Friday, 11 April 2014

The Royal Navy and Light Frigates - A solution in need of a problem?

Its that time of the year again when another report comes out suggesting that the Royal Navy hasn't enough warships to protect our supply lines and that UK national security is imperilled. Ignoring that the article in question suggests that the UK only has 23 battleships (link is HERE) it is a good starting point to consider whether the RN needs more smaller ships.

For many decades, arguably since the Type 14s entered service, the Royal Navy has optimised a building programme to keep first rate escort vessels in service, capable of meeting any conceivable level of war fighting challenge. This has led to a deliberate policy of protecting build programmes which delivered high capability warships in smaller numbers over much larger numbers of lower capability. Even where relatively austere designs have been envisaged, they have quickly been upgraded – for instance the Type 23 programme reputedly began life as an austere towed array tug, probably to be built in sufficient numbers for a one for one replacement for the Leander's, yet quickly became a very expensive and highly capable escort.

For the RN of the 21st century, when hulls are ever fewer in number, and the tasks seemingly never ending, what is the rationale for keeping a small fleet of high end ships in service? To start with, one needs to look at the ethos of the RN – it is a service optimised to fight and win in very high intensity combat. Despite the constant pull of moving towards a gendarmerie approach (as seen perhaps by the Dutch or Italians) where only a small number of the escort fleet can fight in the high end of operations, the entire RN escort fleet is deployable.

Why does this matter? It means that the entire escort fleet is able to be programmed to conduct the full range of escort tasks – in other words a frigate can go from FOST to the West Indies, prior to a NATO tour and then off to the Arabian Gulf. Several different missions, each of which has very different calls on crews and capabilities. By contrast other nations will find that possessing two tiers of escorts actually stove-pipes availability – while you can send a high end escort into most situations, you cannot do the same in reverse.  This in turn means the RN has an ability to operate as a credible part of any allied task force and integrate effectively into it. In other words, by training to fight at the most challenging levels, the RN can send its escorts into harms way in a manner that some other nations vessels cannot.

In a world where multi-national operations are becoming the norm, the ability to contribute meaningfully to them makes a huge difference. The RN is able to offer a capability through its escorts that means they do not require ‘nursemaiding’ as some other ships may. Similarly, a highly capable escort can be tasked to take on more challenging roles – thus giving the UK more say in the tasking process and ensuring its own national interests are more accurately represented. Turning up in a campaign where you can play a full part carries far greater weight than just being able to conduct a limited maritime patrol.

The pinnacle of naval power - the Type 45 destroyer
Could a Two-Tier Fleet occur?
Assuming that a decision were taken in principal to create a two tier escort force, and create some light frigates to complement the existing escort fleet, could it actually be done in a credible manner which would make a real difference?

The first issue to overcome is funding – modern warships cost a lot of money, not just to build but to support and operate. While this may sound obvious, adding a small class (say four light frigates) to the RN means that it now has to programme funding to run these ships for the next twenty years. Assuming a very generous estimate of £15 million per year per ship to run each escort, this means that the RN has now got to find £1.2 billion extra in support costs in its budget for the next 20 years. This is without considering the costs of refits, repairs, upgrades and so on. To bring these vessels into successful use is going to be an extremely expensive business, and the question would be what gives in order to make them operational, and is the cost worth it?

More broadly one has to ask where the ships would be built in the next few years. Given the warship building capacity in the UK is now inextricably linked to BAE Systems facilities, and that these are fully committed to building CVF, the next generation of OPVs and then Type 26, it is hard to see where an additional class of four escorts would fit into the equation. Indeed, is there even room to build them and bring them into service without impacting on the existing plans to replace the Type 26 programme, and in turn delay the replacement of the ever older Type 23s.

The next issue is whether the RN has the manpower to support four new frigates. Assuming each vessel carries a crew of 120, then that means 480 billets need creating, which in turn creates a shoreside liability of roughly double this (a further 960 billets) to allow for proper sea-shore harmony time. In other words the RN has to find a further 1400 people across all branches to ensure a steady flow of manpower to man the ships properly. At a time when the surface fleet is contracting to barely 15000 personnel (plus Submarine Service, FAA and Royal Marines), this is akin to needing a 10% increase in general service manpower. This represents a not insignificant additional cost which would need to be sustained for the life of the vessels.

One pressing issue is what would the ships actually be equipped with in order to strike a balance beyond being glorified OPVs and not being fully fledged frigates? This is actually the most difficult question to answer – an OPV or MCMV has a clearly defined role and equipment fit which errs to this role – e.g. specialised equipment for boardings, or mine detection/destruction and usually a sensor package to boot which reflects this. Similarly destroyers and frigates not only carry a comprehensive weapons and aviation package, but more critically have the space and room for essentials like properly kitted out Operations Rooms to fight the ship as a coherent entity and not just disparate collection of weapons and radars in close proximity to each other.

By contrast a light frigate will never have quite enough space to carry more than a limited self defence capability, and in smaller numbers than its frigate cousins. Similarly space is likely to be more limited, reducing upgradeability in the future, and restricting the types of equipment which can be installed and forcing trade-offs into the design. What you end up with is a vessel which is over-equipped to handle the policing and constabulary tasks that the OPV would do, and under-equipped to operate at the high end spectrum of operations. As such we find ourselves looking at a vessel without a clearly delineated role beyond relieving some pressure on low intensity operations but unable to deploy into the most likely conflict areas without being at serious risk and requiring escorting by other vessels.

The sort of tasks that these ships could be employed on would arguably be the low level constabulary roles that the RN does in places like the West Indies or off of Africa – defence engagement, flying the flag and generally maintaining an RN presence where its required. The critical difference is that when done by RN escorts they are either on their way to the South Atlantic in a Guardship role, or in the West Indies during the Hurricane season when their larger pool of manpower and greater capability makes them of real benefit during disaster relief.

The Type 14 'Utility' Frigate

One of the reasons why the RN is valued as an ally to work with by other nations is that joint exercises provide exposure to working with high capability vessels and seeing what they are capable of. For some navies a visit by an RN destroyer represents the sole chance they would get to test their capability against a world class air defence platform – this means there is a desirability in securing a visit. By contrast, a routine call by a low capability frigate doesn't really have the same cachet, and is arguably less influential.

