile, exported to a number of allied countries, while Italy uses the MILAS while Japan and South Korea are developing of fielding their own ASROC look-alike.
The ASROC and similar weapons enable the warship to quickly react to the detection of a distant submarine contact caught on passive sonar. Some say that, by the time the torpedo hits the water, the submarine will be already evading and so the chances of destroying it are low, but this is not necessarily a problem: while destruction of the submarine is obviously desirable, forcing it to go deep, evade, and sail away to regain its strealth before trying another approach is in itself a small but potentially decisive victory. It is a fact that the Battle of the Atlantic in world war two was won not by sinking all submarines (the number of german submarines out at sea actually kept growing even in the late phases of the battle, when the escorts were winning and the convoys getting through) but largely by making them incapable to get in a position suitable for attacking the convoys. It was by forcing them to dive and lose contact, mostly, that the escorts won the fight.
The most capable ASW weapon employed by the frigate remains the helicopter, which can pursue the contacts at range, use sonobuoys, search with dipping sonar even in the littoral, move quickly back and forth and deploy torpedoes or depth charges at the right moment. Effectively, the escort’s best weapon is an off-board system.
And ASW technology is evolving to add other off-board systems. There are multiple examples of this direction of travel, and it would take a whole article and more to try and track all developments, but we can name a few.
The US Navy LCS was originally intended to include in her ASW module a number of unmanned underwater vehicles towing sonars, although this is temporarily descoped as the intended drones have had a troublesome development and the ASW package is already struggling to fit the limited weight margin (105 tons) available for mission payloads on the LCS speed-optimized frame.
DARPA is funding the Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV) demonstrator, a 132 feet, 140 tons unmanned vessel intended to leave port on its own, go out at sea and detect and constantly track enemy submarines with the use of an advanced hull-mounted sonar, the Raytheon MS3 (Modular Scalable Sonar).
|The ACTUV is intended to deploy on its own, needing no mothership.|
Less talked about but possibly more relevant still, is the work of the NATO Research Vessel Alliance which in recent years has become a common presence during major ASW exercises (such as Proud Manta and Dynamic Mongoose last year in the waters of Norway). Alliance has been experimenting and demonstrating the use of off-board sensors and unmanned vehicles used to form an ASW network of active and passive sensors working cooperatively. Alliance will also be part of the Unmanned Warrior exercise / demonstration organized by the Royal Navy for late this year, as a corollary to Joint Warrior 16-2.
|The Alliance research ship is being used to carry and deploy experimental unmanned vehicles and sensors for ASW|
The days of passive sonar are in some ways numbered: merely listening is not going to be enough to counter increasingly advanced and silent submarines, so that the new frontier is Multistatic Active detection. Different sound sources and different listening devices working together and employing not sonar “pings” followed by a pause for listening to the echo, but continuous transmission.
Unlike conventional Pulsed Active Sonar (PAS) which listens for echoes in between short-burst transmissions, Continuous Active Sonar (CAS) attempts to detect echoes amidst the continual interference from source(s) transmitting with nearly 100% duty cycle. The potential advantage of CAS is an increased number of continuous detection opportunities, leading to improved target detection, localization, tracking, and classification. The challenge is detecting the target echoes in the presence of continuous interference.
Multistatic active sonobuoys for aircraft such as P-8 Poseidon are on the way and multistatic CAS is the heart of the ASW sensor suite for the US LCS: the LCS will employ the Variable Depth towed body of the 2087 / CAPTAS 4 sonar as a CAS emitter, while towing the Multi Function Towed Array as the listening device. The MFTA is the same towed array that the US Navy is, from a number of years, fitting to all Ticonderoga and Burke vessels to improve their ASW capabilities, after several years of lowered ASW attention following the end of the Cold War.
The combination of 2087 and MFTA, provided that the difficult job of integration of the two systems and elimination of interference is successful, will represent a formidable sensor. I’m really not sure that the LCS’s hull offers the right kind of silent running, stability and endurance needed to make best use of it, on the other hand.
Deploying multiple sensors is fundamental to enhance detection chances and, obviously, to allow coverage of wide areas. Trying to keep submarines at bay with a small number of towed array frigates has never worked too well and will work less and less as technology evolves.