A slippery downwards slope?
So, ultimately possession of a small light frigate doesn't really fill a capability gap for the RN, and merely provides a vessel that could perhaps be dubbed the ‘snatch land rover of the sea’ – great for a specific purpose, but one senses that if deployed into a highly challenging location like the Arabian Gulf, and something went wrong then the media would quickly have a cause celebre.

The wider challenge is that procurement of a light frigate represents very much a slippery slope towards a smaller less capable navy in the longer term. It is clear that resources are not going to grow substantially beyond inflation in real terms for the next few years, and that competition for resource will be a challenge. A short term commitment to light frigates would provide a temporary hulls boost, but come the next defence review the question would surely be whether the RN needed to run them, or if it could make sacrifices in the more expensive escort fleet as military tasks were handed off. The result could be further reductions to the T23 and T26 fleets over time as risk was taken that for the majority of the RNs roles that the light frigate could cope as an 80% solution – providing numbers but not capability. As time passed, it would seem ever harder to retain a case for a high end escort fleet if the tasks could be done by a smaller vessel – and this would only be exposed as a risk come a conflict when the lighter vessels could not cope.

It is perhaps notable that in the last 40 years the RN has twice gone towards a light frigate in the utility role – in the first instance it was the Type 14s, optimised as 2nd rate ASW frigates during the Cold War, but which quickly proved relatively poor at the task and were disposed of ahead of their time. By contrast the Type 12s which were more expensive racked up a much longer and valuable life, able to operate at the cutting edge of RN operations for many decades. Similarly, the Castle Class OPV was in many ways the closest the RN has come to a post war Corvette design, but which were arguably never really comfortable in any one role. Optimised initially for fishery protection, then Falkland Island guardship and MCMV HQ vessels, they could have been upgraded to carry a 76mm gun, and presumably some lightweight missiles, but never did. (Intriguingly though in their life with the Bangladeshi Navy, they have received a limited upgrade to do this).

In a sense the Castle class encapsulate the problem the RN has with this type of vessel – too large to be a traditional OPV, but too weak to be able to hold their own in a conventional shooting war, they were very much ships which found purposes for which they were never really designed. It is perhaps telling that in replacing them, the RN has a purpose built OPV optimised to work in the South Atlantic, and relies on the use of a Bay class LSD(A) to carry out the MCMV HQ function in a vastly more effective manner.

So where this leaves us is the realisation that for all the natural desire to see more vessels flying the White Ensign, it is hard to see a light frigate being the answer. There is a clear need for the RN to operate OPVs and MCMVs, while the smaller coastal training craft fulfil a very clear defence engagement role. The Escort force is heavily tasked and probably working at an intensity which may store up problems in the long term maintenance and support, but where it is able to do the tasks required of it. What is not clear is what adding a light frigate brings to the RN in terms of capability enhancement. No one doubts the Navy is working hard, but one suspects that a light frigate would in all likelihood do more damage than good to the long term interests of the RN in terms of manpower, finance and build programmes, and probably not generate as much of an effect as its proponents would hope. Far better to focus resources on extra Type 26s, innovative ship refitting methods to keep ships at sea for longer, and for getting the most from your extant vessels, than on introducing a ship which probably has no clearly defined role or rationale.  


  1. Intriguing to see debates such as this bubble up on both sides of the Atlantic in a very similar vein to the high-low debate of the 1970s.

    Will be intrigued to see how the cards fall this time round.

  2. If you are looking for shipbuilding capacity, then I have a ready made answer and its called "Portsmouth"!

  3. When we get our new aircraft carriers what type of ship will escort them, how many will we need, and where will they come from?

  4. Sir H, well structured article, but I'm afraid I do not agree with the conclusion. The argument would be different if the RN could still field over 30 Destroyers / Frigates but it cannot. Every few years it seems that another couple are shaved off, and even today with what we have we are a couple of accidents / engine failures away from having serious operational problems.

    Having said that, I do agree and understand that the real limitations to any change is manpower. Therefore, rather than increasing significantly the number of platforms, the MHPC initiative should be starting to move on from equipment to look at platforms. Replacing the current MCMs with larger multi-role vessels would go along way to filling the gap and pressure on the surface fleet. There is no reason why these larger vessels would require a significant increase in manpower or running costs if planned / designed properly. However, I would like them to have as many "fitted for but not with" features as possible so that they have greater possible capabilities if ever needed.

    I really feel we are now at the point where the days of thinly spreading our first class assets across the globe is coming to the end. It works when the sun is shining, but if an emergency happens how long would it take to assemble a credible task force?

    This does not mean the UK should retreat to European waters, but just operate differently. At a high end the RN should focus on always having a RFTG forward deployed (probably East of Suez), one at readiness / training in UK waters and another in reserve. This supported by globally deployed "MHPC"s and SSNs would give the RN the best operating model IMO.


    1. Hi Repulse,

      Fully agree there is a lot of risk in the fleet levels (and I think anyone would agree that 19 presents a challenge to manage, particularly as the 23s get older and there is a need to replace them on time).
      The issue with MHPC is that I think it will generate nowhere near as many hulls as some people think it will, and secondly we have to distinguish between whether we are replacing a capability or a hull. The MW element is about ensuring the RN remains a cutting edge player in this environment, but this in turn means accepting a move towards shore based or remote solutions and not a grey hull.
      The other challenge with Multi-Roles is as the Danes found with their modular design, keeping crews current is the issue. By the end those ships ended up locked in solo roles because it was easier for training purposes than shifting around constantly.

    2. Hi Sir H,

      I think you've hit the nail on the head where we differ. The objective of the MHPCs should be as much about "Patrol" (Presence) and hull numbers as replacing MCM / Survey capabilities.

      I do not feel that modularity is the way to go either - we should go for a common hull and have dedicated vessels with specialist roles. The key being however, if the RN did need more capabilities in this area, additional kit could be fitted as part of a refit and additional personnel trained (this would take weeks / months not days).

      Having a hanger / basic mission bay would allow additional kit to be deployed as an exception (with additional specialist crew) rather than the rule - helicopters, UAVs etc.

      The "fitted for but not with" options should be around design considerations such as having deck space for AShMs, empty space below deck for a VLS, spare energy capacity for additional sensors and the hull designed to take a larger radar.

      Also, the value of keeping the fleet to a similar size to what it is now is that the RN keeps a number of "trained" crews. By this I mean if the government ever needed to build a more capable fleet "quickly" these would act as a seedcorn that could be expanded and trained as destroyer / frigate crew.

      Lastly, agree with another commentator below in that the UK should have a common "Burke" design for the high end. I do not think the MHPC should be the size of a Type 26 however, more like slightly bigger than the expected new OPVs.


    3. Hi Repulse,

      Interesting arguments - but what is the point of presence for the sake of presence? Its all very well having a warship in West Africa just pootering along, but why is it there and what are we doing with it?
      The issue isn't so much keeping trained crews, its keeping a complex manpower system going and able to generate people ot meet the many requirements of the Service. The days of being able to rustle up a scratch crew are long gone. There is very very little fat in the manning system now, and the time at sea versus shore for many pinch point areas is getting out of balance.

    4. Hi Sir H,

      I'm definitely not advocating making up tasking's just to make it fit a model. However, if you even look at the deployments today, then the number of vessels on MCM, Survey and low level patrol (OPV or Ice Patrol Ship) duties adds up to around 10-11. Add to that potentially two more, the Caribbean and Horn of Africa and I feel that justifies a fleet of around 24 MHPCs.

      Training is a complex area, but developing the captains of the future is just one part where more ships is better than fewer.


  5. This is manpower but not able to use--the personnel assigned to the 4 V-Boats who can never contribute to any conventional warfare or peacetime ops. CASD means ensuring personnel, boats and funding for weapons never to be fired but means all other warships and branches suffer.

  6. Sir H is like the Kevin Bacon character is “Animal House.” “All is well, all is well!”

    1. Fascinating - I'm curious as to how you formed that judgement as the article emphatically did not say 'all is well' - it said the proposed solution some want to see is not the right solution. There is a big difference.

    2. Sir H,

      This is one of the rare occasions where you and the MoD are actually right. Of course the reason for that alignment probably owes more to your likely MoD propaganda role rather than critical analysis but I am prepared to give you the benefit of the doubt.

      Different Anon by the way.

    3. Anon
      What would it take to convince you that this blog is nothing to do with the MOD? You seem completely set on believing something which is 100% wrong.
      So, genuine and very open question - how can I prove to you that this blog is 100% independent and has no MOD or other HMG involvement at all? Feel free to email me via the 'contact me' button if you'd like.

    4. Simple, start writing some genuinely critical analysis rather than this sycophantic fawning for every decision the corrupt, venal and kleptocratic British regime makes. Your stance on Russia, and the absurd British military cooperation agreement with it, was especially egregious.

      Frankly, I have found the course of this blog quite depressing. In your earliest posts, as well as your comments on other sites, you did an excellent job of myth dispelling, information providing and reality presenting- but of late your work has morphed into more intelligently written versions of regime propaganda.

    5. This blog has never shied away from being critical, but if you are looking for a blog which automatically finds fault in every UK decision, then I am afraid you are in the wrong location. The fact is that the purpose of this blog is to try and explain in context why some things are done, even when the reasons don't always seem immediately logical. Its not done to an agenda, its not done to tie into instructions from a mysterious group of masons or other secret society, its simply done on the stuff that I personally find interesting, feel I want to write about and try to set out the arguments in favour of a decision.
      I'm sorry you feel this is becoming 'regime propaganda', but ultimately I write on matters that interest me and will always strive to find an independent line. This site isn't perfect, and frankly after the best part of 2 1/2 years its sometimes hard to find fresh material to work on, but its something I enjoy doing and if the majority of readers enjoy it, then thats good enough for me.

    6. Nothing to do with Masons, or Lizards etc, Britain is simply not a democracy, its political system being far closer to Vladimir Putin's Russia than it is to an actual democracy- thats not tinfoil hat stuff its just reality.

      I don't expect anyone to disagree with everything that MoD does or says, as I said earlier this post actually hits the mark. But your posts have too often seemed like efforts to paper over glaring deficiencies or defend poor decisions.

    7. Someone fails to understand that a blog that is critical of everything is as propagandish as a blog that praises everything. Both are blinkered to the point of blindness.

      And I suspect that Mr Cynical is Derek from TD. He's a bit worse than a cynic, a cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, this guy knows the value of nothing and the inflation of everything.

      I already told him once that comparing "My democracy is better than your democracy is stupid, yet he persists."

    8. You first error was failing to read my posts, I actually agree with Sir H on this one.

      Your second was to assume that you have any of the required intellectual gravitas to tell someone that something is"stupid".

  7. All good points. I have always had my doubts about the value of light frigate/corvette-type ships for a navy like the RN. Given that resources are so tight, better to spend the money on high-capability platforms rather than vessels more suitable for MSO. When trouble kicks off, the latter have little to offer and are therefore not worth bothering with.

  8. The 20th century role of the light frigate/corvette, of which the Type 14 is exemplar, was to produce volume in the conventional war role- be it against National or Russian Socialists. In all occasions they were usually found to be too small and were disposed of in short order when it was found they were not large enough, or were too slow, for the next threat cycle.

    What the various idiots who propose light frigates today always forget is that actually the RN was never really very big on deploying the 20th century version of the light frigate/corvette for imperial/post-imperial peace-keeping, flag waving, police support etc missions. Rather it deployed considerably larger and more powerful ships in the form of cruisers. The closest modern equivalent actually being a T45. These having the advantage of actually being useful in real war.

    1. And before anyone brings up the ridiculous Dutch Holland class, they were an industrial welfare programme for Damen Schelde and Thales Nederland whose characteristics were defined by a need to appease a political class petrified by anything even remotely warlike.

    2. I don't see the Holland Class as ridiculous.

      They are about the right size and displacement to do anti piracy duties in the middle of the Indian Ocean in all weathers. They would be equally at home in the Caribbean and Falklands.

      They can accommodate a useful sized helicopter with a proper flight deck and hanger.