During the Cold War, the Royal Navy was developing ASW capabilities that recognized the need for mass in order to enable the clearance of any substantial spot of sea. Anti-submarine groups were envisaged, centered around the Invincible CVSs with their large squadrons of anti-submarine helicopters.
The Invincible groups, with the cover offered by Sea Harrier and the protection of Sea Dart, would have hunted for submarines in the areas more exposed to the offence of the Russian long range aviation, while smaller, cheaper groups were envisaged for operations at “safe” distance from the reach of the bombers and their salvos of missiles. These groups were envisaged to include 4 Type 23 frigates and a Fort Victoria-class supply ship which would carry fuel, spare parts, stores and aviation workshops and hangars for 4-5 ASW helicopters.
The Type 23, back then, was going to be a 70 million pounds towed array truck with a flight deck, no hangar, no gun, no self defence missiles. It was the Fort Victoria vessel that would have been armed with Sea Wolf to provide protection.
Eventually, a Sea Wolf launcher was added to the Type 23 (the bare minimum, since the missile’s extremely short range made it simply impossible to protect the whole group from the single Fort sitting in the middle of the widely-spread formation, and even if not attacked from the bombers the whole group would have been exposed to annihilation via a salvo of anti-ship missiles launched by a soviet submarine) and, after the Falklands War, the whole thing dramatically changed: the Type 23 became the ship we know today, the Fort Victoria class was stopped at two hulls rather than six and Sea Wolf was never, in the end, embarked although the spaces for it exist. Eventually, the Cold War ended, and such ASW groups were no longer required.
In pure ASW terms such a group would have been very capable. Today, however, it is clearly unthinkable for the Royal Navy to pursue a frigate, no matter how cheap, for the formation of such hunting groups. Yet, submarines remain the chief threat to the UK and any scenario that has Russia as an opponent is 100% guaranteed to imply a bitter, life or death naval confrontation in the Atlantic.
Even without reaching that extreme, it appears obvious that sailing a task group into waters known to hide even a small number of SSKs will require some very intense ASW work (reinforcing once more the awareness of how incredibly demented the 2010 decision to do without MPA was) and the UK risks having a grand total of 8 frigates adequate for such a job, supported by, at best, a handful of MPAs and, if we are lucky, enough Merlin HM2 to equip the frigates and put a 9-strong ASW squadron on the carrier.
Technology can help, however: towed arrays and sonar no longer require full-size frigates and destroyers to take to the sea. Within a decade or less, mature unmanned vehicles could help the Navy in forming ASW hunting groups which have only one manned warship in the middle. In some ways, a future escort might be playing the part of Fort Victoria, with unmanned vehicles playing the part of Type 23s.
The surface fleet needs to pursue this objective, also because submarines don’t stand still: unmanned vehicles are a revolution for the whole of warfare at sea. Submarine-launched UAVs and UUVs are already beginning to move their first steps, and, coupled with heavyweight torpedoes with ever increasing ranges, sub-launched anti-ship missiles and, potentially, offensive / suicidal drones themselves, such ISTAR assets will make future SSKs and SSNs even more deadly. The long range torpedoes are probably going to be a feature of the future. Torpedoes with 120 km range have begun to appear on the market, and while there can be doubts at this stage about how they would be directed against a target so far away, in the future there will be solutions for it. The US Navy itself expects to develop a “Long Range Safe Haven” variant of the MK48 torpedo, coming with new propulsion, a new hybrid sonar array and the ability to navigate to a distant target area via pre-planned waypoints, before seeking and assaulting the specific target.
If we keep building “traditional” frigates with towed sonars and expect to defeat submarines with them, we are most likely in for nasty surprises.
Key take aways appear to be: helicopters. Unmanned Vehicles. The need for new ship-mounted, long-range ASW weapon which gives a quick response option against distant, fleeting contacts.
Secondary design drivers
An escort ship should be mainly shaped by the need to protect capital ships and transports / merchant vessels from air and undersea threats.
After that comes contrast to enemy surface ships, and this ends up going back in the “air” area, as that offence is likely to continue taking the shape of missiles.