      Details I would change, other than its odd looking hull and funnels,

      1) I agree the current radar system is a showcase for Thales at 25 million Euros each. I would replace it with either a Scanter 4100 or perhaps Sea Giraffe. (I am not sure how, price wise, Sea Giraffe compares with Artisan, but the latter could also be an option).

      2) Fitted for but not with CAMM missile launchers behind the 76mm gun. Also perhaps 2 rather than 1 30mm guns of the Royal Navy choice. No doubt Navy types will get in to sweat about having to add the 76mm to the inventory, but it is probably the best gun for such a vessel.

      3) Engine wise I would do away with the low power electric motors and go for a CODAD arrangement to increase the speed to 24/25 knots. I would choose a father son arrangement to give better low speed characteristics rather than using four large diesels.

      Providing you can keep them away from BAE, they could be built for about £80m each (based on the Holland Class), that is you could have four for the price of a Type 26.

      Who could build them, perhaps Appledore or Portsmouth if a buyer could be found.

      This specification is what the new Rivers should be.


    3. You had better double the budget then.

    4. Tedgo,

      The problem is that your original design might have been £80 million: but by the time you've put a better radar on the mast, fitted "for but not with" Sea Ceptor (including enough of a combat system to actually use it in combat? any ESM? any soft-kill?), and completely reworked the propulsion system (those extra knots basically double your power requirement, and you need to upgrade the shafts, thrust blocks, bearings, gearboxes... as well as simply dropping in bigger diesels) then you're basically trading these one-for-one for Type 26s, spending the same for less capability.

      If you want to save money buying off the shelf, you get what's on the shelf: the moment you start fiddling with the design, the manufacturers just hear "ker-CHING!"

      And again... before you start fitting the MTE, you end up with a 24kt OPV with a three-inch gun and a sixty-man crew. No air defence, no ASW, basically a fishery protection boat. If there's any sort of air threat - even non-state mobs like Hezbollah have ASCMs these days - you have to actually fit the Sea Ceptor, and the crew to use and maintain it (did you add the living space for them?), put them through training on the systems... where are the savings coming from?

      The grim reality is that, in a time of fixed budgets, we're not going to get enough hulls: but is having too few ships that are at least capable (so 1SL has to sometimes tell the Minister "no can do, sir, no ship available") better or worse than having enough hulls... that are meant to be excused serious hostilities, but will be thrown into the crisis anyway because "it's a warship isn't it?"

    5. It is always amusing to see how most commentators seem to think that making a few changes will double or triple the cost. Addressing some of the points,

      To increase the speed of the Holland class to 24 knots would require about 50% more power. The current big diesels and other mechanicals cost £5.4m and the electric drives £1.7m. Doing away with the electric drives and putting in two additional half sized diesels (2 straight eights whereas the 2 big mains are V16's) would I guess come out at about £8.1m, an increase of £1m overall.

      The Holland class has accommodation for 90 people, more than adequate so no cost change there.

      I would fit Sea Ceptor from day one. Although the Danes have used the cheap Scanter 4100 radar with Sea Sparrow (with an additional illuminator) on their smaller patrol craft I would go for a 3D radar.

      The price of a Smart-S radar is approximately £6.7m, while EADS TRS-3D and Sea Giraffe are thought to be significantly cheaper at around £2m to £3m. Missile launchers are relatively straight forward bits of metal work, nothing high tech there. So if we budgeted for perhaps £10 to £15m for a full Sea Ceptor set up, including all the communications equipment and software, our £96m vessel is still no where near the cost of a Type 26.

      Sea Ceptor comes in a sealed canister so I do not see that requiring extensive onboard maintenance.

      As to ASW, not all Type 26's are going to be equipped with towed sonar arrays.

      Our patrol vessel could be fitted with a suitably priced hull sonar, not necessarily a top of the range unit. I believe aboard anti submarine torpedo's are not really appropriate, if a submarine is that close you are already sinking.

      If ASW was though to be necessary then that requirement would be reflected in the helicopter carried on any particular mission.

      Of course the remaining old cherry is that of training. On another blog I suggested the AW149/189 helicopters would be useful both for the army and navy. Immediately there was consternation about the difficulty of supporting and training for a new type.

      It seems a lean organization like Bristows has little problem introducing a new type whereas a navy with 35,000 people its pretty well impossible. The navy requires a bit of old fashioned time and motion study and activity sampling to sort there manning out, not Sir H's ratios. I think there are too many sailing desks.


    6. Tedgo,

      It's "amusing" because it tends to be true, once you get into the general arrangements and real engineering (rather than building ships out of handwavium) life is a lot less easy and cheap than "just put in bigger diesels".

      Sticking more power in the machinery spaces isn't too hard. Actually delivering it into the water is a different issue: you're putting 50% more load on the shaftlines and propellers, which will need to be redesigned if you want that turned into propulsive force at decent efficiency. For free?

      The "extra accomodation" is for embarked military force and the like, which for warlike purposes is going to get crowded immediately, and also tends to be fairly austere (ever lived in the 30-man mess on a Type 45? it's not unbearable, but it's also usually pretty full) Not straightforward to handwave away. Accomodation and crew numbers are a real headache: on the one hand they're a major cost driver, on the other every system needs warm bodies to operate and maintain it. Trying to man your upper-deck weapons during a QUICKDRAW really highlights how "lean manning" stretches a ship's crew... not a problem for fishery protection in the North Sea, but a serious headache for a patrol in the Arabian Gulf.

      £15 million for "a full Sea Ceptor setup" will just about buy you 32 missiles. Just the missiles. Not the launchers (which are straightforward metalwork, that need magazine safety provisions because they're... you know... magazines full of combustibles and explosives - not quite as straightforward as just welding a few frames together), not the PDLTs, not the radar, not the combat system and integration. And you do need to pay for the missiles, because there isn't going to be a huge backup warstock of weapons waiting in DM Gosport for FTR units to dip into as required; not unless someone adds to the budget, anyway.

      "Fitting a hull sonar" - okay, where? I'll guarantee you the hullform on the Holland isn't designed for a sonar dome in a location that gives good performance at a decent range of speeds and sea conditions, nor will there be a convenient void along the keel for a MF sonar and its associated equipments to drop into. More redesign, more cost.

      I'm surprised that the Navy finds it "pretty well impossible" to bring new types into service: whether radars (1045 and 1046, and now 997 on trials on Iron Duke), missiles (Sea Viper now on-stream, Sea Ceptor coming up, Sea Wolf extensively updated, all in the last ten years), new aircraft (Wildcat), new ships (T45, T26 coming, QEC about to launch)... is it just that the Navy doesn't agree with *your* choices of what to bring in?

    7. @ Jason Lynch

      You have still not explained how a straight forward diesel offshore patrol boat suddenly costs £100 to £200m more when a few extras are added. I know missile launchers need flooding systems so the missile can burn itself out if it fails to launch. But these things don't cost tens of million pounds as you would imply.

      I would not necessarily use the Holland design directly, but the Dutch and Danish navies do seem to be able to get their warships designed in a cost effective manner. Use their designers to design a light frigate of 110 to 120 metres, at about 4000 tons, CODAD, 24 knots and mild steel, 30 metre flight deck and Merlin sized hanger and yes designed for hull mounted sonar. Sea Ceptor or Sea Sparrow, choice of main gun, choice of secondary guns, cost effective radar and software. Don't tie yourself to any particular equipment suppliers.

      It would be best if it was a privately funded venture, something the likes of Babcock could take on, rather like the French and Go Wind. Avoid getting the MOD too involved and relying on a taxpayer gravy train.

      Where would they be built, Appledore may be, but why not have the hulls built in Poland, Rumania or even the Ukraine. Don't confuse job creation gravy trains and the defence of the realm.

      The biggest thing I take from the Falklands action is how a relatively unsophisticated enemy managed to sink so many state of the art warships and how few enemy aircraft were shot down by those warships. Our new Carriers will need 6 to 8 escorts in a real conflict. With 19 escorts it doesn't leave many for anything else.

      Who would want such a frigate, the Navy could do with 10 and it would appeal to other nations such as New Zealand.

      And you are confusing capital expenditure with consumable expenditure like the Sea Ceptor missiles themselves. They are different budgets. And why would you put 32 missiles on a ship in peace time, 4 to 8 would do.


    8. Tedgo,

      I've tried to explain how taking an OPV and adding a local air-defence system (which is not just a few launchers...), a hull-mounted sonar and 50% more engine power will push the cost up significantly; and unless you also spend the money on integration, control systems and crew training, you don't actually get much usable capability. The Nakhoda Ragam experience applies in spades...

      Curiously, once you take the basic constabulary design and start trying to make it fit for warfighting, you end up spending a lot of money: your Sea Ceptor system needs an effective radar, a combat system - DNA2 or CMS1 unless you're feeling like throwing more money away - and ancilliaries like the datalink terminals. None of these are hard to do, but they all cost money. Simply bolting a launcher onto the ship doesn't give you a capablility: if that's the approach you want, forget Sea Ceptor and just find a spot to bolt a Phalanx or two aboard, those actually are standalone systems.

      If you open up the specification (hull mounted sonar, local area air defence... ESM? Soft kill systems? Torpedo decoys?) you also open up the cost, both of the equipment itself and of the support hardware. By the time you've designed a 24kt Type 26, it's hard to avoid most of the cost of a Type 26. (Seriously, where do you think you're actually saving money? What in your notional design, other than a few knots of speed, isn't in the T26 anyway?)

      Similarly, saying "leave the MoD out of it" is one of those mantras that comes around every generation or two. The last time it was put into practice, private industry promised to provide a much better ship, much cheaper, if the dead hand of the Ministry was removed. We ended up with eight ships of sub-Leander capability... costing £16 million apiece, compared to £4 million for a Leander. (And the Leanders were already heading for obsolescence by then, while the T21s turned out to lack the margins to gain useful systems; no topweight for even a single-headed Sea Wolf and no space for improved sonar. Nice officers' cabins, though)

      One serious issue in the Falklands was that we were very much relying on older and second-line ships (the Counties and Leanders were obsolescent, the T21s and T42s were both meant to be economy-class ships providing numbers with more capable vessels to do the war fighting... guess what, the T22s were delayed and the T43s/T44s never happened at all) which is an excellent illustration of the risks of a 'patrol frigate'. The Navy was driven down on capability because some types of conflict were guaranteed not to happen - we were promised land-based fighter cover by the RAF in any credible conflict... - until the planning assumptions turned out to be bollocks and the 'low end' platforms found themselves fighting a lively conflict.

      And why would you put a decent outload of missiles on a warship in peacetime? Ask HMS Westminster, who found herself sitting off Libya at the start of ELLAMY with only four Sea Wolf aboard. Ships don't get the luxury of returning to the UK to ammunition and fit relevant MTE in the event of a crisis, they go with what they've got: if you only fit four, you'll only have four to fight with.

      You're also wrong on the budgets; the missile stockpile is treated as capital, not expenditure, and is a key part of the overall project cost. If you want more or fewer weapons in your stockpile, it's a contract renegotiation.

    9. Jason Lynch

      Well you have an answer for everything but no imagination beyond the status quo.

      We are not talking about the small Nakhoda Ragam, we are talking about a light frigate twice its displacement and thus twice its internal volume. We are also talking about a boat which is 60% heavier than the Type 21.

      Based on the Holland we know we can have a 4000 ton boat for about £80m. So where are the cost savings over the Type 26.

      One major area is the use of off the shelf ferry diesel engines rather than the specialised, and thus very costly, gas turbine units.

      Gas turbines require large volumes of air, have high temperature high volume exhaust problems, high fuel consumption and high maintenance costs. GT's also require more complex high speed reduction gear boxes. This all adds up to GT's taking up a larger hull volume, have higher manning requirements and more fuel volume. In return you get a few more knots.

      The diesel electric side is also custom built rather than off the shelf.

      A second major area is avoiding BAE's glacial building pace. Type 45's took over 6 years from first steel cut to commissioning. With the taxpayer gravy train in place why do it any quicker, there is no competition.

      Type 23's were built in just over 2 years and the last ones cost about £100m. At today's money that would be about £155m, that is about half the cost of a Type 26. On that basis I assume the latter boats will take about 4 years to build.