Some say that ship-launched ASM weapons are not very relevant, as fleet on fleet engagements are a thing of the past and, anyway, it is best to deliver missiles against an enemy ship using the embarked helicopter… or aircraft from the aircraft carrier. That really non-obsolete platform that, at the end of the day, seems to always bring the answer.
Some even say that sinking enemy warships is a job for the submarines, and that’s the end of it.
The embarked helicopter might also be a good answer provided that it carries suitable missiles, able to sink a large surface combatant and, moreover, coming with the range needed to enable an attack from outside the range of the target’s SAMs.
Ship and submarine-launched ASMs have been for many years on the losing side, in the western world. The US Navy is now making an U-turn, however, pursuing new and capable ASMs to put on ships (under the Distributed Lethality approach, even on support vessels and auxiliaries, in fact!) and it is increasingly likely that the same missile will make it back into the torpedo tubes of submarines.
Helicopter-launched missiles are not really a US Navy thing, but, of course, they have the carrier air wings at least. And their renewed investment in ASMs is due to China, of course.
The Royal Navy is struggling in the dark. It remains equipped with ancient Harpoon of the first Block, it has withdrawn Sub-Harpoon years ago without replacement, has lost air launched ASMs along with Nimrod (and we don’t yet know if a replacement is part of the P-8 Poseidon purchase) and will face a gap of a few years between Lynx/Sea Skua and Wildcat/Sea Venom.
Moreover, the Sea Venom remains a small missile, with limited capability against large warships. It really seems to be a “SSNs will do it” situation, especially considering that plans for replacing Harpoon / putting ASM capability into the Type 26 are nowhere to be seen.
But there are only 7 SSNs.
In the future, probably, drones will become part of the ship versus ship engagement. If nothing else, they will be modern spotter aircraft to detect the target and pass on the targeting information.
The future may even see a new era of gunfire engagements: the Italian VULCANO 127mm long-range ammunition includes an IR guided shell meant for targeting enemy warships. Fired from 70 or more kilometers away, small and hard to intercept, not very lethal in itself but possibly arriving in numbers (easily 5-6 rounds in Multiple Rounds, Simultaneous Impact barrages) they might prove to be a far more realistic menace than has been realized so far.
And within just five years the US navy hopes to bring a Rail Gun in operations. Imagine the potential capabilities of combining guided ammunition with the speed and range of a rail gun dart. For now, the US is working on GPS guidance, not well suited to hitting a moving warship. But if one day an adequate seeker can be made to fit and survive the shock of the firing and the effects of the extreme speed, what happens?
Once more, off-board systems are required to enable long range targeting and to make sure that your ship is the one firing first.
And this applies to the use of naval fires against targets ashore, too.
DARPA is funding the Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node (TERN) project, which aims to demonstrate the feasibility of putting an armed UAV with Reaper-comparable capabilities onto warships such as LCS and Burkes. This is another potential game-changer. In December, Northrop Grumman was selected for the demonstration, with their proposal featuring a flying wing UAV which takes off and lands vertically, in tail-sitting fashion.
Once more, not a ship feature, but an off-board system. With suitable sensors, it can enable ship fires against targets at sea and on land. With weapons of its own, it can add its firepower. With a suitable radar, it might even one day help in countering enemy air offences.
The ability to hit land targets is undoubtedly a secondary consideration and one which, generally, does not impact the design all too much. Missiles in a VLS and a gun (Rail Gun, in the near future?) are the solution, and both VLS and gun are fixed points in the design of escorts anyway.
We should not forget that surface warships in recent times have most often been required to provide exactly that: naval gunfire support and deep strike against targets ashore.
Should the Royal Navy’s future “lighter frigate” have land attack capability? It definitely should. It is not an absolute must, but it is pretty likely that, in the future, such “light frigate”, finding itself close to an area of crisis, would be eagerly called in if able to provide strikes against targets ashore. Warships without that kind of strike capability are not as useful.
That’s, after all, what seapower continues to be all about: influencing events ashore. Now more than ever, due to how unlikely it is that a conflict can be solved by a purely naval clash of two fleets, navies are defined by what they can do to influence events ashore, where men actually live.