      Holland class boats are built in about 2 years.

      A third major cost area is using as much home grown equipment as is possible rather than buying on a international competitive basis.


    10. Tedgo,

      I'm an engineer: imagination is necessary, but fantasy isn't. Once you actually start looking into tedious details (you know, the parts where you actually have to build and operate a ship) 'imagination' sometimes gets a stern kicking from reality and is exposed as wishful thinking, or just ignorance.

      Case in point: gas turbines aren't that expensive or difficult. Your design seems to envisage saving a few hundred million pounds per ship by using diesels instead of gas turbines, because maritime gas turbines are bizarre, unique beasts: while actually other than the WR21, they're commercial items. (The MT30s going into Type 26 are based on the Rolls-Royce Trent, flying in hundreds of Boeing 777s, for example).

      One would wonder, from your post, what idiot would ever consider gas turbines rather than diesels for a warship... unless there's perhaps, possibly, maybe some part of the problem you've not quite grasped? (Bear in mind that both T23 andT45 spend a lot of their time on diesel power; the RN hasn't been averse to using diesel propulsion when appropriate, yet the GTs seem to have a valuable place too. You might consider why they're so popular on everyone else's warships before dismissing them out of hand)

      Other engineering issues that push up cost in the background are details like "ïs this ship expecting to take a hit and fight on?" This affects lots of stuff, from obvious ones like how much firefighting kit you need to the less obvious points like shock hardening and blast-resistant bulkheads and hatches, which too many people assume that a grey ship with a gun somehow has by default (and the lack of which, turns you into a one-hit wonder). Since we're making this notional ship a local air defence platform, is she excused being shot at, do we assume that she'll burn and sink when hit or is some effort to reduce her vulnerability in the event of taking a missile inboard allowed? (I'll bet a bottle of whisky that the Hollands aren't designed to have a decent chance of goalkeeping a MEU after taking a missile hit, for example...)

      St Albans cost about half what Norfolk did, and took half as long to build: that's what happens when you build a decent-sized class, you get a learning curve of reducing cost and time. It's a well known and documented effect, but it does mean that comparing the last of a large class to the first of a new one is... well, if I were ungenerous I'd call it dishonest. What will T26 hull 8 or 13 cost? *That* is your comparator, when we know it.

      Or comparing first of class directly: Norfolk cost about £135 million in 1990 money, which translates to £260 million in today's terms, and took four and a half years from laying down to completion (St Albans needed half the time and money, but then she was Scotstoun's twelfth built). Suddenly the comparison looks less flattering.

      If you want a double-sized River-class OPV with a bigger gun, that's straightforward and we can do that in house, indeed BAE make Rivers and sell them overseas already to prove it. However, whether 2,000 or 4,000 tons, nobody's seriously proposing sending a River-class to help assure freedom of navigation through the Straits of Hormuz, or parking one off the Syrian coast to oversee their CW disarmament; not even if you welded a few missile launchers to the bridge wings and called it a 'light frigate'.

      If you want a frigate that can actually go in harm's way... that can be done too, but you won't get it for the price of an OPV no matter how much handwavium you include in the design.

    11. Jason Lynch and Paul - thanks to you both for posting some very insightful and reasoned comments on this. You've really added to my own knowledge on this issue, and I appreciate you both taking the time to comment on this!

  9. The way forward is to use a common hull for all types. So the type 26 hull becomes the defector hull type in the RN, with the 13 planned being backed up by 6 new hulls replacing the type 45s in 20+ years and the MHPC program using a type 26 hull ( reduced weapon fit to 5 inch gun, camm and Merlin sized hanger, still gives you a very capable escort if needed). Looking at the ships the MHPC program ? Plans to replace you should be able to crew around 11 of these reduced weapon load out type 26s. This would give you a production run of 30 hull, at which point you can start to build more 26s to replace the first batches that need decommissioning, you could therefore keep the same production line running for decade after decade. The savings in commonality, r and d, and continuing the same production run for 50 years would be immense and could secure the future of the RN escort fleet.

    But why would you use the same hull for 50-70 years I hear you cry. All I will say is........ Burke......... And leave it there.

  10. As a "brown job" I stand before you as an ignorant person - I read your comments on every subject that Sir H brings to our attention and many things puzzle me.

    For example - I watch a movie and it shows an aircraft carrier at sea doing interesting things.
    However this ship is surrounded by a complex screen of protection and supply supplied by other ships.

    So..... if I refer to my original question "where does this screen come from?" when all you seem to discuss is the LACK of available ships and hypothetical threat to something that will happen in about five years’ time.

    I know we live in troubled times – but a lack of the “five Ps” seems a bit sad.

  11. Ignore the haters Sir H, good post!

    After changing my mind on a daily basis for years i have come to a similar point of view on the Royal Navy surface fleet, that a two tier system could be counterproductive in the long-run by leaving us with a class of vessels too small and under-armed to be used in wartime but too large and expensive to be considered economical platforms for constabulary/patrol ops.

    Any 'light frigate' or 'corvette' could also as you say potentially drain funds away from the high-end fleet or leaving it open to further cuts thus putting the Royal Navy in a worse position than when it started. Nice to have in a fantasy fleet situation, but very clearly not where we currently stand.

    Cheap and cheerful OPV's work in certain situations (i'd personally like to see 6 of these new enhanced River/Amazonas built with 4 replacing the 3 overworked Rivers in the Fisheries Squadron and 2 working together in the South Atlantic), but in many other cases they clearly lack the sea-keeping, endurance, size and capabilities required.

    I definitely think the smart move here is to get as many T26 as possible with later units hopefully dropping in price as economies of scale kick in and perhaps some built 'fitted for but not with' certain capabilities if that's a direction we want to head in to squeeze even more out of the program.

    As another poster suggested the idea of a rolling production lasting many decades, with the T26 becoming steadily easier and cheaper to build, replacing first the T45 with an AAW variant and then maybe even earlier ASW/GP hulls far down the road as they begin to age could be a good way forwards as well.

  12. Two part post - part 1.

    It's rather important to understand when the last time a "real" capability-based assessment of RN DD/FF numbers was actually undertaken. That was round about the early noughties, when the minimum number was 32 and based on 12 T42 (transitioning to 12 T45), 16 T23 and 4 T22B3.