We need seapower because the seas embody freedom of movement, and because ships are more than ever the only real method to carry goods in quantity, cheaply. It is never about conquering the waves, it is always about using the seas to shape events ashore.
In the Cold War, the overwhelming priority was keeping the sea lines open to allow the UK to survive and to allow US reinforcements to reach Europe. Keeping the sea lines open remains the number 1 priority for the Navy, but the globalized world and the ambition to stay as an independent country (even while relaying more and more on allies for capability) requires a wider ability to influence events ashore. By escorting the army in, by landing Marines on beaches, by delivering disaster relief, by striking deep inland and by being present and engaged, and much more still.
We can go where we want, as soon as we want. We don’t need to ask anyone’s permission, or rely on host nation or external support, because we take everything we need with us. And we use the sea to our advantage, to distance ourselves from some of the complications that come from being fixed ashore, particularly in the concept of protection ashore.
And that brings us to presence and constabulary tasks: these are far less of a design driver. Contrasting unsophisticated pirates and showing the flag does not require any particular design feature. However, the ability to carry and then deploy and recover a decent number of men (Marines, SF, other) is desirable in a wider optic of influencing events ashore.
Disaster relief is not a primary task for a warship but is something that the Navy has to deal with quite regularly. The main requirements are men and space for stores, boats to deliver them ashore even when infrastructure is lacking / damaged and helicopter(s). Which means, by the way, that a traditional frigate is not that much better than an OPV for this kind of task (if only the River Batch 2 had a frigging hangar, we’d all be happy).A large RFA, like a Bay class LSD, really is the best disaster relief tool out there. Helicopter capability, landing crafts, mexeflotes, huge cargo space, vast accommodations.
Fact is: a Bay deployed to the Caribbean is a Bay the amphibious task group can't use. Spending Hurricane Season in the Caribbean is not what the Bay class was built for.
In the end, there is one constant element that returns in each and every area: the solution always involves off-board systems. From helicopters to boats, from unmanned vehicles to personnel.
And this means, first of all, needing space for carrying stuff.
The “Lighter Frigate”. Does it even need to be a frigate?
The conclusion to this first article is a slap in the face of the title “lighter frigate”. Does the post-Type 26 ship for the Royal Navy need to be a traditional frigate? Should it be? And should it be “lighter”?
In light of what has been exposed so far, my answer is: probably no.
To approach the problem of the post-Type 26 by talking of “lighter frigates” is to throw away an opportunity at the very start of the process. I'm convinced that the return to two separate ship programmes must be seen as an opportunity, not as a Treasury-induced problem to be solved necessarily by trying to cut pieces off the Type 26 design to come up with a smaller, cheaper traditional frigate that can be somehow squeezed into the available budget.
The last Type 26 would not have been put into service before 2036, under the previous plan: a distant future in which technology might have introduced many changes, of which the Rail Gun (and maybe laser) is but a small part.
Under the new schedule, the first “Lighter Frigate” will still probably only enter service around 2030. We need far more radical thinking to avoid delivering an hopelessly obsolete platform by that date.We need radical thinking to keep the price down while still delivering something useful and adaptable.
Beginning by stating it will be “lighter”, we are shooting ourselves in the foot, because we are right away flying in the face of the evidence that more and more off-board systems and solutions will appear and will be required in the future.
The mission bay on the Type 26 recognizes this trend, which is confirmed by the US Navy’s own thinking on their own Future Surface Combatant:
Networked offboard vehicles, and modular mission bays that can support such netted technologies, are imperative for future operational success, according to the senior officer responsible for ensuring the US Navy's (USN's) fleets are deployed with the right training and equipment.Fleet Forces Commander Admiral Philip S Davidson said, on 14 January at the Surface Navy Association's annual symposium in Washington, DC, that the USN needs to bring more offboard vehicles into the force, with sensors tied into networks.
The Royal Navy needs to accept the fact that future warships might not need to look like yesterday’s and today’s ones.
The Type 26 is enormous and extremely expensive for a frigate, yet has a mission bay for “just” 4 boats in the 11-12 meters range or some 10 containers / modules. It has a hangar for a single Merlin (or 2 Wildcat) and a large flight deck. It is a traditional warship which tries to provide space for modern and future necessities.
But providing that space while trying to give it traditional frigate features means endless trouble and monstrous cost escalation. The mission bay and Chinook-sized flight deck are huge design drivers when you are trying at the same time to have a silent running, agile, very survivable frigate.
At some point, the whole thing becomes unaffordable… and that’s even while you are taking most of the combat system, sensors and weapons (traditionally the most expensive elements) from the Type 23 CSP. What would the cost of the Type 26 be like if it included purchasing new radars, new missiles, new towed sonar etcetera? All these parts are going to be literally taken and transferred from the Type 23, or have their development and purchase cost covered by a different budget (CAMM is a Complex Weapons item, unlike PAAMS/Sea Viper which is counted within Type 45 costs). Yet the pricetag is monstrous (and the british shipbuilding industry must accept its part of fault here, their prices are absurd, end of the story).
If the next ship ends up being lighter than Type 26 by taking the shape of a warmed-up Type 23, it’ll be a failure. What will it actually be good for?
We need the next ship to be cheaper, that’s clear. But we need a ship that can respond to requirements which are already pretty clear now and which all seem to entail two answers: helicopters and off-board systems.
The only possible solution is building cheaper ships, yet flexible and with lots of space. Some designs, like the Damen Crossover, are indeed lighter and smaller than Type 26 while offering very significant reconfigurable cargo space and aviation spaces. So we do not necessarily need to write off the lighter attribute yet, although it looks pretty clear that larger hulls would be better.
They will have VLS and a main gun, but won’t look like frigates or destroyers or cruisers as we know them.
They won’t be as sophisticated and survivable in terms of how they are built. They won’t be as sleek and graceful. They might resemble amphibious ships more than destroyers. They will be built making ample use of civilian standards. They will prioritize the ability to carry and deploy the off-board solutions that will keep the enemy at distance and enable its elimination at range.
The ship needs to become cheaper, and the money needs to go towards the systems instead. I don’t see any realistic alternative: trying to cram everything into a destroyer is just not going to work.
The Navy needs to ask itself if it is really sensible to make vast use of civilian standards in capital ships (the LPDs, the LSDs, the carriers themselves) to keep their price down and then pursue “no compromises” passive survivability features in the escorts.
What can actually be obtained? What kind of hit can the escort ship expect to take and continue to serve her purpose? What hit will leave it afloat, but useless? You cannot say that "survivability" is bad (the tyranny of words!), but you must at some point ask whether it is worth the money it requires, especially when pursuing certain design features has a part in driving down lower and lower the number of escorts that can be afforded.
It is imperative to ask this question, because the Royal Navy is heading for a tiny number of escort ships, which might be awesome for passive survivability features and impeccable building standards shaped by the lessons of the Falklands but are paradoxically accepting bad compromises in their fighting capability (everything from CAMM with its limited range, fixed decoy launchers, no clear path ahead on ASMs, no CEC, no long-range ASW weapons, all the way to fielding “general purpose frigates” without towed sonar severely limiting their wartime usefulness) and will only be in so many places at once.
It is a bitter but unavoidable observation the one I’m about to make: it makes no sense to stick to the end to “navy standards” in building frigates in a country that, spitting in the face of direct war experience, accepts capability compromises that include a decade without naval aviation (and a longer time still without an embarked fighter jet able to defend the task force from air threats, since the Harrier GR7/9 clearly wasn’t worth much in that particular role, leading us back all the way to demise of Sea Harrier FA2 at the very least); a gap in AEW coverage (subsequently almost closed by extending Sea King ASaC Mk7 out to 2018, thankfully) ; years without MPA; no CEC to improve the chances of the surface fleet to shoot down air threats, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
No matter how well built the frigate will be, if it ignores the march of technology, it’ll still be useless. It might take one knock more to send it to the bottom, but what comfort comes from that? It is time to put the money first on the systems that are seen as actual battle winners.