    Every single change since then has not been on the basis of reduced commitments (at least publically) but actually on retirement of ships or reduction in orders on an opportunity basis. Hence 32 became 25 when Norfolk, Marlborough & Grafton were sold to Chile and the T45 order fell to eight. That then fell to 19 in a combination of T45 capped at 6 hulls and T22 binned without replacement.

    So all of that tells us that the surface flotilla has taken a big hit without commensurate public reduction in commitments. What has happened is an Equipment Programme budget limit driven reduction in authorised hull numbers, pure and simple. However, that does not equal a solution looking like a corvette or light frigate, primarily for the reasons outlined by Sir H.

    People supporting a light frigate tend to be driven by two not necessarily co-incident agendas. On one hand we have the army which believes that it deserves a bigger share of the capital EP to buy new vehicles (FRES) to replace FV432, Warrior, CVR(T) and others, but can't see any headroom to do so and therefore see a reduction in overall cost of T26 (through substitution of cheaper ships) as a possible solution. This is why it is always the army that pushes the "£1Bn ships chasing pirates" line, when the pirate chasing role is actually incidental to the mission those ships are on.

    The flip side are those who believe that hull numbers have fallen too far and that by substituting a nominally cheaper ship with fewer crew you can get more hulls for the same budget. The danger here is that less capable ships (and to be noticeably cheaper they would have to be substantially less capable) are - as Sir H suggests - potential liabilities when called to do high-end warfighting (T21s anyone?) and also hostage to hull number capping which imposes capability reductions on the whole fleet.

    There are no easy ways out of this. The primary causes of the situation we are in are the rate of increase in warship cost as we postponed new orders (including the loss of competition as a price limiter) and the increasing lack of understanding within MoD as a whole as to how design and cost can be overseen. Put simply, BAES can name their price in the knowledge that MoD have little option of going anywhere else and virtually no way of generating a "should cost" price to use as a negotiating position. There are those in MB, ABW and NCHQ who are convinced they can divine what size of ship would be affordable, simply by quoting a displacement value, which is utterly delusional. Others will tell you that the size of the ship is driven by new safety requirements and that positioning of LSE and escape routes drives the design. Others still will tell you that a 5 deck ship is unaffordable, whereas a 4.5 deck ship as long as a T45 is affordable. Unfortunately, none know the definitive answer because the right questions have not been asked (or at last answered correctly!)

    There's a reason for this, which is that the experiential base has decayed to a point where there a re very few people indeed who could actually go through the design and associated cost estimates and identify where there are errors in assumptions which may (or may not) be affecting the projected cost. Those who argue for "common hulls" and long build periods are in fact compounding this effect - we're struggling now because we haven't designed a frigate since the mid 80s and the T45 was designed over 12 years ago. Two points of reference (DD/FF are a different challenge to "big" ships) are not conducive to a good knowledge base.

  13. Part 2.

    A "common" hull would not actually realise much in way of savings in any case. Different roles tend to require different combat system and different machinery fits and often different internal arrangement. All of which means that the design calculations, plate thicknesses, section types and arrangements and drawings etc will change - and that costs big money. By contrast the hydrodynamic analysis (which is all the saving you'd realise by a "common" hull) ought to be less than £10M for the class as a whole.

    Long production runs tend to destroy the design expertise while realising some build cost savings, but these will be ever smaller as we have moved to a single source provider with minimium "stay-alive" build rate. Ship building isn't actually a production line, unless you're building large numbers in a short period and even then the analogy is stretched.

    Common systems on the other hand (particularly of larger more expensive items like engines) would tend to realise supply and logistic support economies - think T21/T42/T22/CVS which all had large amounts of common equipment.

    One poster above referred to the Burke class as a good reason to have a common hull and long production run. One might equally argue that the reason the USN had such difficulty with DDG1000 is that the Burke (designed in the mid 80s) was the last DD/FF they had design experience of. It is instructive that all their surface ship programmes (coastguard cutters, through LCS, through DDG1000 to LPD17) have suffered from technical problems and cost growth, which may or may not come from similar roots. The restart of the Burke line has been primarily a stop-gap to compensate for the capping of DDG1000 at three hulls and the cancellation of CG(X). The "new generation" Burkes are still in the design stage and still suffering from cost growth and delay. I can't imagine why.......

    The solution (if there is one) for the RN is I suggest as follows.

    1. Stay with high-end DD/FF - you save little and risk lots from a hi-lo mix.
    2. Upskill your workforce and commercial position. Not easy, but absolutely necessary.
    3. Don't build long runs of the same (or minor batch changes) of the same ship - you'll destroy 2 above if you do.
    4. Do use common equipment and systems. Log support is what really costs, not upfront design and build.
    5. Pray.

    1. Not a Boffin - a quick message to say thank you for a very well thought out and constructed post which highlights many of the challenges in warship design today.
      Thanks so much for taking the time out to type this as I found it incredibly valuable and educational to read - much appreciated!

  14. Fully agree that it is better to have larger and more capable DD/FF rather than smaller, compromised ones. If budgets are there, the RN should get its 13 Type26 for a one-on-one replacement of the Type23.

    But what if there is no budget for 13 reasonably equiped Type26? Suppose there is only a budget for 9 or 10. At what point do you want to make up on numbers by purchasing smaller and less capable ships?
    e.g. if there is budget for 10 Type26, rather than building these 10 ships for a total of 16 DD/FF, build 8 and use the budget of the remaining 2 to build, say 4-6 oceangoing patrol vessels for a total of 18-20 DD/FF/PV.
    Or is 16 very capable DD/FF still better than 14 very capable DD/FF plus 4-6 less capable PV?


  15. A view from Australia

    Your problem is the same as ours in many ways. There is also another problem buried inside it which you have not yet faced. But you will.

    What's the best training for command of a high-end warship like a modern 'frigate' (and let us call them what they really are - cruisers: non-aviation warships capable of full spectrum operations anywhere, and also having squadron C3I capability).