The future escort needs to be more “carrier” and less “frigate”. If the answer to all problems faced by escort ships ends up being “send the helicopter up” and/or “relay on off-board systems”, we can only accept it and build ships which recognize the fact by providing spaces for aviation and for the off-board systems.
And so, while we hear an estimate of 11.5 billion pounds for 13 Type 26 frigates, 200 million pounds are buying this:
And so, while we hear an estimate of 11.5 billion pounds for 13 Type 26 frigates, 200 million pounds are buying this:
- Length of approximately 125m and a breadth of approximately 24m;
- Draft of approximately 7m;
- Scientific cargo volume of approximately 900 cu metres;
- Endurance for up to 60 days (Polar Regions)
- Range 19,000nm at 13 knots transit;
- Ice breaking capability – up to 1m thick at 3 knts
- Helicopter capable;
- Ability to launch and recover aerial and ocean robotic systems;
- Crew compliment will be approximately 30;
- Up to 60 scientists and support staff will be accommodated on-board
Lots of space; huge endurance; space for carrying and equipment for launching unmanned vehicles...
What if the future escort looked a lot more like that vessel, rather than an old school, sleek and aggressive frigate? It is clear, of course, that a military version would cost more and be considerably different: it would require an integrated mast with the must-have sensors; it would require the decoys; it would require moving the flight deck to a more convenient location and adding hangars and workshop for a sizeable air element including UAVs, plus VLS and main gun at the front.
I’m also all too aware that the “off-board philosophy” delivers cheaper ships and smaller crews but demands new or just more expensive payloads to put on them: more aviation, more unmanned vehicles, more personnel operating those. It is by no means a simple proposition and will still require big money.
However, i think these are real considerations to be made at this point in time. This is the real scenario that the “Lighter Frigate” must face.
Fact is: trying to adapt the escort ships of today to the threats of tomorrow promises to be unaffordable. A traditional destroyer / frigate shape will always be bad at carrying stuff. Always. It’ll take huge amounts of money and ever larger hulls to achieve anything substantial. And the worse part is: the resulting, very expensive characteristics of the ship might not deliver effects commensurate to the price.
Of course it would not be bad to use major, stealthy, ultra-fast, sleek, agile destroyers to carry the tools of the job. But would such a mothership be actually worth its (monstrous) cost?
Very possibly no.
Type 26 was born when the MOD decided to abandon the earlier C1, C2, C3 approach (10 C1 “high end” ASW escorts, 8 “patrol frigates” and a multirole small vessel replacing MCM and Hydrographic and Patrol ships) in favor of Type 26 (13 units, of which 8 “C1” and 5 “C2”, or simply ASW and GP) and MHPC.
After the SDSR, the MOD is somewhat back to C1 (Type 26), C2 and C3/MHC (the P of patrol having been dropped now that the immediate requirement in this area is covered by the 5 River Batch 2 being built / to be ordered).
It is still most likely too much for the cash-strapped british armed forces.
Merging C1 and C2 did not work: what if we merged C2 and C3, so to speak…? If the navy builds a new surface combatant heavily focused on exploiting off-board solutions, it begins to make sense to expect the MCM –H offboard system to be embarked directly on it when needed. Large ship = more easily adapted to evolving off-board systems.
Moreover, building the “large surface combatants” in a programme calling for frigates will enable the fitting of the weaponry needed for the role.
MHPC was always expected to only be armed like an OPV (and british OPVs are among the lightest armed in the world, to start with), and this would have made it useful only in the most basic constabulary tasks. Even by building 8, the Royal Navy wouldn’t have had a real boost in combat capability. There are only so many missions that an OPV can face, and the Royal Navy arguably doesn't need more than 6 or 7 such ships. The Rivers being built are enough: what is needed next is a capable, flexible platform useful across the widest range of roles and conditions.
In some ways, mixing C2 and C3 is what the US Navy itself is doing with the LCS: after all, once her ASW package will be operational, she’ll be the best anti-submarine platform the US Navy has, and will hunt for submarines not only in the littoral as it was once expected, but also out in the Ocean.
Born as a “streetfighter”, meant to fight on its own only against FAC, FIAC and suicide boats, now the LCS is evolving into a fleet warship which will carry long range anti-ship missiles.
All this, admittedly, is happening not entirely by choice. It was not planned quite this way, otherwise the LCS would probably be slower but larger, longer legged, with less space and weight limitations. Yet, it is happening.
By doing away with MHC in favor of putting all money into a large “fighting mothership / large surface combatant” thought for the off-board era, the Royal Navy would count less hulls overall, but more of the credible and useful type of hulls.
The word credible is not chosen lightly. It is the word the 1st Sea Lord used when talking about Type 26.
Q. What are the priorities you want to come out of the upcoming strategic defense and security review for the Navy?A. The Navy has to be both credible and [have] balance. If you lose either of those qualities, you’re not in the first division and a very large-potted investment doesn’t make sense. The credibility is not judged by some pundit in a newspaper or magazine on warships. It’s judged by those who operate on those ships, and it’s judged by our potential enemies. So the quality of build, the quality of war-fighting equipment, the quality of the output effect from those platforms — subsurface, surface and air — has to be critical and the balanced force to keep part of that. If you have got the enabling elements of the construct as a whole, then you’re going to have a machine that works and gets respected. So my job is very simple: Stay credible and stay balanced, and that’s a very expensive bill for the nation to pay. But for a nation that has that ambition, and if you have ambition, you have to pay for it.Q. Tell us how you’re maintaining affordability for the Type 26 frigate program?A. It has to be a credible platform. We’ve set that condition, as the people who operate them, by setting a requirement we think is appropriate for these platforms. When you have a limited number of frigates to deploy worldwide, you have to be certain that you get huge utility out of them. You’ve got to be able to get the range. You have a flexibility. So if, for example, a brand new Type 26 is off the Somali coast doing counterpiracy, a relatively modest policing capability. The next thing is required to move to a hotter, more dangerous environment, you’re not in the position to say, “Oh, hang on; I’ll just change the crew. I’ll reconfigure this or that.”You’ve got to be there. You’ve got to be able to do the job properly. So our starting point in this requirement is about credible platforms. We then place that requirement into the machine, and the acquisition process looks for a solution with the proper support to be able to give us what we need. The affordability question that comes from that depends on the best that industry can deliver. You’ll notice, I haven’t necessarily said that that’s the British industry, because the decision has not been made as to exactly what that solution to the requirement will be, and we wait to see what comes of it. But the Navy knows what it wants. It wants a credible platform with global reach and the sort of quality, particularly in ASW [anti-submarine warfare], to keep us right up there for the bigger and more important platforms.
Obviously, I’m just one of those pundits, and on a humble blog, not even on a published magazine!
I can still say what I think, though, and hopefully encourage thinking and reasoning. I completely agree on the need for credibility. The differences probably arise when we try to define what is credible, and how to get there, in particular when the challenge is designing for the 2030s.
Zambellas is clearly a believer in off-board systems. MHC and initiatives such as Unmanned Warrior are evidence of that. And I find it reassuring.
I suspect, however, that he would strongly disagree with my idea for non-frigates to serve as their base. As I said at the very beginning, I fully expect plenty of hate for what I’ve said in this article. I'm sure many will disagree and probably good points will be raised against my approach.
But as I put my argument forwards I’m forced to ask: how do you make the next generation of escort ship technically feasible and financially affordable in decent numbers if you try to mate the “old” hulls and the new payloads? Frigates aren’t good at carrying stuff. Trying to make them do so will only make them larger and larger and more and more expensive.
But as I put my argument forwards I’m forced to ask: how do you make the next generation of escort ship technically feasible and financially affordable in decent numbers if you try to mate the “old” hulls and the new payloads? Frigates aren’t good at carrying stuff. Trying to make them do so will only make them larger and larger and more and more expensive.
Not carrying the next generation of payloads, though, will make them useless.
The US Navy might be able to afford some kind of massive cruiser that somehow mates the best of both worlds, but the Royal Navy clearly won’t be able to, and the compromises accepted with the Type 45 and the Type 26 itself are there to evidence it.
What comes after the 7000 to 8000 tons Type 26, if the approach does not change…?