    Why, the best training for command of such ships is - command of smaller, less capable vessels, preferably 2-3 times in a career. And after commanding a high-end warship moving on to a carrier or large amphib is one more stage in the progression.

    This will become a problem for the RN. It has been a problem for the RAN for decades now. We have developed a solution for it with the fisheries protection fleet and there is a very, very good reason we keep our patrol boat force in the RAN and operating obvious patrol boats incapable of any other role and also deliberately based in remote locations.

    This is where we give our junior officers their basic XO and CO training.

    So there is a solution to this issue but here's the rub - you must not do it with warships, but with 'maritime constabulary vessels' that are clearly NOT warships.

    Now we can do this with 450 ton gimcrack aluminium rubbish like the Armidales (at $45 million a pop, I might add as they are built locally for political reasons). You can't do that. Something like an Armidale would last about a week in your waters in winter before the structural cracks sank it.

    But what you can do to obtain the 'command training ground' you are going to need in a decade or so is separate from naval procurement entirely and lease or purchase COTS offshore support ships. We have looked at this several times an took the plunge by leasing and using a civilian contract crew (mostly). We also do not paint them in navy colours but leave 'em bright orange. The idea is to habituate the politicians to 'this is not a warship even though it's as big as an Anzac'.

    This is a path you can perhaps learn some lessons from. The Castles were a bad idea - you do not want OPV for all of the reasons you outlined above. Our last OPV idea also had a stake put through its heart for the same reasons. You want leased offshore oil and gas support vessels not painted in RN grey and not useable in warship roles at all, but useable in fisheries protection, SAR, intercepting and sending illegal immigrants back to wherever they came from, all that maritime constabulary mission set which is an excellent training ground for basic command training, and yet which gives the politicians no traction for 'slippery slope' capability cuts.

    Amusingly, when we went to Rolls Royce and costed a 5,000 ton offshore support tender configured for fisheries work in the Southern Ocean (makes the North Atlantic look like a duck pond), SAR and such, they said 'new built in Chile or Croatia 10 months and $50 million'. A 450 ton Armidale built in Western Australia takes 18-24 months and costs $45 million.

    Mark B
    (An old pre-Leanderthal)

  16. I get the argument about having high end capability available when you need it, but I think you have overlooked that our T45’s and T23’s have, in effect, big bulls eye targets pinned to the side of them.

    If your T45 was in the middle of the Atlantic when someone declared the commencement of hostilities, then fair enough, the T45 could go into hostilities mode and would no doubt comprehensively take control of its area of sea space.

    If your T45 is tootling about the Gulf chasing pirates in speed boats, for example, and someone decides to commence hostilities, the first we may know about it is when the speedboat attacks USS Cole style, or it is attacked by a previously benign party, is collided with, or is arrested while in foreign port, or any other unexpected event the Captain was not expecting on the day, that takes the T45 out of commission without the enemy having to directly defeat the qualities of a high end warship.

    Our ships go where politics sends them not where they are most at home for exercising their war fighting capabilities. If the government puts them into foreign littoral waters surrounded by declared and undeclared enemies, constricting rules of engagement, disparate and evolving political agendas then the ship is at risk from the unknown and unpredictable.

    There are a range of missions where there is risk that cannot be mitigated by technology. If you dabble with that risk you need to be prepared to lose a ship, and it would be better, from the point of view of preserving your resources for day two of the conflict, if it were an inexpensive ship that is lost than an expensive one.

    I believe there is a role for smaller inexpensive corvettes (or some such thing) to do hands on policing without risking more than is required for the task. If the situation justifies multi-ship involvement then, I’d see one or more smaller ships being paired with a high end vessel where the smaller vessel does the hands on work while the high end vessel performs the area control it was designed to do.


    1. May 2016 at 04:39

      A comment from New Zealand / The comment from Australia applies here.

      There is no way that our NZ government supported by its these days neo pacifist people is going to pay NZ2.4 billion each for a couple of "global warships" Type 26 not when we can get a couple of Holland class for NZ$200 million and fit them out later as frigates when we have to. We need ships like that which are big enough with a long high bow to patrol the Great Southern Ocean, our SW approaches, with another order of magnitude in big seas compared to the North Atlantic , the direction that refugees threaten to come from to gatecrash NZ, as many Brits in the 19th Century did. But then it has a flexideck beneath the helipad to carry a couple of hundred tonnes of disaster relief aid to deliver to a multitude of Pacific Islands spread over 1000 miles of ocean after a tropical cyclone as we last month just did (Fiji) last year (Vanuatu) and the year before that (Tonga) and the year before that (Solomon Islands ) Now that's naval defense against global warming.

      Then comes the possibility of getting into a war in the Pacific with China backed by Russia. China is happy with us at present because we in NZ are giving them what they want from us, in fact they are invading this place right now without needing to go to war to do it. I think that the Holland class ships as they are with only 22 knot speed are ideal escort vessels to protect merchant marine ships and amphibious sealift ships at their speeds of !8 knot speed, ships like HMAS Canberra and Adelaide which incidentally are capable of carrying/ operating F35B JSF. These escort vessels don't need to go chasing submarines. they will come to us as they try to sink us. I think of a "cheap as chips" Holland Class which carries a Merlin or NH-90 helicopter but with 4m headroom on the flexideck below the flight deck carry an airforce of two more light helicopters (A109 NH-68 Stingray and 4 SQ-6 8 or similar firescout or similar drones (all about NZ$40 million each and all able to video reconn and look over the horizon with radar, dunk sonar 100 miles out from the ship (the convoy) all able to carry a Penguin ASM (currently in RNZN service) or Mk 54 antisub torpedo, or a battery of Martlet LMM to hunt and sink anything (sub or FAC 100 miles away.

      Noone so far in the conversation has thought about the fact that the RN went into WWII with about 150 destroyers and during the war built 200 more together with about 300 little corvettes and light frigates (based on the Black Swan class which presently forms the basis of the C3 concept). All of those ships were required just to win the Battle of the Atlantic and Mediterranean. In the Falklands Was 50 destroyers and frigates were required just to defend 2 Harrier carriers and the amphibious ships from the threat of just 2 modern Argentine submarines.

      Do you really think that a RN with just 20 warships is going to be enough, is enough.

      John Foster